God and the Greeks
Remember the story of Hercules? The son of Zeus who did a bunch of heroic stuff like killing a Hydra to earn back his status as a god? Disney made a movie about it when I was a kid. It was a fun show, but not much like the original tale. In the original Greek version, his name is Heracles, and he has to do 12 labors to atone for murdering his family.
He’s considered the greatest Greek hero because he suffered the most. For the Ancient Greek poets and philosophers, this really is what made someone a hero: suffering. Greek philosophy crept into a lot of Christian theology over time, and many Christians have a similar view of suffering—that it is God’s primary tool for perfecting us, and that those God loves the most He assigns the most difficult circumstances. But what does the Bible teach?
Paul said that suffering is inevitable and that all who live Godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim 3:13). The early apostles considered in an honor to suffer for Jesus (Acts 5:41).
However, most of the suffering described by Paul and the other early church leaders was a direct result of the open hostility towards the gospel. They suffered a lot, yes, but it was primarily due persecution. They didn’t view this as God doing something harmful to them to help them grow. Instead, they saw it as the inevitable outcome of the war between light and darkness.
What the Bible Says about How God Teaches Us
The scripture most often used to teach that God’s main way of perfecting us is through suffering is Hebrews 12:5-9:
“And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?”
This scripture says that God chastens or disciplines us, even going so far as to use the word “scourge.” This word conjures up frightening images of an angry father with a whip, lashing his kids into submission. It’s easy, just looking at this Scripture, to make the jump from here to believing that the negative things in our lives are God punishing us for sin and trying to get us to stop.
When I was growing up, I thought this way. I used to get really bad stomach cramps all the time. Assuming this was the chastening of the Lord, I welcomed it. I actually even prayed for more if God felt I needed that to stop being such a wicked sinner. I thought I was heroic, rather like Heracles.
Do you want to know something fascinating, though? They didn’t help one bit. In fact, despite my rather silly heroism, my stomach cramps didn’t cause me to live holier or follow Jesus and anymore.
What actually helped me grow wasn’t punishment. Punishment and suffering don’t free you from sin or help you grow up—grace does. Grace, coupled with teaching. Titus 2:11 says that the grace of God teaches us to live holy.
Psalm 94:12 says, “Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O LORD, and teachest him out of thy law”
The chastening of the Lord is done through His word. He chastens or disciplines us by teaching us the truth. Sometimes this is painful—thus the scourging analogy—but it’s not talking about physical pain or even the emotional pain of a beating. It’s the pain of embarrassment that I used to think such silly thoughts.
That passage in Hebrews 12 says that we had fathers of our flesh who disciplined us (likely by spanking our flesh), but God is the Father of our spirit. That means He disciplines us through the spirit. How does He do that? Jesus says the words He speaks to us are spirit and life (John 6:63). He disciplines us by talking to us.
What About The Suffering We Face?
I certainly agree that difficulties in life can be good teachers, and that God can use and redeem negative situations. However, saying that He brings these on us to teach us is to doubt His ability to teach us effectively through His Word and Spirit. The whole point of teaching is to avoid the school of hard knocks. Some of those lumps may be inevitable, but many can be avoided.
I’m not living a perfect life by any means, but I’m living more for God now than I ever have. I’m living freer from sin than I ever have. What got me here wasn’t suffering. What changed me was clear, simple instruction out of the Word about who I was and who God was.
The Christian call to suffer is about the willingness to endure hardship for the furtherance of the gospel, not to have God do awful things to you so you’ll learn something. Sure, sometimes we make bad decisions and should try to learn from them, but we’ve got a whole Bible full of wisdom that we can use to minimize that.
Also, sometimes bad things happen to us for no reason at all other than we live in a messed-up world. There are opportunities to learn and trust God even in these situations, and God will turn them around for our blessing. However, this does not mean that He is the one behind all the bad events.