The subject matter of this article is not an easy one; however, there are challenges that we must face in relation to it and, above all, avoid superficial answers. Glib ‘one-liners’ are insensitive and of little comfort to a person who is in great anguish of soul. We must handle the issues that confront us with sensitivity and compassion.
Clearly, the presence of pain and suffering in the world tests our belief in God’s love and power. We have to face the charge from unbelievers that He is indifferent to human suffering and/or powerless to do anything about it. The fact that righteous people suffer and the wicked appear to prosper has troubled many a believer down the centuries of time, including some of the psalmists, e.g., Ps. 73. 2-5. Why some believers are called upon to face more pain and suffering than others can also lead us to question divine justice. It is, of course, our faith that presents us with these ‘problems’ – atheists and evolutionists do not face such dilemmas. G. Campbell Morgan writes, ‘Men of faith are always the men that have to confront the problems. Blot God out and your problems are ended. If there is no God in heaven, then we have no problem about sin and suffering’.
If we are to arrive at a helpful understanding of the ‘problems’ confronting us, there are a number of foundation stones upon which we need to build. First, whatever God allows must be right. We must base our thinking on the fact that He is sovereign. Abraham’s question is apposite: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ Gen. 18. 25. Paul’s question is equally fitting: ‘Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus?’ Rom. 9. 20.
Second, it must be remembered that creation is under God’s curse as a result of man’s sin. God said to Adam, ‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life’, Gen 3. 17. Paul writes, ‘For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now’, Rom. 8. 22. Our salvation does not alter the fact that we are part of this fallen creation and, therefore, we cannot expect to be spared the pain and suffering that accompanies it.
Third, pain and suffering must always be viewed in the context of eternity. Peter put it in this context when he wrote to believers who were about to pass through the fires of persecution: ‘But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you’, 1 Pet. 5. 10. Joni Eareckson Tada, who was confined to a wheelchair following a diving accident, writes, ‘Scripture is constantly telling us to view life from an eternal perspective. What is transitory, such as physical pain, will not endure, but what is lasting, such as the eternal weight of glory accrued from that pain, will remain forever’.
Fourth, pain and suffering must be viewed in the context of the fact that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’, Rom. 8. 28. Suffering does not alter this truth; indeed, it is the forerunner of coming glory.
Fifth, in seeking to understand pain and suffering, we must ask the right question. We tend to ask, ‘Why?’ in the belief that it would make life easier and the pain more bearable if we knew the reason why. However, a more vital and helpful question is, ‘What?’; i.e., What is God seeking to teach me and produce in me through my suffering?
Sixth, pain and suffering can be our master or our servant. Herbert Carson’s comments challenge us: ‘There are many whose tragic reaction to suffering is bitterness and hatred to God. There are others who in the darkness of their tears see a light … the light is God’s mercy’.
The seventh, but by no means least, foundation stone upon which we need to build is to read the scriptures carefully, prayerfully and extensively if we wish to hear God’s voice through our suffering. We can only claim His promises in times of suffering if we know what they are!
The scriptures teach us that God has a special hand in our suffering. Naomi said, ‘I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty’, Ruth 1. 21. Job declared, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’, Job. 1. 21. The psalmist writes, ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes’, Ps. 119. 71. Joseph confronted his brothers with their wrong doing towards him with the words, ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good’, Gen. 50. 20. The words of the Lord Jesus concerning the death of Lazarus are particularly relevant in this context: ‘This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby’, John 11. 4.
Although, naturally speaking, we might find it hard to accept that our sufferings work together for good, the scriptures confirm that this is the case, Rom. 8. 28. They deepen our knowledge of God as Father and also teach us more about ourselves. Contrary to expectations, the scriptures teach that suffering brings joy, rather than unhappiness, Job 5. 17; 1 Pet. 4. 14. G. Matheson writes, ‘The sweetest of all the uses of adversity is to show me the joy which it cannot take away’. Certainly, if we are exercised about our suffering, it will draw us away from the world. When earthly comforts are removed from us, we get things into the correct perspective, whereas in times of prosperity our hearts are often divided in their affections. Our suffering can be a powerful instrument to silence wicked men, 1 Pet. 3. 14-16, and, most importantly, it prepares the way for coming glory, 2 Cor. 4. 17.
The inspired writers of the scriptures employed a number of images for suffering and pain that help us to understand their nature and purpose, e.g. a furnace, a storm, a war, birth pains, and trial.1 Although, at first sight, these pictures might appear to be negative, we learn the very positive lessons from them that God takes us through the fires of affliction to purify and cleanse us, and He keeps us through the storms of life and delivers us out of them. He also uses suffering to test us, to prove what is genuine in our faith. It is important to note that He does not save us from our trials and tribulations, but delivers us out of them, 2 Tim. 3. 10-11.
Paul prayed three times for the removal of a ‘thorn in the flesh’, but his request was not granted, 2 Cor. 12. 7-10. Sometimes, the Lord delivers us out of suffering, but He may not. Ultimately, Paul viewed his affliction as a gift from God to keep him humble; indeed, He accepted it, even glorying in it. The Lord’s words, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee’, teach us that there is no need for suffering to be removed. We often think that this is the real need and the only ideal outcome. His further words, ‘for my strength is made perfect in (your) weakness’, teach us that our afflictions can be of real benefit to us if they remain – they can be an asset rather than a problem!
Job was not given a reason at the beginning or the end of his suffering. He argued, questioned and accused, but he never lost his faith or challenged the sovereignty of God. He teaches us that when we are suffering, we do not need answers and explanations, but an appreciation of the greatness of God. God simply tells him that He has a right to do what He does and he, ultimately, rests in that. His great statements of faith in the midst of his trials ought to be an inspiration to us: ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him’, 13. 15; ‘But he knoweth the way I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold’, 23. 10.
The Lord Jesus is, of course, the supreme example, 1 Pet. 2. 21-25. He suffered to leave us an example. He identified Himself with our suffering; therefore, He can sympathize and meet our needs, Heb 2. 18; 4. 15-16. He displayed no bitterness, resentment or desire to be vindicated; indeed, He committed everything to God. His enemies cried, ‘He trusted in God, let him deliver him now (from the cross)’, Matt 27. 43. God did not do so, but He did something better! He raised him out from among the dead and gave Him glory, 1 Pet. 1. 20. His suffering did not last forever. It led Him to glory and brought blessing to others.
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