Where Is God in Suffering?
Suffering usually ambushes us. Things seem fine, and suddenly we get a bad case of the flu, we’re thrown into grief over the loss of a loved one, or we start a series of painful treatments for cancer.
This coronavirus pandemic and the anxiety that accompanies it — worry about our health, our jobs, and so on — is also a kind of suffering that most of us never expected. Add the social unrest arising from racism and social oppression, and it’s easy to fear the suffering the future may bring.
In these circumstances, we may find ourselves wondering, Where is God? How can these things be happening if God is perfectly good and all-powerful? Can’t he stop them? Doesn’t he want to? If we then try to work out an answer in our own minds and find it hard to do so, we may find ourselves doubting God’s goodness, power, or even his existence.
Christians struggling with doubts arising from suffering need to turn to the Scriptures to see what they say. Too many of us seem to assume they won’t say much. Of course, we all know about Job, but he may be the only biblical person we think of when considering suffering in the Bible.
Scripture records much suffering. The book of Ruth may seem to be a nice story that ends well, but on the way to that end there is a great deal of suffering. Imagine what it was like for Naomi to have lost her husband and sons while living in a foreign land. The questioning of Bethlehem’s women as she returned home — Is this Naomi? — may imply that she had become virtually unrecognizable because of her grief. Or think about Jeremiah. Of all of the Old Testament saints, Jeremiah’s suffering may be the worst — far worse than Job’s because Jeremiah’s involved intense social hostility that stretched over his whole life, physical abuse, and — depending on how we interpret the word “stocks” in Jeremiah 20:2-3 — perhaps torture.
In the New Testament, we have not only our Lord’s unparalleled suffering but also Paul’s list of all he endured in order to spread the gospel. He suffered four shipwrecks (the three mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11 and the one described in Acts 27–28), with one involving a night and a day drifting on the open sea. He was imprisoned and repeatedly flogged bloody with whips and beaten blue with rods. He was stoned and left for dead. He was in danger from rivers and robbers as well as from Jews and Gentiles and false Christians. He knew many cold and sleepless nights and hungry and thirsty days. He was constantly anxious for all of the churches. On top of it all, in order to keep him from becoming conceited because of the special visions and revelations God had given him, he received a thorn in his flesh, “a messenger of Satan to harass me,” that caused him such grief that he begged God three times to take it away (2 Cor. 12:7; see 2 Cor. 11:23-12:10 for the full story).
When we reflect deeply on the lives of God’s biblical saints, we realise that no matter how bad our suffering may be, some in Scripture have suffered as much.
Gratitude for Suffering
Yet the suffering recorded in Scripture isn’t there to tell against God’s goodness or power. In fact, God’s saints often thank him for their suffering. As one psalmist observed,
You have dealt well with your servant,
O LORD, according to your word. . . .
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good; . . .
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes. . . .
I know, O LORD, . . . that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. — Ps. 119:65, 67-68, 71, 75
Similarly, Paul told the Roman Christians to rejoice in their sufferings (see Rom. 5:3), Peter encouraged his readers to share in Christ’s suffering (see 1 Pet. 4:13), and James reiterated that Christians should “count it all joy” when troubles of any kind come their way (James 1:3).
Part of the answer is that suffering prompts us to stop and think more deeply about our lives. It does this because of what it is. We suffer whenever we experience something unpleasant enough that we want it to end. Suffering surprises us because we expect our lives to be pleasant —and when they aren’t, we wonder why life isn’t as we suppose it should be. This jolts us out of our complacency and prompts us to think more deeply about what life means.
We need this because we tend to settle into ruts, living unreflectively. We can live like cattle that are satisfied as long as they have enough grass to chew, rather than as human beings whom God has created to think about our lives and live them deliberately in the light of carefully understanding what God intends us to be (see Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:31).
Suffering can clarify what is really worthwhile and what is not. For instance, it was their experience as “strangers and exiles on the earth” who had no settled place that kept Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob looking beyond this world’s attractions to “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” a country that God had promised them (Heb.11:13, 16). Rather than attempting to build their lives on what would inevitably vanish, their homelessness prompted them to lift their eyes to seek “a city that is to come,” an eternal city “whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 13:14; 11:10).
Suffering Shifts Perspective
I know something about this because I suffered a paralysing accident when I was 17. Although I was a Christian before it happened, I was distracted by all sorts of worthless things. But when I hit the ground after falling about 15m, I realized very quickly that the only crucial thing in life was my relationship with God. All of the worthless stuff fell away.
Lying flat in a hospital bed for weeks, unable to move from my waist down, I began to look upward and outward, aware now that my faith and hope had to be in things yet unseen (see Heb. 11:1). I began to realise that God was calling me to endure, which altered my character and began to give me hope as I felt God’s love being poured into my heart by his Holy Spirit (see Rom. 5:3–5).
Suffering comes in all sorts of kinds and degrees. Some of it is very mild — such as labouring to finish a task when you are dead-tired and just want to quit, or having a mild headache — and some is excruciatingly severe — such as losing your loved ones (see Ruth 1:3–5) or watching your children starve or be slaughtered (see Lam. 2:12; 4:4; Matt. 2:7–18). Some suffering is so bad that we can’t put it into words (see Job 16:6). Today, many people are feeling anxiety about what the future may bring — consider those who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus and worry about how they are going to keep their families fed. That kind of suffering involves emotional distress. It can become so great that we hurt physically (see Jer. 4:19–22). Sometimes we come close to losing all hope, as Job did when he felt, in the midst of his suffering, that he would never again see good (see Job 7:7). Yet, no matter what its kind or degree, suffering should prompt us to look up, re-evaluate our lives, and live by faith.
At one point, Paul and Timothy suffered so greatly that they despaired of life itself (see 2 Cor. 1:8). Yet that, Paul wrote, “was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). In delivering them from those horrific circumstances, God taught them to set their hope on the fact that he would deliver them again (2 Cor. 1:10) and that he prepared them to comfort others — no matter what their affliction — with the comfort God had given them (2 Cor. 1:4).
Confidence in God Alone
Reflecting on the suffering of God’s saints in Scripture should teach us this lesson: We may not be able to understand what God is doing and how he can be perfectly good, all-powerful, and in control in the midst of great suffering. Yet God doesn’t require us to understand. He only asks that we not throw away our confidence in him. By maintaining it, we will receive a very great reward. We, as countless Christians who have gone before us, “have need of endurance” so that we may do God’s will and receive what he has promised. For he has indeed promised that Jesus will return — indeed, he will not delay — and we, meanwhile, must live by faith, for God is not pleased with those who shrink back (see Heb. 10:32-38).
Suffering can transform us so that we no longer place our hope in that which moths eat and rust corrupts. It offers us the opportunity to grow deeper in our faith, hope, and love of God and in our ability to care for our neighbours.
As David reminded himself, weeping may endure for a night, but joy — joy will come in the morning (see Ps. 30:5).
Mark R. Talbot is the author of When the Stars Disappear: Help and Hope from Stories of Suffering in Scripture.
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