The Miracle of Suffering

Here comes Thanksgiving Day. How are we to be thankful? What should the cause of our thankfulness be? What if you are going through a hard time? Or maybe I should ask “How can we be thankful especially when things go wrong most of the time and seem to only get worse as the days go by?” Am I doom-n-gloom? I don’t think so, but we must deal with the problem of evil in the world. It is here and our answer informs the world with how we cope. When I say problem of evil I have in view all types that fall into the classical discussion– moral, natural, gratuitous, sickness, pain. For the sake of this blog I’m going to call all these things suffering. Suffering because not all of them are in and of themselves evil, but we still deal with them and have to figure out why they exist and what we should think about them and an appropriate response to them.

Here are a few thoughts from my Christian perspective of the use of suffering and what it accomplishes in life. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just some things that suffering should and does do.

  1. Suffering results in humility. God tells us to be humble (Philippians 2:3-8). John Calvin writes “I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility;’ and still more with those of Augustine, ‘As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery: so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.’” (Institutes 2.2.11) In our culture humility is not a good thing, but for a Christian it is a great thing. We are not self-sufficient. There are just some hurdles we cannot jump no matter how hard we try. Reality is we are spiritually extremely needy. We are spiritually bankrupt (Matthew 5:3). We are in a worse spot than the beggar at the corner of the street. But humility comes in and by calling us to recognize our situation also points to the all sufficient Provider and Healer and Comforter and Savior (Psalm 50:15). We cling to him and he reveals how he is more than sufficient in all things. We are taught how our weakness shows off his strength (II Corinthians 12:9). Suffering does this. (More from John Calvin here).
  2. Suffering calls us to repentance (Luke 13:1-5). An overarching reality in Scripture concerning suffering is that it is a result of our declaring war upon God. Just grant for a second the idea that there is a divine being out there who created the whole universe and that part of his creation was orders and rules. Then his creation decided it was going to do thing its own way. It decided it wanted to live a life to the theme of Bon Jovi – “Its my life” and all that. So it does, the Creator lets it. Ask yourself: If this is true is suffering really surprising? The Bible says no (Romans 8:22-23) and that when we see suffering occur around us one of the things it should do is to call us to stop shoving our fist in God’s face. Lest we Christians think too much of ourselves we know that God uses suffering in our lives to burn our personal dross and continually draw us to him. Discipline, when done right, is a form of love (Hebrews 12:5-11). Suffering does this. (More on Suffering in today’s world)
  3. Suffering gives us opportunity to proclaim the value of Jesus to those who don’t know him (Colossians 1:24). Even thought this point is sandwiched into the middle it may be the biggest point. When our suffering causes us to abandon God we are saying that he is not more valuable than those things whose loss we are lamenting – be it the loss of health, wealth, security, limb or life as being more precious than him. They are not more precious than him. He is the only completely unique and set-apart being there is. There is no other. Most importantly in this aspect of suffering is the offensive reality of how much Jesus suffered for you and me. For those of us not at his crucifixion it is very hard to get the overall sense of his torment. But God puts suffering Christians into the lives of others to be liaisons of suffering – to be representatives to show everyone what Jesus’ suffering looks like and why it is so valuable (Luke 24:25-27; Galatians 2:19-21). Suffering does this. (More on living out Christ’s sufferings for others)
  4. There is a hope in our suffering as Christians (Romans 5:1-5). Our sufferings today are light afflictions. Our sufferings remind us our eternal dwelling with God is one of infinite joy. We are aliens or as one of my favorite songs says, “We are poor, wayfaring strangers.” This present from of creation is not our home (John 8:23, compare with Ephesians 2:19). Our home rests with God when he brings this creation back to rights at the end of days. We look forward, with grand anticipation (I Corinthians 15:54-58), like a young girl does all through her life as she dreams of that perfect wedding day (Matthew 25). We long, we day dream, we discuss, we sing, write poems and books and music (Revelation 21:4-8). Our kingdom is another kingdom. We patiently, but restlessly await its final culmination to be complete. Suffering does this. (Listen to Poor Wayfaring Stranger here)
  5. For those who are not Christians, their suffering is also a light affliction; although it may not feel so. However, while a Christian finds hope in our momentary afflictions, we also need to feel the call to rise and proclaim God’s message of salvation to any who will hear (Romans 10:8-21). For the Christian will find infinite joy that grows with each passing day of eternity in our fellowshipping with the Perfect Father. We will know grace and mercy to a depth unimaginable each day, only to discover that the next day brings it even deeper as our knowledge of God grows infinitely throughout eternity. But for those who stay stubbornly in rebellion despite what God has done and communicated to them, there is absolutely nothing on this present sod that will compare with the intense wrath of a holy God who has been spurned by that which is obligated to love and enjoy him (Isaiah 30:18; 58:14). If Hell is real, as Christians and the Bible contend, then it is a place where God’s wrath is felt infinitely. Where it grows with each passing day in severity and when you think you can’t imagine it being any more of a nightmare it grows ever deeper with each passing day. With descriptors of burning and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Mark 9:18; Luke 13:28), Hell is a place where God’s holiness is revealed and the knowledge of this holiness spurned causes torment. Then will those in Hell long for the sufferings of this time (Luke 16:19-31), but it will be too late. So, for Christians, suffering is an anthem call to love all. Suffering can prevent this. (Listen to Penn Jillette, from the comedy team Penn and Teller, say it best. He is a committed atheist who is having no crisis of belief and still says it best.)
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