Posted in theology

What are sufferings, trials, and afflictions?

By Elizabeth Prata

I started this essay three times and abandoned it three times. Not because I suddenly became disinterested in the topic. It was because I was getting confused. My original approach was to take several of the words (trials, sufferings, afflictions, tribulation etc) and define them and look at their contextual use. I was going to explain in detail exactly what trials and sufferings were.

However I got confused because there are SO MANY words for a Christian’s distress, so many reasons, and so many contexts, I discovered that the approach I chose to writing it would be beyond my time limits and abilities. There is spiritual suffering, physical suffering, suffering from within, suffering from without…each with its own word describing it. I had to stop and re-think each time I sat in my chair and began to research the topic.

If you just think of one Bible person, Paul, and his one list of the things he went through (beatings, sufferings, shipwrecks, danger from robbers, danger from brethren, etc). It was a long list of suffering and trials. (2 Corinthians 11:22-28). And that’s just one spot in the New Testament.

Now, it’s pretty interesting in itself, don’t you think? Jesus promised suffering/trial/trouble/persecution/danger/affliction…see how many words are used to convey the idea that a Christian’s life on this earth will be punctuated with anguish.

We read often in the Bible of our forefathers’ trials, afflictions, and sufferings. Paul writes often about them in the New Testament. Look at Job, Joseph, David in the Old Testament. On the surface, we know and comprehend these words. We understand trials and sufferings and trouble and afflictions well enough. But do we?

A trial is not having difficulty finding a parking space when it’s raining. It’s not that your favorite item at the grocery store is out of stock. It’s not when Amazon fails to deliver in the promised 2 days.

Sufferings, trials, trouble, difficulty, burdens, weights, pressures, afflictions…there are many different words the Bible uses and they each have different nuances. But they all boil down to one thing: the difficulties of living on this earth and dealing with our and others’ sin. Every one of the words I was trying to define has a parent root issue: it’s because of sin.

Suffering is a product of the Fall. Immediately after Adam sinned, mankind fell into affliction. Guilt and blame began in the marriage, arguments and pettiness. In the world, the very ground would fail to yield easily, the animals became hostile, and the climate changed. Childbirth would cause a woman to suffer pain. Grief entered into human life at Abel’s murder. Perfection was no more and the humans on earth began suffering. No matter our location on earth, difficulty comes. No matter the length of time we endure it and no matter the reason, the origin of the human experience of suffering is all due to sin:

 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, because all sinned— (Romans 5:12); and 1 Corinthians 15:21, For since by a man death came, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.

In the Old Testament, God promised the Israelites ease when they obeyed and difficulty when they didn’t. That promise was part of the Covenant. We see the many different sufferings they endured due to being disciplined for their persistent disobedience. They suffered famine, captivity, war.

The suffering continues in the Psalms. The Lexham Bible Dictionary explains-

The Psalms frequently portray shame, fear, grief, heartache, and inner unrest. One third of the Psalms are laments, which can include graphic descriptions of suffering (e.g., Psa 22). The psalmists consider why the righteous sometimes suffer and the wicked sometimes prosper (Pss 37; 73). Psalm 73:16 describes the attempt to understand this conundrum as “a wearisome task” (ESV). In Psalm 44:24, the psalmist cries out to God, “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (ESV).

We suffer spiritually. Paul expressed it when he mourned over the Galatians’ drift from orthodoxy, when he was grieved over Peter’s separation issue, and in general over his prayerful agony for his churches. (2 Corinthians 11:28).

We experience suffering over our own sin through a pricked conscience or due to consequences of our sin (jail time for theft, a stagnant marriage because of inattention). We endure suffering because of government’s sin (war, inflation), we endure suffering because of external climate (famine, flood, hurricane). We endure suffering because of other man’s sin (robbery, rape, murder). There is no escape at any point for a believer to escape the discomfort we endure on this earth due to sin.

We suffer, have trials, troubles, afflictions, and difficulties in emotional life, spiritual life, physical life, and mental life. Again, these are because of the fall and we will not escape any type of suffering while we are on earth. The good news is that it is a mere pulse in the life of a Christian. Our eternity is long, but our time in the suffering world is a vapor.

These things I have spoken to you so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33).

Paul was getting at this in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10,
“we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying around in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

Whatever type of difficulty you may be experiencing, (spiritual, mental, physical, external, internal…) it is not random and it it is not without a purpose.

On the day of prosperity be happy,
But on the day of adversity consider:
God has made the one as well as the other
So that a person will not discover anything that will come after him
(Ecclesiastes 7:14)

Suffering, trials, difficulties etc are a tool God uses for our good. Yes, Romans 5 describes the hardness of life, but Romans 8 describes the promise of life: all things work together for the good of those that love God.

Paul says we should rejoice in suffering. I know. It’s hard to do. It’s counterintuitive. Choosing to rejoice in suffering is sometimes as hard as the actual suffering we are going through. But no matter the nuance of the word describing our discomfort, is that we will soon be done with them! What a day that will be.


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

2 thoughts on “What are sufferings, trials, and afflictions?

  1. “But they all boil down to one thing: the difficulties of living on this earth and dealing with our and others’ sin.” Once again you bring me to tears of repentance. Thank you dear Elizabeth.

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