I do not believe that the hardships we face in this world are random. Instead, I believe in (and assume in this post) a meticulously sovereign God. Everything in this universe falls under the guidance and control of divine providence. No roll of dice is outside of God’s design (Prov 16:33); no sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s will (Matt 10:29); all things work according to God’s plan (Eph 1:11).
The question is, then, if suffering and pain are providentially purposeful, how does this theological reality prepare us to respond to suffering? Let me offer seven ways Christians should respond to the 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 3:4–5). 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 present age. No, we are Spirit-dependent people. When we don’t know how to respond, we pray and seek the Spirit’s help.
Prayerfully—the previous point is linked to this point. Spiritual people as they are, Christians “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). That means we walk around in a constant state of dependence. We go to our Father and seek his help. 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, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise, 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. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:25–27).
Honestly—though we believe pain is purposeful, 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 perhaps well-intentioned, reminding everyone of the sovereignty of God and the call to rejoice in the midst of hardship. Yet, they do not speak with well-timed words.
Instead, these are the (immature) people who walk into the counseling room or stand next to the hospital bed and act as if God’s providential governance of all things should wipe away every tear in an instant. They fail to weep with those who weep. Instead, the mature and 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—as trials come, we do not claim to know everything God is doing in each case of our own suffering or the suffering of others. 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.”
Patiently—when Jesus and his disciples encountered the man born blind in John 9, imagine how much patience this man had to show throughout his life. He had been blind for decades. On his twentieth birthday, he wouldn’t know it, but he would have about twenty more years to wait for God to work a miracle. The miracle of healing was long in coming.
Importantly, and in contrast to those who preach a false health-wealth-prosperity gospel, we need to note that the miracle of physical or relational healing may never come on this side of Christ’s eschatological kingdom. Our thorn in the side may never be removed. Yet, 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.
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. This linking of arms is best practiced in the context of local church membership. Find a place where Christians have covenanted together to live under the Lordship of Christ and in accountable relationship with one another. Plug-in to a place that is devoted to the preaching of the Word, the practice of the ordinances, and the exercise of both formative and corrective discipline. Join that church and lean into the body of Christ as you seek to walk faithfully in this fallen world.
Hopefully—we know God is doing something in and through the suffering of this age. Through our momentary and light afflictions, he is preparing an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor 4:17). And we know that a new creation, where that eternal weight is realized, is coming. A curse-free kingdom is on the horizon. For the joy set before us, we press on in hope.
As the winds of the world blow and trials come your way, stand on this solid ground: There is no pain and hardship that we experience that God is not using and controlling for our good and his glory. Because of that amazing truth, we endure. We press on.
Yes, we weep with those who weep and hurt with those who hurt. But we do not weep and hurt like the world. We do not groan as those who have no hope. No, we look through the pain and the hardship and the suffering and see a curse-free kingdom that will one day come.
Until then, however, may the Lord strengthen us to live for the good of our neighbors, the joy of the nations, and the fame of Jesus’ name…even in the midst of pain.