world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have
overcome the world." (John 16:33 KJV)
philosophers and others have long struggled with what they call
"the problem of pain and suffering." I do not claim to
have any new understanding or insight to contribute. Perhaps I can
be somewhat helpful by trying to express a few basic principles
in a fairly brief and simple way. My purpose is not so much to minister
to those who are actually undergoing intense suffering, as it is
to equip all of us to deal with it better if it arises in our lives
or the lives of those we are close to.
Two books that
I have found helpful are, Philip Yancey, "Where is God When
it Hurts" (Zondervan, 1990, paperback) and Dr. James Dobson,
"When God Doesn't Make Sense" (Tyndale House, 1993, paperback).
I recommend both to those who wish to pursue the subject further.
Another book that I refer to from time to time is "Bound to
be Free", complied by Jan Pit, Open Doors International, 1995,
which contains some powerful statements by people who have suffered
for their faith today. I shall cite it as "Bound to be Free".
Quotations from this book are by permission.
of pain and suffering has caused some to deny that God exists. It
has caused some to question their faith. It has troubled and perplexed
many. It has caused some to be angry at God or to feel that he has
let them down.
I believe there
are a number of basic misunderstandings of this issue that need
to be straightened out. Most people can handle a good deal of pain
if they can see a reason for it. Athletes, mountain climbers and
others who place great demands on their physical bodies willingly
subject themselves to a great deal of pain. Soldiers accept suffering,
hardship and death in the service of their country. Most women are
able to accept the pain of childbirth, because they see something
wonderful coming out of it. But when suffering seems meaningless
it is often hard to accept.
I believe Scripture
gives us a basis for understanding pain and suffering, for accepting
it even when we don't understand it, and for dealing with it. It
is that Scriptural basis which I wish to present in this paper,
to the best of my ability. Scripture does not answer all of our
questions, but it tells us what we need to know in order to be able
to handle any situation in which we find ourselves.
I believe we
have tended to ask the wrong questions. When you ask the wrong question
you often get an unsatisfactory answer. We have asked "why"
questions. God doesn't usually answer those questions.
questions we ask are at the philosophical level and at the personal
(1) At the
philosophical, or theological, level, we ask, "Why is there
so much suffering in the world?" "How can a God who is
both all-powerful and all-good allow suffering?" We tend to
come up with answers that are unacceptable. We say, "God must
not be all-powerful." This is untenable. By his very nature
God is Almighty; if he were not he would not be God. Or we say,
"God must not be good", in which case we are in a very
pitiful state. Or we say, "There must not be a God", which
is really a way of saying that the universe makes no sense. Implicit
in the question, I suggest, is an assumption that says. "God,
if I were running the universe I would do a better job than you
are doing." That, I think, is an assumption that we dare not
are some answers to this philosophical question. They are not wholly
satisfactory, but they explain quite a bit. But beyond that, I suggest
that we have to recognize that God does not owe us any explanations
or justifications. The fact that we don't fully understand does
not mean that there is no explanation; it simply means that our
understanding is limited.
(2) At the
personal level the question tends to be "Why me?" Usually
this is not a useful question. It leads to self-pity, or to anger
at God, or both, and both are destructive. And it is a question
that Scripture very seldom answers.
I believe both
of these "why" questions rest on some false assumptions,
including (1) an assumption that we are "entitled" not
to receive pain, (2) an assumption that suffering is always "bad"
and serves no useful purpose, and (3) an assumption that God owes
us an explanation for everything that happens. I shall deal with
these assumptions in what follows.
I suggest that
a more fruitful approach than either of these two "whys"
is a "what" question. "What can I do about it?"
It is to say, "All right God, this is where I am. I don't understand
it. I don't like it. But I ask you to show me what I can do about
it, how I can deal with it, how I can use it to help me grow. Your
word says that you make all things work for good for those who love
you. Show me how you can make this thing work for good in my life."
This is not easy to do; it may be very difficult to do. God never
promised us that life would be easy, but he did promise that he
would help us to become overcomers.
PAIN AND SUFFERING ARE PART OF LIFE
friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering,
as though something strange were happening to you." (1 Peter
I start with
what may seem an obvious proposition. In this imperfect world, pain
and suffering are a part of life. No one is immune from them. No
one can claim any right to be free of them. Some may suffer more
than others, and that may be thought to raise a question of fairness
which I shall address later. But no one is exempt.
I make the
point for several reasons. (1) Implicit, I think, in many of the
"why" questions we ask when pain and suffering come is
an assumption that "this ought not to be happening" or
"it ought not be happening to me". I do not find anything
in Scripture that says that we have a right to be free from pain
and suffering. On the contrary, as I read Scripture, it says clearly
that we should expect pain and suffering, and we need to learn how
to deal with them. I shall develop this point at some length because
I believe it is essential for us to understand it. (2) There are
some who seem to feel, or assume, that, once we accept Jesus as
our Lord and Savior, our life will become easy and we will have
no serious problems. I think any such assumption is unscriptural
and false. There is a cost to following Jesus. Scripture tells us
to bear our cross. My experience, and that of many, I believe, is
that life can become more difficult after we are saved, because
we are expected to grow and change, because there is a struggle
between our flesh and the Holy Spirit, and because there is an enemy
who is trying to shut us down. (I discuss some aspects of this in
my paper, "Be Transformed by the Renewing of your Mind".)
(3) In the Western world today we are no longer used to pain. We
have so many painkillers and other medications, we have built up
such an expectation of instant relief, that many people no longer
know how to handle pain.
WE HAVE NO "RIGHT" TO BE FREE FROM PAIN AND SUFFERING
When we accept
Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior our sins are forgiven, we enter
into eternal life, and we can look forward to spending eternity
in heaven with God. We have the Holy Spirit living within us, we
become adopted sons of God, and we are enabled to start a remarkable
process of transformation in our lives. These are tremendous gifts,
which we do not deserve, and for which we should be very thankful.
We receive them by the grace of God, and part of the definition
of grace is "unmerited favor". But I do not see in Scripture
anything that says that we are necessarily freed from pain and suffering.
Rather, Scripture says we can expect difficulties, testing and suffering.
The difference is that we are much better able to deal with them
because of the power of God working in us, and because of the support
and love of our fellow-believers.
God has many
blessings for us. He is "able to do immeasurably more than
all we ask or think, according to his power that is at work within
us" (Ephesians 3:20). But blessings are gifts. No one is entitled
to them. When we get them we give thanks, but if we do not get all
that we hoped for we have no right to complain. God does not owe
us anything. "Who has a claim against me that I must pay?"
(Job 41:11). "Who has ever given to God that God should repay
him?" (Romans 11:35). In the light of the tremendous blessing
of forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation, everything else becomes
unimportant (see 2 Corinthians 4:17). (Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures
are from the New International Version, and any emphasis is mine.)
SCRIPTURE TELLS US TO EXPECT SUFFERING
it clear that no one is immune from suffering. I shall spell this
out at some length because I think a clear understanding and acceptance
of it must underlie any consideration we give to the subject of
suffering. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that
everyone must suffer or will suffer. I am certainly not saying that
suffering is desirable or that we should seek it. I merely want
to dispel any idea that we should be, or can expect to be, immune
from suffering. In this imperfect world suffering occurs and no
one is immune from it.
The King James
version of the New Testament speaks quite often of "tribulation".
The Greek word
thlipsis means, in essence, "to crush, press, compress or squeeze",
as in pressing juice out of grapes or olives. In various places
in the King James Version it is translated as "affliction,
anguish, burden, persecution, tribulation, trouble".
At the end
times there will be a "Great Tribulation", worse than
the world has ever seen (Matthew 24:21-22 KJV). Scholars disagree
whether believers will have to go through that tribulation or will
be lifted out of it. But there are other tribulations right now.
Jesus told his disciples, "In the world ye shall have tribulation:
but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33
KJV). Jesus is not saying that he will keep us from tribulation,
or that he will lift it off us. I believe he is saying, "When
affliction, anguish and tribulation come, as they will, I will help
you to overcome them, to bear them."
us that God is "an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm
46:1). He doesn't always take the trouble away. He doesn't always
help us from trouble; he helps us in trouble. God said "When
you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass
through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk
through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set
you ablaze" (Isaiah 43:2). God does not take away the water
and the fire; but he is with us when we go through them and he protects
us. The image of Daniel chapter 3 is telling. God did not keep the
three Israelites from being thrown into the fiery furnace, but he
protected them from being harmed, and King Nebuchadnezzar saw a
fourth person "like the Son of God" (verse 25, KJV) in
the furnace with them. If this was, as many think, the preincarnate
Christ, it is a powerful image of God being right there with us
when we suffer and are tested.
us to travel on the narrow road (Matthew 7:13-14). The Greek word
translated "narrow" is thlibo, a relative of thlipsis.
It may just refer to the physical narrowness, but I think it may
also suggest the likelihood of affliction and oppression. In the
parable of the sower, in speaking of the seed that fell on stony
ground, Jesus said that the man received God's word with joy, but
later, "when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of
the word by and by he is offended" (Matthew 13: 21 KJV). Jesus
assumes that tribulation and persecution will arise because of the
In the Book
of Revelation John referred to himself as "your brother, and
companion in tribulation and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus
Christ" (Revelation 1:9 KJV). John at the time was a prisoner
on the island of Patmos.
"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you
are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.
But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so
that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed" (1 Peter
4:12-13). (KJV speaks of a "fiery trial")
Paul wrote a
great deal about tribulation, hardship and suffering. He taught
"We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom
of God" (Acts 14:22 KJV). (NIV says "many hardships".)
He described his "way of life" as including "endurance,
persecutions, sufferings" (2 Timothy 3:10-11). He wrote,
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth
comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans
8:18). He wrote to the Thessalonians, "You became imitators
of us and the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed
the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit" (1 Thessalonians
1:6; see also 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:4), and that he was "destined
for" trials (thlipsis) and persecution (1 Thessalonians
3:3-4, 7). He wrote, "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction
(thlipsis), faithful in prayer" (Romans 12:12). He wrote his
protegee, Timothy, "Endure hardship with us like a good
soldier" (2 Timothy 2:3). (The Greek word translated "hardship"
means "to suffer evil or affliction".) He prayed that
the Colossians would be "strengthened with all power, according
to [God's] glorious might so that you may have great endurance
and patience" (Colossians 1:11). Paul tells us to stand in
God's strength "when the day of evil comes" (Ephesians
6:13). "When", not "if". We should expect to
have at least one "day" (or season) of "evil".
In 2 Corinthians
Paul deals with this issue repeatedly. Read his words carefully
and try to picture what he is writing about. God "comforts
us in all our troubles (thlipsis), so that we can comfort those
in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from
God" (1:4). He says that in the province of Asia, "We
were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so
that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the
sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves
but on God, who raises the dead" (1:8-10). Turning to his present
situation he says, "We are hard pressed on every side, but
not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not
abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed". He goes on, "Therefore
we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet
inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary
troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs
them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal"
(4:8-9, 16-18). He says, "As servants of God we commend ourselves
in every way: in great endurance; in troubles (thlipsis), hardships
and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work,
sleepless nights and hunger;... dying, and yet we live on; beaten,
and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making
many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (6:4-10).
Again, he says, "When we came into Macedonia, this body of
ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn - conflicts
on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast,
comforted us by the coming of Titus" (7:5-6). In chapter 11
he lists the sufferings he endured for Jesus Christ: flogged 5 times
with 39 lashes; beaten with rods 3 times; stoned and left for dead
(see Acts 14:19); shipwrecked 3 times; spent a day and a night in
the open sea; in constant danger; without sleep, without food, cold
and naked; facing daily "the pressure of my concern for all
the churches." Then in chapter 12 he tells us that he was given
"a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me".
Three times he asked God to take it away, and God refused, saying
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect
in weakness". Paul adds, "That is why, for Christ's sake,
I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions,
in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (12:7-10).
Paul does not
tell us what the "thorn in the flesh" was that was sent
to "torment" him. It sounds like a physical ailment, and
a painful one. Is it not possible that the floggings, beatings and
stoning would have so damaged his body that it was painful and difficult
for him to move? Is this why he constantly brought his body "into
subjection" (1 Corinthians 9:27 KJV)? Note also Galatians 6:17,
saying "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."
Paul does not
complain about all that he suffered. He has no grievance against
God. He is not surprised when suffering comes. Nor is he a masochist
who enjoys suffering. He simply says, in effect, "God, if this
is how you want me to serve you, then this is how I will serve you."
I don't see
how anyone can read this account of Paul's ministry and still say,
"Christians should not have to suffer."
summarized the lesson of all these experiences: "I have learned
to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be
in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the
secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well
fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything
through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11-13).
He wrote, "Be joyful always... Give thanks in all circumstances"
(1 Thessalonians 5:16, 18). Presumably, "in all circumstances"
means rejoicing and giving thanks while you are being flogged with
lashes that have sharp objects imbedded in them to tear your flesh,
and while you are being stoned to death! And Paul showed us how
to do this. After he and Silas had been "severely" flogged
and thrust into the inner cell of the prison with their feet fastened
in stocks, they prayed and sang hymns to God (Acts 16:23-25) (KJV
says "sang praises"). God brought good out of it. The
doors of the jail were opened and the jailer and his family were
be "content" while in severe pain and suffering is not
easy. But Paul tells us it is possible. Most of us have known, or
have heard about, people who live with severe pain and even find
joy in their lives in spite of it.
In Romans 8:28
Paul wrote, "And we know that in all things God works for the
good of those who love him, who have been called according to his
purpose." I do not read this as saying that God will only bring
"good" things, and will never allow "bad" things
to happen, to those who love him. How could Paul, after all that
he had been through, say that God does not allow painful things
to happen to Christians? Rather, I believe he is saying that, whatever
happens to us, God can use it for good if we will allow him to.
much the same thing. Joseph suffered a lot. His brothers sold him
into slavery; he was unjustly accused and put into jail; and one
who promised to help him get out forgot and he stayed there another
two years. He spent 13 years as a slave, separated from his family
and at the mercy of his master. But later he was able to say to
his brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it
for good" (Genesis 50:20).
Life was not
easy in the early church. The Sanhedrin had the apostles put in
jail and then flogged (Acts 5:18, 40). Stephen was stoned to death
(Acts 7:54-60). "A great persecution broke out against the
church at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1). Paul persecuted the church
"intensely" and "tried to destroy" it (Galatians
1:13). Herod killed James, the brother of John; he imprisoned Peter,
intending to execute him also (Acts 12:1-4). Hebrews speaks of those
who "stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering"
(Hebrews 10:32). History records many other persecutions of the
early church. Ten of the original 12 disciples are believed to have
been martyred for their faith, sometimes quite painfully, and John
is said to have suffered torture. Revelation speaks of those who
"did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death"
(Revelation 12:11) and those who were "beheaded because of
their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God" (Revelation
Nor was life
always easy for the prophets. Jesus cried out, "O Jerusalem,
Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you"
(Matthew 23:37; see also Matthew 21:35-36). Hebrews refers to prophets
who were "tortured and refused to be released, so that they
might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging,
while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned;
they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They
went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and
mistreated - the world was not worthy of them." All these were
"commended for their faith" (Hebrews 11:35-39).
David was "a
man after [God's] own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14). His desire was
to do God's will (Psalm 40:8). He had perhaps a deeper personal
understanding of God than any other figure in the Old Testament.
God said, "I have been with you wherever you have gone"
(2 Samuel 7:9) Yet he suffered greatly. For fifteen years he fled
from King Saul, who sought to kill him.
Listen to some
of the words of his Psalms. "Be merciful to me, Lord, for I
am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is
in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long?" (Psalm 6:1-3). "How
long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide
your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and
every day have sorrow in my heart?... Give light to my eyes, or
I will sleep in death" (Psalm 13:1-3). "I am bowed down
and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. My back
is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body. I am
feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart" (Psalm
38:6-8). "My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of
death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed
me" (Psalm 55:4-5). "Save me, O God, for the waters have
come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no
foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail,
looking for my God" (Psalm 69 1-3).
In all of this
suffering God was with him. David said, "Though I walk in the
midst of trouble, you preserve my life" (Psalm 138:7). "Even
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will
fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they
comfort me" (Psalm 23:4). The most noteworthy thing about these
psalms is that while they often start in despair, they end in affirmation,
as David turns his eyes from his own suffering to the greatness
Christians are persecuted for their faith by Communists, Muslims,
Hindus and others. There is a "suffering church". Indeed
it has been said that the number of martyrs (those killed for their
faith) in the 20th century exceeds the total for all the previous
centuries of the church. We cannot assume that there will never
be persecution in the United States.
promised that the church would not be persecuted. Instead he said,
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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" (Matthew 5:10-12). He told his disciples,
"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first...
If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John
15:18, 20). He promised that those who followed him would receive
many good things, "and with them, persecutions" (Mark
There is a
cost to following Jesus. "If anyone would come after me he
must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew
16:24; see also 10:38; Luke 14:27). We must count the cost (Luke
14:28-33). Paul wrote, "For it has been granted to you on behalf
of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him"
(Philippians 1:29). He wrote, "I want to know Christ and the
power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings"
(Philippians 3:10). Peter wrote, "Resist [the devil] standing
firm in your faith, because you know that your brothers throughout
the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (1 Peter
5:9). Today, Chrisitans in some parts of the world are much more
subject to persecution than are others, but none of us is immune.
Romanian Baptist pastor has written, "Christ exhorts us to
take up our cross. That is not easy. We do not want to suffer. But
we need to realize that suffering is a part of our walk with God.
If we only believe in God with our heads and not with our actions
and deeds, we will not suffer. Only when we live up to God's standards
will we face hardships." ("Bound to be Free", p.
One theme that
runs through some of these passages is the sense that God has forsaken
us. We see it in a number of David's words quoted above, and also
in Psalm 22:1-2, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
O God, I cry out by day and you do not answer, by night and am not
silent." Job cried out "If I only knew where to find him"
(Job 23:3). "Though I cry, 'I've been wronged!" I get
no response; though I call for help, there is no justice" (Job
19:7). "I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer"
(Job 30:20; see also Job 27:2, 29:2-3). In fact God has not forsaken
us; God is faithful and his compassions never fail (Lamentations
3:22-23; see also 3:31-32). But the feeling that he has forsaken
us adds greatly to our suffering.
a part of life in this imperfect world. We need to understand this.
When we suffer, as most people do at one time or another, it is
not necessarily because we have sinned, or because God is punishing
us, or because God needs to teach us something, or because the devil
is attacking us. It is certainly not because God has forsaken us.
It may just be because suffering is a part of life. We do not need
to add to our suffering by searching endlessly for reasons which
we may never find.
is God (John 1:1; Philippians 2:6), was "despised and rejected
by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering" (Isaiah
53:3). "It was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to
suffer" (Isaiah 53:10). He knew that he "must suffer many
things" (Mark 8:31). Peter speaks of the "sufferings of
Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Peter 1:11). Jesus
suffered physical agonies on the Cross, and also during the mocking
and flogging that preceded the Cross. Even worse, he bore the sins
of all mankind (1 Peter 2:24). God "made him who had no sin
to be sin for us" (2 Corinthians 5:21), to become "a curse
for us" (Galatians 3:13), and to bear the agony of separation
from his Father (Matthew 27:46).
"I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). Does this mean
that the Father suffered with him, the Father felt all the pain
of the flogging and the crucifixion, and the pain of his sense that
the Father had rejected him? I think it does.
God is a God
of compassion. He is "the Father of compassion" (2 Corinthians
1:3). "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy" (James
5:11). "The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full
of compassion" (Psalm 116:5). He "crowns you with love
and compassion" (Psalm 103:4). He "has compassion on all
he has made" (Psalm 145:9). "His compassions never fail"
One of the
Greek words for compassion, sumpatheo, is made up of sun, "with",
and pascho, "to suffer". It means to suffer with or alongside
of. When God has compassion on us, he suffers with us or alongside
of us. He feels our suffering. He shares in it. "In all their
affliction [God] was afflicted" (Isaiah 63:9 KJV). "His
soul was grieved for the misery of Israel" (Judges 10:16 KJV).
God has strong
feelings. He is grieved and his heart is filled with pain (Genesis
6:6). He is angry (Psalms 6:1, 7:11, 78:58-59, 90:11). His anger
burns (Exodus 32:10). His wrath is fearful (Revelation 6:17). His
compassion is greater than that of a mother for her child (Isaiah
49:15). He has "tender mercies" (Psalm 25:6 KJV). He is
love (1 John 4:8). He "loves the world" (John 3:16). God
rejoices in bringing good to us (Deuteronomy 30:9 KJV; Jeremiah
32:41). He rejoices in his works (Psalm 104:31). He takes great
delight in his people and rejoices over them (Zephaniah 3:17). There
is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10).
God "delights in those who fear him" (Psalm 147:11). He
delights in kindness, justice and righteousness (Jeremiah 9:26).
a parable that illustrates the father's love. When the prodigal
son came back to his father, the father ran out to meet him, threw
his arms around him and kissed him; he had a feast to celebrate
his return. When the older brother objected, the father said, "We
had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was
dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (Luke 15:32).
In this parable, the father represents God and the son represents
any sinner who repents and returns to God. The parable vividly illustrates
the longing God has for us to turn to him, the love God has for
us, and the joy God has when we do turn to him.
Even for Jesus,
suffering was a learning experience. God made Jesus "perfect
through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10); he "learned obedience
from what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). Jesus was like us in
every way (Hebrews 2:17); he experienced everything that we experience,
and for that reason he is able "to sympathize with our weaknesses"
(Hebrews 4:15). He understands what we are going through. "Because
he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those
who are being tempted" (Hebrews 2:18).
We are better
able to bear suffering because Christ suffered for us. "Christ
suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow
in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21). "Rejoice that you participate
in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his
glory is revealed" (1 Peter 4:13). Paul wrote, "I want
to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship
of sharing in his sufferings" (Philippians 3:10).
the Father and Jesus know what suffering is, they are able to comfort
us in our sufferings. Paul develops this thought beautifully. "Praise
be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the God of
all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can
comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have
received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over
into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows"
(2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
who lived through 15 years of war in Lebanon, says it in these words:
we suffer or see people suffering, a cry from the depth of our
being comes up: 'Where is God?' Especially when the suffering
lasts for years and years, then our morale deteriorates and our
situation becomes frustrating. We begin to question even the essential
attributes of God: His love, wisdom, and faithfulness. And still
worse comes when we begin to question the reality of God's existence.
I am sure many people, even Christians, are shaken by these doubts
when their prayers have gone unanswered for years.
can our faith be sustained in such circumstances? Our faith will
be as deep as the cross is in our belief. People tend to look
to heaven in the midst of their sufferings and say, where are
you God? They feel that God is on His Throne up there in heaven,
far away and uncaring. Those who have the cross as the centre
of their theology will not look up to a distant heaven as if to
get help for their suffering, but will look to the crucified Jesus
down here on Golgotha, and from His suffering, their hearts find
healing in the midst of their suffering." ("Bound to
be Free", p. 227).
OUR PRIORITIES ARE NOT GOD'S PRIORITIES.
We tend to
look at the problem of pain and suffering in terms of physical comfort
and material possessions. We want physical health, freedom from
physical pain and enough material possessions to live comfortably.
I think these are not God's priorities.
I believe God
wants us to have "good" things. He wants us to be comfortable
and free from pain. But his primary concern is not with our physical
circumstances. I believe his primary concerns are (1) our eternal
salvation, (2) our growth into Christian maturity, and (3) our usefulness
in the kingdom of God.
We can see
this clearly in terms of physical possessions. God knows that we
need food, drink and clothing, but he told us to "seek first
[God's] kingdom and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). Jesus
said, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole
world, yet forfeits his soul" (Matthew 16:26). He warned about
the "deceitfulness of wealth" that can choke out God's
word and make it unfruitful" (Matthew 13:22). He said "it
is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew
19:23). Paul wrote, "People who want to get rich fall into
a temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires
that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money
is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people eager for money have
wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs"
(1 Timothy 6:9-10).
Paul, who suffered
a great deal of physical pain in his life, expressed God's priorities
about suffering. "I consider that our present sufferings are
not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us"
(Romans 8:18). "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving
for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our
eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen
is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Corinthians
4:17-18). "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When
Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with
him in glory" (Colossians 3:2-4).
In God's view
our physical and emotional circumstances are not of primary importance.
What matters is our relationship with him, our eternal life, and
our effectiveness in the kingdom of God. He wants us to find that
relationship, and to gain that eternal life, no matter what our
circumstances may be. If painful circumstances will cause us to
give up our self-reliance and cry out to him, then he may allow
those circumstances or even bring them on.
to offer us an "abundant" life. But he was not talking
about physical abundance or even physical comfort. He was talking
about abundance in the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
We tend to
look at the short term. God looks at eternity. We tend to be caught
up in the moment. For God 1,000 years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8).
Thus it was that Jesus "for the joy set before him endured
the cross, scorning its shame" (Hebrews 12:2). God could see
"the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow"
(1 Peter 1:11). Paul was able to see suffering in God's time scale.
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing
with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).
"Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal
glory that far outweighs them all" (2 Corinthians 4:17). Paul
was able to see 5 floggings, 3 beatings with rods, a stoning, 3
shipwrecks and much more as "light and momentary troubles"
in the time perspective of eternity!
With this much
established as a background, let us look at some of the "why
" questions people have asked.
Continues on Next Page