I am currently writing a series of blogs that deal with the topic of suffering. These blogs will seek to answer the following questions: (1) What does Christian community have to do with suffering?, (2) What does the Bible teach us about suffering?, (3) What does the gospel teach us about suffering?, (4) If God is good, why is there suffering in this world?, and (5) How can we help those who are suffering? For the rest of this post, I will focus specifically on answering the second question.
In last week’s post, we saw that Christians have a God-given responsibility to care for sufferers in their churches. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve been designed to need each other, especially during times of hardship and trial. But in order to adequately minister to the suffering in our midst and to endure times of suffering ourselves, we must first have a robust theology of suffering.
The longer I’ve been involved in ministry the more I’ve realized how important it is to know what God’s Word says about the topic of suffering. An insufficient theology of suffering can have devastating consequences when the storms of life hit. Case in point, consider why the vast majority of atheists became atheists in the first place. Whenever I talk to an atheist, I always ask them what led them to stop believing in God. Not once has an atheist proceeded to tell me that they stopped believing in God because they heard a compelling scientific or philosophical argument against His existence. Rather, their commitment to atheism always stems from some form of suffering that they’ve experienced in their past (i.e. abuse, loss of a loved one, illness, depression, etc.). Their experience of suffering understandably led them to ask, “How could a good and all-powerful God let something like that happen to me?” But because they don’t have a sufficient theology of suffering, they aren’t able to deal with that question which then causes them to suppress the truth and conclude that a good and all-powerful God must not exist. Hence, an insufficient theology of suffering can have devastating—even eternal—consequences.
In order to help us develop a theology of suffering, I’m going to provide a brief synopsis of the Bible’s teaching on suffering using seven truth statements. I believe that each of these statements are vital to our own ability to process experiences of suffering and to adequately care for others who are suffering. These truths lay a foundation for a robust theology of suffering.
1) Suffering is a consequence of the fall.
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 (cf. Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:21)
Pain, conflict, and death entered into the world the moment Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Up until that point there was no pain, no death, and no suffering. But all that changed the moment Adam and Eve sinned. God’s original design for creation did not include suffering. Suffering is a consequence of the fall in the Garden.
2) Suffering is to be expected.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. – 1 Peter 4:12
Notice Peter doesn’t say, “Do not be surprised if the fiery trial comes upon you…” Rather, he says “Do not be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon you…” Suffering is to be expected. We should not be surprised when it comes upon us. Paul goes so far as to say that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22).
3) God is always good in everything he does and permits.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! – Psalm 34:8
The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. – Psalm 145:9
God is good. All the time. He is the very standard of goodness. Thus, he is always good to all people. He is incapable of doing something that is not good.
4) God is sovereign over suffering.
For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. – 1 Peter 3:17
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. – 1 Peter 4:19
Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from that mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? – Lamentations 3:37-38
All the experiences of suffering that we face in this life are according to God’s perfect will. This means that God has sovereignly ordained and permits every instance of suffering in our lives. Even the devil himself cannot do anything that God does not allow him to do (see Job 1-2).
5) God has good purposes in our suffering.
If God is good in everything he does and permits, and he permits our suffering, then he must also have good purposes in our suffering. The Bible gives us several good purposes that God might have for our suffering. Here are six of them.
i. He uses suffering for our sanctification and good.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. – Genesis 50:20
ii. He uses suffering to make way for comfort and to equip us to be comforters.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for your is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
iii. He uses suffering to produce greater endurance, character, and hope in us which gives us reason to rejoice.
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. – Romans 5:3-5
iv. He uses suffering to teach us that his grace is sufficient.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
v. He uses suffering to teach us that Christ is more valuable than the things of this world.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. – Philippians 3:8
vi. He uses suffering to deepen our longing for glory.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:18
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:4
6) God may never reveal to us his purposes in our suffering.
How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind? Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? – Job 7:19-21
The book of Job is about suffering. And understandably, Job wants to know what God’s purposes are for his suffering. He wants to know the answer to the “why” question. However, when God finally responds to Job in Job 38-41, he never actually tells Job why he allowed Job to suffer. Instead of answering the “why” question, God gives Job a greater vision of who He is. Job didn’t need to know why he was suffering. He needed to remember who God is and trust him accordingly (Job 42:1-6).
7) God is with us in our suffering.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4
I am with you always, to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:20
I will never leave you nor forsake you. – Hebrews 13:5
No matter what comes our way in this life, God is always with us. He never left Job. He never left Joseph. He never left Israel. And he’ll never leave us. When we feel alone, when we feel as though no one understands what we’re going through, we need to look to God. He is always with us. He understands what we’re going through and he even sympathizes with us (Hebrews 4:15).
If we don’t have these truths embedded in our heads and in our hearts, then when the storms of life come our way we will be tossed to and fro by them. We will question God’s goodness, love, and power, causing anger and bitterness to well up in our hearts. Our trials may even cause us to fall away from the faith. But if we truly know and believe these truths, and cling tightly to them when suffering comes our way, then these truths will help us persevere to the end. They will help us to endure even the fiercest of trials. And they will even give us reasons to rejoice in the midst of our suffering.
Remember, God can use the greatest suffering for the greatest good. We see this in the gospel, don’t we? This is precisely what I will focus on in the next post—what the gospel teaches us about suffering.