Five weeks ago, I came down with a case of Shingles. If you are not sure what that is, here is a brief description from WebMD.com: “Shingles is a rash with shooting pain. It usually shows up on one side of your body” and is caused by the Chickenpox virus which lays dormant near your spinal cord or the base of your brain for decades until it decides to “wake up” one day in the form of Shingles.[i] One in three adults who have had Chickenpox as a child will develop Shingles in later years. Shingles is extremely painful and can last up to six weeks. In my case, it broke out on the right side of my neck and head. Thus, there were many nights when I would simply lie in bed medicated on one prescription pain med and two different over-the-counter pain meds with an ice pack on my head whimpering in pain. It was brutal to say the least. And as if that were not enough, where the Shingles broke out infected the nerve which runs through my right inner ear which then spreads out across the right side of my face. The result is what is called Ramsay Hunt syndrome (RHS). In short, paralysis to the right side of my face making it difficult to eat, drink or speak and impossible to blink my right eye. Thus, I am forced to wear an eye patch from time to time, especially when I sleep, and I have not been able to carry out my weekly preaching responsibilities at my church. It was a frightening thing to wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly not be able to move the right side of my face. I first thought I was having a stroke. What is worse, no one knows how long the RHS will last. It could last several weeks to several months. Ten percent of patients experience some degree of lifelong paralysis.
Thus, over the last five weeks I have had lots of time to think and ponder the theology of suffering. Not just my own suffering, but the suffering of those around me. I have a dear brother in Christ who is currently battling an aggressive form of cancer. He has a successful career, is in the prime of his life, has a lovely wife, and four young children. Thus, as I reflect upon my own suffering, I fully recognize I have no cause to complain, no reason to murmur. There are many others who are experiencing far worse than myself. Still, as I have reflected upon the suffering believers experience in this world, I have been forced to come back to the question—why? Why does God not only allow suffering to come into the lives of believers, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, but why does God cause suffering to come into our lives? Why does God bring suffering into the lives of his people? Think Job or Paul (Job 1-2; 2 Cor 12:7-9). There are at least ten reasons from scripture.
Suffering teaches us to appreciate the sufferings of Christ. In 1 Peter 2:19-21 we read: “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” What is interesting is that Peter says that suffering unjustly in this world is “a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Suffering for the believer is a means of grace. It is an extension of God’s grace to us. How so? “Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” As we suffer in this world, as we experience physical pain, emotional pain, we are given a chance to experience some of what Christ experienced on our behalf. I say some of what Christ experienced because regardless of the kind of suffering we go through, regardless of the degree of pain we experience, very few of us will experience the pain of being flogged with a Roman scourge which would rip pieces of flesh from the victim’s body and expose bone. Very few of us will experience the pain of having a railroad spike driven through our wrists and feet and being left to hang on a cross until we suffocate to death or have our legs broken with a large wooden club to speed the process. And not one of us will experience the emotional pain of having lived in perfect harmony with our father for all eternity only to have our father turn his anger and wrath upon us and despise and reject us. Suffering in this life gives us just a taste of the suffering Christ endured on our behalf.
Suffering reminds us that this world is not our home. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, the apostle Paul writes: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” The sufferings of this life force us to look beyond this life, beyond this world. They force us to stop being so nearsighted and start being more farsighted. They remind us that this world is not our home. We don’t belong here. We are simply passing through. Like the suffering and misery and pain the soldier experiences in combat which causes him to long to return home, to not want to get comfortable with where he is, to complete his mission and get the job done so he can get to the place where he really desires to be, suffering in this life for the believer is designed by God to have the same effect. Yet too often we become comfortable with this life. We become content with the here and now, as if the here and now is all there is, as if Revelation 21-22 is the end of a fairytale. Gen. Robert E. Lee once said, “It is good that war is so terrible otherwise we would become too fond of it.” My friends, it is good that life in this world can be so terrible otherwise we would become too fond of it.
Suffering teaches us to depend on God and not on ourselves. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-11, Paul shares a personal experience with us. He first tells us in vv.1-6 that he was given a glimpse into heaven itself and was allowed to see and hear “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (v.4). Ordinarily this would cause someone to become prideful, to well up with conceit or arrogance. Thus, Paul tells us that “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” We do not know what the thorn in the flesh was. It may have been some physical disability or ailment. It may have been some plaguing sin Paul dealt with. Whatever it was, apparently Paul suffered from it throughout his life because he tells us that he pleaded with God three times for him to remove it, and God would not. Instead God’s answer to Paul’s prayer request was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The Greek word for “sufficient” is the word arkeō which can mean “be enough, be adequate, or in the passive “be satisfied, be contented with something.” In other words, God is going to allow Paul to continue to suffer from this thorn so that he might learn to be more dependent on God’s grace. Paul’s suffering was designed to break his pride, to humble him, to make him more dependent on God, and less dependent on himself. Suffering in this life has a way of doing that.
Suffering reminds us that we are finite, and God is infinite. In the book of Job (chap. 1) we are given the story of how Satan asked God for permission to test Job’s faith. God grants Satan permission but tells him not to harm his body. Satan respects that boundary but harms just about everything else. We are told that the Sabeans and the Chaldeans killed all of Job’s servants and stole all his camels and donkeys, that a wildfire consumed all his remaining possessions, and then a major windstorm flattened the house his children were in and killed them all. I have four children. I cannot imagine the pain of losing just one of my children, let alone the pain of losing all four of them in one fell swoop, in a sudden car accident or some other freak accident. Job loses everything that is near and dear to him in this world, yet his response is not quite what we would expect. “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Worshiped? In the face of such tragic suffering, why would Job fall on his face and worship? In v.21 Job exclaims, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Job understand his position in relation to God. He understands God is the Creator and Job is the creature. God is infinite and sovereign; Job is finite and wholly dependent on God. Job understands all that he has in this world has been graciously given to him from God. He does not deserve any of it. God owes him nothing. Thus, Job’s response is the only proper response of a finite creature before his infinite Creator--worship. Suffering in this life reminds us of our proper place in relation to God. It reminds us that we are finite and that we are in control of nothing. Suffering reminds us that God is sovereign and does what he wills when he wills to whom he wills and answers to no one.
Suffering drives us to God in prayer. In Matthew 26:36ff. we are given the story of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane just before his betrayal. There we are told that Jesus said to his disciples, “‘Sit here, while I go over there and pray.’ And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’” Here we see Christ, the Son of God, the one who turned water into wine, who walked on water, and calmed a storm by the power of his word, falling down on his face before God the Father in prayer. Why? His soul was “very sorrowful, even to death.” Jesus was suffering immensely. He knew what was about to take place and he was terrified. Yet he knew it had to be done. He knew his death on the cross for the sins of his people was necessary. It had to be done. There was no getting around it and so he does the only thing he can do—he goes to God the Father in prayer. It is sad that often we do our best praying when we are experiencing suffering. One could say, ‘It is good that this life is filled with so much suffering otherwise we would pray less than we already do.’
Suffering reminds us of our sinfulness and our need for a savior. In the epistle to the Romans, Paul writes this: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:18-23). The suffering we see in the world and the suffering we experience in our own lives are painful reminders we live in a fallen world, that Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, that all of creation has been negatively impacted by sin, that we are sinful creatures in need of a savior. Suffering reminds us that God made a promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 that he would one day send a deliverer to redeem his people from the curse of sin and our bondage to death. Suffering reminds us that promise has been fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Suffering in this life is designed to scream one message--look to the cross and live! Look to Christ for deliverance from the sufferings of this world and of this life.
Suffering teaches us to lean on the body of Christ. When Paul writes his letter the church in Philippi, he is sitting in a Roman prison, not knowing if he will be freed or put to death. Roman prisons were also not pleasant places. They were cold, dark, and damp, flea and rodent infested, and they gave you very little bread and water to eat, sometimes not even enough to keep the inmates alive. Thus, if you were in a Roman prison, you needed to have friends or family bring you food and clothing and blankets in order to survive. This is exactly what the church in Philippi did for Paul. In 18b-19 he writes: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,…” Paul was strengthened and encouraged by the prayers of the saints. He knew the church in Philippi was earnestly praying for him and pleading his cause before the Throne of Grace and it fortified his faith. But it was not just their prayers that strengthened and encouraged Paul, for he tells them in 4:14-16 that “it was kind of you to share my trouble”, that “no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.” Suffering reminds us that the Church is the body of Christ who act as the hands and feet of Christ, ministering to our needs, hugging us when we need it, bringing us food and clothing, strengthening us through prayer and words of encouragement. Suffering reminds us we are not alone, that Christ is ever present with us in and through his Church, the body of believers, the body of Christ.
Suffering enables us to more effectively minister to others. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 Paul, who was very acquainted with suffering (see 2 Cor. 11:23-28), writes these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer” (emphasis added). Paul is essentially saying that when we experience suffering and are comforted by God, this allows us to “be able to comfort those who are in any affliction”. People who have fought the battle with cancer are better equipped to sympathize with, comfort, and minister to those battling cancer. Those who have experienced the sorrow of infertility can more effectively minister to those who struggle with having children. Suffering in this life equips us and trains us to be better at ministering to and caring for those who are suffering.
Suffering increases our faith. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). James tells us we should count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, whether those trials be physical, emotional, spiritual, material, financial, etc. But why? Why should we and how can we rejoice in the suffering we experience in life? Each time God brings us through times of suffering the strength of our faith is increased just that much more. As time goes on and God carries us through more and more times of suffering, with each additional trial we are able to look back and say to ourselves, ‘God has brought me through many difficulties before; therefore, I know God will bring me through this one.’ The testing of our faith produces “steadfastness”, endurance, a faith that is strong. We should not resist nor murmur against this. This is what James means when he says, “let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Let it have its full effect. Let the trial, let the suffering, do what God intends for it to do—strengthen your faith in Him.
Suffering reminds us to make the most of our time. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14). So often we live our lives as though we know we will be around for the next ten or twenty years or that our health will hold up for the next ten or twenty years, but we don’t know. Our life and our health are a mist that are here today and may be gone tomorrow. Nothing reminds of this truth, of this reality, more pointedly than suffering. When I was first struck with paralysis on the right side of my face and could hardly speak, and then began to do research, I was struck with the prospect that I may never preach again, that I may have to leave what I love doing and enter into a completely different line of work. Today, my facial paralysis is improving, but during those weeks of lying in bed and wondering what God was doing, what he was teaching me, I could not help but think of all the missed gospel opportunities I let slip by. As though I knew I would always have another opportunity to speak the gospel to that person…until my speech was taken from me. God uses suffering to remind us we ought always to pray the words of the psalmist, “Teach us [O God] to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).