God’s sovereignty is not an invitation to make perfect sense of how his power and love coexist with every detail of our suffering. Instead, his sovereignty reminds us to approach him as children who trust their Father and his love. A child understands love, and God’s love is, indeed, a fathomless expanse that he welcomes us to explore. He gives help and wisdom as we consider, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) believed the cannonball that broke his leg was essential to his spiritual awakening. For Martin Luther, it was the threat of lightning. What unites them is that they are part of a common Christian tradition that teaches an uncomfortable lesson: suffering sanctifies.
The stories can be found throughout Scripture and in every church on almost any day. We might wish that faith grew especially during prosperity, but the voice of faith says, “Jesus, help!” And those words come most naturally when we are weak and unable to manage on our own. Growth can be judged, in part, by the number of words we speak to our Lord, and we tend to speak more words when we are at the end of ourselves.
Suffering sanctifies. God tests us in order to refine us. This is true, and knowing this might help us face the inconveniences and challenges of everyday life. But this knowledge feels less satisfying in the face of the death of a child, betrayal by a loved one, or victimization that leaves you undone. Then the nexus between trouble and God’s sanctifying goodness can gradually give way to a relationship in which you and God seem to live in the same house, but you rarely acknowledge him.
We expect some types of sanctifying suffering, but not those sufferings that border on the unspeakable. When these come, the idea that they sanctify us may feel unhelpful. Though we might say to a friend who had a flat tire, “How is God growing you through that?” we know that we should never ask such a question to someone when “the waters have come up to my neck” (Psalm 69:1). The basic principle is true — God sanctifies us through suffering — but there are more elegant and personal ways to talk about it.
Sanctification Is Closeness
A more helpful approach first refreshes our understanding of sanctification.
Let’s begin with a common definition: sanctification is growth in obedience. The problem is when this definition drifts from its intensely personal moorings. As it does, suffering becomes God’s plan to make us better people — stronger, seasoned soldiers who don’t retreat after a mere flesh wound. All of this, of course, sounds suspiciously like a father who is preparing his children to move out and become independent, which is the exact opposite of what God desires for us. Left in this form, the principle that “suffering sanctifies” will erode faith.
Sanctification, of course, is much more intimate. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus died to draw us near to God, and our obedience serves that closeness. From this perspective, sin and any form of uncleanness distance us from God. Holiness, or sanctification, brings us closer.
Think of the Old Testament tabernacle. The unclean, which included the foreign nations and those contaminated by the sins of others, were farthest from the place of God’s presence in the Most Holy Place. The clean were closer. They camped around God’s house and could freely come near to worship and offer sacrifices. The priests, however — the ones made holy — were closer still. They were invited daily, in turn, into the Holy Place, and, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest dared to enter the Most Holy Place. The high priest offers a picture of humanity as God intended — purified and close to him.