By Bruce A. Little
In a time of suffering, it is common for Christians to ask for prayer and not unusual for them to give a testimony regarding their trust in God at the outset of their suffering. Suffering may include, but is not limited to, that which is associated with difficulty, displeasure, disquietude, pain, severe loss, or discomfort. The hope is often expressed in terms like "I know God is going to use this for His glory," or something along those lines. For some, the justification for their hope rests in some biblical narrative where God worked in a suffering situation to bring about some good. Others may claim a particular verse as justification for their claim that God will do something good because of their suffering. In either case, the claim involves some notion that God is going to bring something good from the suffering situation. What is important to see is that such testimonies are really not expressing general confidence in God's grace and strength. Rather, it is a confidence that God will bring about some specific (albeit unnamed) good because of the suffering. In fact, they will even testify that this good is the reason God allowed the suffering in the first place. Generally, those in the community of faith encourage such testimonies, believing that they reveal a strong and commendable trust in God.
Of course, testimonies of faith in God are always welcome in the household of faith. However, the truth of the matter is that the expressed hope in God in many of the testimonies described above is not so much a hope in God, as it is a hope in what God will do. This subtle difference should not be lost on us as Christians. The difference is testimonies that focus on God and those that focus on what God will do. Hope in what God will do can often lead to disappointment, discouragement, and even bitterness toward God, when the outcome fails to materialize precisely as the Christian had envisioned. Furthermore, the longer the suffering situation continues unresolved, the more likely disappointment or bitterness will develop. As one who pastored for some 30 years, I have seen too many whose church attendance decreased or their involvement in the community of faith was marginalized. In other cases, some simply "dropped out." For others, the disappointment in God was purposely concealed from the community of faith while they continued outwardly to be unchanged. In the latter case, these Christians keep their questioning to themselves, but usually at a price. With the passing of time, the disappointment may very well weaken their confidence in God, and hence, the vitally of their Christian life. Outwardly, everything seems the same to the casual observer, but internally the spiritual life is being smothered by this disappointment in God. Intellectually the Christian knows that God did not fail them but they experience an emotional letdown when the outcome does not match their expectations of what God was going to do. Emotionally they feel somewhat disillusioned or confused regarding how faith in God is supposed to work.
How can we minimize disappointment in God in the hearts of those who really do love God? We know that the disappointment is not the result of God's unfaithfulness to us in our suffering. Even so, why do so many Christians experience this disappointment with God in the outcome of their suffering? Is it because we expected of God something that He never promised? Of course, not everyone experiences this disappointment or confusion, and many who do never verbalize it. They will continue to affirm that God knew best, even if the heart is aching with disappointment and confusion.
I realize that I am speaking generally and what I am about to say is not intended to explain disappointment in every case nor do I imply that disappointment results every time or for all Christians. Having said that, I believe that the primary problem is located in the way Christians have come to view what God has promised regarding Christians who suffer. It is common to hear the claim that one's suffering comes because God has promised to bring some good and that is why He allows the suffering in the first place. Therefore, in the suffering, it is normal for Christians to try to find the good because that is what they sincerely think God has promised. Such sincere testimonies, however, reveal what appears to be a misdirected focus in suffering. What we hear is a testimony about what God will accomplish, rather than a testimony of trust in God apart from any outcome to justify the trust. I believe it is this misdirected focus that lies at the heart of the subsequent discouragement. In reality (though many would protest to the contrary), the Christian actually derives his or her comfort from what he or she thinks (or hopes) the outcome will be-what God will do instead of comfort from God Himself. If this is true, how can we avoid focusing on the outcome being some good and still find comfort in God when faced with the difficult and painful experiences in life?
In order to answer this question, it will be helpful to make a distinction between two types of testimonies. The two types of testimonies are predictive and reflective. The predictive testimony predicts (generally or specifically) what God is going to do in a particular suffering situation. The predictive testimony is outcome based and as such moves the focus to what God is going to accomplish. Consequently, Christians who testify in this way tend to be occupied with developments in suffering in order to find the good God is bringing from the suffering. The disappointment arises when the good is never seen. The reflective testimony looks back over a period of particular suffering and points to some good that has resulted. In this case, God is given the credit for bringing the good out of the pain and suffering. An example of a reflective testimony would be Joseph's testimony recorded in Genesis 50:20. At the end of his ordeal, his testimony was that God worked to overrule the evil intentions of his brothers and the good God brought was evident. This was summarized when he assured his brothers they had nothing to fear from him. His words were, "you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." However, this is not what kept Joseph trusting God all the way through the ordeal. It was that he feared God (see Gen. 42:18). Remember, this testimony is given at the end and not the beginning of this prolonged ordeal (that does not mean everything in Egypt was bad for Joseph, but he was separated from his family and did endure some unjust punishment).
Joseph's testimony is a reflective testimony, one that looks back over the events and sees how God worked. And every person who endures suffering may very well have a reflective testimony to give. In each case, it may be different. In some cases, it might be as in the case of Joseph. For some, it might be like the testimony of Paul and his "thorn-in-the-flesh" ordeal who testifies that through this he had learned a great spiritual lesson personally even though the thorn remained-God's grace was sufficient. But we should not take a reflective testimony and use it as the basis for a predictive testimony. A reflective testimony is a personal testimony. Its value is that it encourages others in seeing how God worked in a particular situation. It also gives cause to rejoice with the one who has the testimony. But we must not use a reflective testimony to promise others what God will do for them in their suffering. If we do, we encourage those Christians to focus on the outcome and once again, the focus is shifted away from God and towards the outcome setting the Christian up for possible disappointment. So, what should we say to those who suffer, including ourselves? What has God promised to which we can point others as well as ourselves that will minister to the pain-racked body and the troubled heart?
The promises (not testimonies) that I see in the Bible that directly deal with suffering are not outcome oriented. God has promised us His comfort, His mercy, and His grace (see 2 Cor. 1:3-4; 12:9) in our suffering. He has promised His continual presence (see Heb. 13:5) and His Spirit has been given that we might have His peace (see John 16:33). He has promised that He loves and cares for us, so we can cast all our care on Him (see 1 Pet 5:7). In fact, He has provided us with the wonderful promise of prayer whereby we can make our requests known unto Him (see Phil. 4:6). These seem to be the promises designed for our comfort in suffering. They are promises that focus on how God ministers to us in our difficulty instead of promising some good outcome. How God chooses to manifest His mercy and grace in outcomes must be left to His good wisdom and love. Whereas God is Light and in Him is no darkness at all (see 1 John 1:5), and since good trees do not bring forth evil fruit (see Matt. 7:18), we can be assured the evil does not come from God. However, God may use suffering in our lives to discipline us when we act contrary to His Word. Even then, if we approach it properly, it can bring about the "peaceable fruits of righteousness" (see Heb. 12:11). In this case, much depends on how the Christian responds to the discipline. If he or she resents the suffering and fails the grace of God, then an overflowing bitterness results (see Heb. 12:15).
What we have to offer to the broken-hearted, to the weary, and troubled is that the heavenly Father desires to comfort us and give grace to sustain us through the difficult and painful times. This Word to the suffering focuses on the nature of God's ministry to us in our suffering and on some good that He might accomplish through the suffering. This is not to say that God never brings good from suffering, because He does. This is about our focus in suffering. Instead of looking for the good, we look to God and receive His comfort, mercy, and grace on its own merits and not on the particular outcome of the suffering. If this is our focus, then one will never be disappointed in God even though he or she might prefer a different outcome. Given this focus, at the onset of our suffering, we can testify that we are looking to God's comfort, mercy, and grace to strengthen and direct us through what is before us. At the end (if there is an end) of the ordeal, hopefully one will be able to offer a reflective testimony that speaks to some good that came from the suffering. It might be something that was accomplished outside us such as in the case of Joseph. Or, it might be that one testifies of the spiritual maturing that took place by experiencing the wonder of God's comfort in a unique manner such as the testimony of Job (see Job 42:1-6) or the apostle Paul (see 2 Cor.12:9-10). In either case, such a testimony will glorify God and encourage the brethren, but it should not be used to encourage other believers to focus on outcomes in suffering. This is what opens the door for a future emotional wave of disappointment.
The sum of the matter is, we must never allow reflective testimonies to become predictive testimonies, as they will redirect the Christian's focus to the outcome of suffering. Enduring encouragement in suffering comes focusing on the heavenly Father who desires to minister to us with mercy and grace in the midst of our suffering. We should be like Job of old who did not focus on the outcome, but on God as revealed when he exclaimed, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (see Job 13:15, NKJV). Then our comfort and understanding in suffering will not come from our expectations for the outcome, but in God who is good in all His ways with His children. If this is our focus, then disappointment loses its advantage on us.