Paul's Theology on Suffering

The Blog of Jeph Guinan

Return to Main Page

Ever since Adam ate the forbidden fruit there has been one universal phenomenon that has plagued every person who has ever lived in some way. Every person has had to deal with some kind of suffering in life. People suffer in different ways and to various degrees; yet, no one escapes life without some pain. Just as the experience of suffering is universal, so the question of why people suffer is also nearly universal. Different philosophies and religions have tried to battle this question in their own ways; yet the question of why people suffer remains. The Bible is not silent on the issue. The whole canon of Scripture deals with suffering in some way, and, of course, the life of Christ is marked by suffering.

As one reads the corpus of Pauline literature he finds that Paul is no stranger to both the experience and question of suffering. His epistles deal with suffering in a very real and hopeful way; yet, even Christians still look outside of Scripture to answer the question of why people suffer.

Perhaps this is because Paul’s theology of suffering is so counter-intuitive to worldly wisdom. As it shall be seen, Paul understands that suffering is ultimately a blessing from God given to Christians in order to glorify Himself and promote their sanctification; therefore, the Christian response to suffering should be one of joy, hope, and love.

There are two foundational elements that need to be understood in order for one to comprehend that Paul sees Christian suffering as a blessing. Firstly, in Paul’s thought, all suffering finds its source in God’s purposeful design and wisdom. Paul understands that God is absolutely sovereign over all things. There is nothing that comes into one’s life that has not ultimately come due to God’s wise decree and purpose; including suffering. There are at least two passages that draw this conclusion. Paul says that God, “…Works all things according to the counsel of His will.”[i] The word energountos is in the active voice and means to be at work in order to do something.[ii] So, it is not just that God passively allows suffering, but that He is actively bringing about suffering in the lives of the people to whom it comes.[iii] Also, in the Christological passage in Hebrews 1:1-4, Paul states that Christ is “upholding all things by the word of His power….”[iv] Similar to the Ephesians passage, Paul is using the present, active tense of the word, phero, to say that Christ is presently and continually carrying all things that exist in order for them to continue existing for the purpose He has ordained.[v] In other words, Christ is holding all of creation, both good and evil,[vi] in the palm of his providential hand in order to bring about His intended purpose. To bring this statement into practical consideration, this means Christ is upholding the existence of Taliban soldiers who are currently holding Christians in prison as well as the Islamic hoards who beat and persecute Christians everyday. He also upholds the existence of every cancer cell that is afflicting so many people today.[vii] Such contemplation may make one uneasy, and it may certainly be hard to understand; however, the fact that all things come from the sovereign hand of God, including suffering, is absolutely foundational to the rest of Paul’s theology of suffering. The great hope comes in the next aspect of Paul’s thought, which is that God does not ordain suffering in people’s lives without a purpose.

To understand why God would ordain suffering in people’s lives one must understand the Apostle’s theocentric worldview. Paul understands that man’s purpose of existence is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[viii] His long exposition concerning Israel’s spiritual condition in Romans nine through eleven ends in a strong doxology praising God’s sovereign wisdom using the words, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”[ix] This doxology exposes the heart of Paul’s God-centered theology. By saying “of Him…are all things,” he sees God as the ultimate cause and source of every existent thing, including suffering, as has been seen. He then promotes the idea of God’s creating and sustaining providence in all things by saying, “through Him…are all things.” God is the “grand agent[x],” that created and sustains everything in the universe (similar to his statement of Christ in Heb. 1:3). Since God is the source and cause of all things, then it naturally follows, in Paul’s mind, that He is also the purpose of all things, or, “to Him…are all things.” The reason everything was created is to glorify God. It would then be unreasonable to think that one can live life with any other goal in mind or any other object of worship.[xi] The three propositions are certainly linked. Because God is the source of all things, then He is also the sustainer of all things who moves all things to its ultimate end- to glorify Himself.[xii] So, when God ordains and upholds suffering in the lives of His people it is so that they will, in their suffering, glorify Him.

That God would ordain people’s suffering for the sake of His glory may sound scandalous to some people. For Paul, however, it only makes sense that God would use people whom He created for such a purpose. He constantly reminds his readers that, “you are not your own…you were bought at a price,”[xiii] and, “Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor…that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy….”[xiv] Paul understands God’s sovereignty to mean that God has the absolute and natural right to do with His creation whatever He desires. The passage from Romans is even more startling because it goes beyond asserting that God ordains temporary suffering in the lives of His elect for His glory’s sake, but that He ordains eternal suffering for the reprobate for that same purpose. Because God is sovereign and directs all things in the lives of all people for the ultimate end of His glory, Paul understands that God uses suffering in the lives of Christians to be a blessing.

That the experience of Christian suffering is involved with the transforming power of the gospel is central to Pauline thought. To understand the concept that suffering can be used as a blessing one must also understand how Paul thinks of the term “blessing.” Certainly Paul never explicitly says that suffering is a blessing as Peter does.[xv] It is clear, though, that Paul understands suffering to be used by God as a blessing. A blessing is not just something that promotes health, wealth, and ease as so many would want today. For Paul, a blessing is anything that is given to a person for his good because of the gospel of Christ.[xvi] Speaking of the present sufferings, Paul tells the Romans that, “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”[xvii] This assertion would conclude that suffering in all of its forms is used in a Christian’s life to bring about a good purpose according to God’s plan. It is not that all things are good, or that the suffering itself is good. Cancer is not a good thing, but God works all things for the ultimate good of the believer. According to his following statements, the good that is accomplished in all things is the conformity of the believer to the image of Christ, which is also the goal of the gospel, so that God may be glorified in the glorification of His saints. Therefore, if suffering is used to sanctify a person, as Paul states it is, then it follows that suffering is ordained as a blessing for the Christian.

Paul has much more to say in regards to the role of suffering in promoting the work of the gospel in a Christian’s life. Suffering is a result and a mark of a Christian’s union with Christ. Paul says, “…The sufferings of Christ abound in us…,” and, “[believers are] always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus…,” and, “we also are weak in him,” and, most notably, “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for His sake.”[xviii] All of these passages point to the fact that Paul understood his suffering, and the suffering of his fellow believers, to be a mark of genuine union with Christ. There is a ministerial purpose in this suffering, which is to display the suffering of Christ to the world so that His suffering may be better understood by those who were not at Calvary.[xix]

Suffering is also involved in the process of sanctification. It can be used both to prevent sin and discipline because of sin. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul speaks about enduring a “thorn in the flesh…a messenger of Satan to buffet [him].”[xx] He understood the purpose of this suffering to be the maintaining of his humility. Because Paul had been given so many great revelations from God, it would have been easy for him to become filled with pride; thus, he would have negated his effectiveness in ministry by such a great and persistent sin. To hinder this, God granted to Paul this suffering, which may have been some disease or possibly a person who frequently beat him up,[xxi] in order to keep him from becoming too elated. What is interesting in this passage is that Paul was seemingly innocent of the sin of pride. The thorn in the flesh was God’s preemptive strike to keep Paul from becoming guilty of this sin. So this suffering was preventive rather than disciplinary.

Suffering can be the result of discipline as well. Paul discusses this concept at length in Hebrews 12:3-11. He argues that God chastens those he loves in an even better way than earthly fathers do, and that this chastening, “yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”[xxii] There are two relevant points to be gleaned from the 2 Corinthians passage and this passage from Hebrews. First, they declare that God desires the holiness of His people more than their temporal happiness. So much does God hate sin that he will ordain suffering in the lives of His children in order to prevent it or remove it. Secondly, these passages show that suffering by God’s purpose is a mark of being loved by God. It is because God hates sin, but loves his elect children that He purposes to separate His people from their sin. Particularly in the Hebrews passage does Paul make the argument that the suffering of chastisement is a mark of sonship. If one does not submit to this chastisement it is an indication of the fact that he is not truly a son of God.[xxiii]

Paul’s description of the thorn in the flesh also gives another reason why suffering is ultimately a blessing in the Christian life; namely, it helps the person to be better able to see and display God’s glory. When Paul prayed that God would remove the thorn, he received an unexpected answer from Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response was that he would boast in his infirmities, “That the power of Christ might rest upon [him].”[xxiv] The word, episkenose, which is translated, “rest upon,” literally means to pitch a tent. Paul is harkening back to the Old Covenant tabernacle where the glory of God dwelled, and saying that Christ has pitched a tent over him in order to make him a living tabernacle to display Christ’s glory. How was Paul able to display the glory of Christ? There are three basic ways that Christ was glorified through the affliction of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. First, because Paul’s suffering reminded himself and the world around him that he was weak, it became obvious that his success in ministry was due to the power of Christ to work in and through him.[xxv] This caused Paul to remain humble, always praying to God for strength and power to accomplish his ministerial goals. Secondly, because the thorn in the flesh kept him from being filled with pride, Paul was also able to glorify Christ by his ability to continue in ministry and spread the gospel to all corners of the known world. Thirdly, Paul’s afflictions proved where his true joy lies. His joyful contentment did not lie in his circumstances or his comfort; rather, his true joy lie in his relationship with God in Christ as one made able to worship and enjoy Him. Suffering is involved in the process of glorification as well. In 2 Corinthians 4:17 he says, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working in us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” In the context of the passage Paul has been declaring the frailty and decay of the human body, especially as it seeks to serve God in one’s life. Philip Hughes comments on this verse by saying, “…The astonishing fact that the decay of the outward man is accompanied by the renewal of the inward man is not merely an experience; it has an inner logic. The affliction endured is itself in process of achieving or making effective the surpassing glory.”[xxvi]

Paul also uses this same argument in his letter to the Romans when he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”[xxvii] Paul argues in investment terms. Who would not gladly give one dollar for the promised return of a million dollars? If one were to make such an investment, he certainly would not think of his one dollar investment as much of a sacrifice. In a similar way, when Paul contemplates the glory that is to be revealed in the new man, he considers his present life of suffering as an easy investment that can be endured for a time. There is both present hope and future promise in these passages. The present hope is that one’s suffering has meaning and is producing something far better. The future hope is that the frailty, decay, and pain of the current existence will be replaced at a future date with a glorious, permanent, and pleasant existence; one that enjoys fellowship with the glory of the resurrected Christ and shares in the benefits of his accomplished victory over all evil.

Despite all the ways that God uses suffering to accomplish glorious and redemptive ends it does not change that fact that suffering is a trial. In other words, one may be glad that in his cancer he is able to glorify God, but that does not change the fact that his body is in constant pain. How is one supposed to endure suffering in a way that glorifies God, yet is not fake and full of empty truisms? Paul speaks very genuinely about how suffering ought to be endured. The first thing that Christians should do as they are going through times of affliction is to pray. When God gave Paul the thorn in the flesh Paul’s first response was to pray three times that God would remove it. He also tells Timothy to pray for his deliverance from wicked men.[xxviii] Prayer is Paul’s application of his view of God’s sovereignty over all things. Since God is the ultimate source of all things that come into his life, then God is the only one who can remove anything from his life. Yet, Paul’s prayers are not just for deliverance from the affliction. Paul continually prays for understanding as well.[xxix] Certainly, in times of suffering, one wants to understand how he can glorify God in it, and be reminded of the promises of God’s faithful power in the midst of the suffering.

While the first step in enduring suffering is to pray, Paul also speaks of the benefit of mutual encouragement and fellowship to help alleviate the burden of affliction. Paul boasts that one of the benefits of his own suffering is that he is able to comfort others who are suffering.[xxx] Paul’s theology of sympathy is clearly seen at this point. He states that he is better equipped to comfort those in the midst of suffering because he himself has experienced suffering and experienced comfort from God. He is giving to others what God has given to him- comfort. This is an outworking of his understanding of Christ’s sufferings as well as his understanding that Christians are to live out the life of Christ in one another’s lives.[xxxi] Paul makes the argument in Hebrews that Christ is a superior High Priest because he can sympathize with our weakness.[xxxii] Christ on the cross is the great model of suffering, and the risen Christ is the great model of redemption from suffering. He who has suffered and overcome has comforted Paul, and now Paul comforts others who are suffering in the same manner. It is clear that Paul wants all Christians to apply the gospel comforts that they have received to their fellow believers as he has done for them. One can see his great grief as Paul tells of those who abandoned him in prison; yet, he also tells of his great joy when some would come and visit him.[xxxiii] Christians need to remember the comfort they have received during times of suffering, and strive to bring that same comfort to others who may be going through various hardships.

Perhaps the most startling response Paul gives to suffering is that of joy. Again, after Paul received the promise of Christ’s sufficient grace in the midst of his thorn in the flesh, Paul says, “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities…. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.”[xxxiv] Far from becoming bitter that he, an apostle, would have to endure such hardships so that God could be glorified, he says he takes joy in all of these things. The reason he takes joy in his suffering is because he realizes that God has seen it fit to use him as a vessel to display the glory of His all sufficient grace to the world. Finally, Paul tells his readers to look to Christ in hope during present suffering. There are two ways in which Paul sees Christ as the hope of Christians in the midst of pain. Primarily, Christ is the first fruit of the coming, eschatological redemption.[xxxv] The current age is one of now, but not yet. Christ has won victory over Satan and sin, and but the fullness of the Kingdom with all of its physical and spiritual blessings is yet to be realized, though it is certain.[xxxvi] While Christians currently endure suffering, Christ has already overcome and defeated the sin that effects suffering. When Paul tells the Corinthians, “For though [Christ] was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you.”[xxxvii] Paul compares the present state of Christ with the future state of believers. Christ has endured weakness in the past and is currently living by the power of God, while believers are currently enduring weakness and will, likewise, live by the power of God in the future state. In a similar manner, Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians that, “the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[xxxviii] Clearly, Paul looks to the victory already won by Christ, and the glorification currently enjoyed by Him as the hope of redemption from the weakness and pain of the present life. His hope is not just that Christ has overcome the Fall and all of its effects, but that upon His return, all believers will share in the glory of the new creation with all of its benefits that are presently enjoyed by Christ.[xxxix] So then, for Paul, if Christ, the head of the church, has overcome His suffering and triumphed over death, then the rest of the body can certainly endure the short pricks and pangs of life in the hope that it too will share in the victory of Christ.

By finding comfort from God and others, by having joy in pain, by seeing hope in the midst of affliction, Paul’s response to suffering is far different that the modern believer’s response. Where the church deviates from Paul’s how understands suffering and blessing it needs to reform its beliefs so that it is in line with what Scripture says. Paul’s own writings and the rest of sacred writ clearly declare that God is completely sovereign, and the purpose of life is to glorify Him. Paul sought to glorify God in his life, so he took joy in suffering because he understood that God was ordaining all things for Paul’s good and God’s glory. Therefore, he saw that suffering was used by God as a blessing because it allowed him to do what he was created to do. It evidenced his union with Christ, promoted his sanctification, and allowed him to more effectively minister to others. The church would do well to follow Paul’s example, for He followed Christ’s example who endured to the end, overcame weakness, and now lives as the first fruit of the life to come.

End Notes:

[i] Ephesians 1:11

[ii] Friberg, T., Friberg, B., & Miller, N. F, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Vol. 4, Baker's Greek New Testament Library, electronic ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).

[iii] This statement should be understood in accordance with the rest of Scripture that God uses secondary means to accomplish His purposes (Acts 2:23; Matt. 17:12; Acts 4:27-28; John 19:11; Prov. 16:33).

[iv] Hebrews 1:3 NKJV. This paper assumes the position of the professor that Paul wrote Hebrews.

[v] Newman, B. M., Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft; United Bible Societies, 1993).

[vi] This statement should never be misconstrued to assert that God is the author of evil. Paul very clearly denies that God sins or is responsible for sin. See Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:26.

[vii] Talbot, Mark, ‘All the Good that is Ours in Christ,” in Piper, John and Justin Taylor, ed., Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), 42.

[viii] The Westminster Confession of Faith, (Atlanta: CE&P Publishers, 1990), WSC 1. See 1 Cor. 10:31 and Rom. 11:36.

[ix] Romans 11:36 NKJV

[x] Haldane, Robert, An Exposition of Romans (electronic ed.), (Simpsonville: Christian Classics Foundation, 1996).

[xi] Calvin, John, Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (electronic ed.), (Albany: AGES software, 1997), 347.

[xii] Murray, John, The Epistle to the Romans, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 108.

[xiii] 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20 NKJV

[xiv] Romans 9:21-23 NKJV

[xv] 1 Peter 3:14; 4:14

[xvi] Wood, D. R. W., Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H., New Bible Dictionary, electronic ed. of 3rd ed., (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996). See Ephesians 1:3 and Romans 15:29.

[xvii] Romans 8:28 NKJV [xviii] 2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10-11; 13:4; Philippians 1:29 respectively.

[xix] Piper, John, “Why God Appoints Suffering for His Servants,” in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.

[xx] NKJV

[xxi] For a good, concise discussion on the nature of the “thorn in the flesh,” see Garland, D. E., Vol. 29: 2 Corinthians (electronic ed.), Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999).

[xxii] 1 Corinthians 12:11 NKJV

[xxiii] Wuest, K. S., Wuest's Word Studies From the Greek New Testament : For the English Reader, electronic edition, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

[xxiv] 2 Corinthians 12:9 NKJV

[xxv] This is similar to his argument in 1 Cor. 2:1-5.

[xxvi] Hughes, P.E., Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1980), 156.

[xxvii] Romans 8:18 NKJV

[xxviii] 2 Thessalonians 3:2

[xxix] Ephesians 1:18; 3:16-19; 6:19-20; Philippians 1:9-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12

[xxx] 2 Corinthians 1:4

[xxxi] This principle is seen very notable in Philippians 2:5-11.

[xxxii] Hebrews 4:15

[xxxiii] 2 Timothy 4:9-14; 2 Corinthians 7:6

[xxxiv] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NKJV emphasis added

[xxxv] 1 Corinthians 15:20

[xxxvi] Ladd, G.E., A Theology of the New Testament, revised edition, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 597.

[xxxvii] 2 Corinthians 13:4 NKJV

[xxxviii] 1 Corinthians 15:56-57 NKJV

[xxxix] 2 Corinthians 1:7,10; 4:14, 16; 5:1

Return to Main Page