In Suffering, God Isn’t (Simply) Teaching You a Lesson

Note: This article is also published on The Gospel Coalition.

Sufferers often ask, “What lesson is God trying to teach me through this hardship?” Their friends ask them, “What is God trying to teach you?”

Generally, these are helpful questions. Suffering is difficult and confusing, and at times it feels pointless, so it’s natural and healthy to look for lessons to learn. It’s also true that God graciously uses trials to produce sweet fruit in our lives (James 1:2–4), often using difficult circumstances to teach us some of life’s most valuable lessons. Praying, “Lord, teach and grow me through this trial,” is always useful for us and precious to God.

Yet, there is a danger in reducing suffering to “a lesson to learn”—in believing (or communicating to others) that God allowed our suffering merely to send us a corrective message. Here are five potential problems with this line of thinking.

1. It’s unbiblical.

Consider two famous biblical examples of suffering: Job and Jesus. The opening chapter of Job does not say, “Job was walking in disobedience to God, so God brought suffering to teach him a lesson.” Rather, it says Job was “blameless and upright” (1:1), and God allowed suffering (in part) to prove his genuineness (1:8–12). If Job’s suffering was initially brought about to teach someone a lesson, the student to be corrected wasn’t Job but Satan (1:6–12).

Jesus, meanwhile, experienced the greatest suffering in human history. Yet the purpose of Christ’s suffering wasn’t to teach him a lesson but to bring sinners to God (1 Pet. 3:18).

In God’s kindness, both Job and Jesus learned through their suffering (Job 42:1-6Heb. 5:8), but in neither case does the Bible reduce the purpose of suffering to a lesson for the sufferer.

2. It can unjustly condemn sufferers.

If we are too quick to ask, “What is God trying to teach you through this suffering?” we can (at times) place an unnecessary yoke on the back of the sufferer. It adds guilt if she hasn’t “figured out God’s lesson” yet, and it can imply that she’s at fault for her suffering:

  • “Maybe if you didn’t idolize being a mother, God wouldn’t have allowed your miscarriage.”
  • “Maybe if you didn’t idolize your career, God wouldn’t have allowed you to lose your job.”
  • “Maybe if you were a better Christian, God wouldn’t have to teach you lessons like these.”

The Bible teaches that all suffering is a result of sin (Rom. 5:12) but all suffering is not a consequence of personal sin (John 9:2–3). To blame someone’s suffering on his sin is often presumptuous, usually unhelpful, and almost always simplistic.

Asking loved ones what God is teaching them through their suffering can be profitable and encouraging. But let’s be careful not to fall into the trap of Job’s friends by communicating that the only reason they’re suffering is that God wanted to correct them for a certain sin. 

3. It teeters on the prosperity gospel.

You’ve heard the stories:

  • “I was struggling as a single Christian. But then I realized God was trying to teach me to be content in my singleness. Once I learned my lesson, God brought Jeff into my life! #truelove”
  • “I always lived paycheck to paycheck. But then I realized God was trying to teach me to tithe more and not idolize money. Once I learned my lesson, God blessed me with my dream job and more money than I ever imagined! #Ephesians3:20”

I praise God for the lessons these people learned. But, “I learned my lesson and then was blessed with stuff” isn’t how it works for all people—and it’s certainly never promised in Scripture.

Whether intentional or not, these stories can communicate a harmful message to hearers: “Have you considered that maybe the reason you are still suffering is that you haven’t learned your lesson yet?”

Trained by this subtle prosperity gospel, we can begin putting our hope in learning our lesson rather than looking to Jesus. We throw ourselves onto our own behavior to heal us rather than throwing ourselves onto the grace of God. The lesson rather than the Lord becomes our Savior.

4. It undermines our humanity.

Whenever approaching the topic of suffering, we must remember we’re naturally weak and limited, whereas God alone is infinite in his wisdom and understanding (Isa. 55:8–9). In this life, we simply won’t understand fully why God allows the hardships he allows. Suffering can’t be fully explained, nor can it be boxed up into a nice little lesson.

When we’re suffering, our job isn’t to figure it all out—that will always be an exercise in futility. The fact that you don’t know why God allowed a certain hardship doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong; it means you’re not God.

When we’re walking alongside someone who is suffering, our job isn’t to help her figure it all out. Our job is to be present with her, encourage her, and remind her of God’s presence and promises.

5. It can misrepresent God.

If we stray from God’s means of grace in our suffering, we can start to see God as a cruel father who abandons his child and says, “I’ll come back once you learn your lesson.” Nothing could be further from the testimony of Scripture.

God isn’t playing games with you, throwing you into a dungeon and seeing if you can crack the code to unlock his hidden lesson. He’s not holding his presence and goodness hostage until you learn your lesson.

Jesus doesn’t scoff at sufferers as they flail helplessly in a current of hurt, saying, “Get yourself together!” He, rather, enters into the current of our suffering and says, “Let me be a refuge for you.” As Dane Ortlund put it, “There’s no minimum bar you need to get over [or lesson you need to learn] to get to him. All you have to do, actually, is collapse in order to get into the heart of Christ.”

Christ isn’t looking down his nose at your suffering. He isn’t disappointed you haven’t figured everything out. He isn’t waiting for you to submit a report on the lessons you learned from your pain before he grants you his presence. He simply wants you to collapse into his loving arms.

We have a sympathetic Savior who walks with us, grieves with us, and redeems our suffering for good—often teaching us precious lessons through hardships. Let’s rejoice in these lessons while also remembering that God’s purposes in our suffering are far greater than a lesson—and that one day Christ will return to save us, heal us, and unburden our suffering fully and forever.

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn)Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen)ChurchLeaders.comThe Aquila ReportMonergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Watch or listen to “With Us in the Wilderness” (sermon) here.

Read “When to Give Advice and When to Listen” here.

Read “That Decompressing Exhale For Which Our Souls Long” here.

Read “Five Habits That Kill Contentment” here.

Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.

Four Burdens Jesus Never Asked You to Carry

I once read a fictional story of a man who received an assignment from Jesus while traveling up a mountain. The story went something like this:

“How are you this morning?” Jesus asked.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Fred replied. “Is there anything I can do for you today?”

“Yes, there is,” Jesus said. “I have a wagon with three stones in it, and I need someone to pull it up the hill for me. Are you willing?”

“Of course; I’d love to do something for you! Those stones don’t look very heavy, and the wagon is in great shape. Where would you like me to take it?”

Jesus gave the man specific instructions, sketching a map in the dust at the side of the road. Cross the forest to get to the village; cross the village to get to the path; stay on the path until you reach the top.

So Fred set off cheerfully. The wagon pulled a bit behind him, but the burden was an easy one. He began to whistle as he walked quickly through the forest. The sun peeked through the trees and warmed his back. What a joy to be able to help the Lord, Fred thought, enjoying the beautiful day.

As Fred entered the village, he saw a man selling colored stones, slightly bigger than the ones Jesus gave him, and much more glamorous in his humble opinion. I’ll bet Jesus would want a few of these, too, he thought to himself. He found that only two of their size would fit in the wagon alongside the rocks Jesus gave him, so he purchased a couple and went on his way, proud of his own ambition to do even more than what Jesus had asked of him.

As he neared the end of the village—with the path in sight—he saw a signpost that read, “Freshly tumbled stones, two miles east! Rounder, smoother, and more polished than any you’ve ever seen!” It was off the path Jesus directed him to take, to be sure, but he could easily fit two more stones in his knapsack, maybe more—and Jesus would be so proud of him for carrying more than he asked! He could already picture the impressed look on Jesus’s face: “My, my, you’re even stronger than I realized!” Jesus would say.

As Fred went along, he collected more and more rocks—some from nearby towns, others from fellow travelers, still others from paths Jesus never asked him to go. He even purchased a new wagon—heavier, yes, but it gave him more space to fit his new rocks, and the tires looked to be more durable than the ones on Jesus’s wagon. Jesus doesn’t know how steep these hills can be, Fred thought.

With every mile Fred traveled, his load grew fuller and fuller, heavier and heavier. The wagon felt huge and awkward as it lumbered and swayed over the ruts in the road. No longer was Fred singing praises. Instead, resentment began to build inside, especially during the steeper parts of the journey. How could Jesus expect me to carry such a heavy load? he thought to himself.

Frustrated, he began to entertain thoughts of giving up and letting the wagon roll backward. About that time Jesus came to Fred’s side and asked him what was wrong.

“You gave me a job that is too hard for me,” Fred sobbed.

Jesus walked over to the wagon. “What is this that you’re carrying?” he asked with a tone of purer compassion than Fred had ever heard. One by one, Jesus unloaded the wagon, placing stones of various sizes and colors on his own back, until only the three stones he had given Fred were left in the wagon.

“I know you were trying to help,” Jesus said gently. “But when you are weighed down with all these cares, you will not have the strength to do what I have asked of you.”

Burdens Jesus never asked us to carry

As silly as this story may seem, there is a Fred in all of us. Every Christian has taken up burdens Jesus never asked her to carry—often with noble motives—and has had to learn to lay them back down. In fact, the Christian life could be described as a continual laying down of unnecessary burdens at Christ’s feet, daily seeking fresh mercy and relief in his soul-sustaining presence (Psalm 55:22; Matthew 11:28-30; 1 Peter 5:7).

Scripture highlights many heavy burdens that we will be tempted to carry in this life—burdens that Jesus wants to carry for us. Consider four:

(1) The burden of our sins.

Key verses:

“My iniquities have gone over my head; they are too heavy for me to carry.” (Psalm 38:4)

“Jesus personally carried our sins in his body on the cross. … By his wounds you are healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

The burden of our sins—the guilt, shame, and regret, the feelings of inadequacy, bondage, hopelessness, and humiliation—often feels less like a few heavy rocks on our back and more like a mountain of boulders that we’ve been buried beneath. As the psalmist relatably illustrates, “My sins pile up so high I can’t see my way out” (Psalm 40:12). Not only are we unable to carry the burden of our sins, we can’t even lift a finger as we lie face down in the dirt beneath them. Sin is beyond heavy; it is crushing. 

This reality is what makes the name of Jesus so oxygenating for the soul of the believer. His name is the sound of deliverance; his burden-bearing arrival means our lungs can breathe again. As Dane Ortlund put it, “Not only can Jesus alone pull us out of the hole of sin; he alone desires to climb in and bear our burdens [for us].”

Jesus doesn’t pull us out of the avalanche of our sins and then leave us there to be buried again. Jesus was buried for us so that we—sheltered by his resurrection power and insurmountable love—never have to live beneath that oppressive weight again (Romans 6:4; 8:38-39; Galatians 2:20). Far from demanding masochism and salvaged guilt as penitence for our sin, Jesus welcomes us to live in ongoing repentance, daily breathing in the un-burdening freedom of his victory and God’s forgiveness (Colossians 2:13-15; 1 John 1:9; Heidelberg Catechism Q&A #1).

(2) The burden of saving, changing, or healing others.

Key verse:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)

Beyond attempts to atone for our own sins (i.e., the burden of saving ourselves), another common temptation is to take on the pressure of changing those around us (i.e., the burden of saving others). This, too, is a crushing weight. If we believe it is our job to save those around us, then we will constantly feel like we are failing both God and others every time people don’t change in the ways (or timing) we had hoped.

Yet time and time again in his Word, God welcomes us to offload the heavy burden of saving onto Christ, and to simply partake in the ministry of sowing. Over and over again throughout Scripture, Jesus says to us, “You be the sower, and let me be the Savior” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6). He invites us to simply scatter the seed of the gospel and then to rest, trusting him to do the work (cf. Mark 4:26-29).

But what about carrying one another’s burdens?

Of course, part of the ministry of sowing is helping others carry their burdens. I once saw a cartoon of a woman lying in her sick bed, clearly overwhelmed. The sink overflowed with dirty dishes. A huge basket of clothes to be ironed sat nearby. Two dirty children were fighting in one corner; in the other corner a cat sat licking spilled milk. A cheery woman stood in the doorway, smiling and waving as she left for her weekly pedicure. She called out, “Well, Florence, if there is anything I can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask!”

Ignoring the needs of others is not what it means to be a sower—we are still called to carry one another’s burdens. But carrying someone’s burdens is not the same thing as taking them. Just three verses after the Holy Spirit tells us to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), he then tells us that we all must carry our own burdens (Galatians 6:5). In other words, Christians are called to support one another, but not to take responsibility for one another. The primary emphasis of the sowing imagery is not that the sower doesn’t put in effort, but that he doesn’t burden himself with the impossible task of causing growth in others. This he entrusts to God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6).

If you are faithful to simply sow the seed of the gospel, you can be confident that God sees your efforts, he is pleased by them, and he will bear fruit through you—sometimes in ways you see immediately, often in ways you see over a long period of time, and perhaps usually in ways you won’t see fully until eternity. So continue to sow faithfully, expectantly, and restfully—trusting that God will bring blessing through it.

(3) The burden of perfectionism.

Key verse:

“Jesus answered, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.'” (Luke 10:41-‬42)

Our culture is obsessed with the pursuit of being “good enough.” Am I a good enough mother? Am I a good enough singer? Am I a good enough student? Am I a good enough friend? Am I a good enough pastor? Am I a good enough Christian?

This constant pressure drives many to take up the heavy backpack of perfectionism—endlessly clawing for acceptance and constantly worrying if we have done enough to earn and maintain the approval of God and others. Carrying this burden is not only exhausting, but it’s also futile—we are always climbing, yet never arriving.

Ironically, even if we could arrive at the status of “good enough,” we would actually be settling for something far less than what God intended for us. God doesn’t intend to make us good enough; he intends to make us good. At the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10), Jesus won’t say to his Bride (the Church), “You are decent. Acceptable. Good enough.” Rather, he will say to us, “You are perfect. Without blemish. Stainless. Glorious. Beautiful” (cf. Ephesians 5:27; Colossians 3:12; also see Isaiah 43:4).

This glorious destiny will not come from us perfecting ourselves, but rather from throwing ourselves onto Christ to cleanse and beautify us (Ephesians 5:25-26). The fact that our salvation is received—not achieved—is at the very heart of the good news we proclaim (Isaiah 55:1-3).

For more on the topic of perfectionism and how to find freedom from the repressive burden of doing enough or being enough, check out Joanna Weaver’s fabulous book, “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.” Another fine resource is Alistair Begg’s sermon on the dangers of a performance-driven Christian life.

(4) The burden of knowing the future. 

Key verse:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23; also see Isaiah 46:10; Luke 12:22-34)

Time and time again throughout Scripture, Jesus welcomes us to live for him today and to trust him to provide for us tomorrow. He frees us from asking, “What will happen tomorrow?” and calls us to simply ask, “What does faithfulness look like today? How can I love God and others today?”

Whether we are…

Jesus wants to help carry our burdens and give rest to our souls in ways nothing (and no one) else can (Matthew 11:28-30).

Your burden is what qualifies you to come!

Are you weighed down by burdens today? You don’t need to do more or be better in order to come to Jesus—he wants to meet you where you are. In the words of Dane Ortlund, “You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come.”

So, as we sing, “Lay down your burdens; lay down your shame. All who are broken, lift up your face. Oh wanderer come home; you’re not too far. Lay down your hurt; lay down your heart, and come as you are.”

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Blake Glosson is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has been published by The Gospel Coalition and Crosswalk.com and republished and/or referred by Eternal Perspective Ministries (Randy Alcorn), Challies.com (Tim Challies), Moody Radio (Dawn and Steve Mornings—here and here), The JOY FM (The Morning Cruise with Dave, Bill, and Carmen), ChurchLeaders.com, The Aquila Report, Monergism.com, and numerous other sources. Previously, he served as the director of young adults at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.

Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.

Read “Christian, You Are Fully Known and Fully Loved” here.

Listen to “Come As You Are” (Crowder) here.

Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a reply in the box below.