The German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) stated a profound existential truth when he said: “If we have our own why in life we shall get along with almost any how.”1 He also made this statement about facing adversity in life: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”2
Nietzsche was raised in a Christian family but lost his belief in God and became a critic of Christian truth and values. He would go on to be an important forerunner of the philosophical movements of atheistic existentialism and secular postmodernism.
God and Suffering
Though the exact causes and reasons for suffering often appear mysterious from a purely human vantage point, Scripture is nonetheless clear that there is much to be gained by the believer when going through adverse circumstances.
Consider these three biblical references:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2–4)
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3–4)
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6–7)
James, Paul, and Peter constituted the inner circle of apostolic leaders of the primitive Jewish-Christian church. They personally faced significant suffering, including martyrdom, for their faith. Yet, all three of them instructed their fellow believers in Christ to rejoice in not because of trials and sufferings. The Christian can rejoice in knowing that God is in control of all things and that the Lord is working all things together for the believer’s good (Romans 8:28).
Both James and Paul use the same Greek word (hypomonḗ ) translated in the English NIV as “perseverance”—patience, endurance, steadfastness. The word conveys “tenacity and stick-to-it-iveness.”3 When it comes to life’s difficulties, resolve and determination may be much more valuable than intelligence and talent.
Christian author Jerry Bridges describes the need for perseverance in the Christian life: “The Christian life could better be described as an obstacle course of marathon length. Think of a racecourse just over twenty-six miles in length. Add to it walls to climb over, streams to forge, hedges to jump across, and an endless variety of other unexpected obstacles. That is the Christian life.”4
God uses trials and suffering in the life of the believer to produce spiritual maturity, which entails growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Trials also produce moral and intellectual virtue (self-control, courage, wisdom).
Christian therapists Mark P. Cosgrove and James D. Mallory say that “Physical and emotional suffering builds character qualities such as patience, true joy and peace, and empathy for others who suffer.” They go on to note that “While one should not wish suffering on himself or others, suffering does provide a great opportunity to develop strong personality characteristics that can build mental health and make life worth living.”5
It’s wise to be careful about glibly offering a list of examples that God routinely teaches his children through trials and suffering, yet there are some powerful lessons we can learn. Allow me to offer three lessons that I learned while going through a very tough time.
Lesson #1: Dependence upon God
I am by nature a fiercely independent and self-reliant individual. I have always prided myself on being a careful thinker, a diligent worker, and a person of courage. In challenging times I have always been able to rely on my disciplined mind and strong will to see me through.
However, last year I experienced a significant health crisis. It caused foggy thinking, anxiety, and physical weakness that was so debilitating that I had to take three months off work. So much for my independent self-image as a clear thinker, hard worker, and man of courage. I was forced to trust and rely upon God because all my resources (mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual) were expended.
Lesson #2: Priority and Gratitude
Experiencing severe anxiety and weakness taught me to concentrate on the really important things in life (faith, family, friends) and not to sweat the small stuff. Living with an abiding sense of gratitude to God for his grace makes my life more satisfying and more livable. When I recovered, I was very grateful to get back to my work as a scholar at Reasons to Believe.
Lesson #3: Empathy and Service
Having gone through such a health crisis, I now have more empathy for people who suffer—especially mentally and emotionally. I know that I can help—in a very personal way—alleviate suffering by showing compassion and attempting to comfort people in their trials.
The apostle Paul explains:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:3–5)
Christians therefore have an eternal why to live for and can bear, by God’s grace, any how. This, of course, doesn’t mean that believers will not be overwhelmed at times and pushed beyond what they can bear by various trials and difficulties. Some people routinely experience pain and suffering of various types throughout their life. Yet Jesus Christ also suffered beyond measure and is our role model and empathetic high priest who intercedes on our behalf:
Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:34b)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
Facing significant problems in life is not an if but a when. But believers in Christ can know that God will use these troubling times to develop our faith and character. Even in desperate times the Lord is with us and he will not leave us.
- Jerry Bridges, Trusting God
- Mark P. Cosgrove and James D. Mallory Jr., Mental Health: A Christian Approach
- Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes, When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Maxims and Arrows” in Die Götzen-Dämmerung—Twilight of the Idols, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (1895), accessed September 11, 2023.
2. Nietzsche, “Maxims and Arrows.”
3. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein gen. ed. vol. 12, Hebrews–Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 168.
4. Jerry Bridges, Trusting God (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2008), 198.
5. Mark P. Cosgrove and James D. Mallory Jr., Mental Health: A Christian Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 61–62.