Of all of the things that prompt people to doubt God’s love, His power, or even His existence, none does so more acutely than suffering. An unbeliever may be inclined to dismiss God entirely in the face of suffering, and walk away.
But to Christians, who know and have experienced God, walking away is not our answer. We have been taught much about God’s love and power, and we have felt them at work in our lives. We trust in God’s existence and His continued presence.
Yet still, we wrestle with suffering. We struggle to understand God’s love is in the midst of pain. We strain to see His power in light of the wars and diseases that ravage the globe. We long for His presence to be revealed when people do evil to one another. As Christians, how do we find and hold on to God’s love in the face of such suffering?
Christians are called to endure suffering with hope. In doing so, we grow closer to God and more like God, so He can use us to pour out His compassion on the world.
No Easy Answers
It would be easy, perhaps even safe, to explore human suffering through a strictly theological lens. To unpack the dynamics of human sin, the fall of man, and the impact of sin not only on humanity but on all of creation.
We could examine the evil that is inherent in each of us, and God’s desire to liberate us from our sinful nature and reconcile us to Himself. We could take a long-term look at God’s rescue plan, from Abraham through Jesus through the second coming.
By doing all of this, we could explain suffering with sound arguments backed by scripture. And such an easy answer would be completely correct, but utterly useless. Rational arguments, no matter how solid, are of little help to the person despairing in the midst of grief, pain, and injustice.
Instead, in the interest of love and compassion, our objective is not to explain suffering, but to deal with suffering. So we will save the exposition for another day, and focus today on meeting Christians at the place, and at the moment, of suffering.
The Impact Suffering
There are three ways in which suffering impacts us. The first is our own suffering, having experienced pain, loss, or persecution firsthand.
Next, when those close to us are stricken with grief and pain, our empathy causes us to share in their sufferings.
And finally, disasters, illness, and evil that afflict the whole world stir up in us righteous anger that desires justice and deliverance for all of humanity.
For the remainder of this article, we will explore each of these areas of impact. In doing so, we will draw hope and encouragement from The Beatitudes, a familiar teaching of Jesus found in Matthew 5:3-12, as our source of hope and encouragement for ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.
Our Own Suffering
Whether we are wrestling with the physical pain of disease or injury, malicious treatment at the hands of others, or the grief brought on by loss, we experience suffering throughout our lives. These seasons vary in duration and magnitude, but they are all equally real.
Suffering Draws Us Closer to God
Sometimes the light of hope is easy to see. Injuries heal. Grief passes. But the suffering that comes from long-term illness or abuse has a way of driving us further toward despair. It is in such times that we can’t see the light of hope, and therefore we must cling to the truth that we have received.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Jesus begins The Beatitudes by speaking directly to those in pain. He promises the kingdom of heaven, the hope of eternal comfort and rest, to those who are poor in spirit. When we experience brokenness, we long for something greater than the pain of this life. In this way, our pain turns our attention to Jesus, who knows our pain better than anyone.
Isaiah describes Jesus as a man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering. And it is through his suffering, the humiliation and torture of crucifixion, that Jesus is able to deliver on his promises. Because he suffered, yet returned from death, we have hope through the resurrection.
And for this reason, he is able to comfort us in our mourning. When Jesus’s friend Lazarus had died, Jesus cried not just over the loss of Lazarus, but out of empathy for his sister, Mary. Jesus helped Mary cry, and he helps cry, too. As the psalmist reminds us, God is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18).
Gaining Strength through Suffering
When we view our suffering through the lens of hope and find comfort in God’s presence, we are free to give our pain to God so that He may use it to make us more like Himself. Just as a child must learn to walk, talk, and care for himself, we start our journeys as infants in the faith and must grow to maturity. Suffering is one of the tools that God uses to shape us.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
The potter cannot shape hardened clay, and God cannot shape us until He first makes us malleable. Suffering breaks us down, but without being broken down, we cannot be made new. In this way, Jesus says the meek are blessed. When we choose not to assert our own power and will, we desire more of God’s power in our lives.
But when we come broken and empty to God, He does not leave us empty. Through suffering and renewal, He conforms us to His righteousness and fills us with His sustaining Spirit. For as long as we live in this fallen world, we will face opposition, pain, and even persecution. With each trial comes new strength, so that we may be further used by God.
In this way, Peter likens our suffering to gold going through the refiner’s fire. The heat of the crucible burns off impurities and strengthens the gold. And when the craftsman shapes the gold into its finished form, it is more brilliant, purer, and stronger than when it had started.
This is especially important when we realize that, through our suffering, God prepares us to carry and compassion to the hurting and broken people in our midst. It is only because we have been strengthened ourselves and filled with His love that we are able to pass on His love.
The Suffering of Others
In many ways, facing the suffering of others is more difficult than enduring our own suffering. If you are a parent, you understand the desire to take away your child’s stomach ache or broken bone, to bear the pain yourself so she can experience comfort and rest. Compassion drives us to give of ourselves for the benefit of those that we love.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Having filled us with his righteousness, Jesus speaks a blessing on us as we look beyond ourselves with compassion. None of us have to go far to find someone in need of mercy. Perhaps we have a family member wrestling with addiction, a coworker with a crumbling marriage, or a friend in an abusive relationship.
And because of God’s love working through us, their pain becomes our pain. Yet even as we share the burdens of others, we are comforted in knowing that God, too, shares the same burdens. For because we have endured suffering and experienced God’s mercy, we have mercy to give.
Becoming Conduits of Mercy
When we share God’s mercy, we are sharing compassion without judgment. We are reminded that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, and freely forgives us. We grow in mercy every time we give mercy. And so, just as Jesus helped Mary cry over Lazarus, He compels us to help others cry through their pain as well.
When we hurt for others, Jesus hurts alongside us. And just as our own pain drew us near to God, we find that He works through us to draw others near to Him as well. Our suffering, endured in hope, has made us beacons of hope to others.
And so through a series of our own trials, and our own opportunities to help and encourage others, we grow stronger and purer. We grow in our understanding of God’s character and in our likeness to Him. We strengthen not only our walk with God but our relationships with others.
And so we become more able to see not only our own circumstance, but the entire world, through the lens of God’s righteousness.
The Brokenness of the World
Even before we knew God, we could tell that the world was not as it should be. Famine, natural disasters, and war bring suffering to untold numbers of people. But having seen God, and experienced His grace, we become more aware of the stain of sin on human hearts and the impact of evil on all of creation. And we desire for things to be restored to their intended goodness.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Having endured our own suffering, and having comforted our loved ones through their seasons of pain, we long for the love, joy, and peace that we know to spread across the world. And while we might find ourselves discouraged with the realization that each of us can only touch so many hearts or comfort so many people, we can take heart in knowing that we are not alone.
Yes, the suffering of the world breaks our hearts, and the actions of evil men make us angry. That is the character of God working in us. All of us who know Jesus and share his peace are called children of God. But who calls us that? First Jesus, then the world. For against the darkness of suffering and the blight of sin, the light of God’s glory and the pureness of His grace is revealed.
When Evil Pushes Back
Even though our ultimate victory is secure in Jesus, the battle is not always easy. Evil loves the darkness, and so when compassion, grace, and mercy break into the dark places with the light of God’s love, evil pushes back. In the modern West, we may find ourselves alienated from family or ridiculed at work because of our commitment to Jesus.
In other places throughout the world, Christians practice their faith at great personal risk to their freedom, and even their lives. And to the persecuted, Jesus reaffirms his first promise; the kingdom of heaven. As children of God, we are envoys of the heavenly kingdom. But the prince of darkness, Satan, wants to hold on to as much as he can, and so he fights back.
For this reason, persecution brings forth some of the most acute suffering that Christians experience. And the New Testament writers offer encouragement in the face of persecution more than any other kind of suffering.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul describes God’s grace as sufficient for Him, because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. For this reason, Paul adds, he not only endures persecution but delights in hardships, echoing the words of Jesus:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The world has always resisted God’s work, and God’s children with it. And the world will continue to do so. Not only are we secure in our hope, but our suffering under persecution is evidence of our hope. Echoing Jesus’ admonition to rejoice when faced with persecution, James writes that we face our trials with joy, knowing that our testing will grow our perseverance.
Our God is faithful, and our hope is secure. But the truth remains that suffering is still painful when it happens. We want relief, but instead, we are given endurance. We want a way out, but instead, God provides a way through.
Joseph spent much of his adult life wondering why his brothers betrayed him into slavery. But years later, when God used Joseph to rescue his brothers from famine, Joseph saw the hand of God at work even in his suffering, saying to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)
Of course, we don’t always see the outcome as clearly as Joseph. And so even as we begin to wrap our heads around the problems of sin and evil, we still struggle to make sense of everything that happens. We relate to the words of the psalmist:
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
The psalmist didn’t understand his suffering, and we won’t always understand ours. All we can do is hope and trust, knowing that God is at work, often in ways that we cannot see, in order to achieve His purposes.