Psalm 119: Matthew 5:10; Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 12:9 Philippians 1:19-25; 2:17; Hebrews 10:24; James 1:2; 1 Peter 4:12-19
My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life. (Psalm 119:50)
The Problem of Suffering
"Why", "why", "why", "why"….? This is what I have said so many countless times throughout my life when bad things have come my way, and these ""whys" have been voiced to me as a pastor by so many countless people, too. In fact, I do not remember any conversation with a person who has been through a rough time or a loss that "why" has not come up. "Why" seems to be the theme, subject, and topic that confronts me both as a person and as a pastor. We all ask, ask, ask, "why", "why", "why"! Yet, what I have gleaned from the Scriptures and learned from life is that it is not so much a question of how we answer the question of suffering (what is called, theologically, the problem of suffering), as it is seeking the "why" it has happened to me. It is not about how we can get an answer for "why" this or that has happened to us (as if it were some kind of personal attack), seeking the "why" from God, but that there is a greater lesson and hope we can have that "why" does not give.
It is my attempt, in this article and the several that will follow in this series, to give you some measure of comfort that you can use personally and in your dealings with others when life gives a "bum rap" or a "harsh turn," and that you can seek not merely the "why", but rather the "how" we can grow and be improved, stronger, recovered, and thus more rapidly able to grow in Him ourselves as well as make Him known to others. We can learn that what we have gone through has a reason and can be used for His glory and our betterment!
The problem with suffering is not "why" it happens; it is "why" we tend not to deal with it in a healthy constructive manner, "why" we remain in it and do not grow from it, "why" we let it be our identity and stimulus for how we lead our lives, and "why" we do not grow and learn, using it for our advancement in maturity, our prosperity in character, and our edification in life for God's glory. Even as a Christian, our lead tends to come from our experiences and not from Christ's love and control. Consequently, the big "why" we need to focus on is "why" we allow our bad experiences to impair us to the point that we become debilitated. Because we are so seized with fear and anger, we forget who we are in Christ and ignore His comfort and provisions. Then, the life we have left is a life of bitterness and withdrawal. We wallow in our self-pity, useless to God, others, or ourselves and end up with a life that is wasted and a suffering that impales us needlessly with little effort. This is not the Christian life that we are meant to have, and thus comes the real problem of suffering¾our denial of His previsions, and our refusal to learn and grow from them.
This affects our churches and our progress to maturity as too many of us (pastors) feel we have to answer all of the "whys" in life (like the "whys" of suffering) and ignore what is far more significant and important, that of seeking and focusing on the Lordship and centrality of Christ. Yes, we need to be better at helping and listening (this is crucial), but we have to give more than just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on; we have to give hope that is demonstrated in our own lives, too. We need to know and communicate our walk with Christ regardless of what life gives us. Too many people are stuck in the questions of life, never learning to trust and rely on our Lord, or dealing with those questions as learning experiences so to be better prepared as a servant of the Lord. We therefore become stagnant in the faith, pulling others and ourselves down with us. Our pain becomes our identity and the home in which we live.
Suffering is a natural aspect of the human experience because we inherited a sinful nature that has corrupted all of God's creation. Suffering does not diminish our faith; in fact, it will strengthen it. The incredible comfort we are given is that when we accept Christ, we take on His righteousness as a covering; so as we battle on in the diversities and travesties of life, we can still grow, and become better at handling life. We can even get to the point, as we grow in righteousness and sanctification, that we become an example others need to see. Just consider great people like Joni Erickson Tada who have not let their past lay them on their back¾even when they are almost completely paralyzed. This is spiritual growth; and the faithful and cheerful Christian is the one who perseveres, regardless of circumstances.
Job and his friends sought that "why" and they discovered that the "why" is not important. Rather, it is about how we live our lives, regardless of our circumstances, so God is sought and glorified. God understands when we hurt, but He does not want us to stay incapacitated so that we become ingrown with hurt and pain, and we become ineffective in our faith. We need to vent to be heard and to hear others in such situations, and we need the time to heal. However, at some point, we need to understand that suffering is not to be our identity or where we live our lives. God understands that even though we may have buried a loved one, we cannot bury our feelings. We need time to mourn and vent-and even invent ways of coping with the loss in our lives. (Hence "why" there are so many conflicting theories in psychology!) God records in His Word that people in the bible days were in no hurry to rush through the process of grief. But, they did eventually get on with their lives! A time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, (Eccl. 3:3). The "why" is not the solo quest we are to seek. "Why" is not the place we are to live our lives and concentrate our devotions. Dwelling on the "why" will keep us from learning, and will cause us to take our eyes off Him. It will even interfere in His healing grace, because when we are so full of "whys", there is no room for Christ!
Sufferings have a Reason and a Purpose
Suffering has six main themes, the first being that it is designed or allowed to occur so we can draw closer to Christ. Secondly, it can be used for a greater good that we may not see at times. Thirdly, it is a vehicle for God to work in us and in others, even when we do not realize it. Fourthly, suffering can be used for learning and growing purposes that a "normal" life does not produce. And fifthly, suffering can be used to point others and us to the character of Christ.
Sufferings Draw Us Closer to Christ
First, sufferings are designed or allowed to take place so we can develop further in our faith and maturity in Christ. We must take this first theme to heart so we can more soundly trust in Him and develop a wholehearted, fully engaged faith that is strong enough to persevere and endure. This theme shows us that our God is good and He is at work in whatever situation or setback we face, be it high or low. Our pain allows us to identify with our Lord, who suffered for our sin in our place, being without fault and undeserving of the suffering. So, "why" should we expect better? It draws us to a closer and more intimate relationship with Him. God will actually enter into the pain with us. So, if there is no healing that we see, we can take comfort that He is just working harder in us!
Peter, when addressing his people about suffering, uses the term beloved, which means "loved ones." It is a pastoral expression that indicates sincere love and shows care, tenderness, compassion, and affection. This term expresses exactly what God is doing with us; He is always caring and compassionate with us. He is not aloof or unmoved by what we face. He intends and carries out His grace to us in that He shows us what He has gone through, and gives us hope and real love. We can take His love as comfort and even give it back as gratitude to Him in our worship and by showing that love to those who are weary in the midst of their sufferings and aggravations. We actually participate in the sufferings of Christ. This means that as the Church universal, we are collectively the Body of Christ. Thus, when a Christian individually or a church collectively suffers, so does He. Keep in mind; we do not earn any salvation in this. Our sufferings do not add to His work of redemption or earn anything because of it; rather, His sufferings cover us as atonement. It further identifies and intensifies us in Him (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 1:5; Phil. 1:29; Col. 1:24; 1 Pet. 1:22; 4:8, 12).
The key to dealing with this theme of suffering is a willingness to be eager for Christ-to seek Him, and to have a firm desire for Him so nothing else that the world offers even interests us! Also, do not see it as a personal attack; rather, see it as an opportunity to be better for His glory! We will be as Peter calls blessed which means fortunate, because what we will gain in eternity will out-weigh anything we experience or any loss we may have on earth (Luke 6:22-23). We are also fortunate because the presence and power of the Spirit and His glory rests on us, so we are not alone in what we go through!
Sufferings Exhibit a Greater Good
Secondly, sufferings can be used for a greater good that we usually do not see. All we see is the grief, anguish, and the damage. But, with this theme, we can take comfort that God will use our suffering for the greater good that is in His purpose for His best to be worked out. What we gain will far outweigh what we lose. Consider it as fertilizer to the garden of life. Giving our burdens to God through prayer, as Paul did, will allow us to grow in greater spiritual depth. The point is, He will help us through it, but we must participate in it. We must be willing to grow and to prepare for it again so that our future sufferings are not a "maybe" or an "if," but how we are in them with character and faithfulness! Our comfort in this theme is that the Spirit that raised Christ also rests on us and will raise us! We have to beware that suffering can persuade us to doubt God's love and plan for us (Job 2:9; 2 Cor. 2:15-16)! However, we can triumph; we can even rejoice, as in celebrating and being glad in all things, including suffering, because we have His Divine grace and love. At the same time, we are responsible for moving ahead with our faith (Eph. 6:16; Phil. 2:12-13; James 1:2; 1 Pet. 5:8-9). Sufferings are opportunities for us to show our good attitude and to be motivated (Matt. 24:30; Luke 17:30).
Sufferings Show Others that God is at Work
Thirdly, sufferings can be a means for God to work in us and in others, even when we do not feel it or perceive it. Remember, God is working even when we do not feel it! The chief purpose of God's Will for us is to grow us closer to Him. It is not about money, power, our bodies, work (or the loss thereof), or anything else. The focus on Christ and His character will perfect our character to be more Christ-like and be in His will.
When God is at work in us, we can and must abandon ourselves to Christ, never holding back with our hurts or hiding in our blind theology. Our drive must be to follow His character and not our own limited understanding. Our interests ought to be surrendered to His; His interests must be ours, which will show others His necessity and supremacy (John 3:30; Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:5; 2: 20-21; Phil. 3:10)! Going through what we do not want to do in the first place can be a pleasure because it is guiding others to His "why." For us, it is serving Him (John 15:13; 1 Cor. 9:22; 2 Cor. 12:15). When we are doing this, our maturity and character will grow and then we will be showing the love and care we are called to give!
One way we can deal with this theme of suffering is to seePaul as an example to follow. Does your heart become sorrowful for others as his did (Romans 9)? If not, what is blocking you from God's call? Paul was willing to endure suffering and even to give up his own soul so others would believe (Phil. 1:22-24)! Passion, conviction, and emotions are all part of the Christian experience (as long as they are biblically in line), and are important as tools; but, we must beware not to allow our hurts to quench the Spirit in others or ourselves! We cannot give up our salvation even for sympathetic or altruistic reasons, but we can still have the compassion and sympathy to do all we can and thus have the courage to show what we have been through and how we have prospered in Christ. This is done as an example in humbleness and in satisfaction in Christ, not in self-conceit. "Why" is this not happening more in the Church? Because we Christians tend to fail when we place our hurt and desires over God's direction and plan. We are so consumed with "me" and in the pain of what we have lost, missed, or how it has affected us that we do not consider His greater work and good that can come from it. Do not allow your wounds to cause you leave out God's promise to come along side you and use you along with others by His love and compassion.
Sufferings Cause Us to Learn and Grow
Fourthly, sufferings can be used to enable us to discover more about life, sin, and His standards and precepts. In effect, sufferings allow us to grow in confidence of our faith and the development of our Christian life, whereas a "normal" life usually does not produce a deep, heartfelt, significant faith. It is about Christ becoming more in us and us becoming less in us. Suffering is not being a martyr; rather, it is valuable for our living as we learn to surrender everything to Him. Never force suffering on yourself for attention; this only glorifies you, not God. (John 3:5, 30; Phil. 3)!
Suffering is a choice¾not that of will we go though it, but how will we deal and learn from it. That is what is important. When we trust in Him, He will not forsake us, leave us, or abandon us. He is always there. Remember, Jesus Himself suffered the most on our behalf--the Person, the God who cares for us! Our Lord withstood the full brunt of all human temptations and suffering needlessly, yet with a purpose (Mark 1:12-13, Heb. 2:12; 4:15). He was a man, subject to the power and enticement of sin. He did not need to suffer, but for our sakes He did. He was fully man and identified with us. He remained sinless and took our sins upon Himself. Now, sin has no power over Him or us, other than what we allow ourselves (Rom. 6:1-10; 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 5:14; 1 Pet. 2:22)! Because He took our place of suffering and bore our sins, we can have meaning and purpose in this life, both now, and also in Heaven.
The key to dealing with this theme of suffering is taking to heart that when life is at its darkest, God is there. He understands, loving and carrying us through it. We need to accept the fact that God is in control, even if we do not understand how. It is by faith that we can endure and then learn from it, becoming better and recovered for it. We can place such faith in Him because of the assurance we have through His Word, even when we do not understand. Our true home and purpose is not here; it is still to come. We are not made for this world, we are just here to learn all we can, and with what Christ has given to us, make the best and most of the situations in which we find ourselves. Then, one day, we will be called to our true home in eternity, in Heaven. So, let us cling to the Hope we have in Christ, not the things we experience or the losses we have endured!
Sufferings Show the Character of Christ
Fifthly, sufferings can be used to point out to others and us the character and love of Christ. When we are filled with joy, even in the mist of suffering, we mirror to the world the character and conduct of Christ. His work in us becomes the proclamation that sets in motion a chain of cause and effect that others take in and that assures them that He is the One. He is not only our salvation, but also our reason to live and endure. The main theme of suffering is not how we answer the "ways" and "whys," but how we live our lives so to still give God the glory! How can we allow Him to use us, and then share our experiences for the benefit of others, such as people like Joni Erickson Tada do?
One of the greatest benefits I have found as a pastor is that when we come though tough times, we become more real and relevant to others. We can identify with the plight in the lives of others and be there with ears and hearts that care. We can have something tangible to share when the time is right, allowing the Spirit to lift them up. We also become better, more passionate witnesses when we remain faithful in Christ in spite of whatever we go through. Other people will become purified and better able to know Him and make Him known because of our lives, experiences, and dealings with others. This creates more contagious faith and depth, and Fruit-bearing that our society and churches lack. The pretenders and counterfeit Christians who strive to live without His impact cannot mimic real authenticity or be a help to others in their times of confusion and stress. Such pretenders will drop out of their dysfunctional service and their pride will no longer infest us, as people will see the real, wondrous, risen Lord displayed in His faithful ones.
The key to dealing with this theme of suffering is to learn and practice faithfulness. Faithfulness is our authenticity in Christ; it is knowing and doing God's will so we can be dependable and trustworthy to God and others. Faithfulness is genuineness, and contains the power and motivation for Christian living. Because God is trustworthy with us, we can be faith-worthy in Him!Being faithful can be tough; it is very difficult to have or hold on to, especially applying it to our pain, bad experiences, and broken relationships. We tend to lose our patience with God thinking He is just a blessing machine or only has His favorites and we are not one of them. And, when we do not get what we want, we seek to leave Him because of our uncertainty. Faithfulness is the fruit that sets us on the road to recovery and that can change us inside and out! It is the ability to take what Christ has done in us and be a blessing to others with loyalty and trust. Faithfulness goes against modern psychology and the thinking of society, as it requires us to move beyond ourselves. Psychology tells us to be selfish, putting "me" first, rearranging the world to our needs, which creates self-destruction and broken relationships. We have to keep the goal of faithfulness always in our minds always, as it will allow God to work deeper and us to respond to His call (Psalm 119: 89-90; Matthew 17:19; 25:21; Rom. 1:17; 5:1-2; 1 Cor. 12:9; Hebrews 11:1; 1 Thess. 5:24; 1 Peter 4:1-11)!
What we Need to Take to Heart
Persecutions and sufferings have a reason and a purpose! They have a way of refining and purifying us so the waste products of our pride and selfishness can be tossed aside, and His real, redemptive work and sanctification can come into us in power and conviction. As faithful Christians, we need to be refined in order to really grow in Christ. In addition, the filth of satisfaction and self-importance needs to be removed. God will use whatever to do this-even extreme suffering. Sometimes God needs to get our attention; sometimes the sinful world we live in just falls on us, or we just mess up. Whatever the reason, cause or case, our experiences are never a waste or lack purpose. Take comfort in that God will use whatever we go through for our betterment. He has our best in mind. We just need to see it and allow the flow of His work in us to be more prevalent and seized in our hearts and minds.
Are We to Seek "Why?" or Seek Him?
Next time we find ourselves seeking the "whys" when we encounter suffering, whether it be from what we see in the news to personally experiencing a loss, we may ask, "why" did this happen to me? Or, perhaps we rush to judgment, blaming someone or something for it, without looking carefully at the situation. We need to consider that sometimes there is no answer, as was in the case of Job. There will be a time when all of our questions will be answered, but, for now, our attention should be on Christ, not on the situation. Pastoral ministry is the prime opportunity to bring His love to others and to listen, model, and teach His Way.
We need to realize that suffering is a natural aspect of life and then guard ourselves from it, whether it be physical, mental, emotional, financial, or spiritual. The Bible tells us many times to expect it, and to be persistent when faced with adversity. So do not be surprised. Faith is the key to making this happen; it is faith that allows the work of our Lord in us. Christ will give us the comfort and strength to press on; our reward is yet to come, for the adventure of this life is very short compared to the eternity to come. So, we need to make the best of it as life deals us the curves; we are not to be overcome with frustration, but overcome with joy through the life we have in Christ.
When things do not go our way, we need to make sure we are going His way (John 3:30; Gal. 2:20-21; Phil. 3:10)! Remember, God does not want our complaints; thus, He will not give us an answer for them. Rather, He wants our obedience so He can use us more and in better ways!
So, do not allow the ""whys" to consume you so they distract you from learning, growing, or taking a set back or a tragedy and turning it around for God's glory. We are not the ones who turn it around; it is God and His work. We just take hold of His work and let it roll out and unfold with our trust and obedience. When we trust in Christ, we have an abundance of grace so we have the assurance and confidence of His work in us. We only see a small, small fragment of life and meaning; God sees the whole picture. Our time here is a mere vapor to what is in eternity. We do not see the big picture, but only the here and now. He sees us with eternity in mind. So, to help us be formed and matured for His purpose, His plan is best. Although it can be a hard and long road for some, it is worth it more than we can possibly imagine! Take this to heart: He is there guiding, loving, empowering, and even carrying us through it!
Our Hope and Guidance!
Keep in mind that He is our Comfort; He is with us and will also allow us to ride out the tough times of life and difficult situations. He is there, carrying us though it, so allow Him to nurture and love you; we need to experience His presence and seek His face. We can, if we want, see God's grace and love caring and carrying us through. His comfort, when we take hold of it, will allow us, as well as our friends and families, to stick to His precepts with honest endeavor. We will be able to help others through their tough times and give godly, Bible-based feedback with Christ-like temperament (2 Chron. 32:1-8; Esther 7; Luke 16:22-31; 18:9; Acts 19:8-10; 26:19-23; Rom. 15:14-16; Phil. 1:6; 12-14, 25; 2 Tim. 2:25).
The bottom line? Remain faithful and enjoy the ride of life even when you hit a pothole and bump your head. He is our Comfort; this means our feelings and circumstances are not. He will preserve us! We are to seek the Hope we have in Him so we will remain faithful.
Some further comforting verses: Psalm 31:9; Psalm 119:50; Isaiah 41:10; Romans 8:18; 28-29; 35-37; James 1:2-3; 12; John 9; 14:1; Colossians 1:24;
1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 1 Peter 4:12-19; Hebrews 10:34; Revelation 21:4.
The Holy Spirit longs to reveal to you the deeper things of God. He longs love through you. He longs to work through you. Through the blessed Holy Spirit you may have: strength for every duty, wisdom for every problem, comfort in every sorrow, joy in His overflowing service. T. J. Bach