Since the ancient days of Job, the enigma of human suffering has baffled God’s people. Many ask today, “Must the righteous suffer?” Some do not believe it possible, while others are sure from personal experience and from the Bible that it is possible.
The suffering of Job
For instance, the little epistle of First Peter in our New Testament is an epistle almost entirely devoted to suffering. In this tiny book, the word is used on 16 occasions. The problem of suffering is also dealt with in many other places in scripture. Let us look at some of the aspects of the problem.
SUFFERING AS A PART OF LIFE
Let us say, first of all, that there is a suffering that is simply a part of living in a curse- infested world. This suffering may manifest itself in many ways, such as conflict, corruption, frustration, anxiety, drudgery, etc. There are thorns and thistles in man’s path as we see from Genesis. It seems clear that the Creator added these, along with other trials and tribulations after man’s fall. No doubt, God desired to put a little redemptive pressure upon man, encouraging him to cry out to the Lord. After all, it wouldn’t have done for sinful, selfish, rebellious man to have lounged around in the Garden of Eden, while having all his needs provided eternally.
There are also pains and sicknesses experienced by everyone, and there is ultimately physical death, which things are also a part of the curse. In 2 Timothy 4:20, there is a verse that encourages us in a way. Paul in passing says, “…I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.” Even the early apostolic workers got sick, and apparently the great Apostle Paul could not cure this particular problem. We see also that Paul’s fellow worker, Timothy, had some nagging stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23). We gather from the same verse that Timothy was sick a lot. In Philippians 2:25-27, we read that Epaphroditus got sick while in Paul’s company, and almost died.
Since these early founders of our faith got sick, we should not try to deny all sickness, thinking it shows a lack of faith. When we deny sickness it leads us into hypocrisy. If we say that all sickness has been healed, we are in the same breath denying the existence of death. We know from scripture that death is still around and that it is the last enemy God will overcome (1 Cor. 15:26). Unless the Lord returns in our time, everyone of us will eventually suffer and die physically. All this does not negate the prayer of faith that saves the sick (Jas. 5:15). God will show us how and when to pray such a prayer.
SUFFERING FOR OUR OWN SIN AND FOLLY
There is suffering that we strictly bring upon ourselves. Sometimes we just do dumb things. For instance, we may not pay attention while driving and have a collision with another vehicle. Because of it, we may suffer and perhaps others will suffer needlessly with us. Often we have wrong attitudes and opinions about ourselves or others. This type of suffering is an extremely painful and intense kind to bear.
When we fail to ask the Lord for guidance, we often suffer for it. God allows us to go in a wrong and foolish direction until we realize our mistake. Then there is the suffering brought on by our deliberate sin. When we disobey the Lord and walk contrary to his way, we suffer. For the believer, this often causes us to experience God’s chastisement. The Bible says, “…the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:6). God wants us to walk in his righteousness for our own good. Of course, those without God also experience suffering for their sins every day. Unfortunately, their suffering takes place not only in this world, but in the world to come.
SUFFERING FOR GOD’S KINGDOM
Perhaps the most mysterious and puzzling form of suffering is that which we experience for the sake of God’s kingdom. Israel has long suffered in this way. Psalms 124 and 129 are hymns of praise to God for his deliverance of the nation through such times of suffering.
The clearest pattern for this kind of suffering is, of course, Yeshua (Jesus). He came to earth for the express purpose of suffering and dying for sinners (Heb. 2:9). Although perfect and without sin, he still suffered the death of the ungodly on a cruel cross. He thus left us an example of suffering. In 1 Peter 4:1, the apostle instructs us, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude…” In Philippians 1:29 it is said, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…” It is a grant to us, our gift from God, that we sometimes get to suffer for his kingdom.
For almost three hundred years after Christ’s coming, persecution was the normal lot of Christians. Their noble leaders like Justin Martyr and Polycarp were burned and thrown to the wild beasts. Thousands of ordinary Christians suffered the same fate until the Edict of Milan in AD 313 brought an end to such official government persecution.
Today in many countries, millions of Christians are suffering severe persecution. The Christian community in Sudan is being systematically eliminated by the Moslem government there. In Sudan 1,500,000 Christians have been murdered, and another 1,000,000 have simply disappeared in recent years. Christians are also suffering in Vietnam, China, Iran and many other places. It has been stated by the World Evangelical Fellowship that more Christians suffered martyrdom in the recent twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined since the time of Christ.
As we mentioned, there may be some who doubt that such things can happen to believers. Some of our readers may be in the practice of rebuking all suffering in the name of the Lord, claiming that faith prevents suffering. The Bible simply does not bear this out. In Psalm 97:10 we read, “…he guards the lives of his faithful ones…” However, in Revelation 2:13, we read of “Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city…” The Bible promises in Psalm 91:16, that God will satisfy the righteous with long life. However, Stephen was a righteous man who died young as the first martyr for Jesus.
There are more subtle forms of suffering for the cause of Christ than martyrdom. These forms may fall under the headings of rejection, slander, persecution, opposition, spiritual attack, and sickness that is of a redemptive nature. The Bible assures us that believers will suffer in the words of 2 Timothy 3:12: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” There are probably a lot of things that are subtle persecutions and we may not even be aware of it. That promotion we didn’t get, that friendship mysteriously broken etc., may be forms of subtle persecution because of our faith and testimony. When we suffer for Christ, this doesn’t mean that God does not love us or that we are out of his will. However, there is a chance that suffering may have happened because of our own sin and foolishness. We should take care not grow proud and allow a persecution complex to develop within us.
Now, so far as sickness as a form of redemptive suffering is concerned, let us back up this concept with Scripture. Paul had a physical thorn in his flesh. Some think it may have been weak eyes, however it seems from scripture that it was something more repulsive than that. He begged God to take it away but God refused. Finally, Paul understood that this physical problem had a redemptive purpose. It was designed to keep him from becoming proud over all the glorious revelation he had received (2 Cor. 12:7).
Then, of course, there was Job. He suffered the loss of everything, his wealth, his children and finally his health. The simple truth is that Job suffered for God. His great affliction was allowed for God’s own glory and for the sake of his great kingdom. If we could only hear the conversations about ourselves going on between God and the accuser, it would certainly make our suffering here a lot easier to bear.
We should keep in mind that most suffering that happens to the spiritually healthy Christian should be in the form of persecution either from the devil himself or from others. While we see from the Bible that some forms of sickness can be termed as genuine persecution we must be careful here to remember that it is God’s general will to heal sickness. This was a vital part of the ministry of Jesus and the same ministry is given to his followers in every age.
HOW THEN CAN WE DEAL WITH SUFFERING?
We can take comfort in the fact that suffering will someday be totally abolished through the Messiah (Rom. 8:20-21). In Revelation 21:4, we are told that God’s new earth will be free from such things: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
In the meantime, we need to see suffering as an opportunity for growth and development. The blast of the furnace, that seemingly consumes the ore, brings forth precious metal. The ancient sufferer Job said, “…when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Adversity causes our roots to grow deep, it causes us to be tough and to be confident in our God. Paul says in Romans 5:3-4, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” We might strongly suspect that the tribulation and suffering of Christians will play a key part in purifying the last-day church, so that it may be without spot and wrinkle (Eph. 5:27). After all, it takes a hot iron to get the wrinkles out. In light of all this, Paul says in Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Our suffering also gives us the capacity to help others with the strength we have received from God (2 Cor. 1:3-5). As we have previously discussed, it gives us the assurance that we are really the sons of God and that he is still working with us. All forms of suffering for Christ’s sake should finally be a great cause for rejoicing. In Matthew 5:12, the Master himself exhorts us: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
– Jim Gerrish
This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem (original publication date, 1997).
Photo Credit, Wikimedia Commons, Job and His Friends by Ilya Yefimovich Repin, 1869, The State Museum, St. Petersburg.