I was reading an old-school devotional book the other day, “Streams In The Desert.” It is arranged by days of the year, includes a small text of scripture, and a devotional thought. For the 2nd of December, the text was a clause from Hebrews 2:10: “perfect through suffering.” The word, “perfect,” in Bible, doesn’t have the same force as the English use of the word. In Bible, the word merely means, “complete” or “aligned with the goal.”
But the text got me thinking about the nature of suffering as a passive spiritual discipline. Engaging in an active discipline of suffering CAN be appropriate: fasting, sacrificing, et al. The value of passive suffering is, of course, ignored in American Christianity. But Christendom has, for millennia, seen the usefulness of suffering to build character and form a healthy and thriving spiritual life. Why?
Suffering has several causes. 1) The natural consequences of our own foolish or sinful actions; 2) Attack of the demonic (e.g.: Job); 3) the corrupt and fallen nature of the world we live in.
In the first case, natural consequences, the world system is working just fine: we ought to feel pain and discomfort for wrong choices and actions. Suffering, like guilt, is a natural feedback mechanism of common grace that help to ‘perfect’ our character (1Peter 2:20).
In the second case, we are under attack and suffering unjustly (1 Peter 2:21-23). In this case, we are doing the right and good but we are still attacked and suffer from spiritual forces. Here, we can rejoice (James 1:2-4) because we should realize where the suffering is coming from and understand that it is actually a ‘reward’ – a back-handed compliment on our right choices and actions. As James says, this also works to ‘perfect’ us.
In the third case, we suffer unjustly or disproportionately due to the corrupt world. In the workplace; we do our job well. But unknown to us, someone is looking for a promotion. If we were made to look bad, it would improve their chances. We’re victimized and sinned against because of someone else’s greed or even the organizational culture. Rules that were intended to punish evil are twisted to punish good because the world system cannot discern good from evil and looks only at raw behavior. Again: you lose a promotion into a position where you would have performed very well to someone who sacrifices family on the altar of career. You are unwilling to do that, even though you would’ve done the job better. The other guy looks more “committed to the company,” but will eventually poison the organizational culture by destroying families and employees’ lives. I could draw out other examples from family, friendships, and community contexts.
All of this is not because you are ‘righteous’ or ‘persecuted;’ it is “just the way things work” in our world.
But in that last cause of suffering, we are being perfected; our character and spiritual life is being brought closer to an intended goal. This is because we realize that the suffering we experience (due to the world’s system) is largely a part of our poor affections. We see that we are tied to this world and hold on to it – after all, it’s what we know best. The world and what it says is still important to us, even when we know there’s another – better – way. We realize, when we suffer from ‘the way things are’ that we are too much “of” the world rather than merely being in the world.
As we see how messed up the world system really is, we should release our hold on it and become attracted to the alternative Jesus presented: the Kingdom of God. We start letting go of our old world-view and see a new world coming (1Corinthians 7:29-31). This is part of our perfection – giving up our affection for the world system (1John 2:15-17).
This is how suffering perfects us; it brings up the contrast and the decision point regarding our affections: either this world, or the Kingdom of God.