Can Affliction Be Good?
Have you ever witnessed someone you love, who is a believer in Christ, go through a dark period of affliction in their life? Maybe they are suffering from a physical or mental ailment, perhaps they have experienced devastating loss, or they might be in the grips of some fierce sin that they cannot quit. The likelihood is high that you have seen such a dark episode of suffering in a person you care for. Then, as you watch and seek out ways to help or offer comfort, it seems that the suffering is magnified because you see them wrestle with the Holy Spirit as He works in their life.
The fact is, God does use affliction and suffering to shape and mold the ones that He loves. Peter forthrightly tells us this in 1 Peter 4:12: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Peter wants us to understand that as believers, affliction and suffering are not strange occurrences; they are to be expected. So then, we must expect them in our own lives to refine us as God sees fit. But what about the ones we love? We don’t want—and we definitely don’t seek—to see them suffer a “fiery trial.” How can we help and comfort at such times when we really just want to ask that their suffering cease?
Prayer in Fiery Trials
I have been on this journey with a friend. I have watched as physical pain debilitated this person to the point of being bed-ridden. And what has made the pain seem particularly cruel is that my friend lives with constant pain to an extent that many of us don’t experience, and has done so nearly all of their life. So, at the onset, I grappled with how to pray for my friend effectively. Surely, it would be acceptable to pray that God would relieve His servant of this excessive pain. After all, they already cope with so much!
But then, I began to discern that the Holy Spirit was using the dreadful pain to afford my friend unfettered glimpses of the spiritual realm, and that this was uncovering a “genuineness” of faith. You see, Peter speaks of this, too: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). My friend wasn’t simply putting on a show of faith before this ordeal began, but through the trial of “fire” the reality of their faith has been displayed for the world to see.
What Do We Ask Now?
Now what?! How does one pray that God take away suffering when it results in so much good, both for my friend and for those watching? Anselm of Canterbury came to my rescue. He writes, “When we see someone wishing to endure an affliction bravely, in order that he may bring a good desire to fulfilment, although we express a wish for him to endure that suffering, the object of our wish and our love is not his suffering, but his will-power” (“Why God Became Man,” in The Major Works, 280-81). Anselm helped me to see that I could pray for my friend to be strengthened to bear up under excruciating pain, and that to do so was not asking God to bring suffering into this person’s life; rather, it is to acknowledge the fact of what already is and to ask that God will produce good from it.
This is precisely what God has done. He used the pain just as long as He saw fit to reveal to my friend what He wanted to reveal, and then it dissipated rather quickly. And now my friend can rejoice for having shared in Christ’s sufferings and is glad that Christ’s glory is revealed through the experience (1 Peter 4:13). And me? It moves me to tears every time I remember the description of the revelation my friend received in the midst of the suffering, and I feel so blessed that my friend shared it with me so that I could experience Christ’s glory through it, too.