When Suffering Helps and When Suffering Hurts

Aug 18, 2020

Suffering can be good. It can take us to places where one more season of “comfort” cannot. But suffering can also be terrible.

Destructive suffering inflicts evil on a person’s heart and soul and is totally outside God’s desire. Although God can bring good out of the experience, the experience itself is no good at all. But there is also therapeutic suffering or “growth suffering.”

So the first thing to do is to distinguish between the destructive and the “growth” sufferings.

Good Pain

Some suffering does have value and produces growth. I call this good pain. We all have coping mechanisms that cover up pain, help us deal with fear, cope with relational inabilities and help us hold it all together. Trials and suffering push those mechanisms past the breaking point so we find out where we need to grow. Then true spiritual growth begins at deeper levels and we are healed. Righteousness and character take the place of coping.

This kind of suffering is good. It breaks down the “weak muscle” of the soul and replaces it with stronger muscle. In this suffering, the prize we win is character-a very valuable prize indeed.

Suffering is the path Jesus modeled for us, and he modeled how to do it right. He went through it all with obedience and without sin. This is the difference between those who suffer to a good end and those who suffer to no good end at all.

So, as you are working through things in your own life or are helping others, make sure that you teach and value this kind of suffering. Have people look a their trials with the questions, “What can I learn through this?” As James 1:5 says, have them look to God for wisdom to find out what steps of maturity and growth have to happen in their lives. If those steps are taken and completed, they will not have to take the same course again.

Bad Pain

Destructive suffering or “bad pain” comes from repeating old patterns and avoiding the pain it would take to change them. Suffering at the hands of someone else is not valuable at all, neither is this kind of pain. It is destructive and does not go anywhere good.

Many times people suffer because of their own character faults. Then other people come alongside them and give them comfort or a spiritual pep talk about how God is with them in this testing. They usually frame the experience as the testing of an innocent person. “Keep the faith,” these people say, “and God will reward you for persevering.”

The problem is that these people don’t tell the sufferers that the suffering is the fruit of their own character and is of no value unless they see it as a wake-up call. This is bad pain. And bad pain is basically wasted pain. It is the pain we go through to avoid the good pain of growth that comes from pushing through. It is the wasted pain we encounter as we try to avoid grief and the true hurt that needs to be worked through. It is the wasted pain of trying to get a person to love us or approve of us instead of facing the loss of this love and moving on.

In too many support circles, people are supported in ways that do not make them face the growth steps they need to take to keep from repeating their mistakes. They are seen as victims and are then set up for failure all over again.

So, how do you embrace good pain and avoid bad pain? For those growing and those who minister to them the call is three-fold.

  1. Do not refer to pain and suffering caused by poor character patterns as “growth pain.” Unless you can use this pain as a wake-up call, it is worthless. If you see this as valid suffering, the pain will be wasted, and it will continue or return.
  2. Help people own worthless pain so that it can be redeemed and turned into “good pain.” If people can see the character patterns causing their pain, they can redeem and change them. If a pattern can be owned, a pattern can be changed. But as long as we mistakenly see it as “legitimate suffering by a victim,” nothing good can happen.
  3. Help convert worthless suffering into redemptive suffering. Help others see that they are not just victims. Help them to see instead that their suffering is coming from trying to avoid the legitimate pain of growth. It is a very human trait to try to avoid the suffering of discipline and growth. We all do it. But the wiser we become, the more we value the pain of growth and the more we despise the avoidance patterns in our lives.