Suffering is an everyday event. We turn on the news and hear of earthquakes and typhoons. We open our newspapers and read of murders and rapes. In the street we see emergency vehicles rushing to people in need. Our friends ask, ‘If God is loving, why does he permit suffering?’
God is love
Three words are often used of God: he is gracious, loving and merciful. Grace is love to the undeserving; mercy is love to those in need. This is the solid ground upon which we build the answer to the question.
In the midst of suffering, we are tempted to wallow in self-pity: if God really loves me, would he not protect me from misery and pain?
Such thinking fails to grasp the fact that good can come out of suffering. God uses our troubles for our good. The apostle Paul argues that all things work together for our good and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:28-39).
In time of trial we should remind ourselves that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases (Lamentations 3:22). It was not just Jeremiah who knew that; Job also did.
Job struggled to understand the tragedies that befell him. He lost his family, wealth and health, yet he waited for God to help him (Job 13:5). His hope was in God.
What do the examples of Jeremiah and Job teach us? They teach us:
First, we suffer to know who we are. We can imagine we are good folk who deserve to live trouble-free lives, but the reality is very different. By nature we do not love God, nor do we depend upon him. Instead, we go against him (Romans 8:7) and as a result face judgement.
God is fair and just. He made us for himself. He is perfect and pure and displeased with those who rebel against him. So the wrath of God is revealed against mankind and the created order is subject to decay. Suffering illustrates these facts.
Secondly, we suffer to learn our duty to God. Why do we exist? Some would have us believe human life is the product of chance. They imagine there is no purpose to it. In their zeal, they want us to dismiss from our mind any idea that the cosmos is the product of design. The notion of a designer is anathema to them.
However, there have been many who have testified that through suffering they discovered they exist for God and not for themselves. Their pains and woes proved beneficial. Instead of seeking pleasure, they learned to love God first.
Thirdly, we suffer to learn to depend upon God. Those who believe in Christ Jesus find they enjoy unfettered access to God. They also know the privilege of throwing all their cares upon him.
This does not mean they can act in a selfish or thoughtless way. No. They take their responsibilities seriously and, in so doing, see their powerlessness and need of God’s Spirit.
He promises power and strength to live for him. He will never leave us without support. Through suffering we learn to draw closer to God. We are taught not to rely upon ourselves, but to pray more frequently and fervently.
Fourthly, we suffer to learn to live for Christ. In this age, the wheat and weeds grow together. Persecution, pressure and suffering are used by God, so that the difference between the true and false may be seen. They separate the dross from the pure, the hypocrite from the sincere.
Some in our churches are not true believers. Not all are born again from above. Affliction is used by God to purify the visible church. As we see true believers face heartache and pain, we find people surprised by their patience.
Their love for God shines through. They are not self-centred, nor do they wallow in self-pity. They humbly submit to the providences God appoints.
Fifthly, we suffer to learn our duty to each other. Differences are seen in a clearer perspective; we are here to help and support each other. Our concern is to love, as Christ loves us.
Sixthly, we suffer to learn true happiness, for we can seek meaning and purpose in the wrong place. That is a key lesson taught in the book of Ecclesiastes.
The preacher there says true happiness is not to be found in wealth, wisdom or work, nor in pleasure or sex. It is to be found in God alone, and through suffering God advances our happiness, as we learn to put to death the passions and pursuits which would rob us of true happiness.
Seventhly, we suffer to learn how great, good and glorious God is. As we enjoy new mercies each day, we discover how much he cares for us. We see how concerned he is for our eternal well-being. He has determined to have a people who are his and who are like him. That which he has begun in us, he will complete.
Our present sufferings are nothing in comparison to what we shall yet enjoy. But they are a means God uses for our good. He uses them to equip us to serve him better and to prepare us for the new heavens and earth.
The author is minister of Elswick Parish Church, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a trustee of the Christian Institute.