(This post is part of a series on faith and suffering.)
*** UPDATED NOTE: I get heavy traffic to this post from time to time. Please note it was part of a series about suffering, hardship, and evil in this world. Since the original series, I’ve written other posts. Click on the faith and suffering category. My point is that THIS post alone should not be interpreted as trying to provide a “tidy answer” for any and all suffering just because it can have a purpose. Sometimes we just don’t know why terrible things happen, and a Christian may indeed doubt and lament. ALSO: someone read this post and somehow inferred that a woman in an abusive relationship should stay in the situation and endure suffering. NO. NO. NO. I am a bit surprised this post was somehow interpreted that way. That would be another post, but we are human beings with dignity, worth, and made in God’s image, and if someone is abusing you – please leave, get help, tell someone. Some types of suffering should not be endured! Help here: http://www.thehotline.org/
Now to the post.
Joni Eareckson Tada spoke in a chapel service at my seminary on “a theology of suffering”. I am always touched, challenged, and humbled whenever I hear Joni speak. I’d encourage you to listen to her in this 30 minute talk.
Here are a few thoughts of my own on how God can use our suffering for a purpose…
As Joni Eareckson Tada words it, “God permits what he hates to achieve what he loves.”  Or as Romans 8:28 states, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.” God can use suffering in a variety of ways in our lives to accomplish his purposes for us as individuals and for the entire world. [Note of clarification: God is not the source/author of evil or suffering, but he may permit it or use it for his sovereign purposes. God redeems suffering.]
For example, in the book of Acts (4:29; 8:3-4) God used the persecution of the church for the spread of the gospel. It made the believers more zealous, and when they were scattered it led to the message going out to more places.
In this regard, persecution and suffering can have a purifying affect on individual Christians and the church. It proves the genuineness of our faith (1 Peter 1:7). Only a real risk can test the reality of a belief. In the face of hardship, will we trust God and endure in the faith? It demonstrates that our faith was genuine.
On a similar note, those who go through difficult times can come out on the other side with a stronger and purer faith. God can use suffering to develop our character. Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4 teach us that trials produce patience, perseverance, and character which ultimately make us “complete” in our faith and give us hope. Even in the secular realm, it is emphasized that hard times can make us stronger.
God may have a purpose in our suffering that encompasses more than just our individual life. The life of Joseph would be a prime example. Joseph was the victim of evil and suffered at the hands of others. Yet God used Joseph to save the lives of many people during a great famine, including the lives of his own family. In Genesis 45:5-8, Joseph himself emphasizes that God sent him to preserve life. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph further states:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.
Joseph had all the temptations to become angry, bitter, resentful, cynical or self-pitying. But he did not. He simply related all his life experiences, good and bad alike, to the sovereign hand of God for his life.
(On that note…The book “God Meant it for Good” by R.T. Kendall has been recommended to me. Have you read it already? I don’t have a copy but am eager to obtain one.)
In Philippians 1:12-14, we can observe a similar theme in the life of Paul. Paul is in jail, yet he emphasizes that the things that have happened to him have turned out for the furtherance of the gospel. The guards were exposed to the gospel, and Paul’s example helped other believers have confidence and boldness in the Lord. Paul wrote four letters that became books in our New Testament while in jail. As believers, we need to remind ourselves that we are part of a much bigger story of redemption, and God may use our hardship to further the gospel.
Another purpose for our troubles in life is to enable us to comfort others. Second Corinthians 1:4 states that just as God has comforted us, we can likewise comfort others. Once we have experienced a certain type of suffering, it can enable to reach out to others going through that same type of trouble. “Support groups” are often effective for this reason, and as Christians we should excel at comforting others in their afflictions.
God can use suffering to teach us humility and make us dependent on him. Pride and self-sufficiency are insidious sins that haunt us all. Some sins can be conquered, but pride seems to be a life long battle. If we think we’ve conquered pride, it is a sure sign that we have actually not conquered it! The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, speaks of his “thorn in the flesh” and that God gave it to him to keep him from becoming conceited and help him rest in God’s grace. He further emphasizes that he took pleasure in infirmities and distress because “strength is made perfect in weakness.”
In closing, Joni E. Tada gives this summary of how God can use our suffering for a purpose:
God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to him, force us to depend on grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, spend our time wisely, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for the truth, lead us to repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in times of sorrow, increase faith, and strengthen character. It is a beautiful image! 
Update. Here is a link to an article from the Parchment and Pen blog on God’s purposes in our sufferings. The author takes a different angle or approach which I appreciated. Hope you’ll find it helpful.
 Joni E. Tada and Steve Estes, When God Weeps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 84.
 Ibid., 117.
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