Why do we suffer?

I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering lately; not so much that I’m personally in a place of extreme suffering, but I have a lot of people in my life who are experiencing some very challenging circumstances.  It seems like every other day I hear that someone I know and love has been diagnosed with cancer, or another life-threatening disease.  Frankly, I’m tired of this world and ready for Jesus to come back.

Suffering isn’t anything new.  Ever since Adam and Eve made the world-changing decision to turn their backs to God’s voice and take the forbidden fruit, suffering has become the norm, not the exception.  Our physical bodies wear out and decay.  We get sick.  We develop diseases.  Relationships fail.  Businesses don’t go as planned.  The ungodly steal and cheat and kill.  The enemy deceives.  We live in enemy territory (Ephesians 2:2), for we are citizens of another kingdom (Colossians 1:13).

So, what is our response?  How do we handle suffering, and what is its purpose?  Why does God allow bad things to happen to His children?

Let’s look at one key scripture first.

2 Corinthians 4:7-10 – But we have this treasure [the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ] in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  … For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.

Notice that Paul does not use the word “suffering” in this passage.  Suffering is not the cause of our pain, suffering is the pain.  The New Testament translates the Greek word paschō as “suffer” meaning to experience a sensation or impression (usually painful); to feel or vex.  It is the same word we use to describe the “passion” of Christ when describing what He went through on the cross.

Suffering is what we feel; the cause is our afflictions.

Paul describes afflictions very well:  For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within (2 Corinthians 7:5).

To be afflicted [thlibō] has reference to sufferings due to the pressure of circumstances, or the antagonism of persons; when used of the present experience of believers, it refers almost invariably to that which comes upon them from without (Vines).  It is to press (like grapes in a winepress), press hard upon; a compressed way; narrow straitened, contracted.

God allows afflictions to press upon us the image of Christ.

Afflictions are from without … suffering is within.  Both can be physical and spiritual.  A spiritual attack (worry, doubt, stress) can cause a physical response to our body (illness, fatigue, hair falls out).  A physical attack (illness, accident) can cause a spiritual response in our soul (depression, fear).

How do we respond to affliction and suffering?  Here are six things that we must possess (believe, understand, and live by), if we are to navigate the pressing circumstances of life with joy and victory.  At the end of each, I have listed scriptures that support them.  Take time to look them up and let God speak to your heart.  His Word is powerful.

#1.  WE MUST HAVE A FIRM GRASP ON THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD.

Whatever is happening to you, be it good or bad, is done under the authority and dominion of the Father.  Nothing comes into your life without God allowing it for His good purposes.  Firmly grasp this truth, for it will keep you steady when life overwhelms you.

God’s sovereignty is His supreme and unrestricted power. It is the position, dominion and authority that He possess because He alone is Creator.  A few thoughts about His sovereignty:

  • God is unique in His sovereignty: no one higher or greater.
  • God is eternal in His sovereignty: no other god came before Him or will rule after him.
  • God is purposeful in His sovereignty: His plans will come to pass; no one can question His purposes or thwart His plans.  What He intends, will happen.
  • God is inclusive in His sovereignty: He rules over all dominions; there are no kingdoms that are outside His authority and reign.  This includes anything physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional.
  • God is active in His sovereignty: It is God who works all things together.

Isaiah 46:9-11, Romans 8:28, 1 Chronicles 29:11, Daniel 4:34-35, Psalm 103:19-22.

#2.  WE MUST HAVE A CLEAR UNDERSTANDING OF THE FALLEN WORLD AND THE EFFECTS OF SIN.

Because we live in a fallen world, our bodies are no longer meant to last forever.  They will wear out, get sick, be filled with pain, and die.  We are weak and fragile, made of dust, and we will return to dust.  Our human life is filled with toil.  What was given originally to be joyful and restful, tending the garden, is now working to survive.  We were created to spend our days in beauty, enjoying what God created to sustain us.  Now we spend our days to sustain ourselves and rarely have time to enjoy the beauty or rest from labor.  Our relationships are full of conflict.  Instead of harmony and mutual joy in how God has created us individually, we desire to rule over one another.  We were meant to enjoy innocence and freedom; instead we are filled with guilt, suspicion, and held captive by our decisions and desires.

Our enemy (Satan) has been given a measure of freedom by God to rule this earth for a period of time.  God may give the enemy freedom to touch our health, our families, our homes, our jobs.  Look to Paul and Job for examples.  We live in a spiritual war zone.

God allows the natural consequences of a fallen world to come into our life, and He allows Satan a measure of freedom to tempt and try us.  This may be in relationships that bring pain, physical challenges, death of loved ones, and mental, emotional and spiritual challenges.  Because God is sovereign, He is intentional and purposeful about what He allows in our life.  Suffering (both physical and spiritual attacks) comes for our good, our growth, and His glory.

Don’t be angry at God.  Be angry at sin.  Be angry at the devil.  But be thankful to God that He came to give us victory in the end, and the joy of experiencing His presence and His power along the way.

Romans 8:18-25, Genesis 3:16-19, 1 John 5:19, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 5:8

#3.  WE MUST HAVE AN UNWAVERING FAITH IN THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF GOD.

We must recognize that we need transformation, and that God is determined to have us fullyGod is more concerned about our spiritual life than our physical life.  The work to save your life has already been done … you have eternal life!  But our spiritual life is a work in progress.

God’s power is often activated through suffering.  The power of God that achieved our salvation and defeated death came through the suffering of Jesus.  We must appreciate the magnitude of this power, and what it can accomplish in and through us.  If we do not believe God intends to transform us, then our suffering will seem pointless and cruel.  Faith in His ability to use what is difficult to create His image in us will help us persevere.  Just like Jesus, we choose the suffering in the face of whatever it is that He has called us to walk through, because we know there is joy and the pleasure of God on the other side of it.  We can only have this perspective if God’s pleasure, and the image of Christ formed in us, is truly our highest goal.

Romans 12:2, Ephesians 1:19-20, Colossians 4:22-24, Colossians 5:8, Philippians 2:12-13, 1 Peter 5:10, Hebrews 12:1-3.

#4.  WE MUST HAVE A SUSTAINING KNOWLEDGE OF THE WORD OF GOD.

First, we must know the written Word – our Bible.  God’s Word speaks to our heart at just the right time.  When we open it, we are inviting God into our pain and suffering, and allowing Him to give us exactly what we need to endure the trial.  Don’t waste your trials – seek God’s Word so that you learn what it is He is teaching you, and how He wants to use it for the good of the kingdom.

Second, we must know the personal Word – Jesus.

The WHO of God answers the WHY of God.  An understanding of the attributes and character of God reveals what He seeks to produce in us, for He is forming us into His image, back to the original creation.  But what is this image?  As we discover who He is, we will see why we are suffering, and what it is He is creating in us.

Here’s an example.  Jesus described Himself in several “I am” statements in the gospel of John.  What do we discover when looking at Him through the lens of our suffering?

I am the bread of life.

Jesus wants to satisfy me.  Maybe that’s why we lost our possessions.

I am the light of the world.

Jesus wants to expose any darkness in me.  Maybe my suffering is a result of my disobedience, and Jesus doesn’t want me to go on in my sin.

I am the door of the sheep.

Jesus wants to protect me.  Perhaps that’s why I didn’t get that promotion I deserved.

I am the good shepherd.

Jesus wants me to follow and trust Him. Maybe that’s why my job transferred me far away from my family.

I am the way, the truth and the life.       

Jesus wants me to proclaim the gospel.  Perhaps this sickness is a platform to tell others about Him.

I am the true vine.

Jesus wants to abide in me and wants me to abide in Him, in real intimacy.  Perhaps that’s why this relationship failed.

I am the resurrection and the life.

Jesus wants me to live forever with Him.  No maybe here…we know this is why one day we will all lose the battle with physical death and gain eternal life.

The character of God corrects our perspective:

God is love… * Anything God allows in my life comes from His love.

God is good… * Anything (and everything) God does is good.

God is all-knowing… *Nothing happens to me without His knowledge.

God is all-powerful…*Nothing happens to me that overcomes Him.

God is holy…*God cannot sin; He cannot lie or do something evil or wrong.

God is righteous… *Anything God does is the right thing.

God is just… *Nothing is “unfair” – it may seem that way, but we haven’t seen the end yet.

Search the written Word for truth about the personal Word.  Then you will have a knowledge of God that will sustain you.

Psalm 119:25, 49-50, 74-46, 92-23, 165; Romans 15:4; Hebrews 4:12, Genesis 1:27, Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Galatians 4:19, 1 John 4:8, Psalm 34:8.

#5.  WE MUST HAVE AN INTIMATE FELLOWSHIP WITH THE COMFORTER THROUGH PRAYER.

Intimacy requires trust.  Know this: we are not pawns; we are prized and precious possessions.

Jesus paid a high price for us, and He did this to please His Father, who desired us.  He put His Spirit inside of us so that we could have intimate fellowship with Him.  We are not game pieces that God is moving around on some cosmic board; we are precious to God.

Intimacy, comfort and peace is found in persistent prayer.

Prayer is the hardest thing for me when it comes to sharing my suffering with God.  I’m not a talker, and I don’t easily express my feelings or thoughts.  God already knows our thoughts, but we build intimacy with God when we take time to speak directly to Him, whether out loud, silently, or by writing down our prayers.  Make prayer a habit, just as you would be intentional about taking time to talk to your friend, or family member.  Conversation builds closeness and gives the Spirit of God time and opportunity to speak back into our hearts, communicating the love and care God has for us.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Isaiah 43:1, Revelation 5:9-10, 1 Corinthians 3:23, John 17:23-24, Hebrews 4:15-16, Roans 8:26-27, Philippians 4:6-7.

#6.  WE MUST HAVE AN ETERNAL PERSPECTIVE OF OUR LIFE’S PURPOSE.

This life is short, and suffering will be followed by glory.  We do not fear death!  John Piper made a great statement in one of his devotionals:  Death hisses with fearsome rage; but for those in Christ, its fangs have been removed.

Our faithful response to suffering proclaims the gospel and reveals the glory of God, the purpose for which we remain on earth.

We do pray that our suffering would end, that the trials would be shortened.  We do desire a long and happy life with our loved ones, and no one enjoys pain or conflict or troubles.  But our hope is the glory of God:  His glory proclaimed as we respond in faithful obedience and patience to the suffering that He allows to come, and His glory experienced when our earthly assignment has been completed.

1 Peter 1:3-9 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.

James 4:14, John 11:25-26, 1 John 2:25, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, 2 Corinthians 4:6-18, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17.

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