What does it look like to suffer well?
It’s easy to answer this question in theory, but when suffering enters our experience, it’s much harder to reckon with. What are we to do with our many emotions? How are we to talk about our suffering with others? What does it mean for our prayer life? We wonder, Is God even there?
I’ve pondered all these questions, as I’ve struggled on-and-off-again with sleeping soundly through the night, with chronic physical pain, and with a general weariness of body, mind, and soul. I’ve wondered if it’s okay to be angry, when it’s right to ask God for deliverance from trials, and how it’s possible to be joyful despite perplexing circumstances.
Paul addresses the hardships of earthly life in 2 Corinthians 5:1-6:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage. (2 Corinthians 5:1-6, emphasis mine)
Paul reminds us that it is possible to be of good courage in suffering — to be full of hope, peace, and joy — as we cling to the gospel through it. Here are the reasons he gives.
1. Be of good courage because heaven is coming.
Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians (and us) that our human bodies are mere earthly tents, temporary shelters that are broken down in time by the elements. The reality that we live a tent-like physical existence is because sin entered the world with the first Adam, staining our perfection and thereby separating body and soul through inescapable death.
However, our earthly, fallible bodies are not our final habitation, Paul says. One day, when we behold the second coming of Christ on the clouds with glory and the restoration of all created things, our earthly tents will be transformed into indestructible buildings from God, “eternal in the heavens.” Not only will our bodies be made new, but our souls will also be wholly restored, as we are freed from sin’s grip and our glorification is made complete.
How does this future reality make us of good courage right now? It motivates us to place our ultimate hope of bodily and soul-perfection in the Day of the Lord and beyond, not in our present circumstances. Even if we are never granted release from our current afflictions—even if our situation worsens, even if we were to die—we have gain in Christ because of our future home with him, purchased through our redemption by his blood and for our adoption into his family.
Believer, take heart because heaven is coming!
2. Be of good courage because of freedom in prayer.
I love the rawness of what Paul is saying in the first part of verse 4: “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened…” He mentions groaning twice and for a good reason: “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling…” Our groaning, when it is rooted in our ultimate hope of eternity with Christ in heaven, manifests itself in confident prayer to our Father, who knows our needs, hears our requests, and is pleased to give us what he knows is best.
Sometimes, I wonder, Can I pray for healing right now? For God to take away this trial? Does it please God that we accept our afflictions, or that we cry out to him for help and deliverance?
It seems from this passage that the answer is “both”! Our groaning in prayer is pleasing to God for a few reasons:
- One, it is in humbling ourselves before our Father and confessing our need for his grace that we draw nearest to him while we are in our earthly tents. Suffering often breaks us of self-will and points us anew to God’s will. It breaks us of self-sufficiency and points us to God’s strength. It reveals our sin and points us to freshly to our need for a Redeemer. The broken and contrite heart God will not despise!
- Two, it proclaims that we are embracing our freedom as God’s children through the gospel to ask him for our requests, even deliverance from our troubles, if this is in accordance with his will. We can now approach his throne of grace with confidence because of the blood of Jesus, believing that all of God’s works are done in faithfulness.
- Three, it joyfully expresses to him that our ultimate longing is to be covered by the righteousness of Jesus and made increasingly like him, not necessarily to be granted temporary comforts or to escape from trouble.
Because of God’s grace given to us in Christ, we can pray to him freely, groaning openly and longing passionately for both temporary deliverance and ultimate restoration.
3. Be of good courage because God uses suffering as preparation for glory.
Because we are God’s beloved children, Romans 8:28 is true for us: All things are working together for our benefit and for his exaltation. Though we may never fully understand the wisdom of God at work in our suffering, we choose to cling to his promise of love, as demonstrated through the sending of his Son, that he works all things in our favor and toward his ends.
J. I. Packer writes,
Even when we cannot see the why and the wherefore of God’s dealings, we know that there is love in and behind them, and so we can rejoice always, even when, humanly speaking, things are going wrong.
The reason we are able to be of good courage in suffering is a firm belief in God’s love for us, expressed in the gospel, and a confidence that our “slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17, emphasis mine). For how much better, how much more beautiful and excellent, will heaven with Christ be after we have groaned in our earthly tents for a time?
Our trustworthy Father is preparing us to be swallowed up by Christ’s life in eternity, and our longing for this will only deepen as our sufferings do. This is a reason to be of good courage when momentary affliction befalls us.
4. Be of good courage because of the Holy Spirit’s presence and promise.
Paul reminds us that our Father “has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” of our house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. The Holy Spirit is our good deposit that our future heavenly home with Jesus has been secured and that the very life of Christ dwells in us now, in the midst of our sufferings. His presence and promise strengthen us to endure, mature, and hope.
It is the Spirit who recalls to our minds the very true words of God; who helps us in our weakness; who convicts us of sin and righteousness; who enlightens our inner-beings to the knowledge of God; and who pours the love of Christ into our hearts. What a ministry! And it is also the Holy Spirit who enables us to respond to suffering as Christ did, with prayer and dependence and trust in God’s unseen plan.
Suffering well is no easy task, but the pursuit of good courage in affliction is worth the fight:
So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:9-10)
Someday, you and I will stand before Jesus, justified in his sight by grace through faith, and will hear because of our good courage in suffering, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
And this we will absolutely do, putting on our heavenly dwelling and being swallowed up by life.