Many folks in our churches who consider suffering in the life of a Christian to be God's punishment of sin. Then, there are some who think of all suffering as a form of divine discipline by which God chastises Christians for specific sins in their lives. I've also heard it said that suffering is just part of the order/structure/system of the universe so that it has no specific meaning: bad things just happen. So, how should we think about suffering as Christians?
1. Suffering cannot be punishment because Christians cannot be punished. This is true if we define "punishment" in terms of penal justice. Christ was punished in the place of Christians and fully satisified divine justice. "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died" (Rom 8:33-34). There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Christ has become a curse for us (Gal 3:13). Suffering cannot be punishment in the life of the believer.
2. Suffering isn't necessarily "discipline." Now, if we define "discipline" in the broadest terms, then everything that happens to a believer is discipline. Everything works for our good and serves to rid us of sin and make us more like Christ in the end. However, if we define discipline as chastisement for specific sins, then there is no reason to conclude that all suffering is discipline. Job is a great example of this principle. His sufferings were not a disciplinary response to specific sins. Certainly, sometimes specific sins have specific consequences, and that is discipline, but so much of suffering is not the direct result of a Christian's particular sins.
3. Suffering isn't just a part of the mechanics of the universe. God said, "Who has made a man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord" (Exod 4:11)? He says, "I kill and I make alive; wound and I heal" (Deut 32:30). Scripture says, "The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts" (1 Sam 2:7). "If a disaster occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it" (Amos 3:6)? God brings about suffering for his own good purposes. While suffering is the result of specific sin and sin in general, suffering itself is always good, because it punishes evil in unbelievers, disciplines sin in believers, and/or allows believers to trust in the midst of hardship, making them more like Christ.
So, what is suffering in the life of the Christian? It is a gift. Philippians 1:29 says, "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake." From the perspective of the Christian, suffering is a blessing. It is divine grace, which is intended for our good. "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28).
Now, in saying this, I'm not suggesting that we go into the hospital rooms of suffering Christians with party hats on rejoicing in their suffering, thanking God for the blessing of suffering. While suffering is good, it is the result of sin at some level, and it is painful. Suffering in the life of the believer is God's tough love, and while God brings it into the lives of believers for thier own good, he does not delight in their suffering for its own sake (Lam 3:31-33). I admit that I haven't suffered in the way that many people have suffered. But, I have known people who have suffered very severely. The only hope and encouragement I know to give Christians who suffer is to remind them that Christ is no stranger to suffering. He understands the pain of terrible suffering. And, in bringing suffering into the lives of Christians, he is giving his people the opportunity to walk in the way of the cross, to be like their Savior, to be a present display of Christ's sufferings, and to trust the Lord in the midst of it all for his glory. God nevers asks his people to suffer beyond what he has suffered himself in the person of Jesus Christ. And, Christ suffered so that ultimately, we won't have to suffer what we really deserve, and he suffered so that one day all suffering will be eradicated. In heaven, there will be no more pain and no more sorrow. It will be a world of infinite delight. Maranatha!