None of us chooses to suffer affliction and adversity, but we benefit from them providing we respond positively. My wife and I enjoy playing tennis but about a year ago, she had to have rotator cuff surgery on her right shoulder. It takes about a year for it to heal completely, and not wanting to wait a year to be able to play tennis, she learned how to play left handed. Now that her right shoulder has healed up and she can again use her right arm, she often switches to her left to hit a forehand on both sides! She turned her affliction into an advantage and has actually improved her game. If you are a tennis player I wouldn’t necessarily recommend having shoulder surgery, though, just to improve your game! I had the same surgery a few years ago and it is not a very pleasant experience, especially the physical therapy. We don’t choose to go through suffering, but when it happens—and it will—we can choose to grow through it, coming out stronger in some way.
In fact, James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote this about the purpose of afflictions in our life, and what our response should be: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas. 1:2-4). The Apostle Paul, who endured an amazing list of trials, wrote this in his letter to the Romans: “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Ro. 5:3,4).
One of the benefits of affliction is that we experience the presence and comfort of God in a way we wouldn’t have had it not been for the suffering. God meets people in their suffering. Pain and adversity might even be God’s main way of reaching us and revealing Himself to us. We discover that we have a God who suffers with us and provides the comfort only He can give. Were it not for our afflictions, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to personally experience this aspect of His character. That’s why God doesn’t always deliver us from the afflictions, but is present with us in them. “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His presence” (Paul Claudel). Joni Eareckson Tada, who definitely has suffered greatly, said, “God always seems bigger to those who need Him the most.” God’s best gifts to us are sometimes wrapped in boxes that make our hands bleed.
As we observe in the passages in James and Romans, suffering can strengthen us and build our character, faith and hope so that we are better equipped to serve and to handle the next adversity that comes our way. Suffering can prepare ordinary Christians for extraordinary service, as it did for Joni Eareckson and countless others. God could prevent us from suffering, but how much would we grow spiritually and how effective would we be for Him? A. W. Tozer wrote: “It is doubtful God can use anyone greatly ‘til He has hurt them deeply.” It is also true that those who have suffered are best able to help those who are suffering. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer” (II Cor. 1:3-6).
Another benefit of affliction is how it can purify our lives, helping to remove the dross of sinful habits of our old flesh. Just as heat is used to purify gold, removing the impurities which cheapen it, so the trials that God selects for us, help to remove the sinful tendencies in our lives, and make us more like Christ. Adversity and affliction are part of God’s sanctification process in our lives to conform us to the image of Christ. Job, who suffered more than any of us ever will, gave this testimony: “But He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). The apostle Peter who wrote a letter to the believers who had been scattered through persecution for their faith, said, “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ…Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (I Pet. 1:7; 4:19).
We reap some of the benefits of suffering here and now, as our lives are purified and strengthened for service, but some of the benefits are yet future, as Peter indicates. Paul also wrote: “Therefore do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (II Cor. 4:16-18).
Suffering is a change agent, but you choose how it will change you—for better or for worse. James tells us to “consider it all joy.” Paul exhorts us to “exult in tribulations.” That’s not natural to do, so we must depend on the power of the Holy Spirit and the indwelling Christ to respond in that manner, showing our trust in God’s plan and purpose for our lives. “There is a Divine mystery in suffering, a strange and supernatural power which has never been fathomed by the human reason. There has never been known great saintliness of soul which did not pass through great suffering. When the suffering soul does not even ask God to deliver it from suffering, then it has wrought its blessed ministry; then patience has its perfect work…It is in this state of perfection of suffering that the Holy Spirit works many marvelous things in our souls” (William Cowper, in Streams in the Desert).