Suffering of one kind or another is something that we all experience, but do not ever fully understand. The aim of this paper is to study the various kinds of suffering and its agents, to suggest various reasons why God allows it and to face the mystery that often surrounds it, to indicate the various spiritual purposes that God has in it, and to explain the positive attitude that a Christian believer should have towards all suffering in this present life.
1. Kinds of Suffering.Suffering may be defined as any pain, grief, loss, wrong, or punishment that we experience either deservedly or undeservedly. It may affect the body, mind or spirit. Some suffering is hereditary, resulting from the fact that we are born of parents who have certain defects, perhaps due to inborn sin or its practical outworking. Some suffering is accidental, the consequence of the fact that we live in a world disturbed by sin, so that we make costly mistakes or are involved in the upheavals of the natural world around us. Some suffering is consequential, the direct result of evil or unwise ways of living which break the moral or physical laws of our Creator. Some suffering is punitive, inflicted by God or man because of particular sins or crimes. God’s final judgment on sin upon an unrepentent sinner will be eternal, banishment from His presence in the torments of the lake of fire. Only Christ’s sufferings on the cross of Calvary can be called vicarious, because only He could bear the punishment for sin on behalf of all men and in the place of all who believe in Him. Christ’s sufferings as a Perfect Man living in this sinful world and a believer’s sufferings as a follower of Christ are sympathetic, because Christians as members of Christ’s body, the Church, are identified with their rejected Lord and with each other, while Christ Himself as a result of His incarnate life knows by personal experience what the life of faith involves in His sin-cursed creation.
2. Agents of Suffering.We ourselves bring suffering upon ourselves by our own wrong doing, simply reaping what we have sown. Other people who hate or misunderstand us, or who simply make a human error, can bring suffering to us also. Animate or inanimate creation may also be the agent of suffering, because it is disturbed by the curse brought upon it through Adam’s original sin. Often Satan is the agent of our suffering, either because men give themselves to him, such as Judas Iscariot or the future man of sin, or because God allows him to afflict believers for a time, as was the case with Job and Paul, 2 Cor. 12. 7. Finally, God Himself, as the Sovereign Lord and Judge of His creation and His redeemed people, deals with men either directly or indirectly through the above-mentioned agents to effect their chastening or final retribution for sin.
3. Reasons for Suffering.Men, both unbelieving and believing, often question the fact that God allows or even instigates suffering in the world that He has made, and ask why He does not intervene to stop it. To this frequently-heard complaint two answers can be given. First, God allows us to suffer because we are His responsible creatures and as such must learn by hard experience the hatefulness of our sin to God by seeing and feeling what it has done to His creation. The very remedy for sin, Christ’s sacrificial death on Calvary, resulted
4. The Mystery of Suffering.The foregoing paragraph brings us to consider the very real mystery associated with the whole subject of suffering in the world and of God’s relationship to it. The reasons given above for God’s permissive attitude to suffering cannot entirely fathom the depths of the subject or satisfy all the questions about God’s own character and relationship to man that it raises. For if we accept the undoubted fact that suffering entered creation because of sin, first through Satan, then through Adam, we shall ask why God created beings who could disobey Him rather than robots who could not do so. The answer to this question probably lies in the nature of God Himself. For God, who is not only Spirit and Light, but also Love, desires the intelligent and willing fellowship of His creatures. He desires that man made in His own image, and originally in His moral likeness, may share intelligently in the fellowship between the Persons of the Godhead that is the very essence of eternal life. Ultimately we must with the apostle Paul in Romans 9. 19-20 forbear questioning the dealings of God with His creatures and simply accept His absolute sovereignty.
We may not understand how the truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, or God’s wrath and His love, can be reconciled, but both are taught in Scripture, and must be upheld with equal tenacity. We need to realize that as God’s creatures we deserve nothing from Him, but are accountable to Him. This may help us to understand the further mystery of God’s sovereign administration of suffering, that is, the reason why He allows some people to suffer in this life far more than others. There is no logical answer to this question. All we do know is that God Himself in the Person of His Son has been prepared to suffer more than all creation put together in order to redeem those who trust in Him. In that sense God in His character both as righteous and holy and as loving and gracious has accepted responsibility for creating the world as He has. Let us therefore not ask in resentment, “Why is God letting me go through this suffering?”, but in faith accept our trials from His hand as His means of displaying the glories of His grace in us. For even man’s wrongdoing can enable God to demonstrate His longsuffering character towards him.
5. The Purposes of Suffering for the Believer. Although we may not fully understand the mystery associated with suffering or answer the questions that it raises in our minds, we can be certain that God always designs suffering for a spiritual purpose. Many such purposes are clearly indicated in Scripture. They may be listed as follows:
(i) As an Example to warn or guide others. This was the case with the destruction of the morally depraved cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and also with the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied against the Holy Spirit in the early days of the Church. God rarely deals directly like this before the final judgment.
(ii) As the means of the Correction of a believer’s immoral life or false doctrine. In 1 Corinthians 5 the believer who had committed the gross moral sin of incest was delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. In 1 Timothy 1 two believers are said to have been similarly dealt with for blasphemy, while in 2 Timothy 2 two other believers who had taught that the resurrection had already occurred, and had thus overthrown the faith of some, were similarly to be shunned. Restoration to the fellowship of the local church could only follow the clear evidence of repentance.
(iii) As part of God’s normal Discipline or training of believers as His sons until we share His own characteristics of holiness and righteousness. Hebrews 12 teaches that all true believers can expect this treatment in this life, that is, as long as we have natures marred by sin which need to be curbed. It is not given for any particular sins, but to prevent the manifestation of our sinful natures.
(iv) For the Refinement of our faith in our unseen Lord. 1 Peter 1 explains that our God-given trials of faith have the purpose of the present salvation of our souls from the power of sin. In John 15 the Lord Himself says that it is sometimes when we do well and begin to bear the fruit of Christ-like character that He prunes us by means of suffering, so that we will bear more such fruit. From this we can clearly understand that suffering is by no means always a sign of the Lord’s displeasure with us, but sometimes His response to our advances in His school.
(v) For the Prevention of Pride in a very gifted or privileged believer, such as the apostle Paul, who says in 2 Corinthians 12 that his thorn in the flesh was the messenger of Satan sent to buffet him, lest he became conceited about his many privileges as the apostle to the Gentiles.
(vi) A means of a believer’s Education in Dependence on God’s grace to sustain him. Paul learned this lesson from his suffering mentioned above. It taught him to distrust himself and to rely wholly upon Christ in his weakness.
(vii) An inevitable consequence of our Fellowship with Christ in His present rejection by the world and our Fellowship with other members of His Body the Church. This is distinctive Christian suffering, that is, suffering not for any wrongdoing, but simply because we are Christians, identified with Christ and living in righteousness like Christ, as the apostle Peter explains in 1 Peter 4.
(viii) Simply for the Greater Glory of God. In John 9. 3 the Lord explains that the man born blind was not so born because of his own or his parent’s sin, but simply that the wonderful works of God might be manifested in him by the miracle involved in his healing. Similarly, in John 11.4 Lazarus must die so that the Lord might bring more glory to God by raising him from the dead, than by healing him before he died. For it was thus that He proved Himself to be the Resurrection and the Life.
6. The Christian Attitude to Suffering.Basically, this should be one of joyful acceptance, as James 1 exhorts us. It should also be one of prayerful enquiry or intelligent appreciation of what God is doing through it and cooperation with His purpose in it. A Christian’s suffering in this life is a form of judgment designed to curb our sinful natures, and ultimately to destroy them in physical death. But it also has as its gracious purpose the formation of Christian character and our preparation for service throughout eternity in a new universe free from sin. An unbeliever’s suffering may only start at death, but it will continue for ever afterwards. But a believer’s suffering ends at death and is not worthy to be compared with the glory which we are to enjoy in eternity. Therefore, let us heed the apostle Peter’s exhortations in 1 Peter 4, when he encourages us to rejoice in suffering and to commit the keeping of our souls to God as to a faithful Creator, who designs all suffering for His own glory and our ultimate eternal blessing.