A few months ago, you may have participated in a much-loved Christmas tradition — a white elephant Christmas party.
If you have never participated in this gift exchange, let me briefly explain. Every person invited to the party brings one present, and one-by-one, people pick out a present and open it. The twist is that each person can choose to either keep their present or trade it for someone else’s gift if they prefer. Eventually, some poor soul, out of options, is left with the least desirable gift under the tree, having been forced to give away what they originally wanted.
The term “white elephant” dates back to ancient India, when one particular king gave a real white elephant to his least-favorite political advisor. At first, this seemed like an amazingly generous present. In the Indian culture, a white elephant was a rare and special animal. In today’s terms, we would call the white elephant an endangered species.
As a result, the white elephant was not allowed to work, spending it’s time in leisure — and eating! Eventually, the elephant ate the recipient out of house and home, and, because it had been given to him by the king, he couldn't even consider giving the elephant away.
Maybe you can relate to this illustration, having received a gift you felt pressured to keep, but never wanted. And you certainly don’t enjoy it.
In Romans 5, the apostle Paul gives an especially unusual list of gifts that God gives to His people. He writes that we have peace, grace, and joy in our hope. Those all sound like wonderful gifts! But Paul doesn’t stop there. “Not only that,” he says, “but we rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3a).
What prayer meeting have you been to where the leader asks, “what are you all thankful for this week?” and someone responds, “I’m thankful for having suffered greatly this past week.”
Obviously, we may need to reorient our perspective on pain.
For many, their reaction toward God when they experience affliction is either to assume that they are being punished by an angry God, or that God is too weak to stop their suffering. After all, wouldn’t a powerful and loving God only allow good things to happen to His followers?
Solomon answers from his private journal; “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). So, God is responsible for both. In His sovereignty, He has created our moments of prosperity and our moments of adversity. Isaiah writes that God gives His people “the bread of adversity and the water of affliction” (Isaiah 30:20) in order to deepen our spiritual insight and trust in Him.
In order to trust the Lord properly, especially in difficult times, we need to understand why God gifts us with pain. In my study of Scripture, I have found two primary reasons why God allows bad things to happen to His people.
GOD USES PAIN TO CORRECT US
David wrote, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statues” (Psalm 119:71).
Just like a parents discipline their children, God uses pain to keep His children from committing the same sins over and over or falling into even greater sin. Like a godly parent, God does not take pleasure in punishing us, but He corrects us in love so that we can learn from our mistakes and live a life that honors Him even more.
Now, don’t assume that every time you stub your toe on the door or hit your thumb with a hammer that you’re being punished for sin. This was the error Jesus’ disciples made in John 9, when Jesus saw a blind man. His disciples asked Him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2b). They assumed that this affliction must have been a punishment for sin, but Jesus responded, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3b).
While it is unbiblical to always assume that suffering is a punishment for sin, it is never wrong to examine ourselves, and attempt to discern the lessons God may be teaching us through our pain. Pain as discipline serves God’s purpose of causing us to pursue greater holiness.
GOD USES PAIN TO CONSTRUCT US
Peter wrote to believers, “You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
The rarest diamonds didn’t begin with shining brilliance – they were pieces of carbon. Yet, after; experiencing extreme pressure and high temperatures, they transformed into the pure crystals we see today. Without exposing carbon to heat, a diamond would never have been formed.
The same is true for us. The purity and genuineness of our faith shine through, not when life is easy, but when the pressure is on! Persevering through pain transforms and refines our faith, allowing God’s truth and grace to shine brightly — in many different facets — to our world around us.