One of the greatest challenges to the living out of a practical and day-to-day faith is our wrestling with the problem of suffering. Because suffering is pain and, as Lucy Van Pelt quipped in a Peanuts cartoon many years ago, “Pain hurts!”, we run from it, hide from it, and try to remove it if we are afflicted with it.
But whether one assumes the Modern perspective of trying to dissect pain to its basic components so it can be “fixed”, or one takes the Post-Modern approach of simply trying to mask it, the problem of suffering doesn’t go away.
The history of humanity has always been characterized by suffering, the question of “why” haunting every generation until today. And, of course, people today still wrestle with pain physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Since the problem of suffering has not gone away, neither has the question. People still suffer and still wonder why. Why do we suffer? Why is suffering universally a part of the human experience?
Within the Bible can be found the answer to the question. In its most simple sense, suffering is part of what it means to be a human being. Suffering is on the one hand a result of human rejection of God. Our earliest ancestors, representing the human race, were the first to suffer because in their rejection of God for the sake of their own pride and willfulness, they chose the alternative to ongoing joyful union with their Creator. Hence, they chose to suffer. It was the consequence to them having their own way. The shadow of suffering and the presence of pain entered into what could otherwise have been completely joyful cycles of life devoid of suffering in all its forms (see Genesis 3:16-19).
And so, if we turn our lives over to God, repenting of sin which has separated us from Him, we have the promise that He will help us with our suffering. “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; He is their stronghold in the time of trouble. The LORD helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in Him” (Psalm 37:39-40 ESV). Walking with God opens the door for His power to work in our lives bringing hope and healing.
But it isn’t as simple as that for we find that, even when we humble ourselves before God, forsaking the going of our own way and choosing to enter into fellowship with Him through faith in Christ, suffering still comes. What then? Why do “good people” have bad things happen to them? Why does our health fail and sickness come? Why must death claim our loved ones? Why must we struggle with depression or suffer afflictions of our minds? Why must we strive and strive and still find that our dreams come to nothing? Why do those we love reject and abuse us though we’ve given them our hearts?
How can the promise of Psalm 37 be understood when our lives seem still to be painted by such dark and drab colors as hurt and sorrow? Think of Job in the Old Testament. A man whose eyes and heart were focused on the Lord found himself the target of affliction. Not only did he lose his health and his wealth, he lost his children to death and his wife to bitterness. And then, as a last straw, he lost his friends (or at least the qualities in his friends that define what he needed in friendship).
But at the end of the experience he learned (as did his “friends”) that sometimes suffering is meted out to us in order to demonstrate the sufficiency of God. In other words, God Himself is the only pleasure and blessing that we truly “need”. Suffering is at times permitted in our experience to lead us to God. If we have not experienced the wonder and power of salvation then it can help lead us to faith in Him. If we’ve already become His children through receiving God’s gift of salvation, suffering can lead us to more deeply and earnestly seek Him.
And here I want to point out an incredible truth. Our God is no stranger to suffering. In taking human form He endured the fullness of human experience. Born in humble circumstances, hungering and thirsting, bearing the emotional anguish of rejection and treachery, and then beaten and crucified, He knows fully what we go through in all our varieties of suffering.
“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:4a, 7a ESV).
Jesus has fully entered into our suffering, and by His Spirit, enters into our suffering however it takes form in our lives today. He did not avoid our need because dealing with it would hurt, nor did he refrain from doing the work of dying on the cross because there was pain. He embraced the suffering because, in doing so, He was also embracing us.
And now He invites us to look again on the myriad ways that we might be suffering today. If you’ve asked the question “Why?” and felt abandoned, if you’ve considered throwing in the towel or shaking your fist at the heavens, reconsider for a moment. If you cannot find a reason for why pain seems your lot right now, then entertain the possibility that God Himself is extending to you the opportunity to enter into a new arena of fellowship with His Son.
“That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV).
Knowing God is the “end all” purpose for which you’ve been created. Knowing Him intimately is the most incredible pleasure and awesome wonder of the Christian experience. And inasmuch as we truly mean the words we say when our mouths utter, “I want to know You, Lord,” we know that there may be at times paths of suffering before our feet. Yet, it is a sweet sorrow. It is one that our Savior will help us to shoulder as we, by His Spirit’s power in us, choose to meet rejection with grace instead of resentment, injuries against us with forgiveness instead of retaliation, disease and afflictions with trust in God instead of fear, and the loss of loved ones with peace instead of bitterness.
And since suffering can allow us to know Jesus more intimately because He enters into our suffering as we cling to Him, the fruit of our fellowship with Him is that we willingly enter into the sufferings of others around us, shouldering what we can, helping where we may, and giving what we have. When we do this, we have opened the door for finally making sense of the suffering that we often find in our lives.
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 24 ½ years, is the author of Led by Grace, The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com.” Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)