Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Christians Suffer: One Perspective

Why did God allow this to happen?

This is the question that inevitably comes up whenever someone is suffering or some tragedy has occurred. The problem seems even more difficult when the tragedy occurs in the life of a Christian who is supposed to be God’s child and has access to Him in prayer. What is more, we know that God is sovereign over all things and so we cannot avoid the fact (although many try) that God not only allows His people to suffer but that He actually purposes at times to bring suffering to them. Consider the following verses which are just a few of many that we could turn to:

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7 ESV)

“…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17 ESV)

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29 ESV)

“Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:19 ESV)

For the Christian this is not a question of justice. We know that nobody suffers unjustly and that God has a right over His creation, especially sinful people to do with them as He pleases. Even so, knowing His love for us and His goodness we may still wonder why our loving Father wills suffering to be part of the lives of His children. Once we are in Christ and our sins are forgiven why should suffering remain in our lives?

We know that God is not cruel or sadistic and He does not bring suffering simply for His amusement. Rather, He purposes suffering in our lives because He loves us. I realize that this is an answer that is absolutely incompatible with our natural way of thinking. In fact, it will sound insane to anyone operating from a purely human standpoint. The Bible, however, teaches that God has a loving purpose in the suffering that comes into our lives. Peter explains in his first letter:

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV)

Peter tells us that God is purifying His people in the way a metalworker purifies gold. The impurities are burned away and the dross is removed until pure gold remains. By this process the metalworker “proves” the gold. Once the impurities are burned away a proof mark is applied which is a stamp verifying that it has been tested and confirmed genuine. Peter is explaining that God brings various trials to bear in our lives so that we are likewise purified. The “dross” of our lives is removed and the genuineness of our faith is proved and is thereby marked as genuine. Peter says that our faith is even more precious than gold and that if we endure, our faith will result in praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Christ Jesus.

Even if we accept Peter’s answer that the Lord works this way, it may still not be obvious to us how suffering leads to a more pure faith. Why would God work this way? I do not claim to know why God does all that He does but if we meditate upon what makes up most of the trials and suffering in our lives I think we will notice something interesting.

Most trials are difficult because they involve the want or loss of something we value or desire. It may be material possessions, a job, our health, a particular relationship, or even our life or that of a loved one. The withholding or loss of anything that we want to have or anything we do not want to lose can bring stress, grief, and pain. The pain results from our desire to have something better than what we have. It results from our evaluation that things should be different. It results from our thinking that we have been denied something of value.

Surely our lives, health, etc. are valuable to us but in an ultimate sense they are of far less value than what we have in Christ. We possess fellowship with God Himself which is a gift of immeasurable value and in comparison all other things appear worthless. This is Paul’s point when he says “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8 ESV) It is important that we do not miss the force of this statement. The word translated as “rubbish” is the word skubala which is the word for animal excrement.

He is saying that he will allow nothing else to compete with Christ in his affections. Compared to Christ all other things are as worthless as animal filth. In our weakness we are often tempted to love even good things so much that our desires for them can can overshadow our trust in God and our submission to His will above all else. We easily lose sight of the immeasurable value of what we have in Christ and mourn for temporal losses of far less value. God, however, is not content that we should be of a divided mind.

In His mercy and love God prepares us by purging all idolatry from our hearts. Through each trial he asks us if we love these other things more than we love Him. In each trial He asks if we truly trust that He knows what is best for us. Through each test He demonstrates that He is sufficient for us and that He will never abandon us. Notice also that He graciously reminds us that the trials and suffering are temporary; they are “for a little while”. Nothing is ultimately withheld from us and we lose nothing that we do not recover in greater measure. We are therefore encouraged and strengthened in the hope of His promises.

We see then that at least one of the reasons for God using suffering in our lives is that to be complete and “proved” is to be wholly dependent upon God. God lovingly prepares these temporary trials to draw us closer to Him, strengthen our confidence in Him, and leave us with nothing but Him. It is a gracious and loving thing that He removes any idols from our hearts. He never brings more than we can bear and if we trust Him we will be perfected through suffering. It is this reason why James can make the amazing statement that we should “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 ESV)

I do not claim that this is a complete answer to the question but I submit that it is at least one of the reasons the Bible gives us. Secondly, understanding this truth does not mean that the trials are any less real or any less painful when we encounter them. I pray, however, that knowing that our suffering is a means that God uses for our own good and His own Glory will strengthen us and by God’s grace (as James says) provide us with a sustaining joy in Christ even when our happiness has fled “for a little while”.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. It reminds me that suffering does always come in the form of physical pain, and sometimes the things we desire, though it may seem to be good, is not always what God thinks is good for us. I do not know the mind of God except for what He has revealed and the things I understand. But in a way this is frustrating. If I am praying for a particular thing which I understand to be Biblical, and lets I have been praying for this thing for over 10 years, and haven't received it, how do I know it is or is not God's will for me? Maybe this is irrelevant to the post but I guess the point is suffering comes in different ways.