Whenever we approach the topic of suffering, we must be careful to distinguish what type of suffering we are talking about. Because of the presence of sin both in this world and in the hearts of every person, suffering comes to everyone—great and small, rich and poor, believer and unbeliever. There are really two general categories of suffering.
The first category we’ll call obedient suffering. These are difficulties that come from the sinful responses of a sinful world as we love our neighbors, love our enemies, forgive the sins of others (yes, even seventy times seven!), err on the side of grace rather than demanding justice, think the best of people, speak the truth in love, confess our sins, recognize the lordship of Christ in all things, etc. Get the point? As we live out the gospel through grace by the Spirit within us, it will not always leave a pleasant smell to the spiritually dead and rebellious. They may resent the stench of the gospel, they may take advantage of the weakness of the gospel, they may mock and shame the foolishness of the gospel. There is a reason our Lord describes discipleship as a taking up of the cross daily.
The second category we’ll call disobedient suffering. These are difficulties that come as a result of our own sins and failures. These could be sins of commission (doing what is forbidden) or omission (not doing what is commanded). While we are more likely to recognize the suffering that comes to us through the eating of a forbidden fruit, the more common suffering probably comes from not eating the right things. A person can suffer from eating a poison apple or by not eating at all. Whether through eating or not eating, the result is the same—sickness and death. Obedience in the garden required two things. Avoid the one tree that brought death and eat of the one tree that brought life.
We must be careful not to confuse our sufferings. Obedient suffering will produce fruit that nourishes the faith of others. King David rejoiced that God prepared a table before him in the presence of his enemies (Ps. 23). When we are nourished by the food God gives us—fellowship, prayer, promises, singing, confession, etc.—we can eat, drink, and be merry in the midst of a hostile world. On the other hand, disobedient suffering will not only make our own souls sick and malnourished, but will spread its poisonous effects to those around us.