Spiritual growth is a path we walk, not a monument we arrive at. In fact, you might even call that walking path an extended experiment, catered to each one of us, with its twists and turns, dips and descents, puddles and pavement. David Powlison once wrote, “Your entire life is a holy experiment as God’s hands shape you into the image of his Son.”1 A holy, Son-shaping experiment—that’s what’s happening. Right now. As you trod down the path of your day, your clay spirit is being tended and pressed and nudged in the ordinary moments. As you walk, you’re molded. You’re shaped. You don’t feel it. You don’t see it. But it’s happening.
And suffering plays a major role in this divine experiment. As I’ve been speaking with others and thinking a lot about how God has been shaping me as a giver made in his image, I’ve realized that nearly all the spiritual growth I’ve experienced has been the direct or indirect result of suffering. We can go months and even years hoping that this phenomenon is an anomaly. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s the path of the Christian life, according to Jesus and the Apostle Paul. It’s perhaps the primary means of spiritual growth. We become stronger when we’re weaker (2 Cor. 12:10). And that’s the case because weakness and suffering always reveal our souls. Paul David Tripp said, “Suffering draws out the true thoughts, attitudes, assumptions, and desires of your heart.”2 Suffering holds a mirror in front of your soul. It shows you not who you want to be, but who you are.
That doesn’t mean we’re excited about suffering, but it does mean that if we can see what’s happening, we can benefit from it in ways we otherwise couldn’t. See how all of this resonates with your own experience as a Christian. I’m going to present this as the suffering circle (not to be confused with the giving circle).
Phase 1: Suffering Strikes
Suffering is a trained street boxer. It waits until our guard is down, until our hands drop to our sides, and then strikes, knocking the wind out of us. I certainly felt out of breath when I watched my father die in front of me on a June night in 2004. It can take years to get your breath back from a sucker punch like that. And you never breathe quite the same way again. This makes it all the more curious for Powlison to say, “suffering is a means of grace.”3 That doesn’t sit well with us, does it? When suffering strikes, we don’t think of grace; we think of griping. We cringe and writhe, buckle over and face-plant. The notion of grace seems as far from us in our suffering as a distant cloud.
Phase 2: Frustration and Doubt
That leads immediately to phase 2: frustration and doubt. Very few of us respond to suffering with resolved faith and hope. Pain and frustration are coiled together like thorn bushes, pricking us, drawing out our blood. And with the sting fresh and the blood meeting the open air, we doubt. “God, are you really in control? Are you really letting this happen right now? Are you really taking my father from me when he’s only 47?” You could add your own questions. The point is that when suffering strikes, doubt isn’t far behind. We doubt that things will be “okay.” We doubt God’s character. We may even be tempted to doubt God’s existence. We feel isolated and lost, like spiritual vagrants. Our brokenness turns us into skeptical beggars. We just want some consolation. But we don’t see it yet.
Phase 3: Sympathizing with Christ
This is precisely when Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is closest to us. Christ sympathizes with us (Heb. 4:15). That means he draws near to our experience. He says, “I know . . . I know . . . I know.” It’s not a knowing that comes from some detached knowledge of different sorts of human pain. It’s an intimate, personal knowledge. It’s a with-us knowledge. That’s why, when Paul is persecuting the early church, Jesus meets him on the road to Damascus and says, “why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) Paul had been persecuting others, and yet Jesus claims that as persecution of himself. That’s how close he is to his people. He identifies himself with us. He suffers with us, even though he’s already suffered for us.
And that sympathy can become reciprocal. Jesus not only sympathizes with us in our suffering; we can sympathize with him as we suffer. We can say, “Oh . . . this is what it feels like to be despised and rejected, to be someone acquainted with grief, to be a person of sorrow (Isa. 53:3).” Reciprocal sympathy draws Christ closer to us and us closer to him. That’s not to say that all of this feels good; but we can confidently say that it is good, for what could be better than drawing closer to Christ? Than sympathizing with the Son of God? This is what prompts Powlison to write, “The living faith that embraces Christ is formed in the crucible of weakness. The courage to carry on and the strong love that cares well for others are formed in the crucible of struggle.”4 Those aren’t words we want to hear, but they are words we need to hear. In the crucible of weakness and struggle, we are formed. That’s phase 4.
Phase 4: Conforming to Christ
Keep in mind that these phases can be separated by not just days or months but years. My father died almost 17 years ago. It took at least a decade for me to get to phase 3. And I’m still working on phase 4. Perhaps I’ll keep working on that phase until the day I die.
Phase 4 is where sympathy turns to conformity, where knowing Christ turns to becoming like Christ. This is God’s plan for you and me, and it always has been. Well before we even took our first breath, God destined us to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). How? Brace yourself for the answer: by sharing in Christ’s suffering (Phil. 3:10). Suffering is the catalyst for Christlikeness. It’s how we follow after our Lord.
There are many ways in which we can be shaped to Christ. We just need to think of all of the facets of his character, and I’ve written about that elsewhere in the context of anxiety. Below is just a short list of attributes to get you thinking. Have you seen your soul grow towards these attributes through your own suffering?
I can see, for instance, that since my father died, I’ve been much more sympathetic toward others who have lost loved ones. I feel drawn to them, and I feel a deep yearning to pray for them and to encourage them. That’s the work of the Spirit in shaping me to Jesus Christ. I’m as confident of that as a candle burning in a quiet, dark room. God has used suffering for shaping. And he’s still doing it, not just through my father’s death but through a host of other painful paths: anxiety and self-doubt are the ones I cover in Finding Hope in Hard Things. What are the suffering paths you’re walking right now? How are you being shaped to Jesus Christ through them? These are questions we need to ask ourselves everyday.
Phase 5: Sharing Wisdom and Encouragement
Phase 5 is the most exhilarating part of the suffering circle. This is when we’re on the “other side,” and we’re confident observers of the hard work that’s been done in our souls. We know that God, once again, is good. We know that he’s been working. We can see it. And so our eyes turn to others who might need the wisdom and encouragement we can offer. This is one of the ways in which God shapes us into givers after his own heart. He lifts our chin and turns our eyes to others. As he encouraged us, we encourage others. We testify to the hands of the potter, even as we’re still wet from the water of suffering. We show others just how God can take something ugly and make something beautiful, how the mud and mire of pain can be shaped into a vessel that carries God’s beauty and redemption to someone else. We become cups of grace and hope, and the whole world is thirsty.
The circle, of course, isn’t the end of suffering. It’s just the end of one of our circles. Another wave of suffering will meet us, and the circle will begin anew. But with each new circle, we’re stronger in our weakness. We look more like the Son of God as we meet it. And so true, God-given strength continues to build as we find ourselves weak. The suffering circle makes us ever stronger as we’re ever weaker. That’s the potency of the gospel message: even the worst things of the world can’t ultimately destroy us. Every time we’re struck down and not destroyed, we’re find our feet again, stronger and wiser and more like Christ. As strange as it sounds, the suffering circle always leads to deeper hope and life as it clarifies not just who God is, but who we are in him.
Suffer on, my dear friends. Great things are coming.
- David Powlison, God’s Grace in Your Suffering (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 83.
- Paul David Trip, Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 31.
- Powlison, God’s Grace in Your Suffering, 87.
- Powlison, God’s Grace in Your Suffering, 91.
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