One of the greatest challenges to living practical and day-to-day faith is wrestling with the problem of suffering. Lucy Van Pelt quipped in a Peanuts’ cartoon many years ago, “Pain hurts!” So we naturally run from it, hide from it and try to remove it from our lives whenever possible. We can attack the issue with a Modern perspective by dissecting pain into basic components in an attempt to “fix” it, or we can take a Post-Modern approach by masking it, but either way, the problem of suffering doesn’t go away.
The history of humanity has always been characterized by suffering. The question of “why” has haunted every generation. 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 don’t understand why it happens. Why is suffering universally a part of the human experience?
Within the Bible we can find answers to this 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 rejecting God. Our two earliest ancestors, the “heads” of the human race, were the first to suffer because, in their rejection of God,and for the sake of their own pride, they chose the alternative to an ongoing, joyful union with their Creator. Hence, they actually chose suffering. It was the consequence of having their own way. The shadow of suffering and the presence of pain entered into what could have an otherwise been completely joyful life, devoid of suffering in all its forms (see Genesis 3:16-19).
Whereas sufferring was forevermore a permanent part of life on this earth, God promises relief for his children. “The salvation of the righteous comes from the LORD; he is their stronghold in 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). Walking with God opens the door for His power to work in our lives, bringing hope and healing.
But we find that suffering still comes even when we humble ourselves before God and forsake our own way. Even when we choose to enter into fellowship with Him through faith in Christ, it 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 in our minds? Why must we strive to find that our dreams come to nothing? Why do the very ones we love reject and abuse us?
These are difficult questions to answer, but the promise of Psalm 37 can be understood even when our lives seem to be painted by the dark colors of hurt and sorrow. Job of the Old Testament was a man whose eyes and heart were focused on the Lord. He also found himself the target of affliction. Not only did he lose his health and wealth, but death claimed his children while bitterness took away his wife. The loss of his friends could have been the final straw.
But in the end, he learned—as did his friends —that sometimes suffering is metered out to us in order to demonstrate the sufficiency of God. In other words, God Himself is the only blessing that we truly “need.” Suffering is at times permitted in our lives 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.
Here is an incredible truth: our God is no stranger to suffering. Taking human form, He endured the fullness of human experience. Born in humble circumstances, hungering, thirsting, bearing the emotional anguish of rejection, He was beaten and crucified. He knows fully what we go through in all our varieties of suffering. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering… He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth…” (Isaiah 53:4,7).
Jesus has fully entered into our suffering, and by His Spirit, enters into our suffering in whatever form it takes in our lives today. He addressed our need although it caused Him pain. He did not avoid the cross because there was affliction. He embraced the suffering because, in doing so, He was also embracing us.
And now He invites us to revisit the myriad of ways that we might be suffering today. If we’ve ever asked the question “Why?” and felt abandoned, if we’ve considered throwing in the towel, or shaking our fist at the heavens, perhaps we should reconsider. If we cannot find a reason for the pain now, then we might entertain the possibility that God Himself is extending the opportunity for us to enter into a new arena of fellowship with His Son. “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
Knowing God is the end-all purpose for which we’ve been created. Knowing Him intimately is the most incredible pleasure and awesome wonder of the Christian experience. If we truly mean the words we say when our mouths utter, “I want to know You, Lord,” we must accept 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. By His Spirit’s power we can meet rejection with grace instead of resentment; face injuries with forgiveness instead of retaliation; endure disease and afflictions with trust in God instead of fear; and even grieve 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 will be to 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 to make sense of the suffering.