Summer 1989

Reformed Quarterly Volume 8, Issue 1

Dr. R.C. Sproul is chairman of the board at Ligonier Ministries and is J.D. Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS.  This article is an excerpt from Sproul’s latest book Surprised by Suffering.

The life of faith is not constant. Our faith wavers; it vacillates between moments of supreme exaltation and trying times that push us to the rim of despair. Doubt flashes danger lights at us and threatens our peace. Rare is the saint who has a tranquil spirit at all seasons.

Paul wrote poignantly about his own struggles in times of distress:

We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed — always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

To be hard pressed is to feel like we are a used automobile that has been consigned to the junk heap and put in a metal compactor. To be hard pressed is to feel a massive weight upon us, a pressing weight that threatens to crush us.

There have been times in my life when I have uttered foolish prayers. When I have been hard pressed I have cried out to God, “This much, and no more, Lord. I can’t handle another setback. One more straw and I’m finished.” It seems that every time I pray like that God puts a fresh load on my back. It is as if He answers my prayer by saying, “Don’t tell me how much you can bear.”

God knows our limits far better than we do. In one respect we are very much like camels. When the camel’s load is already heavy he doesn’t ask his master for more weight. His knees get a bit wobbly, and he groans beneath the burden. But there is still room for more before his back will break.


The promise of God is not that He will never give us more weight to carry than we want to carry. The promise of God is that he will never put more upon us than we can actually bear.

Note that Paul did not say, “We are easy pressed on every side.” He said that we are hard pressed. At first glance these words seem in direct conflict with the promises of Christ. Jesus said:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

It is this last sentence that has made me wonder. It does not always seem to me that the burden Christ gives us is so light. It almost seems as if Jesus approaches us under false pretenses. But His words are true. He does give rest to those who are heavy laden. The terms “easy” and “light” are relative terms. Easy is relative to a standard of difficulty. Light is relative to a standard of heaviness. What is difficult to bear without Christ is made far more bearable with Christ. What is a heavy burden to carry alone becomes a far lighter burden to carry with His help.

It is precisely the presence and help of Christ in times of suffering that makes it possible for us to stand up under pressure. It is because of Christ that Paul could triumphantly declare that though he was hard pressed, he was not crushed. We may feel like an automobile in a metal compactor, but Christ stands as a shield for us to prevent the weight from falling upon us entirely.

To suffer without Christ is to risk being totally and completely crushed. I’ve often wondered how people cope with the trials of life without the strength found in Christ. His presence and comfort are so vital that I’m not surprised when unbelievers accuse Christians of using religion as a crutch. We remember Karl Marx’s charge that religion is the opiate of the masses. He was referring to opium as a narcotic used for dulling the effects of pain. Others have charged that religion is a bromide used by the weak in times of trouble.

Several years ago I had knee surgery. During my recuperation I used crutches. I used the crutches because I needed them. Likewise, years earlier I was in the hospital for another operation. After surgery I was given painkilling drugs every four hours. I recall watching the clock during the fourth hour, eagerly awaiting the moment when I could push the call button for the nurse to get another dose. I was grateful for the painkiller. I was grateful for my crutches.

I am even more grateful for Christ. It is no shame to call upon His help in times of trouble. It is His delight to minister to us in our time of pain. There is no scandal in the mercy of God to the afflicted. He is like a Father who pities His children and moves to comfort them in times of pain. To suffer without the comfort of God is no virtue. To lean upon His comfort is no vice, contrary to Karl Marx.

Paul adds, “We are perplexed, but not in despair.” Perplexity often accompanies suffering. When we are stricken with illness or grief we are often bewildered and confused. Our first question is why. We ask, How could God allow this to happen to me?

I remember the story of a distraught father who was deeply grieved by the death of his son. He went to see his pastor and in bewildered anger said, “Where was God when my son died?” The pastor replied with a calm spirit, “The same place He was when His Son died.”


There is an element of surprise connected to suffering. We learn early that pain is a part of life, but the learning process is usually gradual. I am amused by the way my three-year-old grandson handles pain. When something hurts him he declares, “Pap-Pap, I have an ‘ouch.'” He uses the exclamation “ouch” as a noun. If the “ouch” is slight, a simple kiss will make it disappear. If it is more severe he asks for an “andbaid.”

Most childhood illnesses and bruises are minor. When a child gets a stomach virus he usually doesn’t worry about cancer. He learns quickly that the discomfort of childhood diseases is soon over. It is as adults that we move into another level of disease and pain. Though we move through stages of preparation, we are never quite ready when we are afflicted with more serious illnesses.

I remember my daughter’s first visit to the hospital. She was six years old and had to have her tonsils removed. As parents we went through all the steps of both preparing her and shielding her from what was coming. We read the children’s books together about going to the hospital. We assured her that after the operation she would be allowed the treat of her favorite ice cream.

The trip to the hospital was an adventure. The pediatric wing of the hospital was gaily decorated. The nurses entertained our daughter and her roommate with toys. Her spirits were high and apprehension was at a minimum.

When the girls were taken into surgery we awaited their return from the recovery room. I will never forget the vision of my daughter when she looked at me after she had awakened. She was a pitiful sight. Dried blood was crusted at the edge of her lips. Her face was ashen. But what was most haunting was the look of fear, shock, and betrayal. She was experiencing a new threshold of pain. It was as if she were saying to me with her eyes, “How could you? You knew it would be like this and you lied to me.” The last thing she cared about at that moment was ice cream.

My daughter was surprised by the pain. She was perplexed. Her pain was not what she expected. I am sure she had the same questions about me as we do about our heavenly Father when sudden pain is thrust upon us.

When perplexity is added to suffering we sense a surprise that God has allowed such deep affliction to befall us. The surprise stems not so much from what God leads us to believe but from what we hear from misguided teachers. The zealous person who promises us a life free from suffering has found his message from some other source than Scripture.

We are admonished by Scripture not to think that it is a strange or unusual thing that we should suffer. Peter wrote:

Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing has happened to you, but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Earlier in his epistle Peter had spoken of the fruit of our suffering:

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith –the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:6-9).

This passage reveals the answer to how it is possible to be perplexed, but not in despair. Our suffering has a purpose. It has a goal –the end of our faith is the salvation of our souls. Suffering is a crucible. As gold is refined in the fire, purged of its dross and impurities, so is our faith tested by fire. Gold perishes. Our souls do not. We experience pain and grief for a season. It is while we are in the fire that perplexity assails us. But there is another side to the fire. As the dross burns away, the genuineness of faith is purified, unto the salvation of our souls.

Excerpted from “Surprised by Suffering” by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.