How Suffering Can Change You for the Better

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

The marathon runner perseveres in his training in order to someday finish a grueling 26.2 mile race. The hesitant child presses on through eating her vegetables because she knows there is chocolate ice cream sitting in the freezer.

Perseverance is rooted in hope. We persevere when we believe that what awaits us is worth the fight.

Paul knew this. His eyes are not only on the future, but he knows this fight of faith is accomplishing something else of great worth along the way: the renewing of our inner self, even while our outer self is wasting away. His point is this: Suffering changes us, for the better, right now.

That is hard to believe! In Romans 5:1-5, Paul helps us understand how this inner transformation happens and where it begins:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Renewal Begins with the Gospel

Renewal into the image of Christ begins with the gospel, and then follows a progression from endurance to character to hope.

Paul reminds us above that we have been justified by faith in Christ—given a verdict of “not guilty” and declared completely innocent by the Judge of all things on the basis of Christ’s perfect life and sin-bearing death. This means that we now have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” and access into his grace—his undeserved favor—forever.

Righteousness by faith, peace with God, and access into his grace form this greater gospel-reality that overflows into rejoicing because of our future in God’s glorious presence. To be with Christ is guaranteed, and to be like him is our aim! “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

But these are not only wonderful treasures stored up for our future. They are for now. Right now, if you are trusting in Christ, you are justified before God. You are at peace with the only One whose verdict truly matters. You have access, through prayer, to the throne room of the universe whenever you wish to enter it.

And this enables you to stand in suffering. More than that, it means that you can be changed by suffering, for the better. As we persevere to the finish, this gospel produces renewal in us as we go.

Suffering Produces Endurance

If the gospel is the fuel for inner change, then suffering is the uphill road we travel on. Suffering exercises our faith muscles, and exercise makes muscles grow stronger even as sometimes they feel weaker.

Think about our marathoner. His body will (and must!) suffer many weeks of training if he’s to endure to the end of the race. His muscles will stretch and ache, so that they may be rebuilt, grow stronger, and sustain him to the finish line. Then he will have become an endurance runner.

Similarly, in suffering our faith muscles are tested and tried, in order that God may strengthen and sustain our faith until the day we are with him and faith turns to sight. The longer I suffer, and the more I am able to persevere in that suffering (with rejoicing!), the more deeply I am convinced that Jesus Christ is the author and perfecter of faith. When the road is steep and my faith feels weak but I keep going, my faith is growing stronger. I am becoming an endurance believer.

Our suffering also produces endurance as we obey God’s commands. Because of self-pity, discontentment, anger, bitterness, and other sinful fruit, suffering often tempts us to turn away from God’s commands by indulging our present feelings as we demand our “rights” to a better life. Yet, when we turn away from sin and pursue obedience to God, our faith is strengthened, and we recognize how he is working within us.

We cannot do these two things in our own strength. Nor do we have to! This is why the Holy Spirit has been given to us, Paul says. He works in us what we cannot work in ourselves. The Holy Spirit first made us alive to God’s love, and he will also strengthen our endurance in the fight of faith to the end.

Endurance Produces Character

Suffering changes the sufferer. No doubt you’ve met people who have been made hard, angry, timid or bitter by suffering. Wonderfully, the Spirit is at work to change our character for the better. We learn:

  • Love for God, rather than loving only what he gives us
  • Joy in suffering, rather than looking for happiness in temporary pleasures
  • Patience as we suffer long and wait for the Lord’s return
  • Kindness toward others that humbly serves them through the pain
  • Goodness as we learn to hate sin and all its effects
  • Faithfulness as we focus on God’s promises to lead us through
  • Gentleness as our affliction teaches us to comfort and identify with fellow sufferers
  • Self-control as we learn to meekly submit ourselves to God’s loving plans for us

The world and all its glamours are fading away. This includes our bodies, money, possessions, aspirations, and positions. We cannot keep what we now see, but we will possess forever what we cannot see.

Character Produces Hope

There comes a moment for most marathon runners when they realize they will make it, because they see how their training has done what they planned—turned them into real endurance runners.

Well, what rejoicing there is when we realize that our faith is indeed genuine and gospel-fueled, and that the Holy Spirit is producing Christ-like character in us! When the road goes uphill, when our faith feels weak but proves strong enough, when we see the Spirit changing us bit by bit along the way, we realize: We are justified! We do have peace with God. We can and we will enjoy access to his grace!

Our hope is real. This is how you rejoice even during—and perhaps especially during—times of suffering.

“Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Suffering changes our outer self—it scars, it pains, it reshapes, it breaks. Look at the outer self and you will lose heart. But Paul doesn’t—because he looks elsewhere. The road of suffering changes our inner self too, as we cling to the gospel and the Spirit goes to work.

That’s where you must look.

This article is an adapted chapter from Hope When It Hurts.

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