The Purpose of Trials (Hebrews 12:3-17)


Big Idea: Our trials are a tool that our loving Father uses to help us grow.

A few years ago, our family entered one of the most severe trials in our lives. It’s not the first time we suffered, but it was the most intense time of suffering we’ve experienced. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

We would get the kids ready for school. When they were gone, we would sit on the couch, not knowing how we were going to get through another day. Sometimes we’d sit in silence. Sometimes we’d cry. We’d often pray, but our prayers weren’t articulate prayers. Our prayers were sometimes just simple requests for God to help us.

That period lasted about four years. God was good, we learned a lot, but it was brutal.

I’ve learned that we’re not alone. As Ray Ortlund comments on the book of Job:

I used to think that the book of Job is in the Bible because this story of suffering is so extreme, so rare and improbable and unusual. I thought the message of the book is, ‘Look at this worst case scenario. Now, come on. Surely in your comparatively small problems, you can find your way.’ I don’t think that anymore. Now I think that the book of Job is in the Bible because this story is so common.

What should we do when we face troubles like this, when it feels like we’re barely hanging on?

Some of you know what it’s like to experience extreme trials. You know what it’s like to lose a marriage, to stand at the grave of a loved one, to experience chronic illness. What do you do when you face this kind of suffering?

Hebrews is written to a church in which some had experienced intense suffering for their faith. Their particular trial was persecution for the cause of Christ, something that you and I may face too. But what he writes also applies to other kinds of suffering too.

In this passage, the writer tells us three things we can do when we face this kind of suffering.

One: Consider Jesus (12:3-4).

“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (12:3).

You are not alone! God the Son himself knows what it’s like to suffer. As verse 2 says, he endured the cross and despised the shame. Jesus understood what it was like to be betrayed by friends. He knew what it’s like to be unjustly accused. Jesus understood physical pain. But even beyond that, Jesus experienced a kind of pain that you and I never will. He bore the sins of all who those who call him Lord. Jesus experienced an even more intense level of pain than you and I ever will.

In fact, that’s the point verse 4 makes. “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” You’re suffering, but, unlike Jesus, you haven’t shed your own blood in the struggle against sin. If Jesus endured this greater trial, you and I can endure the lesser trial we’re facing.

Consider the suffering of Jesus:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:3-6)

Jesus did this for me and for you. Jesus was willing to suffer for our sake. Jesus was willing to suffer the agony of the cross so that anyone who turned to him could be free from the penalty of sin. John Stott wrote:

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.

Consider him, so “you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” When suffering, don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. You are not alone. Jesus suffered too. Consider Jesus and his sufferings. Remember his faithfulness and perseverance. Consider his willingness to suffer for you, and your sufferings may become more manageable in light of top his.

But that’s not all.

Two: Consider what God is doing in your suffering (12:5-11)

One of the things that makes suffering difficult is that we don’t always see the purpose behind our suffering. If we knew what the purpose of our suffering was, it wouldn’t take away the suffering, but we’d at least know that it’s accomplishing something.

In verses 5 to 11, the writer gives us a window into God’s purpose in our suffering. Here’s what God is up to in our suffering in one word: discipline. That is not an easy word to talk about because discipline is such a difficult topic. If you want to start a fight among parents, talk about your philosophy of discipline. The reality is, though, that children need loving, consistent, patient, and appropriate parental correction if they’re going to grow into maturity.

Your suffering has a purpose. Your suffering is part of God’s discipline in your life to shape you and to make you into who he wants to be.

Notice in this passage two characteristics of God’s discipline in your life.

It’s loving (12:5-9)

That’s the whole point of verses 5 to 9, which quotes Proverbs 3:5-6:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?

God’s discipline in your life is not punishment for your sins. The penalty for your sins has been paid, and he cannot demand it again. It’s not a sign that he’s ignoring us. In fact, the opposite is true. God is activity working in the trials of your life to accomplish his good. His discipline is not a sign of any change in affection for us, or our status as his children. Our destiny is secure; he is still committed to our good.

In fact, his discipline in our lives is a sign that we are his children. An easy life may be a reason for concern. God’s discipline is a validating mark that we are indeed his children, and that he is committed to our good. That means we can yield to his discipline knowing that he’s at work in even the hard things that happen in our lives. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t grow discouraged by it. It’s a mark of God’s love in your life. It’s not “a sign of God’s anger or punishment but his favor and acceptance” (Tom Schreiner).

His discipline in our lives is loving. There’s a second characteristic of his discipline:

It’s designed to change us (12:10-11)

For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I’m so glad the writer pointed out the obvious. Discipline isn’t enjoyable. Nobody likes discipline. We’d rather skip it altogether because it’s so hard.

But the good thing about God’s discipline in our lives is that it is purposeful. It’s part of God’s plan to grow us into who he wants us to be. God knows what we need, and he’s able to use the suffering in our lives to shape us.

I love what John Piper says:

God has a purpose and a design in what is happening to us … God is not a passive observer in our lives while sinners and Satan beat us up. He rules over sinners and Satan, and they unwittingly, and with no less fault or guilt, fulfill his wise and loving purposes of discipline in our lives…
What hostile sinners mean for harm, God means for good. What they will as hurtful, God wills as helpful. What they plan as destruction, God plans as salvation. What they design as a deterrent to faith, God designs as discipline for faith.

I can see that in our intense period of suffering. I wouldn't want to go through it again, but God taught us so much in that time of trial It helped shape me in profound ways, and taught me lessons I desperately needed to learn.

Oswald Chambers writes, “If you are going to be used by God, he will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all; they are meant to make you useful in his hands.”

Your suffering has a purpose. Your suffering is loving, purposeful discipline from the Father that he is using for your good.

What should you do when you suffer then? First, consider Jesus. Second, consider what God is doing in your suffering. There’s one more thing that this passage tells us to do in our suffering:

Three: Stay in the race (12:12-17).

Don’t let suffering stop you. Keep going. Jesus suffered, and God is at work in your suffering too. So keep going.

We’re always tempted to quit when we suffer, but the writer tells us not to.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (12:12-13)

Keep following Jesus. Keep getting up every day in the middle of hardship and just keep running with endurance the race that is set before you.

You need to know that some things will knock you out of the race. It’s not so much the trail as your reaction to the trial. Look at verses 14-17:

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (12:14-17)

If we’re not careful, we may allow a “root of bitterness” to spring up. The writer is thinking of Deuteronomy 29:18: “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit…” If we’re not careful, we’ll begin to abandon God in our trials, which will lead to catastrophe. Don’t do it.

We can also fall into sin. That’s why he mentions Esau, who sold something of lasting value for something that would only temporarily satisfy. That’s what sin is. Don’t trade what’s yours eternally for the sake of relief from temporary pain. Don’t get knocked out of the race by sin.

What should we do instead? Consider Jesus, and consider what he’s up to in your life, and simply keep running the race. If all you can do is limp forward right now, that’s enough. God’s got you. The love of Jesus for you has not changed. Hang on to these realities even as he’s hanging on to you.

Our trials are a tool that our loving Father uses to help us grow. Jesus suffered; you will too. But your suffering is purposeful. It’s evidence of his love and it’s designed to help you grow. So keep going.

I never would have wanted the trail that we went through. You probably don’t want trials either. But you’re not alone. Your Savior suffered for you. Even in trials, your loving Father is at work, and he will use it for our good. Keep your eye on him. He will bring you safely home.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada