Difficulty, pain, and suffering are things that all of us would like to avoid. We would prefer that God would simply make our lives beautiful and perfect. We would like to have God give us a perfect job, a large salary, abundant health, the ideal spouse, and wonderful kids. Some preachers would have us believe that if we become born-again Christians, and live a certain way, God will make us financially prosperous and that all of our problems will go away. What we frequently see in life contradicts such dreams of perfection and the promises of health-and-wealth preachers. Sickness and disaster come upon both the righteous and the unrighteous. Even the healthiest among us age and find that our eyes do not work as well as they once did, hips and knees wear out, and all of us will one day die.
So why must we live with all of these problems? After all, we read things like this in the Bible:
* “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
* “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8 NIV)
What we sometimes miss is that God is less concerned with our physical being than he is with our soul. God uses the challenges, the difficulties, the pain, and the sorrow of this life to help us develop our souls. His desire is that our souls might be rightly fitted for a life in heaven.
John Hick, one of the greatest proponents of “suffering as soul-building,” says,
One who has attained to goodness by meeting and eventually mastering temptations, and thus by rightly making responsible choices in concrete situations, is good in a richer and more valuable sense than would be one created . . . [from the beginning in] a state either of innocence or of virtue. In the former case, which is that of the actual moral achievements of mankind, the individual’s goodness has within it the strength of temptations overcome, a stability based upon an accumulation of right choices, and a positive and responsible character that comes from the investment of costly personal effort. . . .Men are not to be thought of on the analogy of animal pets, whose life is to be made as agreeable as possible, but rather on the analogy of human children, who are to grow to adulthood in an environment whose primary and overriding purpose is not immediate pleasure but the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personality.1
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) wrote of “the dark night of the soul” sent to us by God to purge our soul and make us the person God is calling us to be. He wrote,
[God] is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted its whole life . . . . These are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul.2
By various means God is trying to get our attention so that we might seek him, love him, and live out our lives on this earth according to his purposes and plans. Our natural selves seek comfort and a pain-free life. But God allows the challenges of this world so that our souls might grow as we pay attention to him and accept guidance from him. We may not even recognize the things God brings into our lives to help build our souls. In fact, we may misinterpret some of the events which come our way. There is a Chinese fable that is told in many places that illustrates this fact.3
There once was a man who lived on the northern frontier of China whose horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”
Some months later, his horse returned/bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?”
Their household was richer by a fine horse, which the son loved to ride. One day, he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”
A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame, did father and son survive to take care of each other.
Some people grow bitter and reject the learning that is available from struggle and pain; but, if we embrace what can be learned from every circumstance of life, our souls will grow. We can become a better person because of the struggles, become more ready for the next challenges of life, and become prepared to breathe the air of heaven.
1 John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 255-258.
2 As quoted in Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006; p. 124.
3 One place the story is told is in Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006; p. 129, 130.