We normally think of these conditions as being incompatible. I can flourish OR I can suffer. That is a mistaken way to understand flourishing. This misunderstanding is part of the fuel for what is called the Prosperity Gospel (also called the Health and Wealth Gospel or the Name It and Claim It Gospel). This biblical misinterpretation assumes that you can only flourish when you are NOT suffering. You can only flourish when you are healthy and wealthy. This is NOT the Gospel.
The Bible is much more thoughtful, and the Gospel is so much deeper than this false either/or claim.
Instead, let’s think in terms of both/and. How can we understand life when it has BOTH flourishing AND suffering?
Here are four forms that flourishing and suffering can take.* I believe you will find all of them described in the Bible, as well as experienced in your own life.
ONE: Flourishing in spite of suffering.
This simply indicates what we all experience. We can have both at the same time. Suffering is not strong enough or great enough to separate us from the love of God. The presence of God is with us as we go through struggles and difficulties. The classic biblical text on this is Romans 8:35-39.
TWO: Flourishing while suffering.
This is similar to the previous form, but it has a different focus. There are times when we choose to embrace suffering as the condition that makes flourishing possible.
I think of missionaries who willingly accept conditions of suffering, difficulty, struggle, separation from family, risk for more health problems, and so on. Some conditions entail more difficulty, but during that difficulty we experience many ways of flourishing. Another helpful (I hope) example is that of pregnancy. For most women, pregnancy brings some suffering with it, but at the same time, that very condition brings other experiences of flourishing that would not be experienced apart from the pregnancy.
In the Bible, the wilderness experience of Jesus was a hard time, but a time when he flourished with a deeper awareness of calling, purpose, and intimacy with his Father.
THREE: Flourishing because of suffering.
Again, this is connected to the previous explanations, but this one goes a little deeper yet. There are many things in the human experience that REQUIRE suffering if we are to grow and mature. The highest levels of athletic performance are reached because of extraordinarily demanding and exhausting physical exercise, the sacrifice of time, and the cost of much money.
In the Bible, we read that character is formed during times of suffering (Romans 5:3-5). Paul describes spiritual experiences of God’s grace and strength that were only possible because of a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
FOUR: Suffering so others can flourish.
This is, of course, the heart of the Messianic Mission of Christ. He would leave everything and suffer everything for our sake. Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 5:1-11, and Hebrews 12:1-2 are a few of the Scriptures that help us understand this. Paul then understands that his very apostleship is a calling to also suffer for the sake of others (Colossians 1:24).
Memorial Day, which we just celebrated in the United States, is a time when we honor those who suffered so their family and friends could have the freedom to flourish.
It is the deep wisdom of the Scriptures that God grants us the “gift of suffering” (Philippians 1:29 and Colossians 1:24-2:3) because suffering is redemptive and it is transformative.
So, do not be afraid of suffering itself. Be rightly concerned that–apart from God’s wisdom, strength, comfort, and grace–suffering will hurt you. Be assured that even so, God will cause all suffering for your ultimate well-being, so that you will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
May you flourish in spite of your suffering.
May you flourish while you are in times of suffering.
May you flourish because of your experiences of suffering.
May others flourish because of your suffering for their sake.
Living with sufficient grace,
* There are other combinations you may think of. If you have a good one, send it to me.
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