It was interesting to me that George did not believe he had an anger problem. It seemed obvious to others around him, but he remained resistant to the idea. It wasn’t until he lost his job that he saw just how big his anger was. After getting into a shouting match with his employer, he was told to pack up his cubical and get out. The consequences of his sin helped him see the reality of his sin more clearly. One of the values of suffering is that it helps to expose remaining sin.
It’s important at the outset to remind ourselves that not all suffering is a result of sin (John 9:2-3). The presence of suffering in your life is not necessarily indicative of a specific sin, or an indication that God is trying to teach you some lesson or convict you of some behavior. We don’t want to too quickly attribute pain to moral failure. Yet, the Bible does teach us that suffering can be brought on by sin, and, more to our point, suffering can help to expose remaining sin.
Repeatedly, in Scripture, God tells us that He uses difficulty to help us learn obedience. As Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land God reminds them of how He has taught them and tested them. We read:
“The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lordswore to give to your fathers. 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word[a] that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deut. 8:1-3)
It was God’s intent to humble them, to cause them to face hunger and need, in order that they would learn to depend on Him. It was through suffering that they would grow to “keep his commandments”. Likewise, the Psalmist declares:
It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. (Ps. 119:71)
There was something about affliction that enabled him to understand God’s laws. Indeed, he says, perhaps more pointedly, “before I was afflicted I went astray” (v. 67). There is something about suffering that helps to expose sin and gives us opportunity to address it.
Think in your own life about those moments when you saw your sin most clearly. Isn’t it the case that we most often identify remaining sin because suffering has pulled back the blinders. Within the every-day flow of life we become comfortable and accustomed to the way we live. We don’t see our sin so glaringly because it is normalized and tolerated. But when suffering disrupts this routine, when suffering upsets our comfort, we begin to evaluate our world with fresh eyes. Here we have a greater opportunity to see how ugly our hearts and behaviors are. So, interpersonal conflict may expose our selfish communication patterns. Despair over job loss may expose how much hope we put into our employment. An upset stomach may expose our abuse of food. Late fees on overdue bills may expose our laziness. There are hundreds of ways in which sorrow and consequence may expose sin and give us opportunity to grow. Apart from suffering, big or small, we may never clearly see the areas of our life that need to be addressed.
Suffering can be a valuable part of our sanctification. Whether caused by our sin or not, sorrows can open our eyes to areas of much needed growth. Suffering can help us to learn obedience, confront sinful desires, or change immoral habits. Suffering can help expose the shallowness of our walk with God, our knowledge of Scripture, or consistency in prayer. Suffering can have value if we are willing to look for it. How we respond to the realization of exposed sin will determine whether we reap the benefits of such suffering or not.