The great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon liked to tell the story of a renowned painter plying his craft on a high platform in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. While admiring and assessing his work, the painter backed up inch by inch to appreciate the whole. Without knowing it, he was now standing on the very edge of the platform. One of his assistants noticed the grave danger, and not wishing to startle the painter or cause him to look back and fall to his death, the man remained silent. However, thinking quickly he grabbed a paint brush, dipped it in paint, and flung it at the artist’s masterpiece. This so enraged the painter, that he lunged forward to confront his assistant. Only then did he recognize that the ruin of his work had meant the saving of His life.
Recognizing that our afflictions are often God’s mercies is not easy for us. Our immediate and natural reaction is to see suffering as an unwanted gift. What possible good could there be in our cancer, the untimely death of a loved one, the betrayal of a friend, the pain of a prodigal son, or a career ending injury. Suffering feels more like a punishment than a mercy. It is hard to see suffering as a gift and a providence, since it robs us of things and people we cherish, or things and people that add meaning to our lives. It is hard to see subtraction as addition.
Yet the amazing thing is that Paul, in writing to the Philippians, describes suffering as a grace gift from God (Phil. 1:29). The same God who had granted them the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8) had granted them the gift of suffering for the sake of the gospel (2 Cor. 12:7). The Greek verb translated “granted” is from the noun grace. God graced and favored them with the gift of suffering. Their suffering at Philippi was not to be considered accidental but providential, nor was it to be considered a punishment but a mercy. In this text Paul teaches that believing in Christ and suffering for Him are both associated with God’s amazing grace.
The challenge to us is to pray for grace to embrace the unwanted gift of suffering. We are encouraged to pray past the desire for relief, and instead to pray for God’s sufficient grace to rejoice in the grace of suffering (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Afflictions are God’s mysterious mercies: suffering proves our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7); shows our sonship (Heb. 12:5-8); develops endurance (James 1:2-4); engenders a hatred for sin (John 11:33); promotes greater self-examination (Psa. 51:3-13); brings us closer to Christ (Phil. 3:10); strengthens other believers (1 Thess. 1:6-7); opens doors for the gospel (Phil 1:12-18); equips us to help others (2 Cor. 1:3-7); and makes us long for heaven (Rom. 8:18).
Suffering is to be expected, but what is unexpected is its grace-enhancing ministry in our lives as we submit to God’s wise providence. Suffering is the unwanted gift that God bestows on His people, knowing that the “bad” is good for us, that our dying is producing life in others, and that His grace is sufficient for the grace of suffering.