responding to a question about suffering

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I recently received a great question to a blog I posted a few years ago (That’s not fair: does God do different things for different people?). I wanted to answer the question in a blog rather than a comment. My answer will be longer, but my hope is to offer a more beneficial answer. Here’s the question.

I appreciate the insight and although I agree with what has been written, I am finding myself in a difficult place right now with my own belief. First of all, let me state what I agree with: 1- Matthew 20 – The workers were asked to work the field at different times throughout the day and were all given the same reward. I agree they accepted the job with the wage agreed upon before they began, so how can I complain if I am pleased with the reward I agreed to, correct? I agree, I have nothing to complain about because I entered into the contract and was happy with it as I entered it; but where in my own life I am at a personal crises is with the fact that I have now been through 18 major brain surgeries along with a ruptured appendix, I have knocked on deaths door several times only to evade it. I have had a stroke which left me with reduced strength down the right side of my body, and I have had several seizures, along with suffered with PTSD as a result of the trauma I have been through. I to be honest with you can’t believe all of this has happened to me. I gave my life over to Christ when i was 19yrs old and I understand that my life is now in him, not my own, but I do find myself asking “Why”. What good is coming from all this suffering? The Lord has used my challenges to purify me, sanctify me and that I am truly thankful for, but I also wonder why my process of sanctification/purification as been so intense. I’ll be honest with you, I have never even spoken about the great trial of my life on a public forum before today. Any insight or wisdom is appreciated. Thank you for your time

Suffering is real. There is no way to romanticize suffering and make it into some wonderful experience. Suffering brings physical and emotional pain, it shakes our faith, it makes us angry, it causes us to ask questions that we never thought we’d have to ask. My personal suffering is nothing compared to what the individual who asked this question has experienced. I’ve never been admitted to the hospital, I’ve never broken a bone, I haven’t even had stitches. I do, however, know some suffering. My twenty-month old daughter has cancer, and I suffer as a dad who watches his little girl suffer. I’d trade places with her in a second. I think I understand the heart behind the two questions at the center of the comment: ‘Why?’ and ‘Where’s the good?’ I’m going to do my best to answer them succinctly.

Why?

I’m starting with ‘Why?’ because how you answer this question will determine how you answer the second. The answer to why we suffer is so much simpler than we make it out to be. I can still vividly remember the first time I answered a ‘Why do I suffer?’ question. I was young, still in high school, and found myself witnessing to a man twice my age. He told me he couldn’t believe in God because God had take the life of his baby girl. I thought a minute and gave a two fold response. “Maybe God took her life because He knew if she grew old she would reject Jesus and go to hell. Or maybe God took your daughter because it was the only way he could get your attention.” I still remember going home feeling proud because my comments made the man think. But oh, how foolish they were. If I have ever been a false teacher it was in that moment! The answer to why we suffer is found somewhere completely different. We suffer because of sin. Because we live in a broken world, because others around us sin, and because we sin. All suffering finds its roots in one of the three. Suffering is not the big stick God holds over our head. Jesus confronts that idea head on in Luke 13:4 – 5. “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus makes clear that the ‘why’ of suffering is not owing to our comparative righteousness. In other words, one man doesn’t suffer less because he is more righteous. Read the Psalms lately? How often to the authors cry out, ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ Or maybe the book of Job? We suffer because we are sinners who live in a sinful, broken world.

Where’s the good?

Some of the pressure to answer this question has already been alleviated. The most common answer to why we suffer is, “God allows suffering to do something good.” If that’s our answer, we will spend our lives searching for the ‘good.’ You’ll constantly ask yourself, ‘Has enough good happened to justify my suffering?’ Where do we even get the idea that God will make something good come from our suffering? For most of us it’s Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” That’s a big promise that God wants us to take restful shade in, like a sunburned man taking shelter under the limbs of an oak. But what does the verse mean? It certainly does not mean that God makes us suffer so he can do something good. (I know that’s a big comment, and if you’d like to know my reasoning I’ve got a small, 14 page paper written on the verse.) I think that God is telling us that he can and will redeem our suffering. God can take the painful outworking of sin, redeem it, and make it work for good. The verse isn’t an answer to why we suffer, it’s a promise that God is bigger than sin and Satan, that he can take what the enemy designs for destruction and cause it to work for good. But what is the good God has in mind? I believe it’s a big picture good. That belief is based on Romans 8:29 – 30, which clearly puts what Paul is talking about in an eternal perspective. So God is working for good, even working suffering for good. And that good is realized fully in an eternal perspective. Here’s the reality. You might suffer and see no good in your physical life. God is asking you to believe that he is working, and that one day you will see a good that works for your eternal joy; namely, the display of the surpassing worth of Christ.

There’s one last question that wasn’t asked but I believe to be incredibly important: What is God doing about suffering? If God loves us, what is he doing about our suffering? He’s powerful enough to do something, after all. God has done something. If suffering is caused by sin, then all God has to do to stop suffering is remove sin. The catch is that the Bible teaches that we are sinners, not merely people who sin. Sin is a part of who we are. If God destroyed sin outright he would have to destroy every human on the planet. Thankfully, in God’s grace, he made a way to kill sin without killing us. It was costly, God put his own Son to death (Acts 2:23) so he could kill the sin in us without having to kill us. The death of Christ means the death of my suffering. I long for the fulness of Christ’s work to unfold. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

2 Responses to "responding to a question about suffering"
  1. I always enjoy seeing the insights that Jonathan has and shares
    with us that will read them. Thanks for the inspiration and keep
    up the good work.I knew the answer to the questions,but wanted to
    see if there was anything that could be added to the answer and it was and beneficial at that. Now I can have a copy of this inspiration. I hope this person that ask this question will benefit from this answer considerably.

  2. I have a sister and brother in law that lost their son in a car crash a few years ago. It has been very hard for them, but God has helped in many ways to see them through. This article will be one of those ways, and I can’t wait to share it with them! Thank you Jonathan, for your insight. Eddie Conway

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