A Theological Look at Suffering

     Everyone suffers. It’s not really a question of who will and who won’t, but how much and how often? Most people want to know why they suffer, if there’s any purpose to suffering, or if there’s anything they can do to minimize it. Suffering is a perpetual and universal feature of the human race that will last as long as we live in a fallen world with fallen people. According to Scripture, God not only allows suffering, but causes it for our good (Ps. 119:71; Isa. 45:7; Heb. 12:5-11). The presence of suffering does not necessarily mean something is wrong in the Christian’s life, and the absence of suffering does not necessarily mean God is pleased with him. One can be completely in the will of God and experience great suffering (1 Pet. 4:19), whereas one can be completely in sin and be free from any form of suffering at all (Ps. 73:1-12). Suffering by itself proves neither godliness nor sin.

       Suffering is all around us, both visible and invisible. Some is bearable and some is beyond our natural ability to cope. It can be physical, mental, and/or emotional. It can be short lived or last a lifetime. It can leave scars. It can influence behavior either positively or negatively, either making us stronger or tearing us down. Suffering can be self-induced or brought on by others. Some suffering is deserved (Dan. 4:1-37; Luke 23:41), and some undeserved (Matt. 16:21; 17:12; Mark 9:22; Acts 5:41; 9:15-16; 2 Tim. 2:3-9; 1 Pet. 2:20; 3:14-17; 4:19). I’ve learned not to turn away from suffering so quickly (though it is my natural tendency to do so), but to question its value and ask whether it serves some good purpose. I am convinced that God wants me to know some suffering because it helps me mature, both in my natural human development as well as my spiritual life. No pain, no gain as the adage goes.

       In the Old Testament, suffering is commonly identified by the Hebrew word oni which is translated as “affliction, poverty” and at times “frustration.” Familiar Old Testament passages where oni is found include: Gen. 16:11; 29:32; 31:42; Ex. 3:7, 17; 4:31; 1 Sam. 1:11; 16:12; Job 30:16, 27; 36:15; Ps. 9:13; 25:18; 119:50, 92, 153; Isa. 48:10; Lam. 1:3, 7, 9. In the New Testament, the common Greek word for suffering is thlipsis, which is translated as “trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction, tribulation.” New Testament passages where thlipsis is found include: Matt. 13:21; Rom. 2:9; 2 Cor. 1:4; 2:4; 4:17; 7:4; 8:2; Phil. 4:14; Col. 1:24; 1 Thess. 3:7; 2 Thess. 1:6; Rev. 2:10. Numerous theological truths are gleaned from these passages; truths which help the Christian orient to reality and live within the biblical framework.

       Though many have wrestled with the biblical subject of suffering, no one has a complete understanding of it. There are often more questions than answers. We struggle to grasp our own pain and the pain of others. As humans, we wrestle to produce some good in the world to offset the sorrow of suffering, but our limited abilities and resources constantly hinder our best efforts. Even the good we do for others is short-lived; leaving only a memory of kindness in hearts that perpetually face new needs and struggles. Frustration abounds. At present, there is no lasting solution to suffering among men, and it will not cease to be part of the human experience until God destroys the current heavens and earth and creates a new heavens and a new earth that is free from sin and all its destructive influences (Rev. 21-22). God alone must save us from our current condition, as men are drowning in a sea of sorrows. Sin is the major reason for suffering, and though we counterbalance some of sin’s effects by good works, in the end it is God alone who must ultimately deal with the sin problem.

       The Bible gives the divine perspective that helps us to make sense of suffering. Having the divine perspective does not always lesson the pain associated with suffering, but it gives us an answer for suffering and, I believe, makes it bearable. One such answer is that God wants to mature us as Christians, and suffering is a vehicle that He uses to advance our spiritual life. It’s not suffering by itself that gets the job done, but our biblical response to it that brings the outcome God desires. He wants us to respond properly to the difficult situations He’s permitted or caused in our lives. We cannot control many of the difficult circumstances that come our way, but we can respond to them biblically, and in this way we can please the Lord and grow to be mature believers.

       Among Christians, I’ve met some who regard all forms of suffering as bad, rooted in evil, and who seek to expunge it from their lives when possible. Others accept suffering, seeing it as purposeful, even welcoming it because they believe it will help develop their Christian character and bring about the spiritual maturity they desire. God can use suffering to break down pride and humble us (Dan. 4:37), or He can use it to build us up and make us stronger (1 Pet. 5:10), but He never leaves us alone, and suffering is just one of the many tools He uses to mold us into the character of Christ; if we’ll let ourselves be molded by His hand.

       Everything we experience in this life is designed to prepare us for the life we will come to know when we leave this world and enter into God’s eternal presence. The challenge before every Christian, especially during times of suffering, is to view all aspects of life in the light of eternity. We must constantly live in the eternal-now, never divorcing our current experiences from our eternal destiny that is assured to us who are in Christ. The apostle Peter tells us “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13). The apostle Paul shares a similar mindset when he says “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18); for “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Suffering becomes bearable when the Christian sees it in the proper context of eternity to which he belongs right now. I say he belongs to eternity “right now” because as a Christian he possesses eternal life at the very moment he believes in Christ as his Savior (John 10:28). Eternal life is not what the Christian can have, but what he does have at the moment of salvation. However, it is only at the moment he leaves this world and all its sorrows and enters into the presence of God in heaven that eternal life has its greatest experiential expression. The flow of time ceases at death, and all life’s sufferings associated with this world come to an end when the believer passes into eternity. More so, at the end of time itself, God will put an end to all suffering and evil when He destroys the existing universe and earth and creates a new universe and new earth (Rev. 21:1). At such a time “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes [believers who have suffered]; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Until then, we must look to the Lord.

       When considering the subject of suffering from a biblical perspective, it’s beneficial to start with a proper understanding of God and His character. The Bible teaches that God exists as a Trinity: God the Father (Matt. 6:9; Phil. 2:11), God the Son (John 1:1, 14; 20:28), and God the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). All three Persons of the Trinity are co-equal, co-infinite, and co-eternal, and though they have differing roles in how they relate to each other and the creation, they are perfectly equal in essence (John 10:30). Being equal in essence means that all three Persons of the Godhead share the same attributes. According to Scripture God is:

  1. Sovereign – He rules His universe as He pleases (1 Chron. 29:11; Dan. 4:35; Acts 17:24-25).
  2. Righteous – He is upright in character (Ps. 11:7; 119:137).
  3. Just – He is upright in all His actions (Ps. 9:7-8; 19:9; 50:6; 58:11).
  4. Holy – He is positively good and completely set apart from sin (Ps. 99:9).
  5. Omniscient – He knows all things (Ps. 139:1-6; Matt. 6:31-33).
  6. Omnipresent – He is everywhere (Ps. 139:7-12; Heb. 13:5).
  7. Omnipotent – He is all powerful (Job 42:2; Isa. 40:28-29).
  8. Immutable – He never changes (Ps. 102:26, 27; Mal. 3:6).
  9. Truth – He is truth and reveals truth (2 Sam. 7:28; John 14:6; 17:17; 1 John 5:20).
  10. Loving – He acts in the best interest of others (Jer. 31:3; 1 John 4:7-12, 16).
  11. Faithful – He is consistent to fulfill His promises (Deut. 7:9; Lam. 3:23; 1 John 1:9).
  12. Merciful – He is compassionate to the needy (Ps. 86:15; Luke 6:36; Tit. 3:5).
  13. Gracious – He is kind to the undeserving and humble (Ps. 111:4; 116:5; 1 Pet. 5:5, 10).
  14. Eternal – He has endless existence (Deut. 33:27; 1 Tim. 1:17).

       God controls suffering. Even the wickedness of men and the suffering they cause is used by God to display His grace and love. King David had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah and the Lord caused David to suffer for his sin (2 Sam. 11:1-12:24); yet, by God’s grace, it was through David and Bathsheba that the baby Jesus was eventually born into this world (Matt. 1:6, 16). David’s sinful relationship with Bathsheba was sovereignly used by God to bring about the birth of His Messiah! At the end of His earthly ministry, Christ suffered at the hands of godless men who nailed Him to the cross, yet His suffering was “by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” in order to bring about our salvation (Acts 2:23a; cf. John 3:16). Wicked men willfully raised their hands against the Son of God and crucified Him, but what they accomplished was exactly what God “predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28), and the outcome is eternal life to us who have trusted in Jesus as our Savior. By His infinite wisdom and sovereignty “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Historically, God has used suffering to bring about His will and this is most obvious in His provision of salvation to a fallen world He wants to save.

       On the negative side, men who reject God and the biblical perspective are forced to live in a naturalistic mindset in which their very existence is the product of chance. If there is no God, then men are the product of chance, the accidental collection of molecules over time, and the suffering they experience is simply a part of the natural order of things, neither good nor evil, neither purposeful nor meaningful. More so, morals and values become arbitrary, and people like Hitler and Stalin are no better or worse than Mother Theresa. If there is no God, then evil itself must be regarded as a natural part of the fabric of the universe, self-existent in its own way. The cruelty of man then becomes no better or worse than the cruelty of animals, for all is part of the same natural universe. Without God, life simply is what it is; and conversations about right and wrong really become power-plays as men seek dominion over each other through the use of clever and forceful rhetoric.

       Biblically, sin originated in heaven with Lucifer, an angelic being of the order of Cherubim, who rebelled against God and convinced many angels to follow him (Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:12-18; Rev. 12:4). Shortly afterward (no one knows exactly when), Satan convinced Adam and Eve to set their wills against God, and the heavenly rebellion moved to earth. Suffering, as we know it on earth, is the result of sin, and sin in humans originated in the disobedience of Adam and Eve when they rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-8). Both sin and suffering are connected. A perfect world was cursed, thorns and thistles introduced, and pain in childbirth increased, all as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:16-18). The major hammer blow of sin was death, which was pronounced on Adam and Eve and extended to all their descendants who were born after them (Gen. 3:19; cf. Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21-22). The children of Adam and Eve have only known the struggle of life’s decay that eventuates in death (the removal of the soul from the body). Death is unnatural to the creation, and this is why it hurts when someone we love dies. However, death can also be a display of God’s mercy and grace, for it keeps man from suffering forever in a fallen world plagued by sin.

       Since the fall of Satan, as well as the fall of Adam and Eve, the major sources of suffering include oneself (Prov. 1:22; 8:36; 15:32; Isa. 3:9; ; 2 Pet. 2:12-15); other people (Gen. 3:1-18; 1 Chron. 21:14-17; Jonah 1:12), Satan (Job 1:1-21); demons (Luke 8:29); and God Himself (1 Sam. 16:14-16; Job 1:21; 2:10; Eccl. 7:14; Isa. 45:7; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Rev. 19:11-21). Suffering exists mainly in connection with willful creatures and the choices they’ve made in the past or are making in the present.

       The main causes of suffering are righteous living (1 Pet. 3:13-17; 4:12-19), fellowship with Christ (Phil. 1:29-30), membership in the Kingdom of God (2 Thess. 1:3-6), sinful choices as believers (Gal. 6:7-8; 1 Pet. 4:15; 2 Pet. 2:12-16); the sinful unfaithfulness of others (Num. 14:32-33), the ravages of disease (Matt. 4:24; 9:20; Luke 4:38), and the will of God (1 Pet. 4:19).

       From the biblical perspective, some of the major purposes for suffering include bringing the unbeliever to salvation (Dan. 4:28-37; Acts 9:1-9), moving people geographically to accomplish God’s will (i.e. the famine that moved Joseph’s family to Egypt: Gen. 15:13-14; 37:1-50:21), humbling the arrogant believer (Jon. 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 5:5), teaching Christians to have sympathy for others (2 Cor. 1:5-7), helping advance Christian character (Rom. 5:1-5; Jam. 1:2-4), warning against sin (1 Cor. 11:27-32), teaching obedience to God’s laws (Ps. 119:71; Heb. 5:8), correcting from sin (Ps. 32:1-5), teaching that God is faithful to strengthen in times of adversity (Phil. 4:11-13), providing an opportunity to share your Christian hope (1 Pet. 3:14-15), serving as a godly example to others (Jam. 5:10-11), displaying the works of God (John 9:1-3), and for God’s glory (John 11:1-4; 21:18-19; 2 Cor. 4:17-18).

       Jesus Himself is the greatest example of suffering for the believer, as the Scripture plainly states He “suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). And what is the example the Christian is to follow? That even though Christ suffered unjustly and was physically and verbally attacked, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). It is because of Christ’s example that Paul tells Christians “never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).

       Suffering is inevitable in life, but the believer who lives by faith in God and clings to His Word has an anchor for the soul that sustains him during difficult times. The believer who lives by faith can have joy in the midst of trials (Isa. 26:3; Acts 5:40-41; 16:22-30; 1 Cor. 10:13; Phil. 4:10-13). To Christians who were facing persecution, the apostle Peter wrote “in this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). These Christians could rejoice because the trial itself would prove the genuineness of their faith, and “though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7). And Christians who were suffering in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul declared had “received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). The truth is that Christians are complex and can simultaneously know tribulation and joy, as these are not mutually exclusive experiences. The apostle Paul made this clear when he stated:

…we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

       Paul could “exult” in his tribulations because he saw them as purposeful, being used by God to bring about “perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.” Paul’s objective was to glorify God and advance to spiritual maturity, and he knew that God often used suffering as the means to accomplish that goal, and was therefore willing to rejoice in such hardships. James uses similar language when he writes:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jam. 1:2-4)

       As Christians, we will face trials, but how we respond to them is a matter of choice. No one likes suffering, and our first response is usually to complain and turn away from it. However, we must be mindful of our natural inclinations and fight the weakening instinct that compels us to grumble at our troubles rather than look to the Lord and live by faith. James tells us to “consider it all joy” when we face trials, because those trials will help us advance in our Christian character. To “consider it all joy” is purely an act of faith, because our feelings are usually down in the dirt when trials come. When we’re facing a trial, our feelings aren’t up to praising God, but faith must rise above our circumstance and feelings if we’re to live spiritually and benefit from the promises God has provided. The apostle Paul demonstrated this magnificently when he faced a time of suffering he called his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7).

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7-8)

       Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” caused him great pain, and he knew the suffering was to produce humility and keep “from exalting myself.” Paul’s first reaction was to pray to the Lord several times to take it away, and we can all identify with Paul in his prayer. However, God refused to remove Paul’s suffering, and informed him that He would give him the strength necessary to live with the hardship, saying “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Now, upon hearing this news, I suspect many believers would double-up on their prayers and beg God even more to take away their “thorn in the flesh.” Some might even get angry with God and perhaps accuse him of being cruel or unloving. But notice, the apostle Paul handles the news well and by faith declares:

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

       These are the words of a believer who is sold out for God! He’s totally committed to the Lord and has surrendered his life to Him! Paul is essentially saying “God, I trust Your actions in my life no matter what, and am convinced that the suffering you send my way is for my good, and I will cling to You in the midst of my stormy life, for You are my strength.” I have read the above passage many times, and by faith have stated those words in my own trials. I’ve not been consistent in every hardship, and I don’t know any Christian who has, but Paul’s words reflect the proper biblical attitude we ought to have in every trial.

       Coping with suffering is possible when the believer learns to look to the Lord and utilize His spiritual provisions (Eph. 1:3). This primarily means living by faith, moment by moment, and trusting God at His Word (Rom. 1:17; 10:17; Heb. 11:6). The world and those who live in it are dominated by thoughts that exclude God, and so they think about anything and everything except God and His Word. The believer has a choice to include or exclude God in his thoughts, words, and daily activities. This daily choice determines whether the believer will live in the house of faith or the house of fear. If he lives in the house of faith, he will be able to cope with the pressures of life and stand for God and His will in the midst of life’s storms. If he’s living in the house of fear, then life’s trials and pressures will overrun his soul and he will only know perpetual anxiety. Sometimes the believer goes back and forth on a daily basis, living in one house or the other. As we advance in our spiritual walk, we learn to live more and more in the house of faith and benefit from the blessings God has provided to those who take refuge in Him and His promises (Deut. 31:6; Isa. 26:3; Prov. 3:5-6; 25-26; Matt. 6:25-34; Phil. 4:10-14).

       The Christian who learns God’s Word on a daily basis increases his capacity to live by faith and enjoy the many blessings of God. As goes his knowledge of God’s Word, so goes his capacity for understanding and enjoying life, even in the midst of suffering. The reality is that the Christian will face many hardships beyond his control, and God does not promise to take them away. In fact, some trials are sent by Him to humble us and to develop our character to be more like Christ. Some ask God to remove their trial, but God will never remove that which produces humility and keeps us close to Him.

An excerpt from my book – Suffering: A Biblical Consideration.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.