It’s one of the great worldview questions of history. What is wrong with the world? Why are things the way they are? This is a massive question and everyone tries to explain suffering in some way.
The Christian worldview takes its cue from God’s special revelation, the Bible. And Christians believe God has spoken to the issue of suffering within the pages of Holy Writ. Importantly, as we read Scripture, we find that God is not surprised by suffering and evil, nor has he lost control of his creation. Instead, everything is being worked out according to his providential purposes (e.g. Eph 1:11). In our deepest and darkest pain there are amazingly God-ordained purposes (cf. 2 Cor 4:17). Stunningly, these moments of pain aim at our good and God’s glory.
Here is what I hope you walk away with after reading this post: there are God-ordained reasons behind the sufferings we experience in this age.
Jesus’ Disciples and a Man Born Blind
Jesus and the disciples pass by a man who had been blind from birth in John 9. Seeing the blind man, the disciples ask if his blindness is the result of his sin or his parents (9:2). That is, perhaps the parents committed fraud, or lied, or stole something and the blindness of their child (i.e. the blind man) is God’s punishment. Or, perhaps the man himself, when he was younger, committed some specific sin and his blindness is God’s punishment for his crime. But can we draw those type of tight connections? Not really.
It is true that all the pain and suffering and sickness in this world is due to sin. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, the created order was subject to futility (Rom 8). So, in this sense, it is right to see the hardships of this world connected to sin. However, sometimes, pain is not the result of your sinful choice but is tied to God’s hidden purposes. This is where Jesus points us. He teaches the disciples that pain is purposeful. Note what Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:3). Did you notice the purpose statement? When Jesus says, “but that,” he is using the language of purpose. This man is blind “that” (i.e. so that) “the works of God might be displayed…”
This is gold. The principle we walk away with, then, is that suffering is purposeful. All suffering and pain and hardship falls under the providential control of God. And he is aiming to do amazing things in it and through it for our good and his glory (cf. Rom 8:28; 2 Cor 4:17). The blindness of this man was not due to his sin, but God’s hidden plan to glorify his name through the suffering!
Now, what exactly God is doing in our individual lives and particular hardships, I may not be able to define. But, I stand here: in my deepest pains, God is working for my good and his glory. Thus, I can endure, I can press on in faith, trusting the Lord.
HOW NOW SHALL WE THEN LIVE
If suffering is not random, if it is providentially purposeful, then understanding this massive truth prepares us to respond to suffering in distinctly Christian ways. Let me offer seven ways we respond to the purposeful pain we experience in this world?
Spiritually—that is, the first thing we must remember is that we do not attempt to make sense of the senseless, of the pains of this world, according to our own wisdom. We do not lean on our own understanding (Prov 3:5). No, we seek the wisdom and illumination and discernment of the Spirit of God. We do not look to the wisdom of this age to tell us why suffering exists, why evil happens, or how we should survive the onslaughts of the day. No, we are Spirit-dependent people.
Honestly—we do not mitigate the reality of suffering. Some Christians, those who are immature and lack wisdom, try to downplay the significance of suffering. Oh, they are well-intentioned, reminding everyone of the sovereignty of God and the call to rejoice in all things. Yet, they do not speak with well-timed words.
Instead, these are the people who walk into the counseling room or stand next to the hospital bed and act as if God’s providential government of all things should wipe away every tear in an instant. They fail to weep with those who weep. This is not the way of wisdom. Instead, the biblical response to suffering is to note that pain and hardship are hard and painful. We weep and cry and hurt because suffering is real.
Humbly—we don’t know everything God is doing in our suffering or the suffering of others (contra Job’s friends and Jesus’ disciples). No, as one pastor has said, God is doing 10,000 things at any given moment and we might be aware of one of them. Given our lack of knowledge of the secret purposes of God, we wait patiently on his plans to come to fruition. We do so with the attitude of Job, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).
Patiently—imagine the years of suffering the blind man endured. He had been blind for years. Maybe he was forty years old when Jesus healed him. In year twenty, though he wouldn’t know it, he would have twenty more years to wait for God to work his miracle. And he would be waiting without knowing whether God would ever heal his physical ailment. The call for patience in suffering is no light matter. Perhaps, in some cases, the miracle of physical healing never comes. But we endure. We patiently wait. And we wait with our spiritual eyes focused on the coming of a spiritual kingdom where all suffering ceases and all pain is put away. If we wait in faith, that in itself is the miracle of God who preserves our faith.
Prayerfully—Christians are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). I think that means we walk around in a constant state of dependence upon God. When it comes to suffering, we pray for the hurting to cease. We want cancer to go away, the finances to come through, the persecution to stop. We pray for faith to endure, that we wouldn’t shrink back. And we pray that God would use the suffering in our lives to conform us into the image of Jesus.
And when we don’t know what to pray, we do not fret. The Spirit is with us. Paul tells Roman Christians, “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).
Corporately—we do not face the pains and hardships and sufferings of this life alone. We are “better together,” linking arms in the good times and the bad. And in our suffering, we learn how to help those around us (cf. 2 Cor 1:4). This, then, is one of the arguments for the importance of the local church. When suffering and hardship hit, where do we run? We run to the blood-bought bride of Christ. We fall into the arms of our brothers and sisters who we’ve covenanted with to live out the Christian life in the midst of the present evil age.
Hopefully—because suffering is purposeful, we know God is doing something in and through the suffering of this age. We may not know exactly what he is doing at this moment or the next, but we are sure he is up to glorious things. He is up to glorious things in this age while steadily moving us towards the new heavens and new earth. Therefore, we can look through the dark clouds and rainy days and see a kingdom that is free from pain, free from evil, free from suffering, and press on in the hope that one day, this life will end and that kingdom will come.