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While some of us seem to suffer endlessly in life, others of us feel like we’re extremely blessed by comparison. How important is suffering to spiritual growth? If God is paving our way with ease and abundance, does it mean He is preventing us from maturing and keeping us at arm’s length? These are the concerns we will address in this post.
In the Church, there are two common ways that we spin off into delusions about pain. In one extreme camp, we teach that God doesn’t want any of His kids to suffer and that all suffering is some form of Divine punishment. This is a teaching that is enormously popular today, yet it is pure rot. God does want us to suffer on this earth, and He uses suffering to draw us closer to Himself. These are true principles, yet if we start obsessing over them, we can get caught up in another extreme and start glorifying pain. The next thing we know, souls are lashing themselves with whips, seeking out lives of miserable poverty, and subjecting themselves to all sorts of terrible abuses in order speed up the process of spiritual growth. Neither of these extremes is any good. Both will end up harming you instead of helping you.
As a Christian, do you want to get as close as you can to God? Do you want Him to have His total way in your life? If these are the desires of your heart, then you are going to find eternity to be a place of glorious soul satisfaction regardless of how much you suffer on this earth. Ah, but what if you are one of the souls who is called to walk a very easy path down here? Such souls do exist. Life is not perfect for them, but it’s far from being a hellish experience. Yet surely God is fair, and those who don’t suffer much won’t end up with as much as those who suffer immensely, right? This is how we think, and yet the focus here is all wrong.
Instead of talking about quantity we need to be talking about quality. Suppose I invite you and your friend over for dinner. I serve you one ravioli, but I heap his plate up with thirty of the little pasta pillows. Will you be envious of your friend simply because he has more? It depends on how you feel about raviolis. If you hate them, then you will be quite pleased not to be given a huge pile of them. It is the same with heavenly rewards. Let’s say you have a pretty easy time of it down here. You sincerely want to please God, but He simply doesn’t put you through any really rigorous tests. When you get to Heaven, God isn’t going to give you the same kinds of rewards that He’s going to give a soul who was faithful to Him through terrible times. But here’s the important part: when you look at the rewards the other fellow is receiving, you are not going to be envious of him. Why not? Because you were created to want different things than he does. The rewards that God gives you will be thrilling to your soul, but the rewards He gives to someone else are not going to be nearly as exciting to you. When the soul who has suffered greatly sees the rewards you are cherishing, he is going to be very glad he’s not in your shoes, for he will be far happier with the rewards he has received. As a result, both of you will be content and abundantly satisfied in your relationships with God because you both wanted Him to have His way in your lives.
We are not created equal. God is obsessed with variety and He wants to have a different kind of relationship with each of us. Do you want three friends who are exactly alike? No, that would be creepy. It is the difference among your friends that makes them so appealing. Perhaps one friend is great to share a sports game with, while another is super fun at social events. One friend likes outdoor activities and another one loves to read books. No matter how many friends you have, none of them are exactly like you. It is the differences that make the relationships exciting for everyone involved.
Now think of some Christians who seem to have it all together with God. Maybe you think they’re ahead of you in the faith, and maybe they really are. But so what? Those people have nothing to do with your own relationship with God. He doesn’t love any of them more than He loves you, nor does He constantly compare you to them. Your relationship with God is unique and extremely personal. There is no other soul who can replace you in His eyes. You have a reserved spot in His heart that no one else can steal away and He cherishes you as the unique creature that you are.
So why we do we have such different experiences on this earth? Because we are all being prepared by God for very different experiences of eternity. When we reach Heaven, we are not all going to be communing with God or serving Him in the same ways. God has already decided what kind of dynamic He wants to have in your relationship with Him, and here’s the really exciting part: He has designed you to want the same thing.
Satan tries very hard to make you feel threatened by the differences you observe among Christians down here. “God sure talks to those souls a lot more than He talks to you. Look, He’s giving them a bunch of special insights, while you sit here and stagnate. See how that soul is doing great things for the Kingdom? He is clearly headed for mega rewards in Heaven, but God isn’t doing anything spectacular with you because He obviously finds you dull.” By the time Satan’s done with you, you’re feeling bad about your abundant blessings instead of enjoying them. You’re fretting over your growth instead of relaxing confidently in God’s love for you. Satan wants to rob your soul of joy, and you really play into his hands the moment you start looking around and comparing yourself to other Christians. You are not in a competition down here. What other Christians are or aren’t doing has no bearing on your personal walk with God. The sooner you learn to pull your focus off of them and just look at you and God, the better.
As a Christian who sincerely wants to have as much of God as you can have, you are not going to miss out on anything. Your lack of suffering is not going to result in some eternal rip-off. If God is not putting you through a bunch of miserable trials, it’s because He knows that you simply do not need the kinds of lessons those trials will teach you. A man who wants to become a carpenter doesn’t need to take lessons in ballet. A woman who wants to become a professional chef doesn’t need to get a master’s degree in philosophy. Yes, suffering can be enormously beneficial to your spiritual growth but only when it is being chosen by God. You can’t get the kinds of benefits you’re hoping for by beating your body or starving yourself or sleeping on the dirt in some miserable hovel. When you try to inflict suffering on yourself to speed up the growth process, you end up veering off down some harmful side road that God then has to rein you back in from so that you can continue down the main path of His good plan for your life.
Your earthly journey is like a straight path through a forest. As you walk along with God, you notice that there are all sorts of side trails branching off the main path that He is taking you down. When you don’t trust His wisdom, you get all anxious and think that you’re missing out on something by not exploring those side trails. When you catch a glimpse of some mega-Christian walking down one of those trails, you think that you have to hurry to catch up with him. So you go running away from God’s ideal plan for your life because you think that you’ll be more satisfied joining some other soul on his path. But no, you won’t. The only path that you are going to be truly satisfied on is the one that God has chosen for you. Your path is not going to be exactly like anyone else’s. It is unique. The only constant companion you will have on your journey is God Himself—every other soul you meet will only share short pieces of your journey with you, if they share any part at all. Many will never experience any portion of your path because their paths are so drastically different. The key here is to stop comparing. When you look at other Christians, you’re comparing apples to oranges. It is not God’s desire for you to morph into the clone of your pastor, some famous evangelist, your super holy friend, or anyone else. God wants you to be you, and He has already worked out a wonderful plan in which you will be constantly growing closer to Him and experiencing ever-deepening levels of soul satisfaction.
To God, your maturation process is a very exciting thing. It’s like watching a flower slowly form on a stem and then push its petals out until they are fully open in some beautiful display of color. God doesn’t want His rose buds to look like carnations when they open, He wants them to look like roses. He doesn’t want a vast garden of the same kind of flower, He wants endless variety. There is no “ideal” type of Christian, there is only an ideal soul attitude. We will all reach our full potential with God by embracing a soul attitude of “Lord, make me everything that You want me to be.” This is the attitude that will take you to glorious heights of spiritual joy with God—and that joy will take a different form then someone else’s joy, yet it will be just right for you. It will be like hearing a song on the radio that you really like the style of. Someone else hears the same song, and they might think it’s alright, but it just isn’t thrilling them the way it does you. God’s plan—and only His plan—is what will thrill your soul. Other people can have their opinions about who you should be and what your stages of spiritual growth should look like, but their opinions are meaningless. Your growth path is unique to you. It will only include as much suffering as God feels is beneficial for the specific purposes He has for you in eternity.
Feeling content in your relationship with God really comes down to a matter of trust. How much do you trust His intentions towards you? God says that He loves you dearly and that if you seek Him first in life and trust His choices for you, your soul will be utterly satisfied. What does another human being know about what is best for your soul? Are you going to trust the wisdom of mortals or the wisdom of the One who put you together? God has an excellent plan for your life, and He doesn’t consider your pain to be such a trivial thing that He would make you go through a bunch of meaningless suffering.
Anytime God brings a trial into our lives, we can know without a doubt that there is some positive spiritual gain we can get out of it. But if He isn’t bringing trials into our lives at the present time, it’s because we simply don’t need them. Have faith in God’s perfect plan for you. Trust His teaching style. He is going to handle you differently than He handles other souls. Sometimes the differences will be so glaring that they stun you. But instead of fretting over these differences, see them as yet more confirmation that your journey with God is special and unique. Don’t try to seek out suffering in life. Let God choose the form, intensity, and timing of your trials, for His ways are perfect. Don’t worry when your path is gloriously easy. Instead, enjoy it, and be thankful that God doesn’t over train us.
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