Have you ever lost a loved one? Suffered from a chronic illness? Endured other forms of emotional or physical suffering? If your answer is yes, than we have something in common. We are both human.
Suffering comes in many forms, and for some it comes more often than for others. The common factor with regard to suffering is that it occurs in every person’s life. No matter what our background or social status, no matter what career we choose or how much money we make, we will all experience suffering in our lives.
Because suffering is such a widespread phenomena, it is also one of the most common sources for religious and philosophical questioning. Why does suffering exist? What purpose does it serve? How should I deal with suffering? These are questions that we all have, and questions that are difficult to answer.
Some people find solace in religion and the hope of a greater good that it represents. Others are repelled by religion because they cannot understand why “good” people suffer; they do not identify with the God who allows innocent people to suffer. To these people I would admit that the answers are complicated and that we will not always understand the reasons God allows suffering. On the other hand, the Bible is full of reassurances. Reassurances that God loves us and will be with us, and that there is hope for us beyond our present sufferings.
The subject of suffering is a broad and complicated one, so I will by no means be providing a comprehensive study. Instead, I will focus on a specific aspect of suffering that I have had personal experience with. For the last four years I have been dealing with a chronic illness. At first I was really confused; I did not understand why God was allowing me to suffer. I did not believe that God had caused my suffering, but I continued to question Him for some time in an attempt to understand why He was allowing it.
Through prayer and diligent bible study I began to understand some of the reasons for suffering; and I am now able to see some of the benefits that it produces. During my own journey I have learned that sometimes God uses suffering as an opportunity to discipline His people. I have personally experienced the strength and protection that He provides during those times of suffering. I have also learned to trust that God is at work in all things.
I know that there are no simple reasons behind the suffering of God’s people, but the concept of God’s discipline is one example that I have consistently run across in my personal reading of the Bible. The first few times I read verses such as Proverbs 3:12, which states that “the Lord disciplines those He loves,” I balked at the image invoked in my mind of God standing over me with a switch. As I read on, however, the same verse likens God’s discipline of us to that given by a father to his beloved son.
I tend to interpret the word “discipline” as a punishment for doing something wrong. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, however, discipline is a form of “training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.” So discipline is not punishment; it is training geared toward improving a person’s character. The Bible itself backs up this definition of discipline in Hebrews 12:10b-11; “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
In order for me to understand the biblical definition of discipline, I had only to look at my relationship with my kids. When they were very little, just starting to walk, I wanted to teach them not to run out into the street. Every time they would start to step into the street I would give them a swat on their behind. I was hurting them, but I did not do it to punish them. I spanked them because I wanted to train them not to run into the street, and I did so out of my love for them and concern for their well-being.
In the same way that we discipline our kids, God sometimes allows difficult situations in our lives so that He can shape our character and make us more like Christ. The difference is that we do what we think is best for our kids, but God does what He knows is best for us. Does God enjoy watching me suffer with a chronic illness when I have four young children to care for? No. But He does love me and He knows that as I go through trials I will become a better and stronger person. James 1:2-4 even tells us that we should take joy in trials because of the good that will come of them; “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
It may seem intimidating to think about God using trials to build our character, but we also have His promise that He will be with us and strengthen us in every situation. Philippians 1:6 tells us that we can be confident that He who began a good work in us will also be faithful
to complete that work. In other words, God does not just stick us into the fire and watch to see if we make it out. He stays with us and helps us until the day that our salvation is fulfilled.
God has promised to protect and strengthen us during our trials. Two verses that really spoke to me in the early stages of my disease are found in Psalm 91:14-15; ‘“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.”’ All God asks of me is that I love Him. In return He promises to protect me.
In Philippians 4:12b-13 we see an example of how the apostle Paul relied on God’s strength to carry him through trials: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” We can be content, even in times of suffering, as long as we rely on God’s strength to carry us through. There are days when my disease is flaring up, my husband is overseas, and I have all four kids at home and papers to write for school. On those days it is easy to become overwhelmed and think that I will never make it through, but I can rely on God’s strength rather than my own. He is so much stronger than I am, and even if a situation is too difficult for me, it is not too difficult for Him.
In addition to God’s promises of protection and strength during times of suffering, we can also be assured that God is able to bring good out of every situation, no matter how difficult. Romans 8:28 reminds us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” As with His promise of protection, God simply requires us to love Him. In return, He promises to work all things for our good.
When we are consumed by the pain of a loved one’s death or a chronic illness, or any other form of suffering, it seems impossible to believe that God could bring any good from our situation. I Peter 5:10 gives us a promise that is in keeping with my assertion that suffering can be used as a form of discipline. “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” It is true that we will all experience suffering at one time or another, but after our suffering is over we can trust that God will restore us and strengthen us.
Even more amazing than our promise of restoration after suffering are the promises for eternity made in 1 Peter 1:3-6. These promises will one day raise us up so far above our sufferings that they will seem like tiny little specks of our existence.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”
We may have to suffer for now, while we are on earth, but someday we will come into our eternal inheritance. After that we will no longer experience suffering, and our seventy or eighty years on earth will pale in comparison to an eternity in heaven. Over the past few years I have learned that suffering serves many purposes in my life, one of which is to discipline me and conform me to the image of Christ. I have witnessed God’s power working in my life as He strengthens me, and I now look forward to the eternal inheritance that God has promised me.
(All Bible verses were quoted from The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.)