God Never Wastes Pain

The simple point I will make today is that God never wastes pain. Meaning, the Lord always uses the pain of trials and adversity to accomplish His purposes. And what are His purposes? His glory and our good. And let us never forget that our greatest good and God’s glory are not mutually exclusive: that is, God does not allow us to suffer for His benefit alone. Rather, our greatest good and God’s glory are mutually inclusive: consequently, if the ultimate emphasis is not God’s glory, then it cannot be for our greatest good; and our greatest good cannot be achieved without ultimate emphasis on God’s glory.

The pressing reality of everyday life is that yes, pain hurts, but only a gracious God who is in complete control of all things can bring out a transcendent good from pain, hurt, and sorrow. Subsequently, because God is sovereign, the Christian’s hope is that no pain ever escapes from God’s control, and thus, suffering is never for nothing. The Christian’s encouragement is that no pain is ever random or meaningless; instead, God only allows what He wills, and He only wills what is for our benefit. After all, it is only the God of the Bible who can bring everything out of nothing, light out of darkness, and life out of death. Additionally, let us never forget that God does not delight in afflicting and grieving His people; rather, He delays as long as the honor of His name and the safety of His people will permit.

Our Scripture focus comes from James 1:2–4. The text says:

Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

The first thing the apostle asks the reader to do in these verses is to engage in an intellectual process and consider. And what are we considering? That all the pain of suffering produces a beneficial product. According to the logic of James 1:2–4, the testing of faith is the start of a chain that perfects the Christian, so that in the end, they are lacking nothing. This perfection does not mean we are flawless, but rather that we become more and more complete in our spiritual maturity. The point is that when we undergo trials, there’s more to it than the trial: we are being tested, and the testing of our faith produces endurance, and that endurance produces another result, which completes us. Hence, when you experience pain in the form of trials, testing, or adversity, consider it as all joy because the pain will produce a gain that far exceeds the felt loss. Consider the invisible fruit, not the visible circumstance.

On the one hand, God’s Word nourishes us, but on the other hand, through pain, God prunes us. Pruning is important for fruit-bearing because an unpruned vine will produce a great deal of unproductive growth and little fruit. Cutting away that which is unwanted forces the plant to use its life to produce fruit. Does pruning cause temporary pain and trauma? Of course it does. But what is the final result? A vine that yields fruit, and a fruit-bearing vine is complete in its design and purpose. This result is what we all ought to consider when we encounter various trials. The Bible makes plain to us that God’s grace will not always prevent bad things from happening, but when they do, that grace will sustain us in the darkness.

Furthermore, whenever God decides to prune any one of us, we are assured that God cannot fail in His purpose for adversity in our lives. Hence, because the Lord will accomplish what He intends, this is a source of great encouragement. God would not allow pain or send it if it were not beneficial; the benefit, of course, is the development of a Christlike character. Such a character will not develop in our lives without adversity. It is our natural human reaction to always want the pain to go away or the trial to be over as soon as possible. This reveals yet another reason why pain is beneficial: the Lord uses it to reveal to us our need to grow so that we will reach out to Him to change us more. Consequently, He will not remove the adversity until we have profited from it.

Now the one thing I don’t want anyone to misinterpret is what I mean when I say, “Consider all your pain as joy.” That certainly does not mean you should be happy that you just lost your job or that you should smile over the fact that a loved one was just diagnosed with a terminal condition. Understanding that God never wastes pain does not mean that we rejoice that it hurts; rather, we rejoice over what God is going to do with that hurt. Of course, what God is going to do is make us more like Christ. Furthermore, experience teaches us that pain is what tends to humble us the fastest, as a broken soul yearns for fresh waters of grace from the divine fountain. Accordingly, when the hearts of God’s people are humbled, His heart melts with compassion for them. The Lord then mends and builds up a broken heart. As it says in Lamentations 3:22:

The Lord’s acts of mercy indeed do not end, for His compassions do not fail.

The other thing I don’t want anyone to misinterpret is that there is no intrinsic value to the pain itself. No one is better just because they suffer. Rather, pain has value as it is used by God for profitable ends. It is like a saw to cut. The instrument can do nothing alone but is a tool in the hand of a workman. This understanding of pain provides hope only to the Christian, because in a worldview without God, suffering is for nothing because the pain is meaningless: there is no sovereign God providentially directing the trial. There is a saw but no workman to wield it. There is a trial but no one to transform it.

As I mentioned at the top, God does not delight in the affliction and grief of His people. Rather, He is seeking our greatest good, which in many instances can only come about through pain. Why is this? Because in prosperity, our hearts tend to be careless. However, in adversity, our hearts tend to be heavy. A heavy heart runs to God the quickest. As the Puritan John Flavel once wrote:

The Bible makes plain to us that the choicest spirits have been tried with the sharpest sufferings, and those stars who shine brightest in heaven have been trod under foot as dung on the earth.

The point Flavel was making is that one crucial reason why those stars shine the brightest in heaven now is the ferocity of their sufferings on earth. God never wastes pain: after all, consider what God allowed His own Son to endure—the Cross—in order to bring about man’s greatest good, salvation:

Therefore, since we also have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let’s rid ourselves of every obstacle and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking only at Jesus, the originator and perfecter of the faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (emphasis mine; Hebrews 12:2).

As Thomas Case once wrote in his Treatise of Afflictions, “God would rather fetch blood than lose a soul.” Hence, we can admire the wisdom and power of God, as He is the only One who can make His people better through pain. The grand mystery of the Cross is that sin brought pain into the world, yet God makes pain carry sin out of the world.

Let’s go back to our Scripture focus. Again, the apostle James writes:

Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.

The text tells us that in the heat of a trial, the root of the matter is the testing of our faith. This means for the believer, what it all boils down to is this: Will you trust God or not? Do you actually believe that God is sovereign, trustworthy, and will use this pain to make you complete? Do you trust that when you call on the Lord, He will supply the grace you need to remain under the pressure? As I have quoted many times before, Dr. Warren Wiersbe famously said a faith that is not tested is a faith that cannot be trusted. Untested faith produces forgetfulness and complacency. Tested faith produces endurance and perfection. Additionally, let us be mindful that trusting God in the midst of our pain and heartache means that we accept the trial from Him. That is an important point to remember because there is a world of difference between acceptance and either resignation or half-hearted submission. We can resign ourselves to a difficult situation, simply because a lack of faith begets a lack of hope. Consequently, we just trudge along because we see no alternative. We can also reluctantly submit to the sovereignty of God in a difficult situation. Here, disbelief whispers to the conscience, “You don’t fully trust that God made the right call on this, do you? This is not the way things should be.” This is a way of life that hinders spiritual growth because we waver between two opinions: trusting God and doubting Him. James encourages us to consider it all joy when we encounter trials because when we trust and seek God in those trials, He is the One who will supply heavenly joy when earthly situations are joyless.

One of the largest obstacles to trusting God in the midst of pain is that we don’t have an explanation for why things are happening. We may believe that God will use the pain for good, but the good is far out of sight. In some cases, a person may get an explanation—whether in the present or in retrospect—but for many people, why they experience pain will remain a mystery. Accordingly, the Scriptures do not attempt to explain mysteries: they leave them unexplained, as in the case of Job’s suffering. Biblically speaking, there is a difference between difficulties and mysteries: difficulties may be removed, but mysteries cannot without a new revelation or greater discernment. It is perfectly compatible to trust God on the one hand, yet also accept His mysteries on the other. Truly, God’s ways are higher than our ways, and nowhere in the Bible are we ever commanded to understand or explain all of God’s providential dealings with the world. God is not altogether such as one of us, and no one can grasp holy omniscience.

Before I end with a personal anecdote, I will provide three specific applications of how God never wastes pain. These are three concrete benefits to consider.

One: God never wastes pain because through pain, God transforms head knowledge into heart knowledge. Pain makes theological theory become a reality to us because under duress, the heart is in a better disposition to be responsive to divine teaching. Grace therefore applies its truth more effectually by an appropriate set of circumstances. We no longer have a dry intellectual knowledge of God; instead, knowing about God is transformed into knowing God. The result is the possession of wisdom and understanding that is branded upon the heart by palpable experience. As Job said in Job 42:5, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You.” And as Martin Luther once said, “Were it not for tribulation, I should not understand the Scriptures.” People tend not to forget painful experiences, and this is the point: God wants us to do more than simply endure our trials. He wants us to remember them, not just as trials or sorrows but as His disciplines (Deuteronomy 8:2–3), His pruning, and His means of sanctification.

Two: God never wastes pain because through pain, God reveals the corruption of our sinful nature. In the comfortable life, we act. In adversity, we react. The difference is that action is planned and tempered, but reaction is an unfiltered response based on what is deep down inside of us. Hence, if our reaction is to curse or distrust God, this response is instructive. It is truly unfortunate when a trial only serves as an opportunity for a person to vent the prideful atheism reigning in their hearts: the animosity toward God usually manifests as murmuring. For the person who is already resolved in his own stony heart, he never considers the purpose of the trial and does not have a focus on God. Thus, when the pain is over, he remains the same, and there is no spiritual growth. In a trial, your level of response is directly proportional to your level of maturity. The revelation is in the reaction, and said reaction can be diverse: for example, in anger, in fleeing, or in sin for comfort. For those individuals who have a recurrent problem or trial, the common variable is always the individual. What may not be apparent is that the actions of others and the situation around me reveal my condition.

Pride is the root of all sin, and pain takes down the mountain of pride in a man’s heart. This is fitting because that mountain is what raises obstacles against the Word and disputes with God’s providence. Pain is therefore God’s forge to soften the heart: it is impossible to form iron when it is cold, but make it red hot, and the Lord can stamp on it any impression He pleases. Accordingly, no one “thirsts and hungers for righteousness” (Matthew 5:3–6) without first having an earnest appreciation of just how unrighteous their heart is. In pain, God gets deeper than superficial sins and gets to the root of the problem: the inherent corruption of our nature. As it says in Proverbs 17:3 (LXX):

As silver and gold are tried in a furnace, so are choice hearts with the Lord.

God revealing the corruption of our nature through pain is not only effectual on the individual level; it works on the communal level as well: that is, pain works to free the church of hypocrites. The fire of adversity purifies what is genuine and burns away what is fake. As a result, the dross is separated from the pure gold. In the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Jesus speaks about a seed (the Word) that falls on different types of soil (the condition of someone’s heart). In verses 5–6, He says:

[Other seeds] fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and they sprang up immediately, because they had no depth of soil. But after the sun rose, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.

He then goes on to explain this teaching in verses 20–21:

The one sown with seed on the rocky places, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution occurs because of the word, immediately he falls away.

In other words, the pain of affliction or persecution exposes what is genuine and what is fake.

Three: God never wastes pain because through pain, God increases faith and produces perseverance. Untested faith does not increase in the same way an unchallenged muscle will not grow. One person may say, “But the pressure is too great for me to bear.” And you’re right. Pain uses reality to teach us how dependent on God we really are. When times get tough, what many people tend to rely on are natural resources: for example, knowledge, business acumen, or ministry experience. But these things often fail, and now my weaknesses become channels for God’s strength (II Corinthians 12:10). Once a person learns they cannot trust in their own strength, that is when they rely on God learn to trust Him. And the most tangible expression of faith in God is prayer. Still, the best return on our prayers is that which works for our good, though not for our desires. Hence, when God denies our prayer requests but answers with what our soul requires, it is for the better.

So, God never wastes pain, because through pain, God increases faith and produces perseverance. To illustrate this principle, I’ll use the analogy of weight training. Lifting light weights may be easy, but it’s only the resistance of heavy weights that causes muscles to grow. Yet, while a weight provides resistance, it does not provide the energy needed for the muscle. You need adequate energy before you step into the gym to supply your muscles so that you can do more than simply bear a weight once; instead, you can continue working out. So, with sufficient energy, a person can lift weights for hours, just as with sufficient faith, a Christian can persevere and remain under a trial. As Jerry Bridges, the author of Trusting God says, “The Christian life is not just a mere race; it’s an obstacle course.” As a result, adversity produces perseverance, and perseverance enables us to meet adversity (Romans 5:3) so that we can keep going in that obstacle course. Of course, faith and dependence on God always precede perseverance because if anyone is going to run God’s obstacle course and do it in His will, they must run it in His strength.

After my wife and I had been married for a few years, we both felt that something was missing: children. We tried to conceive for a couple of months, and then on one joyous day, my wife told me that she was pregnant. We were overjoyed and eagerly anticipated finally being parents. But soon thereafter, Chanelle became sick. She didn’t have typical morning sickness, but she oftentimes felt so unwell she was incapacitated. To make a long story short, our daughter had a rare genetic disease where half of her DNA was normal and the other half was abnormal. It was the abnormal DNA that was making Charlie sick, and it was making Chanelle sick as well. We were counseled by numerous different types of medical specialists, and everyone said the same thing: even if Charlie did make it to delivery, she would not have a normal life. She would have a life filled with constant, specialized care, endless surgeries, and a drastically reduced lifespan. Even if our daughter looked normal on the outside, she would be highly abnormal on the inside. The prognosis was so dim that at every medical consultation we had, the first question any medical provider asked us was, “Have you considered an abortion?”

My wife and I felt helpless because there was absolutely nothing either of us could do to fix the problem. We sometimes felt hopeless because we didn’t understand why any of this was happening and could not see how any good could come about from all this pain. Some days we felt so broken we couldn’t speak; other days I was consumed with rage. I never cursed God with words, but deep-rooted practical atheism made itself evident in my thoughts. Up until that point in our marriage, this was the most difficult trial either of us had ever been through; it also made both of us realize that despite everything we had or thought we knew, there are so many things in the world that are simply beyond our control. When Charlie was first diagnosed, I prayed without ceasing for a miracle: that God would heal Charlie in the womb and we would now have a wonderful testimony to tell others. But after a couple weeks, the medical scenario was looking poorer and poorer. I came to the disruptive conclusion that perhaps what we wished for was not what God willed. And so, with no source of natural encouragement or hope, Chanelle and I cried out and cleaved to the God that we know. Our prayers expressed our utter dependency: “Lord, help us”; “Lord, save me”; “Lord, give me the strength to make it through the day, for I am weary.” As Chanelle entered her third trimester, our medical doctors begrudgingly prepared for the worst for delivery. But then, in May of 2012, Charlie’s heart stopped beating. Chanelle was then taken to the operating room, and the trial was over.

When we both look back on that trial, we now have the same reaction: “Praise God.” We can both peaceably say that because the same God who allowed that trial to happen is also the One who stooped down to sustain us in our sorrow. He is the One who answered our prayers and did not gift us with a “happy ending.” Instead, He gifted us with something better: Himself. Chanelle and I now both know and feel what Job meant when he said, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (13:15). We can now appreciate the vanity of trusting in things of this earth that are incapable of sustaining life when life is on the line; we can both see now that faith does not mean trusting God for dot-dot-dot; it means trusting God, period. We can now look back and be grateful that God allowed that pain to happen because we experientially know what trusting God actually means. Pain has seared onto our hearts the memory of what it means to truly hold onto God when letting go seems to be the more attractive option in the moment. You see beloved, trusting God means trusting God no matter what, even in pain. Our hope is that the same God who we trust in is also the One who sustains until the pain is over and then will grow something in you that transcends comprehension. Who can take pain and sorrow and from that barren soil produce joy? Only Yahweh.

I will paraphrase, but in Philippians 4:11, the apostle Paul writes that in whatever situation he is in, he has learned to be content. That fact that Paul learned is very significant. Why? Because this is not learning that occurs in a classroom or education that comes from a book; it is the learning of holiness, which all the education of this world can never teach. This is a learning that only comes at Christ’s feet through much affliction. The beauty of this understanding is that the same God who tests us is also the One who loves us. The sweetness of this understanding is that God’s love is stable, certain, and constant in a variety of situations, no matter how unsettling our lives may be. As Richard Sibbs once wrote:

God does not change, and His love is constant however our lives might change. We must learn not to quarrel with God’s government. Let God do as He pleases as He brings us to heaven. It is not a matter of what the way is like, or how rugged it is, as long as He brings us there. God’s grace is able to carry His children above all conditions. … For [a man of grace,] God is his portion. If a ray of light is taken away he still has the sun.

We consider it all joy when we encounter various types of pain because that trial digs deep into the depths of the soul: it allows a man to see what is truly inside him. Accordingly, we do not realize the power God puts forth on our behalf or the sufficiency of His grace until we compare the trial with our weakness. The effectiveness of the antidote is increasingly demonstrated when exposed to greater toxicity of poison. Our steadfast hope is that we serve a God who is above and beyond all of our pain and whose dealings with us emanate from a well of overflowing love, grace, and kindness. Psalm 103:1–14 says:

Bless the Lord, my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, and do not forget any of His benefits; who pardons all your guilt, who heals all your diseases; who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with favor and compassion; who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle.

The Lord performs righteous deeds and judgments for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His deeds to the sons of Israel. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy. He will not always contend with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our guilty deeds. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our wrongdoings from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our form; He is mindful that we are nothing but dust.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal