The older I get the more I become convinced that the primary question that every single person wrestles with is "whence evil and suffering?" Maybe that is two questions, with suffering being a subset of the question about evil. If you haven't suffered much yet in your life then the question won't seem particularly relevant to you just yet, but trust me it will one day. It is inescapable.
Similarly if you are young and don't have much experience of suffering, the teaching of Hebrews 12 may seem quite difficult for you to believe. Those who have suffered a lot and still pressed on to know God find much comfort here. This is a passage for producing deep faith because it confronts us with a God who cannot be domesticated into my neat answers about how suffering ought to work.
The recipients of the letter were struggling with persecutions and suffering. It wasn't yet as severe as it looked like it would soon become (you haven't yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood, v4), but it was harsh and discouraging nonetheless. The difficult teaching of this passage comes with the question "where does my suffering originate?"
There are two answers:
- It originates with sinful people who hate God and hate his people, motivated by Satan. People like this hated and persecuted all the heroes of faith in chapter 11, persecuted and killed Jesus (12:2-3) and are now doing so to those who believe in Jesus
- But as true as that is, it isn't the main answer in the passage. And its the main answer that people struggle with. The main answer is that hardships (even ones that are humanly motivated by evil) are overseen by God, not for our harm but for our good. He disciplines the children that he loves, in order that righteousness and peace are produced in our lives (v11) and so that we may share in his holiness (v10). More than that, the sufferings that come for being Christian are indications that we are God's children (v7). He is conforming us to be like Jesus
Some reading this will instantly respond - how can a loving God do this to those he loves? Doesn't that indicate lack of love? Doesn't that make him experientially indistinguishable from Satan?
A short blog post is a deeply inadequate place to answer such a searching question. However, Romans 5 says this: we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Rom 5:3)
There is a real easy-believism that says "I know what I think is for my good, I know what makes me feel comfortable, that's what I would provide for myself, therefore that is what I should expect from God if he loves me." In response God says "I do indeed love you, but my desire for your character is better than your desire. I want to produce depth in your life that you would never experience if left to yourself. I want to develop gold or diamonds, precious things that emerge only under pressure."
Rejoicing in our sufferings is not masochism, still less is it a denial of the facts. It recognises that suffering as a Christian has a purpose. It produces Christlike character in us, it alters our makeup and moulds in us the image of the one who suffered most for us. Which is why Paul can say that far from producing bitterness, for us suffering results in hope. We can look back over our lives and spot how God has led and transformed us. If you are anything like me you look back to find the times of greatest growth are often also the times of great pain.
For the non-Christian the opposite is true. Suffering doesn’t produce character, because they have no hope for the future. Life can be a very bleak prospect, ending in the oblivion of the grave. Suffering produces despondence, despondence apathy and apathy despair. And despair disappoints utterly.
Hebrews 12 leaves us with a searching question: will we submit to the Father of our spirits? (v9) That is, will we trust him in the middle of our suffering, praying for these kind of outcomes of depth and endurance, or will we kick against it and demand that God only allows into our lives the things that will make us feel comfortable?