Suffering and Sanctification: How God Purifies Us Through Our Trials

Suffering and Sanctification: How God Purifies Us Through Our Trials

Trials are difficult to bear. But when we believe we are supposed to be immune to them, they become even harder to bear. On the contrary, when we believe that our trials are God-sent and designed by him for our good and his glory, we might receive more strength to bear them.

Many of us already believe that good things are supposed to come to good people and bad things to bad people. We call it Karma. So, when bad things happen to good people, we are often confused, disoriented, angry, or disillusioned. Then there are many of us who have been taught by the popular prosperity preaching that Christians are supposed to live healthy and wealthy lives and anything short of that – sufferings and trials – are aberrant and evidence of unbelief.

In fact, many of us only do good in the expectation of receiving good rewards and are therefore shocked when we suffer or when “bad” people prosper. Similarly, many of us only serve God and do religious duties because we believe he will reward us with health and wealth, the good things of life. So, we are disillusioned when we experience trials and difficulties.

While sufferings and trials will always be painful to bear – to the point that they even shake our faith in God – I believe that better theology can help us in bearing them for our sanctification and for God’s glory. In what follows, I seek to highlight certain points that will point us in the right direction.

The nature of Christian suffering

Creation is fallen and we all bear the curse

When Adam and Eve fell, God cursed the earth in response (Genesis 3:14-16). Though the world is still a theatre of God’s plenitude, goodness, and love, it now bears marks of the curse of God against human rebellion – human and natural evil. As John Calvin said, “it is not our part to exposulate with the earth for not answering to our wishes, and to the labours of its cultivators, as if it were maliciously frustrating our purpose; but in its sterility let us mark the anger of God, and mourn over our own sins.”[1]

In Romans 8, Paul taught that creation was subjected to frustration. It is in bondage to decay, groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Frustration, bondage to decay, and groans of childbirth characterise the world we live in. We see all these in the various forms of troubles that afflict us down here – sicknesses, failures, death, heartbreaks, poverty, etc.

As believers, we live in this cursed world and we are not exempted from its troubles. Though we have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we groan together with the fallen creation waiting for the consummation of all things where our bodies and the creation itself will be redeemed. “God often remits a portion of this curse to his own children, lest they should sink beneath its burden,” said Calvin. “Some flee from troubles, and many more do all they can to grasp at immunity from them; but the Lord subjects all, without exception, to this yoke of imposed servitude.”[2]

As Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Christians will only have all tears wiped from their faces when the new heaven and the new earth are here (Revelation 21:3). Before then, we suffer together with all creation.  Instead of thinking that we can be immune, Calvin advised that “being admonished of the miseries of the present life,” we “should weep over our sins, and seek that relief from the grace of Christ which may not only assuage the bitterness of grief, but mingle its own sweetnes with it.”[3]

young man in sleepwear suffering from headache in morning
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Bearing the hatred of the world

In addition to the general difficulties that Christians bear together with unbelievers, there are specific ways in which we suffer in our position as believers (1 Peter 4:16).

Since the world hates our master, it is to be expected that they will hate us too (John 15:18-20). This hatred will produce persecutions and various forms of trials.

As Paul said, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12) or as Peter told his audience, “the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:9). To reject the “fleeting pleasures of sin” is to be “ill-treated along with the people of God” (Hebrews 11:25). 


The purpose of Christian suffering

In the above section, we have seen that Christians experience suffering and trials in common with the world and especially as God’s choosen people. Now, let’s consider the purpose of Christian suffering.

Suffering and sin

In Hebrews 12, we find a key insight into the Christian’s relationship with trials. In verses 4-6, we find that God disciplines, chastens, and rebukes his children when they sin and this is supposed to be part of our struggle against sin.

Though God’s discipline, chastenings, and rebukes cause us hardship, we must endure them as coming from his hand and designed for “our good, in order that we may share in his holiness” (verse 10). Said differently, God’s painful discipline is meant to train us and produce “a harvest of righteousness” (verse 12). As Calvin said, “corrective punishments … are inflicted with the design of leading us to repentance.”[4]

In essence, God responds to our sins with hardship, suffering, and pain so we can turn away from them and walk in the path of righteousness and holiness. That is, suffering is part of God’s instrument for weaning us from our sins. As Melvin Tinder, in explaining Elihu’s discussion with Job, commented, “some hard things may come our way, not in order to punish us but to instruct us, perhaps getting us to change our priorities and check our spiritual drift.” [5]

We find a similar idea in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul insists that the reason why many of the Corinthians were weak and ill, and many of them dead, was because of their sinful participation in the Lord’s Supper (verse 30). That is, God responded to their sin of not discerning the body of Christ by bringing weakness, illness, and even temporal death. For what purpose?

“When we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (verse 32). God judged many of the Corinthians in this way so as to wean them from their sin and save them from being condemned with the unbelieving world. “This is said by way of consolation to the saints, that when the hand of the Lord is upon them, and he is afflicting them, they should consider these things, not as the effects of his vindictive wrath and justice, as proper punishments for their sins, but as fatherly chastisements for their good,” said John Gill.[6]

Peter makes this same point in 1 Peter 4. According to him, “whoever suffers in the body has finished with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.” Again, God allows us to suffer in the body as a way to lead us to repentance and wean us from sin to holiness. According to the Expositors’ Commentary, “To help men God sends them sufferings, and intends them to have a moral effect on the life. They are not penal; they are the discipline of perfect love desiring that men should be held back from straying.” [7]

Calvin agrees: “That he, nevertheless, punishes those who are received into favour, is to be regarded as a kind of chastisement which serves as medicine for future time, but ought not properly to be regarded as the vindictive punishment of sin committed.”[8]

The Psalmist also agrees: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalms 119:67); “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (verse 71).

Suffering and sanctification

Though weaning us from sin is a crucial part of sanctification, it is not all there is to it. In Colossians 3, we see that while we are to put sin to death, we are also to clothe ourselves with godly virtues (Colossians 3:5, 12). In Ephesians, we see that we must put on the new self just as we put off the old self (Ephesians 4:23-24).

Therefore, God also sends sufferings and trials our way to help us build positive Christian character. According to James, trials of various kinds produce perseverance, which then makes us mature, complete, and lacking nothing (James 1:2-4). Or as Paul puts it, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Calvin adds: “Wherefore, this general axiom is to be maintained, that all the sufferings to which the life of men is subject and obnoxious, are necessary exercise, by which God partly invites us to repentance, partly instructs us in humility, and partly renders us more cautious and more attentive in guarding against the allurements of sin for the future”[9]

While we waste away outwardly because of our troubles, we are also being renewed inwardly (2 Corinthians 4:16). The very troubles we face are “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (verse 17).

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The comforts of Christian suffering

The sovereignty of God

The first comfort of the Christian is that God is sovereign over all our trials and he ordains every single one of them for our good (to wean us from sin and develop godly character in us).

Nothing comes to the Christian apart from God’s will and ordination. As we learn from Job’s story, even the devil cannot do anything to the Christian apart from God’s permission (Job 1). Even the devil, said Luther, is God’s devil. That is, every power the devil exercises is under the sovereign control of God. Or as Melvin Tinder puts it, “God will even use him to bring about his righteous purposes in the world.”[10]  This is the only reason we are confident that God will one day defeat and destroy the devil and rid this world of all evil (Revelation 19,20).

Hear Jesus himself: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).

The sovereignty of God over all the situations of our lives gives us comfort that nothing happens to us out of mere chance. All our sufferings and trials are the gifts of God for our good and his glory. 

It bears pointing out that we won’t always understand the specific reason for a specific trial. Job didn’t know what was going on in heaven while he was suffering untold pain on earth. Instead of trying to figure it all out, we should learn to trust in the sovereign, good, loving, and wise God who ordains all things for our good. Explaining Elihu’s point, Melvin comments, “his plans and purposes are on such a grand scale, far more complex and involved than our tiny minds can ever fully fathom … Just because we cannot immediately see what the reason is doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.”[11]

The hope before us

As we saw above, Paul taught that our troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). Some verses before, he insisted that those of us who carry the death of Jesus in our body will also have his life revealed in them when he comes (verse 10). This is similar to Philippians 3:10-11: those who participate in his sufferings (and thus becoming like him in his death) will attain to the resurrection from the dead. Peter also commented that participation in Christ’s sufferings means we will be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Paul and Peter are teaching that just as we are united with Christ in our spirit (Romans 6), we are also united to him in our body. Just as his body suffered and died, our body suffers and will die. And just as his body was raised, our body will be raised. In fact, our resurrection is nothing but a participation in his (1 Corinthians 15:20). 

This hope was the comfort of Moses. He looked forward to the reward and endured the trials that God ordained for him in Egypt (Hebrews 11:24-25).

What is this reward? It is resurrection from the dead, the wiping away of our tears, the end of mourning, crying, and pain, the defeat of sin and satan, and life in the new heaven and the earth in the presence of the triune God (Revelation 20-22).

So when we suffer in this world, we can take courage like Paul that the eternal glory we will enjoy far outweighs them all (2 Corinthians 4:17). When we suffer persecution, we can be exceedingly glad because our reward in heaven is great (Matthew 5:12). 

The presence of Christ with us

The presence of Christ, through his Spirit, in our trials is also a big comfort. In John 16:33, Jesus told us to take heart because he has overcome the world. His victory over the world is the source of our peace in the storms of life. We have this peace because of the Spirit that Christ gives to us (14:27).

In 1 Peter 4:14, Peter also comforts us that the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us when we are insulted for the name of Christ. And a chapter later, he adds: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).

Christ is our high priest

Finally, Christ is our heavenly high priest. According to the author of Hebrews, this is a source of comfort because Christ shared in our humanity, suffered when he was tempted, and was perfected through what he suffered (Hebrews 2:10,14, 18). He is therefore a merciful and faithful high priest (verse 17), one who sympathises with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). We can then go to him for grace and mercy in our time of need (4:16) and find all the help we need when we are tempted (2:18). 


Christians suffer, prosperity gospel is garbage, this world is not our home, and we also experience the results of God’s curse on the earth. But we must also remember that trials, sufferings, and difficulties are part of God’s mercies towards us. Everything God does or brings our way is ultimately for our good.

This does not mean that trials are easy to bear or endure. The pain can be so overwhelming most times. However, it means that God has provided us with so much comforts in his word that can help us bear the pain without losing our faith.

When the enemy tries to discourage us, we must hold on to the truth of God’s word and find comfort in God’s sovereignty, the hope set before us, the presence of Christ through his Spirit, and Christ’s ministry as our heavenly high priest.

All the way my Savior leads me,

What have I to ask beside?

Can I doubt His tender mercy,

Who through life has been my Guide?

Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort,

Here by faith in Him to dwell!

For I know, whate’er befall me,

Jesus doeth all things well;

For I know, whate’er befall me,

Jesus doeth all things well.

All the way my Savior leads me,

Cheers each winding path I tread,

Gives me grace for every trial,

Feeds me with the living Bread.

Though my weary steps may falter

And my soul athirst may be,

Gushing from the Rock before me,

Lo! A spring of joy I see;

Gushing from the Rock before me,

Lo! A spring of joy I see.

All the way my Savior leads me,

Oh, the fullness of His love!

Perfect rest to me is promised

In my Father’s house above.

When my spirit, clothed immortal,

Wings its flight to realms of day

This my song through endless ages:

Jesus led me all the way;

This my song through endless ages:

Jesus led me all the way.[12]


[1] John Calvin, Genesis (Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 2000), Page 174.

[2] Ibid, 176.

[3] Ibid, 177.

[4] Ibid, 165.

[5] Melvin Tinder, Intended for Good: The Providence of God (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2012), Page 125.

[6] Riversoft Systems (2022). My Sword Bible. Retrieved from

[7] Bible Hub (2022). 1 Peter 4:1: Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Retrieved from

[8] Calvin, Genesis, 178.

[9] Ibid, 179.

[10] Melvin, Intended for Good, 123.

[11] Ibid, 121.

[12] Archive of Lyrics & Piano Music, All the Way My Savior Leads Me by Fanny J. Crosby, Retrieved from

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