God and our suffering

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.




Baptisms of suffering: Going through life’s deep waters

Series on baptism

Today’s message is about applying things we’ve learned about baptism to our lives when things get really difficult. The title is “Baptisms of suffering: Going through life’s deep waters.”

I would like to begin with a Scripture reading from Psalm 69 (vs. 1-3; 13-17).

Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness. Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.

In this Psalm we encounter “the waters” once again. In this case they refer to times of chaos, turmoil and evil in David’s personal life circumstances.

We all know, of course, that we will face deep waters throughout our lives. Even though we have passed through the waters of baptism, the waters will continue to confront us.

And they become personified in all kinds of ways in various people and circumstances in our lives. Here in Psalm 69 David’s enemies are the embodiment of the waters. We saw this supremely in Jesus where he calls his suffering and death a baptism or water experience in several places.

We will all continue to have times of suffering, grief, persecution and testing. And along with Jesus we can say that these are additional water baptisms, or baptisms of suffering – where we go through the deep waters of life; where we are inundated by the deep.

Now, my point today is that if our times of suffering are in fact water baptisms, then, I believe, we can learn something from our literal water baptism that can help us get through these additional baptisms of suffering. We can learn something that will help us navigate the deep waters we encounter, so that in David’s words, “the deep does not swallow (us) up.” But rather by God’s grace and power we can pass through to the other side.

So here are two things to remember when the floods come.

1. God is able to defeat the waters

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – pictured in our water baptism – so he can continue to do so, no matter how they come at us. And we need to remember this.

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes the deep.

  • Psalm 65:7 speaks of God as the one “who stills the roaring of the seas; the roaring of their waves . . .”
  • Psalm 89:9 says of God, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”

In the same way, God is able to still the seas for us– the churning, destructive, chaotic, forces of evil in our lives

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes all the hosts of the waters.

  • Psalm 89:10 says, “You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” – referring to the creation.
  • Psalm 74:13-14 says – “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” – referring to the parting of the Red Sea.

In the same way God is able to defeat Satan, for us – that ancient serpent, who tests us and seeks to destroy us. As Paul says to the Romans in 16:20, “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

It is an essential defining quality of who our God is, to say that God can defeat the waters and all their hosts.

So, we need not fear the waters! Not because they are not fearful, they truly are, and without God, we are without hope.

No, we need not fear the waters because our God is the Lord even over the deep. As Psalm 93:4 says, “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty!” The waters are mighty, but God is mightier. And so we should look to him in faith and hope as we go through our difficult times.

2. God will bring us through to the other side

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – portrayed in water baptism – so he can continue to deliver us. We need to remember this as we go through trials in our lives.

  • He might do this by lifting us up over the deep, and then setting us on dry ground, as with Noah
  • Or he might do this by parting the sea so that we can walk though it to the other side, as with Israel

 However God does it, he will not allow us to be swallowed up, but will deliver us and bring us to the other side. Isaiah 43:2-3 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . . For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” He will be with us and he will save us.

David testifies to this in Psalm 18:16-19, again from his personal life experiences. “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me . . .”

We don’t know when he will do it, but we have this promise in 1 Peter 5:10 – “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” And this gives us hope, even in our difficult times. God will bring us through to the other side.

Finally . . .

The other side of the deep waters will sometimes be the other side, that is, our death and going to be with Jesus and then the life that is to come in the new creation. And with regard to this, we can have strong confidence and hope that even the deep waters of death must submit to our God. Just as they did for Jesus, so they will for us – because Jesus goes before us and we are following in the path he has made.

  • We look forward to the day when Satan will be fully defeated. As Isaiah 27:1 says, “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
  • And on that day there will be no more deep. Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
  • And on that other shore, as Revelation 21:4 says, there will be no more death and no more tears.