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Suffering and decision-making

On the Sola Panel:

Is it better to choose a more difficult ministry, or an easy one? Is it more godly to choose suffering over comfort when we make decisions about life and ministry? After all, suffering makes us more like Jesus, and surely that’s good for us, isn’t it?

From time to time, we face ‘life and ministry decisions’, by which I mean those kinds of choices that will have a significant effect on our future life and our ongoing daily service of others. I’m thinking about decisions about where to live, what church to go to, how much money to give away, whether to lead a kids’ Sunday club this year, whether to take paid work and if so how much and with whom, etc.. Sometimes the right choice is straightforward and obvious (e.g. if you’re considering abandoning your spouse in order to shack up with somebody else, the right choice is not to do it). But with many choices in life, there are no easy and straightforward ‘one-size-fits-all’ answers. They’re the kind of questions you often need to pray about, discuss with others, and stew over for a while. In these kinds of decisions, one key question that may influence the decision is: how much will I personally suffer as a consequence of making this decision?

It’s possible to adopt a pleasure maximization/suffering minimization strategy when making choices like this. For example, I might choose to live as close to the beach as my salary can afford because I like the beach; or I might choose the church with people who are easiest to relate to because I enjoy their company; or I might choose to take paid work because it will bring me fulfilment in the work of caring for God’s creation. After all, if I choose to lead a healthy and happy life without being distracted by needless pain, I’ll be honouring God who created all things good, won’t I (1 Tim 4:4-5)?

It’s also possible, however, to adopt the opposite approach: a pleasure minimization/suffering maximization strategy. God wants me to suffer (Phil 1:29); so the ‘easy option’ is, by definition, the wrong option, isn’t it? Jesus lived a life of suffering, didn’t he (1 Pet 2:21)? So did his apostles (Col 1:24). Suffering produces character and perseverance and hope, doesn’t it (Rom 5:3-4)? So if I seek after suffering, I’ll really be following Jesus and truly living out God’s will for my life, won’t I?

However, both of these attitudes to suffering put the cart before the horse. We aren’t told to seek after suffering or pleasure at all; rather, we are told to seek after God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). God is most glorified when Jesus Christ is proclaimed, believed and obeyed. The Bible tells us that if we make decisions to live for God’s glory, we will have our share of both joy and suffering. Are you concerned that you will miss out on living a full life? Jesus says not to run after food and clothes; instead seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and you’ll be given what you need from your loving Father (Matt 6:33). On the other hand, are you concerned that you’re not getting enough suffering? The answer is not to seek more suffering; instead seek to live a godly life in Christ Jesus, and inevitably you will suffer just like the apostle Paul (2 Tim 3:11-12).

That’s why I reckon that the question of suffering shouldn’t be a factor in our decisions about life and ministry at all. Just because something is harder (or easier) doesn’t mean it’s the more godly choice. Instead, we should make our decisions based on what will enable us to glorify God the most. Within our limited perspective, when faced with life decisions, we should ask how our choices will bring about opportunities to live godly lives and to see our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ proclaimed to others. In the end, whatever decision we make, if we are seeking to glorify God then both joy and suffering will come our way, and God is in charge of both.

Of course, suffering may come into our decisions indirectly; for example, you may know that you are particularly vulnerable to certain sins, or you may have wisely discerned your physical and mental and emotional limitations, and so you may decide that certain more radical life choices will not ultimately glorify God because they will almost certainly lead to unbearable temptation or to burnout rather than to proclaiming Christ or loving your neighbour. On the other hand, we need to be aware of our own sinful tendency to make decisions for selfish, rather than godly, reasons. We shouldn’t shy away from the prospect of pain or loss or tiredness or discomfort, just because it will be difficult. But in the end, the amount of suffering (large or small) is not the ultimate consideration in the decision making process.

In all this, we need to remember that, since God is God and we’re not, our decisions may in the end turn out to have completely different consequences to what we expected when we made the decision. Yet God is sovereign even over this. “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov 16:9). Nevertheless, God frequently calls on us to make wise, prayerful and godly decisions. Don’t make life choices simply in order to increase your pleasure, and don’t make life choices simply in order to increase your pain. Your life, in suffering and in joy, is about being conformed to the likeness of God’s son Jesus Christ. So when you’re faced with a life choice, act as a child of your heavenly Father and seek to glorify him above all. Then accept the joy and suffering that comes your way as a result.

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