We have all experienced suffering; some more than others. And some of you are going through difficult situations right now. I think it’s good for us from time to time to remember together what the Scriptures teach with regard to our suffering. Let’s look at two particular questions, ‘Where is God in our suffering?’ and ‘Why does God allow us to suffer?’ And we begin with the second.
Why does God allow us to suffer?
There are, at least, four themes in Scripture that are relevant to talking about this. 1. Love involves the risk of suffering. It was God’s purpose in creating us that we might freely choose to love and serve him. This is the glory of humanity, that we are like God in being able to choose and to love. Yet this carries with it the risk, and in our case the reality, that we will choose to hate God and not serve him. This is the bane of humanity, that we have done just this.
We know that God allows us to choose because the Scriptures teach that God’s will is not always done. (Acts 7:51; Ezekiel 18:31-32; Isaiah 63:10; Luke 7:30). That’s why Jesus teaches us to pray to God, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – Matthew 6:10. And that’s why even though God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” most do not – 1 Timothy 2:4. God is permitting us to choose to love him or not.
And this is where our suffering comes from. God created this possibility and we have chosen it. And so we all suffer. And this world that we were meant to oversee is broken and causes us to suffer as well. So we’re in a situation where, although God is all-loving and all-powerful, he limits himself to allow us to choose. As Joshua 24:15 says, “choose today whom you will serve.”
Now, I believe that just as we would say in our human relationships of love, that love is worth the risk and the pain that comes with it – so in relation to God. That we are made like God, able to choose and to love, and that some choose love is, I believe, worth the suffering that has come with this.
2. God can bring good out of our suffering. Although it was not God’s will that we choose sin and thus suffer, he can nevertheless accomplish his plan by using our suffering for his own ends. That’s how great God is.God can teach us and others through the suffering we go through. God can lead us into a greater depth of trust and relationship with him through these experiences. God can redeem and transform our suffering.
- The Israelites in the wilderness suffered hunger and only had manna to eat. Deuteronomy 8:3 says, “he let you hunger . . that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
- Joseph was sold into slavery and was also put in jail. But God used his suffering for good. As Joseph said to his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” – Genesis 45:5.
- Paul’s life was in danger due to persecution, but God used this experience to teach him to “rely not on himself but on God who raises the dead” – 2 Corinthians 1:9.
- And supremely of all, God used Jesus’ suffering and death to provide salvation for the world.
God can use suffering for good. That’s why James can say, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:3-4. (Also Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:11.) The author of Hebrews even says this about Jesus in 5:8, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Also 2:10)
Paul says comprehensively in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God orchestrates things in such a way that for his own, God can use even our pain and suffering to bring good into our lives.
3. Our suffering is temporary, our blessings will be much greater and eternal. We are a part of a bigger plan that includes deliverance from suffering and also great blessing. As 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “. . . no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Revelation 21:3-4 speaks of this, “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.” We will have new, resurrected life in God’s presence in the fulness of joy forever and ever.
Paul, a man who knew about suffering, tells us that it’s worth it to suffer in this age, because of the blessings that are to come. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” – 2 Corinthians 4:17. And again he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” – Romans 8:18.
Now, don’t think that because of what has been said, that suffering and evil have now been explained and we should set aside our distress about the evil that happens in the world and the pain we personally suffer. No! Suffering is truly terrible. We live in a world where people are abused and raped, where children are murdered, where the holocaust happened and other genocides and senseless wars of death and destruction; where tsunami’s wipe out whole cities and earthquakes indiscriminately kill both the evil and the good.
When we see such evil in the world, as Christians we need to admit that 4. Some things aren’t explainable, at least in this life. We can say that the risk of love is worth it, that God will bring good out of our suffering and that by comparison in the end it will be worth it. But we say this all by faith. And many don’t have this faith and don’t see it this way at all.
We have to admit that there’s mystery involved in how God orchestrates his creation. And we are not in a place to understand or easily explain what God allows. This is, I believe, the message of the book of Job. So many people read this book and think they’ll get an answer to the question, “Why did God allow Job to suffer?” But the book doesn’t give a neat answer! God simply tells Job that he’s in control of a complex and powerful creation, and in a way that is beyond human understanding. As the Lord says to Job in Job 38:4, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” We as humans will not understand why and how God does all that he does, at least in this life. And so we have to trust God in all this. We have to trust that the God we know to be just and merciful is doing what is right and good.
And then we come to our second question –
Where is God in our suffering?
And the answer from Scripture is that God is with us in our suffering. It certainly doesn’t always feel like this is so. It can seem like God is absent. As the psalmist says in Psalm 10:1, “Why, O Lord, do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Who hasn’t felt this way?
But yet we are taught that God is with us. As the Lord says in Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” And he says in Hebrews 13:5, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” God is with us to watch over us, to encourage us, to comfort us and to strengthen us. And not only this, God has come to be with us through his Son. He sent him to this earth, whose name is Immanuel or “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God did not stand far off and aloof from us. God has walked in our shoes. God is with us.
And God knows our pain and suffering. As the psalmist says in Psalm 56:8, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (NLT). God cares about us; God loves us. And not only this, God knows our pain and suffering through his Son. Jesus suffered with us and for us in his life and in his death on the cross. God knows first-hand what we’re going through. His innocent Son was slandered, treated with contempt, tortured and murdered in a particularly cruel way.
God has not left us alone. He is with us as we experience the pain of suffering. And he suffers with us, until that day when all things will be made new.