Most Christians struggle at one time or another, and some all the time, with the pain of suffering and questions about how, if at all, it fits into God’s plan for our spiritual growth. J. I. Packer is our instructor on this point, especially as found in his inexcusably overlooked and neglected work, Hot Tub Religion:
“Holiness is not a price we pay for final salvation, but is, rather, the road by which we reach it, and sanctification is the process whereby God leads us along that road. The New Testament shows us that in the school of sanctification many modes of pain have their place – physical and mental discomfort and pressure, personal disappointment, restriction, hurt, and distress. God uses these things to activate the supernatural power that is at work in believers (2 Cor. 4:7-11); to replace self-reliance with total trust in the Lord who gives strength (1:8f., 12:9f.); and to carry on his holy work of changing us from what we naturally are into Jesus’ moral likeness ‘with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Cor. 3:18).” (80).
We may even trace the presence in our lives of the fruit of the Spirit to God’s sovereign oversight of suffering. Says Packer,
“Christlike habits of action and reaction – in other words, the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22f.) – are ingrained most deeply as we learn to maintain them through experiences of pain and unpleasantness, which in retrospect appear as God’s chisel for sculpting our souls” (81).
The relevance of this for advocates of the health and wealth “gospel” is not lost on Packer:
“So any form of the idea that since God really loves us he must intend to keep us, or immediately to deliver us, out of all the troubles that threaten – poor health, lonely isolation, family disruption, shortage of funds, hostility, cruelty, or whatever – should be dismissed as utterly wrong. Faithful Christians will experience help and deliverance in times of trouble over and over again. But our lives will not be ease, comfort, and pleasure all the way. Burrs under the saddle and thorns in our bed will abound. Woe betide the adherent of hot tub religion who overlooks this fact!” (81).