In responding to suffering, some Christians have wrongly thought that God can only meaningfully comfort us if he suffers with us in his divine nature and experiences our pain (ET Guest Column, July 2017).
This is a tempting point of view, but it is the wrong answer to suffering, because God is transcendent and immutable and not acted upon or changed by his creation. He cannot suffer as God. However, his impassibility is good news for men — especially when we consider God’s ultimate answer to sin and suffering is in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Man’s instinctive question to suffering — ‘If there is a God, why do bad things happen to good people?’ — goes wrong at the start (ET Guest Column, June 2017). It assumes people are good, although God says, ‘There is none righteous … none that doeth good’ (Romans 3:10-12).
The question, however, can be appropriately asked concerning Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one man in history who was truly good. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and born without sin (Luke 1:35). The eternal Son of God did no sin even though he was in all points tempted like us (Hebrews 4:15).
The fact that bad things happen to a world of sinners should cause us no amazement. But the question finds its true reference to Christ, who only did good yet suffered all his life more than any man, and was violently crucified at the age of 33. Why did the innocent Christ suffer?
Seven centuries before Jesus was born, Isaiah predicted Jesus’ coming as one who is ‘despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53:3). The prophet vividly describes the sufferings of Christ, who would be wounded, bruised, stricken, afflicted, chastised and put to grief for his people (Isaiah 53:3-5).
In the New Testament, Christ comes forth as the eternal Son of God who could not suffer in his divine nature, but who took our human nature into union with himself to suffer and die for our salvation. He suffered all his life as the Holy One of God in a world of sin.
He endured the temptations of Satan and the miseries of this life, knowing what it was to weep and be weary, to be maligned, mocked and mistreated. All this was on his way to the cross, where his sufferings climaxed as the Father punished him in his wrath. The whole scene is shrouded in darkness, as hell comes into Christ’s soul. Out of the depths he cries, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
Why then does this good man experience such incomparable sufferings? The answer is the sweetest thing a sinful man can hear: Jesus suffered and died in the place of sinners. As Isaiah foretold: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities … the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:5-6).
If we understand our own sinfulness, then when suffering comes into our lives, we will not say, ‘I do not deserve this’, because all that sinners deserve from God is eternal hell. Instead, when we look to the cross, we will say, ‘Jesus did not deserve that, but gave himself to it so that guilty sinners could escape their due’.
It’s not suffering we do not deserve, it’s grace! Yet it is grace offered to us in the person and work of Christ, and it is here we find God’s ultimate answer to human sin, suffering and death.
So, when suffering comes to us, we need to learn some lessons. The first is that we should come to Christ in our sufferings. He says, ‘Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28).
Instead of wrestling through sorrows, struggling to find answers, our search stops here: Jesus is able cleanse us from all our sin and comfort us in all our suffering. To those broken in heart, grieved in mind, troubled and convicted in conscience, he says, ‘Come to me for rest!’
Then, as Christians, we should magnify Christ in our sufferings. It’s easy to be swept off our feet when overwhelming troubles come, and for faith to be disorientated. The gospel, however, is a constant reminder that, while we can get angry at sin, we should never get angry with God.
The Christian can confidently embrace God’s providence and glorify Christ. Even when, with broken heart, we watch a loved one die, rather than shake our fist at God we can run into the arms of Christ, who has destroyed death.
We can experience disease and all that slowly takes us to the grave in the ultimate hope of the resurrection, and magnify Christ because he has saved and conquered (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
Then, in all our trials, we should make use of Christ. He saves us from sin, but does not remove us from suffering. Instead, he offers himself to us as a sympathetic High Priest, who is able to comfort us as one touched by the feelings of our infirmity (Hebrews 4:15).
In Christ, we find the God who, as a man, plumbed the depths of human suffering and grief for us and with us. He can minister to us in temptation as one who endured it and triumphed. He can stand beside us in suffering as one who experienced it.
He knows what it is to have a broken heart. So, no matter how deep the hole of grief we find ourselves in, he can look us in the eye and assure us he understands. No matter how bitter our cup of affliction is, he has drunk it before us and left sweetness at the bottom.
Gavin Beers is a native of Northern Ireland and pastor of Ayr Free Church (Continuing) in Scotland, since 2006. He is also a lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament at the Free Church (Continuing) Seminary, Inverness. Gavin is married to Alison, and they are blessed with six children.