We live in a world that is deeply scarred by suffering. Some people suffer physically, while others suffer emotionally, mentally, psychologically, or financially. But whatever your specific brand of suffering happens to be, no one gets out of this world unscathed.
Sometimes we bring suffering upon ourselves. Since God’s universal law of sowing and reaping is always in operation (Galatians 6:7-8), it ensures that we reap an unpleasant harvest anytime we sow bad seed with our behavior. Other times, however, our fellow man hand delivers suffering to us through no fault of our own. Perhaps the most frustrating bouts of suffering we have to endure are those that aren’t our fault or anyone else’s. They just kind of happen, seemingly without cause.
The inevitability of suffering isn’t easy to explain, and it’s what sours some people on the whole notion of God. As Adrian Rogers once said in his sermon “The Stars & Scars of Christmas”:
There’s a great problem in the world today when you try to testify about God. The problem is not primarily science. The problem is primarily history. The problem is primarily suffering. And people will ask you again and again, how can you believe in a God, if there be a God, who allows so much suffering?
I think we have to admit this question is a fair one. In our human way of reasoning, we assume that any God who is not only all power but also all loving should eliminate suffering completely. Consequently, since it’s obvious that all suffering hasn’t been eliminated, we are left to assume that God either doesn’t exist or that He isn’t all powerful and all loving. As Rogers pointed out, this is the conundrum that turns many people atheistic or at least agnostic.
However, when we consult the Bible and learn what it teaches about suffering, we find quite a bit of help to answer the conundrum. Not only does the Bible explain the source of suffering, it also explains how God uses suffering as a tool in His toolbox. And just how does He use suffering as a tool to accomplish His purposes? There are at least seven ways.
First, God uses suffering to remind us that we are members of a fallen race that has become separated from Him by sin. Romans 5:12 explains how suffering became a part of this world’s basic set-up. Adam, the biological father of the human race, brought sin into the world by accepting his wife’s offer to eat of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-6; 1 Timothy 2:13-14). Bringing sin into the world was plenty bad enough, but with sin came death as well. Furthermore, by implication, sin and death also brought suffering. An unending chain of dominoes was thus begun as this sin/death/suffering package was then passed down to each of Adam’s billions of descendants by way of his sin-poisoned reproductive seed. To make the whole catastrophe even worse, Romans 8:20-22 explains that Adam’s sin also subjected God’s once-perfect creation to futility and the bondage of corruption (decay), so much so that creation itself now groans like a woman experiencing labor pangs. Yes, what happened way back there in the Garden of Eden did that much damage, and God uses all the suffering in the world to continually remind us that we are members of Adam’s fallen race, a race that has become separated from Him by sin.
Second, God uses suffering to motivate us to seek Him. In James 5:13, the Bible says: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray…” (N.K.J.V.). Can you hear the direct line of connection between suffering and seeking God? Just as your body uses pain to get you to seek a doctor, God allows you to suffer as a means to get you to seek Him. That’s why He says in Psalm 50:15: “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (N.K.J.V.). If we never experienced a day of trouble, would we ever call upon God?
Third, God uses suffering to help us keep our eyes on eternity. If suffering does nothing else, it lessens our love affair with life on planet earth. That, as it so happens, is a good thing because God has built us for eternity. Ecclesiastes 3:11 refers to our eternal makeup when it says of God’s relationship to human beings: “…He has put eternity in their hearts…” (N.K.J.V.). Of course the problem we face is that as full-fledged members of Adam’s sinful race, we stand in need of forgiveness lest we be separated from God for all eternity in a hellish place of torment. To receive that forgiveness, we must place saving belief in Jesus, the One who died on a Roman cross as the payment for our sins (1 John 2:1-2). God wants each individual to receive this forgiveness (1 Timothy 2:3-6), and it is this forgiveness of sin — this salvation experience — that qualifies the believer (the Christian) to enter God’s heaven in the afterlife. As for how awesome heaven is, the sufferings we have to endure in this present time aren’t even worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us there (Romans 8:18).
Fourth, God uses suffering to enable us to sympathize with others who are suffering. Romans 12:15 says: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (N.K.J.V.). But how can we effectively weep with those who weep if we ourselves have never had to shed a tear? God solves this potential shortcoming by allowing us to experience suffering, enough suffering to produce tears. Another great verse on this subject is 2 Corinthians 1:4, which says that God comforts us in all our tribulation so that we may be able to comfort those who are in trouble. The truth is that people who live in ivory towers and never know suffering make for very poor comforters.
Fifth, God uses suffering as a means to receive glory for Himself. In John 9:1-12, we find the record of Jesus encountering a man who had been born blind. When Christ’s disciples saw the man, they asked, “Was this man born blind because of his sin or his parents’ sin?” Jesus answered, “Neither. He was born blind so that the works of God should be revealed in him.” Jesus then restored the man’s sight. The story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus conveys this same truth (John 11:1-44). Jesus said of Lazarus’ sickness, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4, (N.K.J.V.). While it is true that both of these stories had happy endings, miracles whereby God received glory, suffering that doesn’t end in a miraculous healing or resurrection can still produce glory for God. Just think about the awesome testimony that is showcased when an individual or a family is forced to endure a fatal type of suffering and yet continues to have faith in God and praise Him in spite of the suffering and the loss. In many ways, that brings even more glory to God than a miracle does.
Sixth, in the life of the Christian, God uses suffering as a tool to produce many beneficial characteristics within the Christian. For example, Romans 5:3-5 says the Christian should glory in tribulations because they produce perseverance (endurance), which in turn produces character, which in turn produces hope. Likewise, James 1:2-3 says the Christian should count it all joy when he falls into various trials. Why? Those verses describe the trials as being tests for the Christian’s faith, and that testing benefits that Christian by producing patience (perseverance, endurance). Additionally, experiencing suffering can also help the Christian appreciate Christ’s death on the cross better and align himself or herself more closely with Christ. The apostle Paul spoke of this benefit in Philippians 3:10 when he proclaimed his desire to know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. Peter spoke of it in 1 Peter 4:13 when he encouraged Christians to rejoice over the fact that we have been granted the privilege of being made a partaker of Christ’s sufferings.
Seventh, in the life of the Christian, God uses suffering as a means of chastising the Christian for disobedience. The Bible’s classic passage on this is Hebrews 12:3-11. Those verses teach that God chastises (scourges, whips) every Christian just as a loving earthly father faithfully chastises a rebellious child. The passage even goes so far as to say that if an individual can live a lifestyle of sin without God chastising him, that is clear proof the individual isn’t a true Christian. This idea of God chastising His disobedient children held true in the days of the Old Testament as well. A proof text for that is Psalm 119:67, where the Psalmist says to God: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.”
Finally, let me conclude by mentioning that Romans 8:28 also has a bearing upon the question, “Why does God allow suffering?” That verse says to the Christian: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (N.K.J.V.). Those words “all things” surely include all suffering. Somehow, in some way for which God rarely gets credit, He knows how to weave suffering into His tapestry of goodness for our lives. I won’t pretend that this truth takes all the pain out of our suffering, but it at least helps us realize that we don’t suffer pointlessly. The fact is that God never wastes anything in our lives, even our suffering, and this should encourage us during those difficult times when we are called upon to suffer. Not only can God use our suffering, He can use it for our good. As a matter of fact, there is some good that can only be produced through suffering.