“Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.” Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face.” So the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd to scrape himself while he was sitting among the ashes.”
Job 2: 1-8
Passages like the one above confront us, in part because many Christian preachers and teachers have embraced a sort of theological blindness on the subject of suffering. “We just can’t understand everything about God, but we can trust Him”, is something we’ve all heard before in some shape or form. It has the appearance of wisdom, but it’s the sort of hallmark non-answer which you never actually need to open a Bible to come up with. Much of the Bible is devoted to explaining the relationship between God and suffering, in fact there are few subjects that the Bible gives us so many answers for as suffering.
I can’t help but think that people who say things like “we don’t know why we suffer, but we do know that God one day will end it”, must be doing their Bible reading with a blindfold on. If we want to be Christians who are committed to the scriptures and not just vaguely spiritual optimists, we need better and more satisfying answers to suffering than a smile and a shrug of the shoulders. I know I’m being blunt here, but it isn’t for no reason. This matters. Deeply. And it matters because in this life you and others you know will suffer. If you cannot see God in the midst of it, and the best answer you have to your life’s greatest question is “beats me”, then your faith will not survive. Don’t shy away from this question because it seems hard. Do the hard thinking, and you will have joy in hard times.
With that preamble done, here are three reasons the Bible gives for why God includes suffering in His plan for our lives.
1. Suffering produces character. For Job in our story above this meant humility. This sentiment is echoed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 when Paul tells us that God has sent Satan to put a proverbial “thorn in his flesh” in order to torment him, but that God has done this not as punishment; rather that he would learn God’s greatness in his own weakness.
This said, suffering is a good teacher and good teachers have more than one lesson. Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that suffering also produces hope. Persecution is compared by Peter to a refiners fire which burns away dross and leaves the gold which endures. That is to say, suffering actually strips away bad character by causing us to rely on faith. All of us can testify that at various times suffering has driven us to prayer. Furthermore, suffering produces compassion for the needy. Hebrews even goes so far as to connect Jesus’ own compassion with His suffering. “He has been tested like us in every way, and so is able to empathize with our weakness.”
We have several words in our own language for people who have never suffered. Brattish, naive, sheltered, spoiled, privileged, cocooned, nannied, babied, precious, or sweet summer child. None of these paint a kind portrait, and all of us have perceived at some point that an easy life does not necessarily make for a wise or kind individual. Wisdom most often, is borne of hard knocks. Of course this isn’t universally true. Hardship can produce bitterness as well as empathy, but that comes down, not to whether one suffers, but to how one responds to suffering. I think it is something like the old saying “with age comes wisdom, but not always”.
That is to say, nobody is truly wise unless they have lived a while, but not everybody who lives a while grows wise. So too, nobody has genuine character or grit unless they have suffered some, but not everybody who suffers will learn from it. This point is made in the Bible’s wisdom literature, both in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs emphasizes individual response. Fools never learn, even when taught wisely, wise people learn from everything that happens to them. Ecclesiastes however emphasizes the special value of suffering as a teacher.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
Ecclesiastes 7: 2-4
God has made us in such a way that we should learn this readily. Good things come through hard lessons. Physical training is difficult, but we know that without hard training teams lose games. Study is hard, but we know that without mind-numbing hours in books, exams are failed. Surgery requires cutting but without it people die; and in a similar manner suffering is hard, but without it we do not learn life’s most precious lessons.
When we suffer we often become angry with God. We might even be so naive or foolish as to question His goodness or His kindness. Know this. To question God when you suffer is more foolish than questioning a coach who tells you to run, or a teacher who tells you to study. Losing soccer games or failing exams can be bad, but neither are so bad as the eternal death that awaits us if we do not walk the hard path the Jesus has called us to. Unless we follow Jesus by Calvary road and learn its hard lessons, we will not reach our destination at His side. But if we do remain on the path and we do persevere, we will be rewarded not only with character, faith, humility, compassion, and the grit that comes from knowing a hard life; but also we will receive the prize that Jesus has promised us. An eternal and perfect world after a hard climb teaches us to appreciate what’s coming.
“The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
In summary, God causes you to suffer because He doesn’t want His children to be entitled fools. He wants more for you than that. He wants you to strong, wise, and deeply rooted in the kind of joy that can only come through also knowing sorrow.
2. Suffering warns us that nothing in this world can satisfy. When Jesus is asked about a group Galileans who were killed in persecutions and why God allowed this to happen, this is more or less the answer He gave. Not that their deaths were some kind of punishment from God specifically for something that they had done, or that they were more guilty than anyone else of sin (we all are). Jesus tells us that God willed this atrocity that all should learn from it, take warning, and repent.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Suffering is compared in Revelation 8 with an army’s trumpet, blowing from heaven and signalling a coming invasion. When we suffer the message cuts through. The things you have are not enough. Your health is not enough. Your small joys in worldly things are not enough. Death is soon coming. Turn aside from worldliness and be prepared. Suffering in this sense performs the role of a smoke alarm, or an air raid siren. It saves our life in an obnoxious way. Nobody hears a smoke alarm, and thinks “what a great sound, I could listen to this all day”. The noise is designed to be as obnoxious as possible so that we will act. If a smoke alarm played pleasant lullabies instead of banshee screeches, it wouldn’t rouse us to action, and we would die in perfect comfort.
Pain in our physical bodies serves the same purpose. Nobody (without a psychological disorder) enjoys pain. And yet if we didn’t feel pain, we might lean with our hand on the hotplate and not notice. Inflammation around the site of an injured ankle is not just there to spite us. Pain reminds us not to run when our bodies need time to heal. Likewise on an existential level, suffering prompts us to change with its shrill and obnoxious noise. Suffering hurts. That’s the point. Like pain hurts. And sirens hurt our ears. It is there to stir us to action, and Jesus tells us that the right action in response to suffering is to repent. Not because God is specifically judging us for some particular sin, but because all suffering is there to remind us that death is a near reality for us all and that we need to be right with God.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In summary, when you suffer and you are wondering why God put it in His plan for your life, consider. If He has made you dissatisfied with this present world, it is because He wants you to inherit a better one. He does not wish you to be so happy on this sinking ship that you would sink with it also. He wants you to scrabble for the life raft, to do anything you can and with great haste and urgency, even braving great wind and waves that you might find yourself safely with Him ashore.
3. Suffering reveals to us the depths of God’s love. If you do not understand the suffering that Jesus experienced for your sake, then you do not know what it means that God loves you. When I tell you that God loves you, I am not saying something trite and meaningless. I am not saying that He is sending you thoughts and prayers. I am not saying that He thinks you are cute or that He wants to give you head scratches and treats. You love your pets in a sense, but if you died for your pet you would be a fool.
When I tell you that God loves you I mean that you are His child. And that because you are His child He took upon Himself the consequences of your actions. He took responsibility for your sin. He took the nails which were driven through His palms. He took the bristled crown of thorns as it was plunged down upon His head. He took whips across His back and a spear into His side. When I tell you that God loves you I mean that He chose to be tortured and to die rather than that you should face any judgement for your sins.
If you have never felt pain then you will have no comprehension of what Jesus endured for your sake, and you will not know the height the width and the depth of God’s love for you. Children can know Jesus, and to some extent can appreciate God’s love for them. But it takes an old and battered heart, pruned by many years of discipline and hardship, to know joy in suffering and hope in the face of death. To know the answer to the question which Jesus asked upon the cross: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
Your appreciation of God’s love which was demonstrated not in a hallmark card but upon a rugged wooden cross is proportionate to your own comprehension of Christ’s sufferings. Your comprehension of Christ’s suffering will only grow as you learn to suffer for His sake. To mourn death like He did when He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. To be sickened with grief at the Godless immorality of our culture like He was as He looked toward Jerusalem. And to groan with pain in your own body as He did upon Calvary hill.
And I hope you can see by now with some clarity, that suffering is not the opposite of joy. Both the saddest and most joyful moments in our life are marked by laughter and tears. We laugh often as not, when everything falls apart. We cry as we watch our bride come down the aisle, or at the birth of our first child. God has given us both, suffering and joy, laughter and tears, as His gift to us that we might know the fullness of His goodness in the span of our lives. Just as there are no stars without a dark night sky, there is no true joy which does not come from also knowing suffering; because ultimately there is no life-giving, faith-sustaining, joy-inspiring, heart-swelling, worship-magnifying, and knowledge of God that does not radiate from the Man He has appointed to reveal His glory. Jesus Christ, the man of many sorrows.
All of this to say, in summary: no pain, no gain.