I want to address this question carefully because the problem of pain and suffering is often treated like intellectual football. Those not in the midst of suffering can oversimplify that which is actually deadly serious. Pain is real and thus this question is not just an intellectual issue.
The book of Job is a treasure to have in the Bible. God in his wisdom didn’t just give us a sentence or a paragraph on why there is pain and suffering, and why it is allowed in the life of believers… he gave us an entire book! And in this book we don’t read an academic analysis or poetic mystical answer… we read a real story about a real man who went through real pain. Perhaps the most striking part of this whole story is the very first verse. “In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). A blameless man is the last person we’d expect to have all these awful things happen to! But so was Jesus… he really was blameless.
Although followers of Jesus have entered into the reality and the protection of the Kingdom of God, we are not immune from the effects of a sinful world. We are in the thick of it! But the good news is that those who are in the Kingdom have Kingdom resources.
God promises to always be with us; even in the darkest valley. “Yes, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). God does not just look on from above saying, “You can do it!” Because he is always by your side, he is already with you when you enter a time of suffering and will continue to be as you go through it. Joshua, facing tremendous odds as he lead the Israelites into the promised land heard this from the Lord. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. He was rejected by others, experienced tremendous loss and pain when John the Baptist was beheaded, when his friend Lazarus died, and when his closest friend (Peter) denied him. But the pinnacle of suffering that Jesus ever experienced what going to the cross. Though he was sinless and love in its perfect form, he was despised, tortured and brutally murdered on a cross – all which he willingly allowed. The book of Hebrews tells us, “Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested” (Heb 2:18) and “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin” (Heb 4:15). We also have this amazing testimony from the Apostle Peter (see 1 Peter 2:21-25).
Christianity is the only “religion” in the world where there is hope in the midst of suffering. No other religion can explain the problem of suffering nor is there hope that all things will one day be made right. While we may not be able to understand or discern the why of things quite yet… we can trust that Jesus is beside us every step of the way.
This last point I want to say carefully because I do not want minimize the reality of suffering, but I do think it is an important point. I have personally witnessed people who have been through intense pain minister to people in ways that I never could. Because they have been through the valley of the shadow of death, they have the street-cred to speak into people’s lives. God is able to use them in profound and powerful ways!
- The best leader for a recovery group is someone who had to personally overcome an addiction.
- The best person to lead a bereavement group is someone who personally lost someone dear to them.
The list could go on but the reality is as I heard our dear friend, Jan Thompson (in Haiti) once say, “God doesn’t waste pain.” It is brutal, but you can trust that someway/somehow God will use your sufferings to minister others.
I recently heard a profound remark from a Christian Philosopher about this very topic. He said, “If there were no suffering in the world, nothing would matter… Suffering is one part of a whole that includes suffering and what is good and what is joyful. They come together. God has created a world where what men and women do about suffering really matters. If there were no suffering, there would be no caring.”
Caring for others is one of the most important things we can do with our lives; it is how we demonstrate our love for others!
It is honestly difficult to answer why so many awful things happen to one person, but take confidence in that God has promised to never leave us or forsake us (Deut 31:6). Paul, who also went through intense suffering and was ultimately beheaded for his faith wrote some of the most captivating and comforting words about the hope we have as believers. This is a long quote, but trust me – it is worth reading it from beginning to end.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
– Romans 8:18-39