Broadening Our Understanding of Suffering: The Various Types of Suffering

This is post 2 in the series: Suffering in Our Work and Everyday Lives

Selling your house and moving half way around the world to advance the cause of missions is suffering. But is selling your house to just move to another part of the U.S.?

What about having to drive to work in cold midwest winters? Or having your dishwasher go out? Or having 3 tight deadlines that you aren’t sure you can make? Or having to work an all-nighter? Or receiving 100+ emails a day when you have myriad other responsibilities to attend to as well? Or just plain not liking the carpet in your living room but not being able to afford to do anything about it?

Are those things suffering? After all, we should just be thankful to even have a dishwasher, right? And if you worked an all-nighter, well, that was your choice and you probably only had to because you weren’t managing your time well, right?

Most of these things are not typically considered suffering. In fact, many of us would be reluctant to think of them as suffering — haven’t we all heard people rebuke the guy who thought that being unable to start his car in the morning was “bearing his cross” (Luke 9:23)?

But in reality, these things are indeed real suffering, even though we often don’t recognize it. They are real suffering because they are real forms of hardship, pain, loss, and difficulty. Suffering is any form of loss, pain, and difficulty, regardless of degree. “Smaller” degrees of suffering do not cease to be suffering simply because they are small.

How do we know this? First, it’s a matter of definition. This is the very meaning of suffering. To suffer is to experience pain or hardship, which can be mental or physical. This is the way we commonly use the word and, although I hate to refer to Wikipedia or the dictionary, both reflect this meaning (Wikipedia |

Second, and more importantly, this is the only definition that accounts for the variety of things the Bible includes under the rubric of suffering. We see this in the certain general statements the Scriptures make on suffering, in the specific lists of suffering the Scriptures give us, and in the specific examples of suffering in Paul’s life. I want to look at these three things for the remainder of this post.

General Statements on Suffering

Notice two passages on this. First, look at 1 Peter 1:6: “In this you rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.” Peter here speaks of us encountering various trials. This undoubtedly includes the large things we undergo. But our trials are varied. We should not have a monolithic stereotype of what suffering is, as though it only includes persecution or cancer and such things. It does include those things, but it also includes everything else in our lives that is a trial. Suffering is a “varied” thing.

How do you know if you are suffering? Simple. Just ask “is this a trial? Is this something that can tempt me to discouragement? Is this frustrating?” Anything that feels like a trial is a trial. Anything that can tempt you to discouragement and complaining is a trial. Your faith is being tested in the small things as well as the big. Small things are real forms of suffering.

Second, James 1:2 says: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Once again we see that we encounter various kinds of trials. We need to have a broader view of suffering. It is not just the large things — although it is certainly those — , but also the small things.

5 Types of Suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:10

So the general statements on suffering in the Scriptures lead us to see that suffering encompasses small things as well as large. The Scriptures also give us a few lists of specific categories of suffering which also bear this out.

2 Corinthians 12:10 is one such passage. In this text, Paul gives us a very helpful and concrete list of the different types of suffering. He writes: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Before we look at each of these types of suffering, notice two things. First, the list seems to go in ascending order — that is, from the more minor forms of suffering (weaknesses) to the most extreme (calamities). So the structure of the list itself seems to affirm that the “smaller” things really are true suffering. Second, and perhaps even more significantly, notice that the list includes things we don’t automatically think of as suffering — such as weaknesses and insults. Once again, this serves to broaden our understanding of suffering. Third, note that only one of the items in the list is actual persecution. In other words, here we see again that suffering is much more than just persecution.

Let’s look briefly at each of these items on the list.

Your weaknesses are a form of suffering! This is good news because it gives new meaning to the everyday challenges we encounter simply as a result of the inherent weaknesses of our make-up (gifts we might be lacking that we wish we had), physical limitations, and just plain limitations of our current human nature. It means that these aren’t just limitations we have to endure; rather, God is working in them and doing us good because of them — just as he does through all of our suffering (Romans 8:37).

Our weaknesses are perhaps the most minor (though this is not always so!) form of suffering, but they are also the most pervasive. We deal with them every day and run up against their limitations all the time. Further, we run up not only against our own weaknesses, but also weaknesses inherent in our circumstances, environment, and all the various things we have to deal with in our lives.

For example, every six weeks I go to Wal-Mart to buy six bags of rock salt for our water softener. They weigh 40 pounds each and I have to put them in the cart, push the now hard-to-control cart through the parking lot, unload them into my car, and then carry them home to my basement. I have to do this because there is something wrong with our water softener — it uses way too much rock salt. I’ve experimented with different settings to try and fix this, and nothing works (and figuring out how to use those strange, pre-historical dials was a painful experience in itself!). So I’ve resolved myself to just buy it the salt it needs, and have tried to make this as un-intrusive as possible by stocking up once every six weeks rather than every week.

This rock salt frustration is a result of multiple weaknesses. First, I don’t know why they didn’t decide to do a better job of getting the minerals out of the water back at the treatment plant! My experience here is thus multiplied, to one degree or another, through my entire community (50,000+ people — so probably 12,000 households or so — in a suburb of the Twin Cities). So I (and my community) are dealing with the effects of a broader institutional weakness — either they cut corners when they built the water plant, or there is some intrinsic problem with softening the water better at the plant that made it impossible for them to go that route.

Second, there’s something wrong with my water softener. So I’m dealing with the weakness of my household appliance. Third, these bags are heavy! Which brings me up against basic human limitations. I could carry just one bag from my car to my basement and make six trips and make things a bit lighter, or two bags and make three trips — making it harder each trip, but cutting down the number of trips. In carrying these bags, I’m dealing with basic human limitations. Fourth, having to go get this salt takes time. Not a ton, but with three young kids at home, it’s time I don’t really have. It’s time I’d rather spend doing something else.

This may seem like a small thing. But that’s exactly my point. We have small sufferings as well as large, and the small ones count. We are to trust God and respond in faith to the more minor challenges as well as the more major challenges. And, as I will mention below, these minor challenges can really add up and actually become, collectively speaking, a much more substantial hardship.

Here’s another weakness: Maybe you have to commute to work quite a ways. Here you are dealing with other weaknesses: the inability to live closer to work, the limitations of the road system (if you encounter much traffic), and so forth. This, in turn, takes away some of your time — which is a real cost and real sacrifice. But God can redeem this, too. The commute may be a small trial, but God can work in it for much good.

Insults are a form of suffering. We might have naturally thought this, because persecution often involves insults. But Paul seems to have in mind here insults more generally — that is, any insult, including (especially, probably) those that come to us apart from persecution, because he mentions persecution later in the list.

People will sometimes say stupid things! When they do, you aren’t left to yourself to merely dismiss it by your own will power. Rather, there is a biblical category here: insults. God understands and knows that it’s off the mark. Sure, learn the good you can from it, but move on. This is a form of suffering, even if small (though it may not even seem small in many cases), and is not to be dwelt upon more than any other trial.

Hardships seems to be a general term covering any difficulties in life. Another way of thinking of suffering is anything that is a hardship. So here we have yet another category that broadens our understanding of suffering.

Our third child is 11 months now. Last week he had a cold (from the church nursery!) and two of the days he was extremely fussy. My wife stays home with the kids, and so she bore the brunt of this. Those were challenging days for her! Someone might say “hey, it’s just a baby crying — no big deal.” First of all, the person saying that has probably never have kids, or they wouldn’t think that! :  ) Second, my response would be: “Well, this is a real form of hardship. It is hard to have your baby crying all day. It’s still wonderful to be able to take care of him, but this is a real challenge — and it falls into the biblical category of hardship. And therefore, God’s strength is available for this, too. And as we seek to deal with things like this in God’s strength, our faith is built up as well.”

“Hardship” gives us a broad category and which so many challenges of life fit. If your water heater goes out, that’s a hardship. If your transmission goes out, that’s a hardship. If your work takes a lot out of you, that’s a hardship.

It is starting to seem like this life is filled with much more suffering than we realized! And this is exactly one reason why theologians refer to Christ’s time on earth specifically as his “state of humiliation.” Simply existing in this fallen world, with all of the consequent difficulties and limitations we experience every day, is a form of suffering. Christ’s own suffering was not simply the cross and the trial and beatings leading up to it — although those were chief among his sufferings. In addition to that, Christ’s suffering included his entire time in this world — punctuated with many especially difficult trials (hence, he was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”) and other trials of varying degree. We follow the same pattern as Christ: first suffering, then glory.

Now we are getting in to the more challenging and difficult. Persecution for our faith — whether taking physical or other form — is of course suffering, and a very significant form.

This last item on the list is probably referring to the most difficult and painful form of suffering of all — extreme disasters. One example of a calamity might be an intense wave of suffering that goes through the church, such as happened often in the first century and is still happening in various places today. Or a famine. Or a war. And so forth. (And, of course, this could also include extreme or life-threatening individual hardships, such as cancer, hunger, the shipwrecks in Acts, and so forth.)

I don’t want to take too rigid of a view of the progression of this list — as though weaknesses are always less in degree than insults, or persecutions are always greater challenges than more general hardships. But the main point of this list seems clear: God’s grace is available to us for all forms and levels of suffering — from the more minor to the most extreme.

Specific Examples in Paul’s Life of Things You Might Not Have thought of As Suffering

In addition to the more generalized list of categories of suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul also lists many specific forms of suffering that he endured in chapter 11:23-28. His list includes:

  • Great labors: v. 23
  • Persecution: vv.24-25
  • Accidents: v. 25
  • Journeys: v. 26
  • Danger (even apart from the actual occurrence of harm): v. 26
  • Toil: v. 27
  • Hardship: v. 27
  • Sleepless nights: v. 27. So all-nighters.
  • Hunger and thirst: v. 27
  • Cold and exposure: v. 27
  • Anxiety: v. 28

I will cover some of these in more detail in my post on suffering in our work, but what’s notable here is that, once again, we see Paul listing some things that we wouldn’t typically think of as suffering.

For example, sleepless nights? Is that suffering? Yes. If you are up all night because your kids are sick, that is suffering. If you have to pull an all-nighter at work, that is suffering.

Toil? Is that really suffering? Yes. If your work calls for unusual seasons of great exertion, don’t first think “I must be a workaholic.” Instead, you may simply be enduring the regular path of suffering that God has appointed and which is just as necessary to your calling as Paul’s toil and “great labors” were to his.

Anxiety? Is that really suffering? Yes. If your work is complex and vague and you aren’t sure always if everything is going to work out, but it’s really and important and matters that it does, you might experience a legitimate form of anxiety. The peace of Philippians 4 is available here, but the point is this concern is not to be discounted, and is a real form of suffering.

The Point

The point is: We are all encountering more suffering than we realize, because our view of suffering has been too limited. As a result, much of our suffering comes upon us like a stealth bomber: announced and unrecognized. We are less likely to respond well to suffering that we don’t realize as suffering.

We need to have a more full-orbed view of suffering so that we are more equipped to respond to all things in faith and because, at the end of the day, small things may not remain small things. They can add up. One major form of suffering can actually be a massive accumulation of smaller, every day things such that, while each item by itself may not be a big deal, all together they are a huge deal. But if we don’t recognize that the smaller things are real suffering in themselves, we will be less likely to recognize their accumulation as a significant trial that requires much faith and perseverance.

More on the importance of recognizing “stealth suffering” in the next post.

Posts in This Series

  1. Suffering in Our Work and Everyday Lives: An Introduction
  2. Broadening Our Understanding of Suffering: The Various Types of Suffering
  3. Stealth Suffering: You Are Probably Suffering More than You Know
  4. What Suffering Feels Like
  5. How to Endure Suffering
  6. Suffering in Our Work
  7. Is God in Control of Our Suffering?
  8. God’s Aims in our Suffering
  9. The Results of Our Suffering
  10. Fighting against Suffering and Helping Those Who Suffer
  • Daniel

    Hi, just wondering if you will be continuing this series…? Or am I missing a post that you won’t continue these series on suffering..?

    Thanks again and God bless

  • Matt

    I put this on hold for a bit when things got busy, but I do plan on picking it up again. I don’t know when it will be, but hopefully not too long!

  • staffaction

    Looking forward to when it is picked up! I have referred to it for reference in the past week.

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