we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 2:10)
is a question that God usually does not answer. Apparently he thinks
we do not need the answer. Often he asks us to trust him even when
we are confused and don't understand what is happening. One thing
I think is clear. The glib, easy answers that some "Job's comforters"
give do not help and can cause harm.
may be helpful to indicate that there are reasons why painful things
happen. We may not know why a particular thing happened at a particular
time to a particular person, but it may help to understand that
there are reasons for these things. Suffering is not meaningless;
it's just that we aren't always told what the particular meaning
WHY PAINFUL THINGS CAN HAPPEN
things just happen.
In this imperfect
world, things that cause pain do happen. Most "natural disasters"
are in this category. Hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes,
volcanic explosions, avalanches, rock and mud slides, drought, famine
and other such things occur, and they can cause much pain and suffering
to large numbers of people. Perhaps we can see these as related
in a general way to the curse that is on the earth as a result of
the Fall. Creation scientists believe that many of our storms and
weather problems did not exist until after the Flood. The same might
be true of geological problems like earthquakes and volcanic explosions.
We simply don't know what the earth was like before the Fall, except
that when God created it, he saw that it was good. All that we can
say with assurance is that the earth as it now exists is imperfect.
There are also
accidents, sometimes on a large scale. Airplanes, trains and busses
crash, ships sink, buildings and bridges fall. Dams burst. Chemical
plants explode. Large fires occur. Sometimes these can be traced
to human error. A design was faulty. A pilot, motorman or operator
used bad judgment. There was a failure of maintenance. We try to
find out what these causes might be so as to help guard against
them for the future. But ultimately we may just have to accept the
fact that in an imperfect world these things are going to happen,
and people will get hurt by them.
In most cases
it is very hard to see why this kind of thing happened to a particular
person. Occasionally we can perhaps see that God, in his mercy,
protected a person. Someone who was scheduled to take a particular
flight did not board the plane. Someone who had planned to go to
a particular place had his plans changed or seemingly fouled up.
Things of that kind. But in most cases it's very hard to see why
this kind of thing happened to a particular person.
Does this mean
that God is capricious or whimsical? I don't think so. It simply
means that we live in an imperfect world in which "bad"
things do happen.
are clearly the result of evil in the world. The Nazi Holocaust;
millions who were killed, tortured and imprisoned by Stalin and
other communist regimes; pain caused by other ruthless dictators,
such as Idi Amin and some of the Latin American regimes; genocide
which has killed many in Africa and Bosnia; terrorist acts (such
as those which occurred in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001);
human slavery. Much suffering has been caused by human greed and
exploitation of others.
At a more individual
level, there are people in the world who harm others. There are
those who commit murder, assault and rape; there are wife and child
abusers; there are people who are domineering, manipulative, controlling
or sadistic; there are people who are always demanding and complaining;
there are people who are acquisitive, self-centered or simply callous
to the needs of others. They cause much suffering to others. In
some cases this may be the result of abuse which they suffered,
but its ultimate origin is always, I think, the fact that there
are forces of evil in the world.
He is still, in considerable measure, the "god of this world".
His purpose is to cause injury and pain, to "steal and kill
and destroy". He uses evil men and women to accomplish that
purpose. We may not fully understand why God allows him to exist,
and to have so much influence, but that is the fact.
is caused by wars. Civilian populations may be devastated. Some
wars can be seen as the direct result of evil. I believe World War
II was necessary to prevent some evil men (Hitler, Mussolini, the
Japanese Empire) from taking over the world and reducing it to subjection.
Other wars can be seen as the result of greed, selfishness and lust
for power on both sides, or of bitterness, hatred and unforgiveness,
or just of human inability to resolve differences. But I think we
can say that the satanic forces of evil enter into many wars.
Again in this
area it is usually very difficult to see why a particular person
was one of those injured. Terrible things happen, and this or that
person just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Quite a bit
of pain can be seen as self-inflicted.
suicide. Many injure themselves in various ways. We take substances,
such as drugs, alcohol and tobacco, which harm our bodies, or cause
us to do other destructive things. We do foolhardy and dangerous
things. We eat foods which are harmful to our health. We associate
with people whose influence is bad. Quite a bit of illness is self-inflicted
in the sense that we have either done things that harm our bodies
or neglected to do things that will help and protect them.
We injure ourselves
emotionally. Scripture warns us not to allow a "bitter root"
to grow up "to cause trouble and defile many" (Hebrews
12:15), but we hold on to bitterness. Scripture warns us that if
we do not forgive others we will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:15,
18:21-35), but we hold on to unforgiveness. Scripture tells us that
we shall reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7), but we sow anger, bitterness,
selfishness, and abuse and wonder why we get them back in return.
Scripture warns us "do not give the devil a foothold"
(Ephesians 4:27) and we give him all sorts of footholds and handholds
from which to harm us and others. We ignore or wilfully violate
the rules God has established and then we wonder why we are reaping
the consequences of our own actions.
Much of this
self-inflicted injury is due to lack of wisdom and lack of self-control,
but in its roots I think it all goes back to the fact that we are
sinful and imperfect people.
caused by God
At times God
causes suffering for his purposes. The statement may offend some
people's concept of God, but it is well documented in Scripture.
all life on the earth by a flood (except for those on the ark) because
man's wickedness had become so great that "the Lord was grieved
that he had made man on the earth" (Genesis 6:6). He destroyed
Sodom and Gomorrah, and other "cities of the plain" because
their sin was so "grievous" (Genesis 18:20, 19:24-25).
In order to rescue his people from slavery, he sent numerous plagues
on Egypt which caused great destruction. He caused the earth to
open up and swallow Dathan, Abiram and Korah and their families
and households because they rebelled against Moses (Numbers chapter
16). Because Israel worshiped pagan gods and engaged in sexual immorality
"the Lord's anger burned against them" and he brought
a plague which killed 24,000 Israelites (Numbers 25:4, 9). Because
the 10 northern tribes had turned to foreign gods he raised up Assyria
to conquer the northern kingdom and scatter its people (see Isaiah
8:6-10; 2 Kings 17:7-23). To protect Jerusalem from the Assyrians
he sent his angel to kill 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isaiah 37:36).
But then God raised up Babylon to destroy the southern kingdom and
take its people captive. Many more examples could be given.
In the last
days, Jesus will be "revealed from heaven in blazing fire with
his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and
do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished
with everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). Revelation
speaks of the great day of the wrath of God and Jesus (Revelation
I think we
need to be very careful here. God does judge nations and individuals.
He does bring suffering and destruction to people as a punishment.
He is a righteous and holy God and his wrath is terrible. But I
think we should be careful not to assume that something is the punishment
or judgment of God unless he has clearly said that it is. For example,
some see the plague of AIDS as God's judgment on sexual promiscuity
or homosexuality. I see it rather as allowing people to reap the
natural consequences of their promiscuity. Some have seen the terrorist
attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 as a judgment
of God. I think our nation is deserving of God's judgment in many
respects, but I see these attacks rather as (a) a wake-up call and
(b) a case of God removing his hand of protection.
I have indicated
that suffering can often serve a useful purpose in testing and strengthening
us, and in developing godly character. A remarkable example of this
is found in Joni Earecksen Tada, whose situation is discussed in
Yancey's book. As a teenager Joni was athletic and healthy. One
day she had a diving accident, and broke her neck. She has lived
the rest of her life as a quadriplegic. It has been a struggle;
she deals often with pain and also with helplessness and dependence
on others. But she has a full life. She is married, has written
a number of books, has a radio program, is in demand as a speaker,
has made a video, paints with a brush held in her mouth, sings,
and shows the joy of the Lord. She has said that her accident was
the best thing that happened to her. Without it, she might have
been a shallow, self-centered woman. With it she has become a godly
woman who has an active ministry and who is a powerful example to
others. God used her accident to build her character into that of
a marvelous woman of God.
example is that of Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who was
imprisoned and mistreated by the Communists in Rumania. He has said
that when he was in solitary confinement, with nothing he could
call his own except the clothes on his back, liable at any moment
to be treated with torture and physical indignity, those were the
times when he was closest to God. When everything else had been
stripped away, God became more real to him.
a Chinese pastor, was imprisoned and mistreated by the Communists
for 21 years. He emerged from this imprisonment with no bitterness,
and full of love and joy. He has written: "We must make up
our minds daily to be willing to suffer for Christ. Then, and only
then, will we experience blessing, peace and victory" ( "Bound
to be Free", p. 62).
When our life
is comfortable and easy we tend to become self-satisfied and self-reliant.
We tend to think: I am doing well, I have accomplished various things,
I am a success. I, I, I. Sometimes God needs to squeeze us a bit,
to have us go through a certain amount of tribulation, even a great
amount of tribulation, to bring us to the point where we depend
on him rather than ourselves, and realize that without his power
working in us we are not going to make it.
I have put
illness and injury in a special category because it is such a prevalent
cause of suffering and because it is often not easy to see what
cause may lie behind it.
I believe all
illness and injury is a result of the Fall. When Scripture says
that death and pain came because of the Fall, I believe that illness
also came. A perfect, resurrection body does not get ill or injured
(see 1 Corinthians 15:42-49). And I do not believe those in the
New Jerusalem will get ill.
injury, then, are to be seen as consequences of our present imperfect
state. But this does not answer the question why a particular illness
afflicts a particular person.
as I have already noted, illness can be self-inflicted. Some illness
can have a direct relationship to bitterness and unforgiveness that
we hold, or to stress and anxiety (lack of God's peace). Illness
can also be brought on us by others. There have been occupational
diseases, such as black lung disease, and health problems from substances
such as asbestos. In World War I many had their health permanently
destroyed by poison gas; the use of atomic bombs has caused radiation
illness; both chemical and bacteriological agents are available
for military use and may be available to terrorists. Some illnesses,
also, may be seen as attacks on us by our spiritual enemy. Jesus
saw that certain illnesses were caused by evil spirits. He healed
a crippled woman "whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long
years" (Luke 13:16). He healed a boy of seizures by rebuking
and casting out a demon (Matthew 17:18). In all these aspects we
can see the force of evil at work.
illness comes from God. King Uzziah sinned by taking over the function
of a priest, and became a leper for the last 15 years of his life;
Scripture says "the Lord had afflicted him" (2 Chronicles
26:20). When Miriam rebelled against Moses "the anger of the
Lord burned against" her and she became a leper. At Moses'
request she was healed, but she had to remain outside the camp for
7 days (Numbers chapter 12). God brought a number of plagues on
Israel, which killed thousands. God warned the people of Israel
that if they did not follow his commands he would send "fearful
plagues", "harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and
lingering illnesses", "all the diseases of Egypt",
"every kind of sickness and disaster" (Deuteronomy 28:59-61).
With most illnesses,
however, it is difficult to see that any of the possible causes
are applicable. They seem more often to fall into the category of
something that "just happens". Some can suffer for years
with cancer, painful arthritis, Alzheimer's, or the like. Some are
born with Down's syndrome, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, and
the like. It is hard to find a reason for any of these. There are,
however, those who overcome the pain or disability and live rich
and full lives in spite of it.
WHY IS THIS THING HAPPENING TO ME?
This is the
question we often ask. I note one interesting thing. When "bad"
things happen we often ask, "Why me, Lord?" "What
have I done to deserve this?" When "good" things
happen, when we receive a blessing, we seldom ask "what have
I done to deserve this?" Would we want to receive blessings
only when we "deserve" them or have "earned"
them? Then why should we expect to receive "bad" things
only when we "deserve" them.
much about God's grace, the unmerited favor he bestows on us. Most
of Paul's letters begin, "Grace and peace be to you."
Would we want to receive only what we deserve and never receive
God's grace, his unmerited favor? Do we want to deny ourselves the
"incomparable riches of [God's] grace" (Ephesians 2:7)
by insisting that we receive only what we deserve? Scripture says,
"See to it that no one misses the grace of God" (Hebrews
12:15). Would we want to miss the grace of God by insisting on a
principle that we receive only what we deserve?
If we received
only what we deserved, none of us could be saved! We are saved by
grace, by God's unmerited favor (Ephesians 2:8). Whatever may happen
to us in this life is slight compared to the suffering of spending
eternity in Hell separated from God. If we complain, are we not
a little bit in the position of someone who receives an unmerited
gift of $1,000 and complains because it is in $20 bills rather than
$100 bills? So long as we have the unmerited gift of eternal salvation,
should we complain to God because our life on this earth is relatively
more or less difficult? This idea of asking God only to let us have
what we deserve can cut two ways, and I suggest we should not want
to have him establish such a principle.
say, "This is not fair." "Why is this happening to
me and not to this other person." Would we want to have God
make things "fair" by making the other person suffer as
much as we suffer? "Fairness" really has nothing to do
We see this
illustrated in several ways in Scripture.
to Peter how Peter would die. Then when Peter saw John he asked
"Lord, what about him?' and Jesus answered, "If I want
him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must
follow me" (John 21:21-22). It really is none of our concern
how God treats somebody else. We need to focus on our relationship
a parable about workers in a vineyard. Some came to work in the
beginning of the day, and agreed to receive one denarius as a wage.
Others started work at the third, the sixth, the ninth and the eleventh
hour. He paid each of them the same wage. Those who had worked the
longest complained that this was not fair and the master (God) replied,
"I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for
a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was
hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do
what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"
Paul sums it
up. "Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is
formed say to him who formed it 'Why did you make me like this?'
Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump
of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?"
(Romans 9:20-21). God is sovereign. Everything under heaven belongs
to him and no one has a claim against him (Job 41:11).
us not to compare ourselves with others (Galatians 6:4). One reason
this principle is applicable here is that we cannot know fully what
the other person may be going through. Often others, who seem outwardly
to be doing well, may be struggling with difficulties we know nothing
of. Or they may have come through periods of severe pain in the
past. And how are we to measure pain? How do we compare the pain
of arthritis or cancer with the pain of a marriage that is breaking
up, or a rebellious child? It is better to stay with Jesus' "What
is that to you?"
"Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, 'I will have
mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom
I will have compassion'" (Romans 9:14-15, quoting Exodus 33:19).
Does this mean God is whimsical or arbitrary? No. God is sovereign.
He does what he, in his wisdom, decides to do. He does not owe us
any explanations or justifications for what he does or does not
BEWARE OF PAT ANSWERS
I have tried
to indicate some of the reasons why suffering may come in someone's
life. In most cases it is very hard to know why a particular kind
of suffering has occurred in a particular life. In most cases I
believe it serves little purpose to ask the question.
There are certain
answers which we tend to give ourselves, or others may give us,
of which we need to be quite wary.
One is that
suffering is always a punishment for some sin we have committed.
This was one that Job's comforters kept emphasizing, and God said
of them, "You have not spoken of me what is right" (Job
42:8). There may be times when suffering or illness is the result
of sin, and it may be well to examine yourself and see whether there
is something you need to get straight. But not all suffering is
the result of sin. Job did not suffer because of sin, but because
God allowed satan to test him (Job 1:8-12, 2:3-6). When Jesus healed
a man born blind, he said that his blindness was not the result
of sin (John 9:3). Jesus is the only perdson who was totally without
sin but he suffered terribly on the cross. Paul suffered much; would
anyone dare to say that it was because of some hidden sin on his
part? Paul had two associates who were ill, one of them to the point
of death (Philippians 2:27; 2 Timothy 4:20). There is no suggestion
in Paul's letters that they were guilty of sin or lacking in faith.
Christians have been persecuted and martyred from the First Century
until today; would anyone suggest that they suffered because of
answer is that, if your prayer to be relieved of suffering or illness
is not answered, it must be because of lack of faith. It is true
that we need to pray believing (James 1:6). But lack of faith is
not the only reason why prayers are not answered. Job's illness
continued for some time. God did not accuse him of lack of faith,
but rather commended him. The prophets who suffered in terrible
ways were commended for their faith (Hebrews 11:32-40). God allowed
Jesus to suffer on the Cross; would anyone suggest that that was
because of lack of faith? When God refused to heal Paul's "thorn
in the flesh" he said nothing about a lack of faith; he said
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect
in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9). God has many reasons for
not answering our prayers in the way and at the time we want him
to. We should not assume that every prayer that seems to be unanswered
indicates a lack of faith.
There may be
some who assume that every "bad" thing that happens to
us is a demonic attack. Some "bad" things do happen for
this reason, but it is giving much too much credit to the devil
to assume that he is behind every one. When people came to Jesus
for healing, sometimes he cast out an evil spirit and sometimes
he simply healed the condition.
me to the question why some people are healed by prayer and others
are not. This is something that has been observed by every healing
ministry. Jesus sometimes healed everyone who came to him, but on
other occasions he was more selective. There were many sick people
at the pool, but we read of only one whom Jesus healed (John 5:1-15).
There were probably a number of crippled beggars at the Temple gate,
but we read of only one whom Peter and John healed (Acts 3:1-10).
The best explanation anyone can come up with is that God is sovereign
and he does what he decides to do.
HOW DO WE DEAL WITH PAIN AND SUFFERING?
learned the secret of being content in any and every situation...
I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians
I come now
to the "what" questions, which I believe are the more
useful questions to ask. On these I do not have much to say. I have
not personally experienced severe long-term suffering. I have not
had much experience ministering to or working with those who have
experienced such suffering. My primary purpose in this paper has
been, not so much to give answers to the "what" questions,
as to get us to focus primarily on those questions.
There are no
easy answers. There are no formulas. There are no "one size
fits all" solutions. I believe everyone has to work this out
for themselves in whatever situation they may be. Dealing with suffering,
especially severe, protracted suffering, is extremely difficult.
But, with God's help, it can be done.
a number of examples of people who have come to terms quite successfully
with severe, protracted pain and suffering. Scripture gives us some
others. We can learn from them and take heart from them. I believe
it really is true that God is able to make good come out of every
situation, including painful ones.
I can only
suggest a few Scriptural principles that may be helpful.
Pain and suffering
occur. They are part of this world. No one is immune or exempt from
them. There is no guarantee that they will not occur. When they
come in our life we need to be able to accept them. As Peter wrote,
"Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering,
as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter
4:12). This is not easy, but I believe it is essential.
us to go further, and to "consider it pure joy" when trials
come. I confess that I am not yet at this point! But if we can see
pain and suffering as an experience from which we can learn and
grow, then perhaps we can see them as things that God is using for
our good, and be able to rejoice in them.
2. Do What
"Put on the full armor of God, so that when the evil day comes,
you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything,
to stand" (Ephesians 6:13). He was talking about facing the
enemy, but I think the principle applies to every kind of adversity.
God wants us to do everything we can.
In the case
of pain and suffering this means to get all the help you can. Medical
science knows quite a lot about pain management. What they have
to offer does not always work, seldom works fully, and sometimes
has side effects we prefer to avoid, but we might as well use it
when we can. If the pain is emotional or psychological, there are
various counseling resources; some of them can be helpful if they
are based on Christian principles. Most churches offer ministry
of one kind or another; some have small groups which can be very
supportive. There are other support groups. Prayer is always valuable.
My point is, avail yourself of anything that will be genuinely helpful
in relieving your pain. There is no virtue in unnecessary suffering.
on God, and not your circumstances.
Paul, who went
through a remarkable amount of suffering, wrote, "Be joyful
always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances."
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Later, from a Roman prison, he wrote,
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice!"
thanks in all circumstances". We don't necessarily give thanks
for the circumstances, but we give thanks in the circumstances.
Our thanks do not depend on the circumstances. Our thanks depend
on who God is, and on the salvation he has so freely given us. As
Paul wrote, "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" (1 Corinthians
4:17-18). In this sense Paul is like Jesus "who for the joy
set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame" (Hebrews
To Paul, five
floggings, three beatings with rods, stoning, and many other hardships
were "light and momentary"! This seems amazing. But when
we compare all that Paul suffered during some 60 years on earth
to the joy of spending eternity in heaven it becomes quite minor.
thanksgiving does not depend on the circumstances, we are not at
the mercy of the circumstances. I think this is what Paul was talking
about when he said that he had "learned the secret of being
content in any and every situation" (Philippians 4:12). The
secret is that you don't look at the situation, you look at God.
It is by this, also, that we can achieve "the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).
Our faith and
hope also need to transcend our circumstances. Romans 4:18 says,
"against all hope, Abraham in hope believed." Hope is
"confident expectation." All the circumstances gave Abraham
reason to believe that he and Sarah could not have a child. But
against that expectation based on the circumstances, Abraham set
his "confident expectation" based on God's promise to
him. He was "fully persuaded that God had power to do what
he had promised" (Romans 4:21). He went past all the natural
circumstances to believe God's promise, "because he considered
him faithful who had made the promise" (Hebrews 11:11). Whatever
the circumstances, we need to believe that God is bigger than the
circumstances and he will enable us to bear them and will bring
us through them. Whatever the circumstances, we need to believe
that God will strengthen us with all power according to his glorious
might, so that we may have great endurance and patience (Colossians
4. Let God
bring good out of the situation.
There is a
further reason to focus on God rather than your circumstances. God
works for good in all things, even in the most unlikely circumstances
(Romans 8:28). In order to enable him to do so we need to get close
to him. Use praise, prayer, Scripture reading, meditation on Scripture,
whatever works for you, to get close to God so that you can know
his will for you and hear what he has to say to you. Turn your situation
over to him in prayer, ask him to deal with you and to show you
anything he wants to show you about it. "Come near to God and
he will come near to you" (James 4:8).
Be honest with
God. He can handle anger, frustration, and even discouragement and
despair. Job complained and got angry at God. And God spoke to him
at length, revealed himself to him, and said that had "spoken
of me what is right" (Job 42:8). David often complained and
poured out his heart to God, and God called him "a man after
my heart." God does not mind hearing the distress and even
anger of one who is genuinely seeking after him.
faithful to God.
we accept good from God, and not trouble" (Job 2:10). When
suffering comes, that is always the question. Do we love God for
what he gives us, or for who he is? Can we love him and serve him
even in suffering, even when he seems to have deserted us, even
when he seems not to answer our prayers?
In his great
end-time prophecy Jesus told the disciples that they would be "persecuted
and put to death", that many would turn away from the faith
and the love of many would grow cold, but that "he who stands
firm to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13). In each of
the letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation there is a
promise of blessings to the one "who overcomes." God has
promised that we can be "more than conquerors" (Romans
8:37). "Everyone born of God overcomes the world" (1 John
5:4). I believe that God has made it possible to overcome pain and
suffering, no matter how severe and protracted.
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