Most books and resources for sufferers today no longer talk about enduring affliction but instead use a vocabulary drawn from business and psychology to enable people to manage, reduce and cope with stress, strain or trauma.
Sufferers are counseled to avoid negative thoughts; to buffer themselves with time off, exercise, and supportive relationships; to problem solve; and to “learn to accept things we can’t change.”
But all the focus is on controlling your immediate emotional responses and environment. For centuries, however, Christianity has gone both higher and deeper in order to furnish believers with the resources to face tribulation.
One of the main metaphors the Bible gives us for facing affliction is walking—walking through something difficult, perilous and potentially fatal.
The walking metaphor points to the idea of progress. Many ancients saw adversity as merely something to withstand and endure without flinching, or even feeling, until it goes away. Modern Western people see suffering as something like adverse weather, something you avoid or insulate yourself from until it passes by.
The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking—through darkness, swirling waters or fire. We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.
In many passages in the Bible, affliction is likened to fire (Psalm 66:10; Proverbs 17:3, 27:21; Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:3). It is not surprising, then, that adversity and sorrow in general came to be characterized as being plunged into the fire (Job 18:14–16; Psalm 66:12).
Peter extends the metaphor and depicts suffering not just as fire but as a forge or furnace, which can obliterate or improve, depending on the object thrust into the fire and the manner in which it is treated.
If you believe in Jesus and you rest in Him, then suffering will relate to your character like fire relates to gold. Do you want to know who you are—your strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to be a compassionate person who skillfully helps people who are hurting? Do you want to have such a profound trust in God that you are fortified against the disappointments of life? Do you want simply to be wise about how life goes?
Those are four crucial things to have—but none of them are readily achievable without suffering. There is no way to know who you really are until you are tested. There is no way to really empathize and sympathize with other suffering people unless you have suffered yourself. There is no way to really learn how to trust in God until you are drowning.
But God is with us in the fire. He knows what it’s like to live through the miseries of this world—He understands. He is near, available to be known and depended upon within the hardship. He walks with us, but the real question is—will we walk with Him? If we have created a false God-of-my-program, then when life falls apart we will simply assume He has abandoned us and we won’t seek Him.
This is important to consider, because we all know that suffering does not only refine, it can also harden and consume. Plenty of people have been broken by suffering, terribly broken. So what do you have to do in order to grow instead of being destroyed by your suffering? The answer is that you must walk with God. And what is that?
Walking is something nondramatic, rhythmic—it consists of steady, repeated actions you can keep up in a sustained way for a long time.
There are many people who think of spiritual growth as something like high diving. They say, “I am going to give my life to the Lord! I am going to change all these terrible habits, and I am really going to transform! Give me another six months and I am going to be a new man or new woman!”
That is not what a walk is. A walk is day in and day out praying; day in and day out Bible and Psalms reading; day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends and going to corporate worship, committing yourself to and fully participating in the life of a church. It is rhythmic, on and on and on. To walk with God is a metaphor that symbolizes slow and steady progress.
So walking with God through suffering means that, in general, you will not experience some kind of instant deliverance from your questions, your sorrow, your fears. There can be times in which you receive a surprising, inexplicable “peace that passes understanding.” There will be days in which some new insight comes to you like a ray of light in a dark room. There will certainly be progress—that is part of the metaphor of walking—but in general it will be slow and steady progress that comes only if you stick to the regular, daily activities of the walking itself.
Throughout the Bible, we see many different actions and ways that sufferers face their suffering. We are called to walk, to grieve and weep, to trust and pray, to think, thank, and love and to hope.
Walking with God through suffering means we must treat God as God and as there. Of course that means to speak to Him, to pour out your heart to Him in prayer. It means to trust Him. But preeminently, it means to see with the eyes of your heart how Jesus plunged into the fire for you when He went to the cross. This is what you need to know so you will trust Him, stick with Him and thus turn into purer gold in the heat.
If you remember with grateful amazement that Jesus was thrown into the ultimate furnace for you, you can begin to sense Him in your smaller furnaces with you.
This means remembering the Gospel. He was thrown into the ultimate fire, the fire we deserve. And that is how we are saved: If we believe in Him, then none of that wrath comes to us.
What if, however, you believe that God saves only those who live a very good life? If that is your belief when suffering hits, you are going to hate either God or yourself. Either you will say, “I lived a good enough life. I deserve better. God has done me wrong.” Or you will say, “Oh, I must have failed to live as I should. I am a loser.” Either way, you go into despair. A heart, then, forgetting the Gospel, will be torn between anger and guilt.
But if you say to yourself when you get thrown into the furnace, “This is my furnace. I am not being punished for my sins, because Jesus was thrown into that ultimate fire for me. And so if He went through that greatest fire steadfastly for me, I can go through this smaller furnace steadfastly for Him. And I also know it means that if I trust in Him, this furnace will only make me better.”
Reprinted from Chapter 11 of Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller with permission from Dutton
Tim Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Va. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Reason for God, and most recently, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.