Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of pain and suffering, it is difficult to trust that God is good. He promised me salvation! So, where is it?
Take, for example, the criminal described in Luke 23 who was being crucified alongside Jesus. As he was being crucified, this man recognizes that he is not like Jesus. He sees that he is guilty and is “receiving the due reward” for he sins, but that Jesus was an innocent man. The criminal also recognizes that Jesus is the merciful God, and is capable of saving him, even though Jesus is himself, at that moment, dying.
The man said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
When Jesus says these words, Jesus gives the criminal mercy, forgiveness, and the promise of paradise in God’s presence. Today.
And yet, what about the man’s suffering right now? What was is this forgiven sinner to think of the salvation he had been promised when he could barely pull air into his lungs anymore, when his whole body screamed with pain, when the shame of his sins was still displayed for every passerby to see?
This, John Calvin writes, “reminds us that we ought not to judge of the grace of God by the perception of the flesh; for it will often happen that those to whom God is reconciled are permitted by him to be severely afflicted.”
In other words, suffering in this life doesn’t make God’s promise of paradise false. In fact, Calvin warns that we need to guard ourselves against doubting God in these moments. Because, if we don’t guard ourselves, we might allow “the severity of pain hinder us from tasting the goodness of God.”
This is an important point. Calvin is not merely saying that God will come through in the future, so hang on. That’s true, but he’s also saying that if we hold on to the promise of the merciful God, then we will experience God’s goodness and mercy even now in our sufferings, even during a crucifixion. As Calvin says,
“all our afflictions ought to be mitigated and soothed by this single consolation, that as soon as God has received us into his favor, all the afflictions which we endure are aids to our salvation. This will cause our faith not only to rise victorious over all our distresses, but to enjoy calm repose amidst the endurance of sufferings.”
Paul testifies to this in Romans 5 when he explains that “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This work of God in Christ gives us peace and allows us to rejoice “in the hope of the glory of God.” But there’s more!
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
I doubt that after hearing Jesus' promise, the pain in the crucified criminal’s body went all away. But I have experienced in my own life and have heard in the testimonies of other Christians that what Paul says is true. God does give comfort and perseverance to those who suffer. And that he uses those sufferings for our salvation. You can trust him.