Nevertheless, the WHY question won’t go away, and so it needs to be addressed. But it needs to be addressed cautiously; there is no one-size-fits-all formula that can be trotted out in every situation.
All human suffering is (directly or indirectly) the result of human sin. It stems originally from Adam’s original disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:16-19). Yet on a personal level, “What have I done to deserve this?” is rarely a productive question to ask. The answer is usually, ‘Nothing’ – because the distribution of suffering is largely random. It is not doled out to us individually in precise amounts, as we deserve it. Rather than searching for the cause of our suffering, it is usually more profitable to consider its potential purpose (John 9:3).
Debating the reasons for suffering is rarely (if ever) helpful to people who actually are suffering. Such discussions tend to focus on abstract principles, when what suffering people mostly need is concrete help. Yet the principles do give us a framework within which to meditate on how God might be acting in our own personal situation. None of them can be an explanation for all suffering. Nor are they mutually exclusive: a single situation can be used by God in a multitude of ways.
1) Suffering tests and strengthens our faith (James 1:2-4).
Life is hard; Christians experience grief and pain just like everyone else. And yet for us, suffering seems incompatible with knowing God as Father. We pray to be spared from trials; and yet that prayer is not answered. We are often accused of using our religion as a ‘crutch’ – but common experience is that faith in God can make suffering harder, not easier, to cope with.
The opening of the book of Job addresses this very issue: Do we believers worship and serve God simply because that is the right thing to do, or because of what we expect to get out of it? To put it bluntly, do we do what we do for love, or are our motives purely mercenary? Whatever we may think (for our hearts are deceitful), only hardship will reveal the truth.
Faith that is never tested, never grows. It must be strengthened by trials and deepened by adversity. This is how we learn to pray – and see our prayers answered. This is how we learn to trust God – even when everything goes wrong. This is how we learn to persevere in the face of problems and difficulties – and emerge triumphantly on the far side. The alternative is a superficial Christian who loves the Lord when all is well, but is easily discouraged by disappointments and cannot cope with stress or persecution.
2) Suffering refines us (I Peter 1:6,7).
Precious metals such as gold are subjected to very high temperatures in order to burn away all the impurities, and thus increase their value. It is not surprising, then, that God uses the uncertainties, failures and disappointments of this life to burn away our self-confidence, to purge us of our reliance on money, and to compel us to rely on Him rather than on our own goodness. Job was a very good man, but even that was a source of temptation; he felt that by being righteous he deserved God’s blessing (Job 29:11-20).
Faith that is never tested remains unproven. False faith will crumble in the face of suffering; the shallow-rooted (Mark 4:16,17) will be weeded out. But genuine faith will be strengthened (Job 23:10). So when we suffer pain or grief, we can rest assured that God has not abandoned us; rather it is an indication of how highly He values us.
No Christian is exempt from this process. “Everyone will be salted with fire.” (Mark 9:49) But our sufferings must be put into perspective: they are brief and temporary, and they are an essential part of our preparation for eternity (II Corinthians 4:17).
3) Suffering keeps us humble and dependent on God (II Corinthians 1:8,9).
Many years ago, my husband was given a biography of the Christian evangelist and healer, Smith Wigglesworth. It was intended to encourage us (we were going through a difficult time) but actually had the opposite effect. For this book depicted a man who never made a mistake, never had a failure – and was never ill himself! It was unreal; it was almost nauseating.
For even the great apostle Paul had his share (more than his fair share!) of sufferings and disappointments (he lists them in II Corinthians 11:22-29). He enjoyed the privilege of being used by God to work miracles and bring thousands to faith; and he experienced visions and direct personal revelations from God (II Corinthians 12:1-4). But he also suffered from some kind of illness or disability, either permanent or recurring, that caused him distress and hampered his ministry. “In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” (II Corinthians 12:7) Satan used Paul’s suffering as a means of harassing him. But over and behind Satan was God, who used it as a means of keeping Paul humble. And for that reason, his prayers for healing were always refused.
Pride is a particularly dangerous sin. The more gifted we are, and the more the Lord has blessed us, the easier it is to succumb to it and start taking God for granted. The disability, the chronic illness, the difficult family member, the painful memories that won’t go away – such things constantly remind us that we do not have all the answers, and that God is not at our beck and call. And so, although it doesn’t feel like it, they are actually good for us.
4) Suffering teaches us what it feels like to suffer – so that we are better able to understand and help others when they are suffering (II Corinthians 1:3,4).
As a doctor, I have theoretical knowledge about many illnesses; but actually being ill gives you a completely different kind of knowledge. Instead of being a spectator, you become a patient – and suddenly you can see and understand things that were previously invisible or incomprehensible to the professionals trying to help you. And so for almost every significant medical condition there exists a patient support group, through which people can share their experiences and give each other practical and emotional help.
In the UK, many charities have been started as the result of an individual going through a period of suffering, and thus becoming aware of a need. When it comes to motivation, there is nothing like personal experience!
Dr Mary Verghese (1925-1986) was training to be an obstetrician in India when a road accident left her paralysed from the waist down. As a result of this, she became acutely aware of the lack of help for the many disabled people in India, and she went on to become one of the country’s first specialists in disability and rehabilitation. (You can read her story in the book “Take my hands” by Dorothy Clarke Wilson)
5) Suffering gives God an opportunity to reveal Himself to others (John 9:1-3).
Jesus’ disciples were culturally conditioned to view suffering as a punishment for sin. Jesus, on the other hand, saw it as an opportunity to bring glory to God. This may be (most obviously) through some miraculous intervention, such as a healing. But this is not the only way in which God’s glory can be displayed. To focus our hopes and prayers exclusively on this kind of outcome may be to miss the point entirely.
For a seed to multiply, it must first die (John 12:24,25); this principle surely warns us not to expect a quick and happy resolution to every episode of pain or sorrow in our lives. There are other ways in which God’s glory can be manifest in our sufferings: in the patience and hope with which we bear them (Matthew 5:38-45), and in the love that our Christian brothers and sisters demonstrate towards us (I John 4:12). Paul’s ‘thorn’ was not removed, but instead became a means of demonstrating the power of God at work in his life: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9).
6) Suffering disciplines us (Proverbs 3:11,12).
God, our heavenly Father, is the perfect Father – a Father who does not spoil or indulge His children (Proverbs 13:24). His love is tough love, not sentimentality (II Samuel 7:14,15). Such love does not rule out discipline; quite the reverse! “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” (Revelation 3:19) Sometimes God will use illness or even death – as when the Corinthian church abused the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:27-32). And He may well use persecution and other forms of suffering to make us more devoted to Him and more reliant upon His grace. The writer of Psalm 119 comes to this conclusion:
“It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.” (Psalm 119:71)
All this means that we should not interpret suffering as a sign of God’s rejection; rather, it should be regarded as proof that we really are members of His family (Hebrews 12:7-11).
7) Suffering is the cost of following Jesus (John 15:18)
The people of God have always been under attack from the rest of the world (Psalm 44:22). So persecution is inevitable (II Timothy 3:12). Peter tells us, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice…” (I Peter 4:12,13) Rejoice? How is that possible? Because persecution is a certificate of Christian authenticity – an assurance that we are serving the same Master as the prophets of old. And we are promised that all those who suffer for the sake of God’s Kingdom will receive a place of honour in it (Romans 8:17). For those who have suffered for their faith, down through the ages, joy has been a common experience (e.g. Acts 5:41). Nevertheless, it is not a ‘natural’ reaction; it is a product of the Holy Spirit within us (Acts 13:50-52).
8) Suffering may be a punishment for sin
God’s covenant with Israel listed a wide range of disasters, both natural and apparently man-made, as potential punishments for breaking the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). And when the people did break the covenant by their persistent idolatry, they did suffer all these things, as God tried to awaken their consciences and bring them to repentance (e.g. Amos 4:6-11).
But never jump to this conclusion! For one thing, the new covenant contains no such ‘punishment clauses’. For another, the universality of sin makes us all equally deserving of instant judgement. Tempting though it is, we must resist the urge to put the blame for any particular accident or atrocity onto the sins of a particular individual or community (Luke 13:1-5). Although natural disasters are sometimes referred to as ‘acts of God’, they are normally nothing of the kind.
The above list is not exhaustive; but it shows (I hope) that no suffering need be pointless. However, our sufferings will not necessarily be for our personal benefit; Paul’s imprisonment (and eventual martyrdom) were not for his own good but for the ultimate good of the Church (II Timothy 2:10). The ultimate example of this is the death of Jesus: the torture and murder of God’s Son (surely the greatest evil the world has ever seen) was actually achieving the potential salvation of the whole world (John 3:16).
One other caveat: we often assume that if only we knew the reason behind our sufferings – if we understood the ‘greater good’ that will come out of them – then they would be easier to bear. However, I’m not sure that this is always true. Jesus knew full well why He had to be crucified (Matthew 20:28); He was paying the price for the sins of the whole world and making it possible for human beings to come back into a relationship with God. Yet, when He was actually being crucified, the psalm that He chose to quote (Psalm 22) begins: “My God, my God, WHY have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)