This article is part three of three in a series on God and suffering
I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.
– Anne Frank
It was a beautiful early-spring afternoon. The rays of a golden sun beat down on my face, however, my insides felt like the darkest winter. I was going through a trial unlike any other I ever faced. Very few, if any, knew about it or know about it now. If you spend any time around me, you know I can be a pretty peppy guy. I guess you could say up to that point in life, I had lived a semi-charmed life. Don’t get me wrong – I had been through trials and heartaches. But this was unlike any other pain I ever faced. More personal. Deeper. It was the kind of hurt you don’t wish on anyone. I remember getting the unexpected news over the phone. I walked outside. The sun was now going down, and my fists clenched the mixture of grass and soil. There I was, on my knees. Salty tears running down a face that rarely ever cries.
We all dread days like those. We do everything we can to avoid them. However, they come. And not only do they come, they come like an unwelcome visitor: more often than we’d like, at the least convenient times, and longer than we’d wish.
So then, what do we do with the pain and suffering we experience? I think it’s a subject many Christians seek to avoid. Either it hurts way too much to think about the past, or we don’t want to admit some distrust exists in our hearts toward God. We might not say it out loud, but it’s there. However, I think this is the perfect spot to hear the Bible out on the matter and see what comfort it can give.
In the last few weeks, we have dove headfirst into God’s intentions for suffering. It has not been an attempt to comfort those who suffer as much as it has been an opportunity for us to learn how God uses suffering in the life of people. These are things we need to know before we suffer, or we will find ourselves completely debilitated by the thorns inflicted by this life.
Throughout the last few weeks, we have looked at why vague approaches and trite comments in relation to suffering do nothing for us. Telling yourself things like “God is getting my attention” or “I’m going through this for a reason” might sound good and well, but these thin clichés never can deal with the complexities of life. Instead, they often leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth and a suspicious eye towards God. If we want hope amidst our suffering and the ability to help others in their own affliction, we must move past these shallow truths by taking a look and resting in some of the reasons the Bible gives for suffering.
A 3D👓 View of Suffering
Growing up in Orlando, you get your fair share of theme park experiences. One genre of rides that always fascinated me was the 3D movie experiences you would find at Universal Studios. Usually, the park staff would hand you a pair of glasses at the entrance to the ride. If you looked at the movie screen during the ride without those glasses, it would seem like an ordinary movie. You put those glasses on, though? All of a sudden, the ride came to life! Water and animals would begin flying not just towards the screen – they would be coming right for your head! Sometimes, you’d completely duck out of the way even though you knew it was real. However, another aspect of these rides defies reason: how the audience is captivated by things they see every day. Usually, the ride would go through meadows and rivers where you would see flowers, rivers, and bees in 3D. You’d hear the, “ahhhhs” from the audience. The strange thing? Everyone in the audience has already seen these things in real life. Why are they suddenly captivated by them in a 3D ride? As I reflected on this, I think I realized the answer. Though the audience had experienced these objects in real life, they now saw their inherent beauty in a new light.
This is exactly what the Bible does to our understanding of suffering in the life of a Christian. In fact, one whole section of the Bible seems dedicated to teaching the follower of Jesus how to suffer well. In a very similar way, what we read takes our understanding from a flat view of our suffering that only produces suspicious questions and bitterness to a 3D view that allows us to take exhilarating joy in our God. In the process, he takes the fear of suffering in the life of the Christian and begins to transform them – making them into a completely different person in the process. By looking at a few specific reasons why Christians suffer, we can begin to make more sense out of our own suffering. Again, not all these will apply to every case of suffering, nor is it an exhaustive list. However, it is a good place to start.
- Natural Consequences for Sinful or Foolish Actions
- Bible: The Lord possessed [wisdom] at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago [wisdom] was set up, at the first, before the hills, [wisdom] was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, [wisdom] was brought forth…When he established the heavens, [wisdom] was there. (Proverbs 8:22-27)
- Explanation: While a few of the reasons on this list are well known among many Christians, this one is not often considered. The big idea? If you fight against the way the Lord made the universe, the design of the universe itself is going to reach out and slap you back. That’s right, not necessarily God. He doesn’t have to in every instance, because His creation does it for him. This is true for both those who follow Jesus and those who do not, and it best represented in the book of Proverbs. If you don’t know, the book of Proverbs is essentially the Bible’s school of hard knocks. It provides the Christian with street smarts that will serve them well as they journey through life. One of the big ideas from Proverbs can be found early in the book, but especially here in chapter 8: “Ages ago [wisdom] was set up, at the first, before the hills, [wisdom] was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields…” Notice the writer describes wisdom as something like a concrete slab God used to lay the foundation of creation (wisdom was “set up” before the hills before he made the earth). In other words, God has knitted a way of living life into the world. Therefore, if a person steps outside that path, God doesn’t have to sit in the heavens and slap them. That might be the case in other religions, but not in Christianity. He doesn’t have to. He designed the world to slap you if you slap it. For instance, God made us to be the kind of creatures who speak what is beautiful and proper at all times. However, if a person steps outside of this way of being, they will meet all kinds of natural backlash. They might destroy their friendships one at a time through gossip. They might lose their job because of their mouth, making themselves into an employee the boss cannot trust. They might even submarine their marriage. Is God backslapping them for their rebellion? I would argue he doesn’t have to. Why? Because he made the world in a way where if you don’t walk according to wisdom, there will be natural consequences. Undoubtedly some of you have been a part of small groups where someone might have asked for prayer against anxiety (or even worse at times, “persecution”) regarding a specific relationship or job. However, in many cases, the problem might not be anxiety or persecution. It’s because that person is rejecting the wisdom of the Lord and getting slapped around by the world. See the first two minutes of this video as a good illustration of this.
- So that you can be a witness to those who do not know Christ
- Bible: I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)
- Explanation: Okay, if we’re being honest here, this is one of my more favorite sections in the Bible. Paul is writing to the church at Philippi, but he is not writing to them from the Ritz Carlton. No, no, no – he’s writing to them from jail! You would think that would lead to a melancholy letter to this church, right? But what does Paul have the audacity to say? “I want you to know…what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” What?!? It’s almost like Paul is wildly excited about how the Lord had used this present suffering in life. He notes how his suffering was ordained by the Lord that he could share with a ton of the praetorian guard (Roman military members) who were holding him captive. Paul is essentially saying, “Yo! Don’t feel sorry for me! The Lord is doing amazing things while I’m in prison! Pray the Lord would continue to use me in this way!” This is where we see one of God’s most specific instances for suffering in the life of his children. He uses their suffering as an amplifier so that the gospel can be both seen and heard in the lives of non-Christians. Suffering, especially the kind that goes on and on, demonstrates to a lost world that a person’s treasure actually lies in Jesus Christ and not the circumstances of their situation or health. Some of you who follow Christ that have long term maladies and diseases, this is one of the most beautiful portraits of the gospel Jesus has called you to. A great pamphlet on this subject, though it is more specifically geared towards cancer, is John Piper’s short pamphlet Don’t Waste Your Cancer. I would totally recommend it to anyone, even if you have not experienced a great amount of suffering in your life. When God’s saints find joy in Christ despite pain and anguish, it is a testament to the beauty and pleasure of God himself. That is the beauty of Christianity which is so different from the religions of the world that most people know. Jesus Christ is not just someone who just gets you someplace (i.e. to heaven) like the gods in other religions. Rather, Jesus Christ is the highest pleasure, joy, and delight to our hearts. That’s what allows the Christian to praise in the midst of suffering. Why? Because though they might be crippled, the One who makes their heart throb is still ever before their eyes. Though their body might be wasting away from a long term disease, Coronavirus, or cancer, they haven’t lost what their heart loves and longs for most – God himself.
- To have mercy on the person suffering by saving them from the greater consequences of sin and rebellion
- Bible: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32)
- Explanation: This reason might be the hardest for Christians to understand, as well as the hardest to explain. One of the reasons God has for suffering is to use it to save a Christian from further deception that sin can bring. One of the situations where we see this in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 11. Here, Paul tells of how some of the Corinthians took the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” (there is a debate about what this means, and I won’t address it today). He tells them it is for this reason that some of them had died. Yep. God took their life because of them doing so. I’m guessing that sounds harsh to your ears, doesn’t it? But notice what Paul surmises from this: “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined.” He is saying the death of these church members was the Lord’s kindness to them. Why? “…So that we may not be condemned along with the world.” In other words, God was protecting them from being further hardened or seduced by sin to a point where it endangered their souls. I am sure you will have a ton of questions about this, so please reach out to me if you want me to clarify. It would have to be a whole post in and of itself probably. The big idea at the end of the day: God uses suffering to save Christians from consequences and hardening from sin. He inflicts pain to spare us, which is why the Scripture often refers to God as a loving Father. Loving fathers train, encourage and discipline their children. Similarly, God can use suffering in a way that strips away a person’s delusion when that person thinks they are living a godly life, but perhaps not really. Let me give an example: a person might attend church every Sunday, volunteer frequently, and might participate in Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. However, a person can do all these things and still live a paganized-Christian life. They do not see their lives as a vessel for serving God. They make Christ part of their life, not the consuming fire that dominates their thoughts and affections. They confuse the American Dream for the Christian life, using good and helpful programs even like Dave Ramsey’s course. However, they use it to give the feeling God is rubber-stamping their wealth building, not realizing it might actually be greed dressed up as wisdom. God can use suffering in situations like this to reveal their “dream” for their life is actually a crappy one, and the life He has for them in Christ is far superior, even if it comes with tears.
- To strengthen/humble you
- Bible: 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. (2 Corinthians 12:7)
- Explanation: Can a person be strong and humble? Aren’t those antonyms? Well, according to Paul, they are not! In 2 Corinthians, Paul demonstrates that God gives trials and suffering to simultaneously humble and strengthen a person. Now, the reason this strikes Americans so odd is because of our self-sufficiency. However, from God’s point of view, self-sufficiency is the height of human arrogance. Why? Because it is an overestimation of one’s own strength and a denial that one needs moment by moment sustenance from the Lord. In this passage, Paul cites how God gave him a painful struggle which he calls “a thorn in the flesh.” Nobody really knows what this thorn was, however, the point is just as clear. God gave him this to humble him. Now, this sounds a little funny because most of us would not think of Paul as a person who needed humility. However, the Lord knows our hearts much better than we know them. I noticed this hidden arrogance in my own life while reading Proverbs a couple years ago: whenever I read something good and praiseworthy, I would think of how I did those things. Whenever I would read of the fool, I would think of someone else. God in his great knowledge knew exactly what Paul would need, and that was a large dose of humility – even if it hurt! To hear Paul talk about this is even more amazing, as he later rights, “Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) Paul could recognize the anguish of these sufferings, yet he knew as he went through them he was growing in the Lord. Again, this sounds funny to us because we think of strength as the absence of pain and suffering. But the Bible invites us to see our suffering in a new light – like a bouquet of grace that is spreading the aroma of Christ to areas of your life that still smell pretty rank. In the process, you are made into someone incredibly strong, though your body is wasting away.
- To show you both the passing nature of this life as well as where all pleasure and treasure stems from
- Bible: But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:32-34)
- Explanation: Out of all my favorite verses about suffering, this one is near and dear to my heart. The author of Hebrews describes how these people came to faith in Christ. What did they receive from the world in response to their new-found faith? A t-shirt? A baptism certificate? Nope. They got floggings, public reproach, and the government-mandated seizure of their property. How did they respond? Did they appeal to their rights as a citizen? Did they start a Change.org petition to get their property back? No. Notice what the author says: “…you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” You might need to double-take that sentence. They just got all their things stolen, and what was their response? They are overjoyed, but not because they had their stuff stolen. They are overjoyed that they get to suffer for Christ in this way. They received the opportunity of a lifetime to show their treasure was never in their house, or retirement, or children, or television. It was, and will always be, in Christ. It’s easier to have things taken away if you know you have something way better than that coming. In a way, these people’s suffering reminded them of everything they possessed, even their own families and bodies, was on its way out. This life is passing by, and it will end one day. This is where suffering is such an effective tool by the Lord. It drives the Christian to look to eternity with a bittersweet smile in their heart, even if it pains them so dearly now. They know that money, kids, family, a wife, a husband, success – all good pleasures in this life – are nothing compared to seeing our Creator face-to-face. In fact, think about those pleasures for a second. Who made them all? Do you think it’s by mistake that you find those appealing? No way! God made them like that! If he can make simple things like that that make your heart go wild, imagine what else he can do. Think about his character, that he could think up something like that. That’s the crazy thing about the God of the Bible: he is the source of all pleasure. That means everything you love, every feeling that makes your heart skip a beat, is in some sense a shadow. The unfortunate thing is that so many times we play around in the shadows thinking we are grasping hold of what really will bring us joy. We don’t realize those shadows are meant to lead us to the person those shadows come from — himself. The good news in this? For the follower of Jesus, one day we will see him. And one look from his gaze will eclipse a life-time of earthly pleasures. Though our bodies might be crippled in the dust in agony, there is an aspect in which God uses that to make our hearts sore to the heavens.
A Gateway to Glory
There I was on that lawn – those same hands that clinched soil eventually released it. Slowly, those hands lifted up to the heavens despite the agony. I remember it like it was yesterday, although now it is the distant past. It was a day of great loss. But what if I told you that all my memories from that day weren’t bad? Would you believe me? Don’t get me wrong – the bad was really bad. The loss was real. But not everything on that day was lost. I met someone that day – someone unexpected. I met someone I already knew. In my suffering, I saw the beauty of Christ. Did it replace my pain? No. But I would never be the same after that day. I caught a glimpse of what the Lord was doing in my life, even as my heart sunk to the depths of an ocean of anguish. What I saw was not an explanation of why I was going through these things. I was not after answers. Rather, it was a portrait of who he was making me into. Through my hurt, I was learning to trust him more. So I sang. I sang through tears and thanked him for his faithful character. Through my anguish, my heart did not run from him but clung to him. In bringing trials and pain my way, the Holy Spirit was making me into someone in the future who I would not recognize if I saw him today.
That’s what suffering does for followers of Jesus. It’s Father’s greatest and most effective tool. A tool he uses on all those he loves dearly and calls “son” or “daughter.” A tool that does far more for us than a life of comfort, ease, and everything going according to plan. Indeed, suffering is the gate we must walk through. In a sense, this thorny path is the gateway to glory. I think this is why Jesus said, “Narrow is the road that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” Did you catch that? Few. Though we walk through that gate now, and it’s thorns hurt more than we can ever dream, there is a day when all the thorns will be removed. All the aches will be bandaged. All the wounds of our hurts will be healed. And what our hearts truly longed for in this world, they will finally receive – forever and only Jesus.