Suffering is all around us, and it is a common theme in scripture. No one escapes suffering—it is part of all of our stories. It is important that we understand its place in our lives, God’s purposes for it, and how we are to face it. Normally we are ill-prepared when we face suffering and naturally ill-equipped to deal with it well. Rarely do people know how to talk about difficulty in a way that is helpful. However, God has very important things to say to us in our suffering.You may be reading this as someone who is in a particular place of suffering. Something hurts right now. Having a biblical lens through which to view your suffering story is important. I hope to help shape that lens by looking to scripture for the causes, purposes, and responses to our suffering.
What causes our suffering?
And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
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 first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:20-23)
Though the Bible places the ultimate cause of suffering in the hands of God’s sovereign will, according to His sovereign purposes (Genesis 3:17-19; Romans 8:20-23), it was original human sin that brought about suffering. Everything in creation was subjected to the consequences of human sin. We feel the direct effects of those consequences in our daily experiences. We can rightly say that our present suffering is the result of a variety of things, all of which are related to original sin and its effects.
• Personal sin—suffering serves as the consequences of our personal sin. Clarification on this point: Not all of our suffering in the present time results from personal sin (see John 9). Personal sin may result from suffering, which, in turn, would cause more suffering. But the original suffering may not have been because of sin.
• Physical problems—sickness, death, disability, barrenness, and more are hard realities that bring about difficulty, suffering and pain.
• Other people—people hurt us by their sin against us, and their limitations and unintentional mistakes bring difficulty and pain as well.
• Subhuman creation—beasts, storms, and toil have great potential to bring suffering into our lives.
• Spiritual beings—Satan and demons set out to bring our ruin; ultimately God is in control of the suffering in our lives.
Important to be noted are two points in regard to the causes of suffering: first, identifying the source of our suffering is not as important as our response to suffering, which I will cover later. Our response to suffering reveals deeply held beliefs, including our beliefs about suffering. Second, we add more suffering to our suffering when our response is wrong. One of the ways suffering loses its power to discourage and defeat us is to see our wrong responses to it and then to turn to God for forgiveness and then comfort and strength. (see Job 42:5-6)
What are God’s purposes for our suffering?
Many struggle with the idea that God would allow suffering at all. And to think that He would have good purposes for suffering is inconceivable to many of us. However, just as sin entered the world and brought suffering and death, God intends suffering to bring about His good purposes in our lives. He was not immune to suffering, in that Jesus suffered in many of the same ways as us. In fact, God brought about His purposes for us in Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. Suffering is necessary because of sin, and yet suffering brings about our redemption from ultimate suffering. The most significant purpose for suffering, therefore, is the display of the glory of God in redemption. More on that later.
What are God’s purposes for our present suffering?
From the book of James, there are several things to consider regarding suffering. James 1:2 tells us that we can consider suffering with a sense of joy. But in order to find joy in our suffering we must understand God’s purposes for our suffering, otherwise suffering seems, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, sadistic and cruel. What about our suffering in trials could be considered joy? God’s purposes for our suffering are redemptive. Let's consider these (borrowed from John Piper and expanded upon).
1. To bring about repentance
And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)
The Bible gives rich metaphors to describe the real issue concerning the source of our responses in the midst of suffering (e.g., Jeremiah 17:5-10). Our responses to suffering come out of our hearts, where our beliefs, desires, loves, motives, loyalties reside. Suffering puts pressure on us, revealing what is in our hearts as we respond to what we value and trust in.
It is important know and remember is that sinful responses are revealed in the midst of our trials, but those responses not caused by trials. It is our natural inclination to believe that either (1) a sinful response was “caused” by the situation, or (2) a wrong response makes plausible sense in light of my situation (for example, lashing out in anger toward the person who is not treating me the way I expect). James 1:14-15 makes clear the location or origin of our sin is a lusting heart. Temptation results in the midst of trials as they squeeze out what is already in the heart. Difficult circumstances provide occasions for the condition of our hearts to be exposed, but they do not cause our responses.
Therefore, one of the primary purposes of suffering is to provide an occasion for exposing what we are truly living for, in order that we might turn to God for changed hearts. Suffering is used to bring about repentance by exposing our hearts, prompting us to humbly turn to God, who is the source of hope and joy. Suffering gives us a window into what we are living for and what we are pursuing that does not give us real life and joy.
2. To bring about wisdom
In order to view suffering as part of God’s good intentions for us, we need wisdom. For this we need wisdom from above, which God promises to give to those who seek it in faith (James 1:5-7, 17-18; 3:17). Wisdom gives perspective vastly different from what is natural to us. Our normal reactions to suffering are avoidance, anxiety, anger, escapisms, etc. Rather than seeking our comfort in the wisdom of the world, as we seek God’s wisdom we are secure in His promises and purposes. Suffering, therefore, is an occasion to make us wise. The wise person is one who finds joy in trials, because he has learned who God is, what His purposes are, and submitted himself to the reality of God’s loving sovereignty in hard times. He sees that his greatest problem is not the trials per se, but rather what they reveal about himself—the remaining idolatry of self in his own heart. God mercifully brings trials to expose us and give opportunity to humbly turn to Him for help (James 4:6-7). That’s the way of wisdom.
3. To bring about reliance
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2 Corinthians 1:8-10)
God uses suffering to help us realize our dependence on Him. We, by nature, trust our own minds and trust in man rather than God. If God were to leave us to ourselves in this matter, we would be bound to folly. Suffering has the capacity to bring us to the end of ourselves, in order that we can, in wisdom, turn to God. Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered. (Proverbs 28:26)
Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. (Jeremiah 17:5-6)
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him, for there are more with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people took confidence from the words of Hezekiah king of Judah. (2 Chronicles 32:7-8)
4. To bring about righteousness
“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:6-11)
It is God’s intention to conform us to His Son (Romans 8:29). Believers are being transformed. This is our sanctification, which happens progressively over time. We are being made holy, having been declared righteous in Jesus. Suffering is one of the ways that God brings this about in our lives. Now, not all suffering is God’s discipline, but all suffering is intended by God to bring about our righteousness.
5. To bring about reward
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. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
In this passage, light corresponds to weight, momentary to eternal, and affliction to glory. In other words, suffering can be seen as light and momentary (the seen and transient) as long as we see the weight of glory in eternal reality (unseen and eternal). Notice the words in the text, “is preparing.” These words are in reference to the effect of suffering. Suffering is producing something, causing something. It is producing for us glory—and a weighty, eternal glory at that! Therefore, suffering is bringing about glory; therefore, we do not lose heart.
“Suffering is working for us a great reward in heaven that will make up for every loss here a thousand-fold.” (John Piper)
“All human suffering is meant to bring about for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (John Piper)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)
6. To act as a reminder
Suffering as acting as a reminder is closely related to the former reason—suffering to bring about reward. Suffering reminds us of two important things:
(1) that God sent his Son into the world to suffer so that our suffering would not be God’s condemnation but his purification and, ultimately, glorification with Him
(2) that suffering is a way to identify with Jesus in His suffering, so that we are confirmed in our identity in Him.
“. . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings.” (Philippians 3:10)
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16-17)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
Rejoicing in Christ’s sufferings shows our identification with Him; therefore, our reward in heaven is sure.
7. To receive God’s comfort and reassurance
Suffering is an occasion to go to God for comfort, for refuge, and for justice; an occasion to turn to God when one hurts, is overwhelmed, and has been oppressed or mistreated.
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. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Psalms 46:1)
“Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4)
But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress. (Psalm 59:16)
Our Response to Suffering
We now see the causes and purposes for suffering. Now, what are we to do with our suffering? That is the remaining question. You are obviously in the midst of some sort of suffering presently. You can expect that you will not respond perfectly. You can also expect that you will grow through your suffering. You can know that God will be with you in your suffering and has good intentions for you in it.
A few things are important to recognize as you consider your response to suffering.
1. You will add suffering to your suffering by responding to your suffering in sinful ways. Sin never helps anything. You and I are naturally inclined toward sinful responses apart from the divine work of God’s Spirit in our lives. Suffering is a place where your folly will be exposed.
2. You will add suffering to your suffering by either denying its full effects on you, or by distracting yourself from it through some kind of activity, or by attempting to escape it through some type of soul-numbing substance, experience, or relationship. Suffering is a place where your hopes will be exposed.
3. You will add suffering to your suffering by doubting the good intentions and wisdom of God. Suffering brings about important questions that may not have immediate answers. Discouragement could grow toward doubt in the midst of suffering. Suffering is a place where your faith will be tested. The scriptures call us to better things.
Because Jesus has suffered in the flesh in order to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18a), we know we have a Savior who not only understands the pains of our suffering but also was willing to experience them for our benefit. Therefore, we can have confidence that our present suffering is a means through which we can share His sufferings. Suffering, therefore, as painful as it can be, is not random, nor pointless, but is part of God’s plan for our good. The proper response to suffering is, then, honesty about our pain, submission to God's will, and faith that God in with us and will see us through. These were Jesus’ responses to His suffering, so they must be ours.
Practical Ways to Respond to Suffering
As you respond to suffering, it is important that you learn to grieve and lament. Taking your pain to the Lord, finding joy knowing that this suffering is leading to somewhere that is ultimately good. Not denying the pain, nor trying to escape it, nor acting out of unbelief, find relief in the midst of it through God’s grace. Note those things God is showing you through suffering. With the help of a wise and trusted friend, or a pastor or counselor, dig out the rich meanings and opportunities for growth that may not be available other times of your life. Don’t waste your suffering. Let it work God’s good purposes in your life. He will be with you through it—He will be near.
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:9-10) When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:17-19)