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The Point of Suffering

Tue, Sep. 23, 2014 Posted: 08:30 PM


It seems like most everyone we know right now is going through some sort of painful trial. Many are hurting with medical problems, but others are wrestling with relationship or financial issues, while still others are struggling with parenting difficulties.

As someone said a long time ago, most everyone on the planet is either just entering a trial, in the midst of one, or coming out of a period of suffering.

While most skeptics and atheists continue to rely on the problem of evil/suffering as their number one weapon against the idea of an all-good and powerful God, there is a small but growing trend in unbelievers acknowledging the argument’s bankruptcy. As philosopher Peter Van Inwagen notes, "It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able tell, this thesis is no longer defended."[1]

That said, such a truth does little to console the Christian who is hurting, currently sees no light at the end of their dark tunnel, and would be grateful to God for any insight into why the trial has come into their life.

Some say such questions shouldn’t be asked of God – that we should be like Job and put our hand over our mouth (Job 40:4) and stay silent during a period of pain. However, I think some answers are available that help us to better understand the point of pain and suffering, even if they sometimes aren’t as specific as we would like.

Starting Out

Surface level Biblical answers as to the “why?” question of pain and suffering are usually given via the following verses:

  • “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. Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:2–4; 12).
  • “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” (Romans 5:3–5)
  • “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7)

All well and good. These verses remind us of the character building that occurs through trials. But is there more to the story that we can uncover?

What Happens During Suffering?

Have you ever wondered what effect suffering has on us? Almost universally, suffering weakens the person on whom it rests. We don’t generally regard being weak as a good thing, but Scripture says differently.

Paul recounts to the Corinthians how he was given “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me” which he pleaded with God “three times that it might leave”. But God’s response was “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness”, which caused Paul to eventually conclude, “I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:7–9).

Although such a thing seems strange at first, let me give you an example of how weakness leads to godly power. It occurred many years ago at one of the “Women of Faith” conferences that are held around the country. The venue of the summit ran into seating trouble with the end result being the assembling of a block of seats that were less than ideal for viewing the stage.

The women assigned to those seats did what many good Christian women do: they began to complain.[2] Loudly. In fact, they caused such a disruption that the conference was in jeopardy of becoming a washout.

However, before that could happen, out on the stage came Joni Eareckson Tada (a quadriplegic) in her wheelchair. Joni moved to the microphone, and as the crowd quieted down she said the following:

“I understand there are some of you here tonight not happy with the seat you are in. Me too.”

I don’t know all the details about what else happened at that conference, but I do know one thing – from that point on, no one complained about their assigned seat.

That’s the power of weakness.

Conformed to the Image of Christ

So suffering builds character, grants us power even when we are weak, but is there still more we can learn about this issue? I think there is.

If you ask most Christians about their personal ‘life goal’, many will say in one way or another: I just want to be like Jesus. This sentiment is reflected in a song that’s not sung much in today’s churches:

Lord make me like You

Please make me like You

You are a servant, make me one too

O Lord I am willing, do what You must do

To make me like You Lord

Just make me like You

It’s a noble goal and one that Scripture says God will accomplish: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). But have we thought much about what that “conformation” process involves? Glance back and forth between the short song above and this Old Testament description of Jesus’ life:

“He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities, the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed . . . But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted . . . By oppression and judgment He was taken away . . . But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Is. 53:3-10).

So how about it – do you still want to be made like Jesus? If so, are you willing to go through suffering like He did?

Of Christ’s painful life events, the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Maybe it was this verse that prompted Dorothy Sayers to write: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine.”[3]

Why Me?

In the movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers (Captain America) is sitting on a military bunk with Dr. Abraham Erskine, the doctor who will turn Rogers into a super hero the next day. Rogers is asking Erskine why – given he is so weak and small compared to literally everyone else – he was chosen for the task.

Erskine tells him that it is because of the goodness that is in him; a goodness that the very weakness Rogers possesses and dislikes has produced. Erskine answers Rogers’ question by saying, “Because a weak man has respect for power … and he has compassion.”

These are attributes that the Bible tells us God values greatly. Compassion? Jesus reminded the religious leaders, “I desire compassion” (Matt. 10:7). Respect and discipline with power? “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Could it be that these qualities are only transmitted through trials and suffering? Perhaps. Maybe this is why Peter tells us that it is God’s will that suffering occur: “Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Pet. 4:19, my emphasis).

Maybe it’s true that, as Philip Yancey says, suffering will always be “the gift that nobody wants”.[4] But I think one day all of us who go through difficult trials (which is everyone) will look back, either in this life or in eternity, and genuinely thank God for the faith, discipline and compassion that pain and grief hardwired into our souls.

Time will tell.



[1] Peter Van Inwagen, "The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence, Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 5: Philosophy of Religion, ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991),pg. 135.

[2] :-) I'm making a joke here.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 14, quoted by Yancey, 233.

[4] Phillip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), pg. 11.

Robin Schumacher