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One of the problems we all have to deal with is that of pain and suffering. Some even find that the existence of pain and suffering, to the degree that we see it in this world, causes them to doubt their faith in God. They say, “If God is both all-powerful and loving, how can he allow so much pain and suffering?” Some conclude either that God is not all powerful (which means that he is not God), or that he is not loving (which is a denial of Scripture). Implicit in this kind of question is the assumption: “God, if I were in charge I would not do it your way.” This is an assumption we are not entitled to make.
Most people can handle a good deal of pain if they can see a reason for it. Athletes, mountain climbers and others who place great demands on their physical bodies willingly subject themselves to a great deal of pain. Soldiers accept suffering, hardship and death in the service of their country. Most women are able to accept the pain of childbirth, because they see something wonderful coming out of it. Many will work very hard if they see their work as bringing a reward. But when suffering seems meaningless, it is hard to accept.
Pain and suffering is a large subject. Much has been written about it.33 I can only point to a few basic guidelines that Scripture clearly gives us, and that I hope will be useful in enabling us to understand and deal with it.
PAIN AND SUFFERING ARE PART OF LIFE
I start with what may seem an obvious proposition. In this imperfect world, pain and suffering are a part of life. No one is immune from them. No one can claim any right to be free of them. Some suffer more than others, and that may be thought to raise a question of fairness, which I shall address later. But no one is exempt.
When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, our sins are forgiven, we enter into eternal life, and we can look forward to spending eternity in heaven with God. We have the Holy Spirit living within us, we become adopted sons of God, and we are enabled to start a remarkable process of transformation in our lives. These are tremendous gifts, which we do not deserve, and for which we should be very thankful. We receive them by the grace of God, and part of the definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” But I do not see anything in Scripture that says that we are exempt from pain and suffering. Scripture says that we can expect difficulties, testing and suffering. One difference is that we are much better able to deal with them because of the power of God working in us, because of the hope that God always gives us, and because of the support and love of our fellow-believers.
God has many blessings for us. He is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or think, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20 NIV). But blessings are gifts. No one is entitled to them. When we get them we give thanks, but if we do not get all that we hoped for, we have no right to complain. God does not owe us anything (Romans 11:35; Job 41:11). In the light of the tremendous blessing of forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation, everything else becomes relatively unimportant. (See 2 Corinthians 4:17.)
We Live in an Imperfect World
When God created the earth, put plants and animals on it, and created man, he looked at everything he had made and saw that it was very good (Genesis 1:31). There was no sin and no death. I believe there was no pain or suffering. Eventually, there will be a world in which there is no sin, no death, no pain and no suffering. But for the present, pain and suffering are a part of our life. How did this come about?
THE FALL IN EDEN —At the Creation, God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He gave them everything they needed. They had food, shelter, and dominion over the earth. They walked with God every afternoon. He put only one restriction on them. He told them not to eat the fruit of one tree. He did not want them to know (experience) evil. They disobeyed and were driven out of Eden. Adam and Eve, who knew God intimately, chose to believe the serpent (satan) rather than God. They chose to do things their way rather than God’s way.
The result was that sin and death came into the world for the first time. “Through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). (Also see 1 Corinthians 15:21.) Pain is mentioned for the first time. God told Eve, “in pain you shall bring forth children”; he told Adam that he would “toil” and would have to struggle against “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:16-18). Pain and suffering came into the world as a result of the wrong decision Adam and Eve made.
Since the Fall in Eden, the earth has been under a curse. “The whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs until now” (Romans 8:22).
Why did God allow this to happen? Because he wanted men and women to have free will, to have genuine freedom of choice. He wanted them to serve him and love him by their own free choice, and not because they were incapable of doing anything else. Having free will means that you can choose wrongly. The price for giving man free will was that man, in the persons of Adam and Eve, made a terrible mistake, which had profound consequences.
Some might question God’s decision to give man free will. But God is God, and we cannot change him, nor should we want to. “O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Romans 9:20). God said to Job, “Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?” (Job 40:8). We have to accept God as he is, and give thanks that he is such a wonderful God.
If we want to blame someone for our suffering, we should not blame God. If anyone is to blame, it is Adam and Eve.
THERE WILL BE A WORLD WITHOUT PAIN AND SUFFERING —At some time in the future, there will be a world without pain and suffering for those who are righteous and follow God. “And God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). “The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, nor the voice of crying” (Isaiah 65:19). There will be “everlasting joy” and “they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). (Also see Isaiah 51:11.) “They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9; 65:25). “There shall be no more curse” (Revelation 22:3). Our bodies now are perishable, dishonorable and weak; but we shall eventually have bodies that are imperishable, glorious, and powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Even animals will no longer eat each other (Isaiah 11:6-9, 65:25). The present world is not the way God finally wants it. But for the present, we have to deal with the world as it now is.
In This Imperfect World, Pain and
In the present imperfect world, pain and suffering serve a useful, and even necessary, function. Let me illustrate this in several ways:
THE PHYSICAL BODY —For our physical bodies, pain serves as a necessary warning system. We put our hand on a hot burner and instantly snatch it away. We cut or scratch ourselves and react instantly to get away from whatever is causing the injury and to deal with the injured tissue. We feel an internal pain which gets us to the doctor, who tells us that our appendix is inflamed, we have kidney stones, or whatever else is wrong, and we get it attended to. Pain is like the warning lights on a car, which alert us to things that need attention. Our pain system is carefully designed and adapted to our bodies’ needs. For instance, the pain sensors are much more strongly concentrated in some areas than in others; some areas are very sensitive to pressure but less so to pricks or scratches; etc. The system is carefully and specifically designed. Interestingly, the same nerves that transmit pain, also transmit pleasurable sensations.
There are some who are unable to feel pain, such as lepers, advanced diabetics, and some others. They can injure themselves and not know it. Their life is full of hazards and very difficult. They would give much to be able to feel pain.
Study with these people, including unsuccessful attempts to create a workable man-made warning system, has made it clear that any warning system must give a strong enough signal so that we cannot ignore it. Physical pain cannot be turned off, and it is so insistent that we cannot ignore it. It’s a good thing that the signal is strong and unpleasant.
Does pain also serve a function in our spiritual life? I think it does.
RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR CHOICES —There are many “natural laws.” Ignoring them often results in pain. If we try to walk off a rooftop, we will fall and hurt ourselves. Foolish, dare-devil actions can produce painful consequences. If we touch a hot thing, we will get burned. If we smoke heavily, we have a greater likelihood of getting cancer or respiratory illness. Drinking heavily, overeating, and using “recreational” drugs can all have painful consequences. If we were to be relieved from all pain and suffering, we would never have to face the consequences of our actions.
The same is true with spiritual laws. There is a spiritual principle called sowing and reaping. “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). If we sow anger, hatred, hostility, bitterness, unforgiveness, ingratitude, selfishness and the like, we shall receive the same from others. If we choose to cause harm to others, we can expect to receive harm. By the same principle, if we are giving, loving, considerate, thoughtful, and unselfish towards others, we shall receive many blessings. “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).
This principle does not work perfectly. Nothing does in this imperfect world. But it still is true, in my experience and that of many others, that those who choose to be giving and loving usually receive love and generosity, while those who choose to give anger and hatred receive anger and hatred. If there were no painful consequences to our negative actions, would we ever learn to give them up? Would we perceive them as harmful and spiritually dangerous if we did not have a pain mechanism to warn us? If there were no unpleasant consequences from violating them, could these even be said to be laws?
The principle applies more broadly. God has given us certain commandments and laws. For them to be meaningful, there need to be consequences from following them or violating them. In many places, Scripture sets forth blessings and curses. God says, behave in this way and you will be blessed; behave in that way and you will be cursed. In Deuteronomy, chapter 28, for example, God set forth a series of blessings and curses. If his people obey his law and commands, they will be blessed with prosperity, military success, and honor and recognition. If they disobey, God will send on them plagues, wasting diseases, military defeats, oppression, madness, blindness, confusion of mind, and much more. Then in Deuteronomy 30:19 he says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” God is using the possibility of intense suffering as a way of bringing his people into obedience.
In the New Testament, Paul contrasts two ways of life: living by the flesh and living by the Holy Spirit. Living by the flesh results in sexual impurity, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, dissensions, drunkenness, and the like. “Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). “Because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6). In contrast, those who live by the Spirit receive the “fruit of the Spirit,” which is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). One group is miserable and suffers; the other group is blessed. Paul expresses the difference as that between life and death (Romans 8:5-17). (See Chapter 15.)
God has declared that those who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life, while those who do not believe in him are condemned already (John 3:16, 18). He has established a judgment in which the righteous go to “eternal life” and the unrighteous to “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46). The righteous “will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” while the wicked will be thrown into a “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42-43, 50). (Also see John 5:29.)
In all of these, we see the use of pain and suffering as a means of enforcing the laws God has established, and as a consequence of violating those laws.
GOD USES SUFFERING AS A WAY TO TRAIN AND STRENGTHEN US —God’s priorities are not our priorities. We tend to want physical health, freedom from physical and emotional pain, and enough material possessions to live comfortably. We may feel deprived and unjustly treated if we do not have these. I believe God wants us to have “good” things. But his primary concern is not with our physical circumstances. I believe his primary concerns are: (1) our eternal salvation, (2) our growth into Christian maturity and character, and (3) our usefulness, “fruitfulness,” in the kingdom of God.
The early Christians endured a great deal of suffering. They were a persecuted church. What was their reaction to hardship and suffering? The record of Scripture is absolutely amazing! They did not complain about it, or say that it was more than they could bear. They welcomed it as something that taught them and strengthened them! Look at what they said about it:
The unanimous voice of the New Testament writers is that pain and suffering teach us and strengthen us and help us to become mature. These were writers who had, themselves, experienced considerable suffering.
There is a principle in athletic training that says, “No pain, no gain.” I suggest that the same principle applies to our growth into spiritual maturity. Quite often it seems that we grow only in the presence of discomfort or pain that makes us feel the need for change, and forces us to cry out to God.
I want to make one thing clear. These New Testament writers did not seek out pain. They did not deliberately inflict it on themselves. But when it came, they welcomed it as an opportunity to grow and to learn. There have been, and still are, some people who deliberately inflict pain on themselves as a way of showing devotion to God or attempting to achieve holiness. I find no support for such a view in Scripture. This kind of self-inflicted pain is not what I am talking about in this chapter.
GOD USES HARDSHIP AND SUFFERING TO GET US TO DEPEND ON HIM— God can also use hardship, pain and suffering to get us to depend on him rather than ourselves. Paul refers to the great pressure he was under in the province of Asia, which was so great that he despaired of life, and then says, “…But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9 NIV). Again, Paul asked God to take away his “thorn in the flesh” and God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7, 9). Paul added, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV). Paul’s weakness made him strong in the sense that it caused him to rely to a greater degree on God’s incomparably great strength. God used this “thorn in the flesh” (which evidently bothered Paul quite a bit, whatever it was), to cause Paul to depend on God at a deeper level.
This is an important principle. We see it illustrated in a number of ways. For example, Jesus said that it is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-24). The reason is, I believe, that a rich person tends to rely on his own riches rather than on God. More generally, those who are comfortably off, and successful by this world’s standards, often feel that they do not need God. Those who are in very difficult situations, and do not see how they can get through them, may be much readier to turn to God for help. When things are going well, we can easily believe that we are self-sufficient. In the face of hardship and suffering, the myth of self-sufficiency loses credibility.
We see this in another way. In the relatively affluent West, the Christian church has tended to be weak. Not only are its numbers declining, but many individuals and churches seem to be lacking in strong commitment to God. In other parts of the world, such as Africa, where many people face hardships, the Christian church is growing and strong. It is striking that in China, where the independent Christian church faces severe persecution, the church has been growing rapidly. The rate of growth has been far greater under Communist persecution than it ever was before.
I have seen this operate in my own life. The experience of having to deal with advanced cancer has not been easy. But I can see that it has done several things for me. It has increased my faith. I have been put in a position where I had only God to depend on, and I have become willing to depend on God. I have identified and gotten rid of a number of things that had been weakening my faith. I have been praying more consistently and more effectively. I have gained a greater appreciation and thankfulness for the many blessings God has given me. I believe that it has helped me to get my knowledge and understanding of God beyond the intellectual, head level, to a level that reaches the heart. My wife and I were commenting the other day that, on the whole, this has been a good experience.
GOD WANTS US TO LOVE HIM FOR WHO HE IS AND NOT FOR WHAT HE DOES FOR US —This is the issue in the Book of Job. Job was a wealthy man, with a large family; “the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job 1:3). Satan said to God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?… Stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face” (Job 1:9,11). Then he said, “Stretch out Your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face” (Job 2:5). Job’s wife told him to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). But Job replied, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). Job complained to God, he demanded explanations, he showed anger at God, but he never turned away from God. At the end, when God gave him no explanations, he was content with the fact that “now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). He remained faithful to God for who God was, even though God had allowed satan to take away his family and wealth, and to inflict on him a painful disease. He served God for who he was and not for what he had bestowed on Job.
David wrote, “Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4-5). Often, before God is ready to give us the desires of our heart, he may test us to see whether we have truly committed our ways to him and are willing to trust him. It is when things are going “badly” that we have to trust in God because we have nowhere else to turn. Just as he did with Job, God may test us with troubles so that he, and we, can know whether we are really committed to him and trust in him.
When the three young Hebrews refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, he threatened to throw them into a very hot furnace. They replied, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). They believed that God would save them from suffering. But even if he did not, they would serve him. Their serving God did not depend on what he did or did not do for them, but on who he is.
If God always blessed us with good things, and rescued us from suffering, then we would be tempted to love and serve him just for what he does for us. Our faith in him would be based on greed and self-advantage. God does not want that kind of faith. He wants us to believe in him, and to love and serve him, for who he is, and not for what he does for us.
THE ISSUE OF FAIRNESS
When we encounter suffering we often ask, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” Our sense is that it is unfair for us to have to suffer. When “good” things happen, we seldom ask, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” Perhaps we should. But let’s look at this issue of “fairness” in a little more depth.
Scripture speaks much about God’s grace, the unmerited favor he bestows on us. Would we want to receive only what we deserve and never receive God’s grace, his unmerited favor? Would we want to deny ourselves the “exceeding riches of His [God’s] grace” (Ephesians 2:7) by insisting that we receive only what we deserve? Scripture says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God…” (Hebrews 12:15 NIV). Would we want to miss the grace of God by insisting on a principle that we receive only what we deserve?
If we received only what we deserved, none of us could be saved! We are saved by grace, by God’s unmerited favor (Ephesians 2:8). Whatever may happen to us in this life is minor compared to the suffering of spending eternity in hell separated from God. If we complain about suffering here on earth, are we not a little bit in the position of someone who receives an unmerited gift of $1,000 and complains because it is in $20 bills rather than $100 bills? So long as we have the unmerited gift of eternal salvation, should we complain to God because our life on this earth is relatively more or less difficult? This idea of asking God only to let us have what we deserve cuts two ways, and I suggest we should not want to have him establish such a principle.
C.S. Lewis deals with this in a delightful way in The Great Divorce. A visitor to heaven complains, “I’m asking for nothing but my rights.” To which his heavenly guide answers, “Oh no. It’s not so bad as that.” He adds, “I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”34
We can truly be thankful that “it’s not so bad as all that.” God “…does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10 NIV). So let us not complain that sometimes we may have to undergo suffering that we think we do not deserve.
People also say, “Why is this happening to me and not to this other person?” Would we want to have God make things “fair” by making the other person suffer as much as we suffer? “Fairness” really has nothing to do with it.
Jesus predicted to Peter how Peter would die. When Peter saw John he asked, “Lord, what about him?’ and Jesus answered, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22). It is none of our concern how God treats somebody else. We need to focus on our relationship with him.
Jesus told a parable about workers in a vineyard. Some came to work in the beginning of the day, and agreed to receive one denarius as a wage. Others started work at the third, the sixth, the ninth and the eleventh hour. He paid each of them the same wage. Those who had worked the longest complained that this was not fair, and the master (God) replied, “…I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15 NIV).
Scripture tells us not to compare ourselves with others (Galatians 6:4). One reason this principle is applicable here is that we cannot know fully what the other person may be going through. Often others, who seem outwardly to be doing well, may be struggling with difficulties we know nothing of. Or they may have come through periods of severe pain in the past. And how are we to measure pain? How do we compare the pain of arthritis or cancer with the pain of a marriage that is breaking up, or a rebellious child? It is better to stay with Jesus’ “What is that to you?” (John 21:22).
EXAMPLES OF DEALING WITH SUFFERING
Scripture gives a number of examples of those who dealt with suffering. Above all, there is Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Whenever we feel overwhelmed by the pain we have to endure, we can consider the agony that Jesus voluntarily suffered for us. Whenever we complain about what we consider the unfairness of our suffering, we can consider the injustice that Jesus suffered.
There is also Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, unjustly accused by his master’s wife and thrown into jail, and forgotten by those who promised to help him. So far as Scripture records, he never complained. Eventually he became one of the rulers of Egypt and was able to save his family from starvation. He told his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
There is David, who for years was running for his life, just a step away from death. His Psalms are full of words of pain and agony, physical and spiritual. (See, for example, Psalms 6:1-3, 13:1-3, 38:68, 55:4-5, 69:1-3.) Yet David always sensed that God was with him. David said, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me” (Psalm 138:7). “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). One of the noteworthy things about the psalms is that, while they often start in despair, they usually end in affirmation, as David turns his eyes from his own suffering to the greatness of God. “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, for the help of His countenance” (Psalm 42:5, 11).
But I want to talk about Paul. When Paul accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, God said, “I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Paul later said, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And suffer he did. Read this recital and think what each phrase of it must have meant:
Even this list may not be complete, for elsewhere he speaks of fighting wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32), and of encountering such hardships in the province of Asia (part of modern Turkey) that he despaired of his life (2 Corinthians 1:8).
What would five whippings, three beatings with rods, and a stoning do to a man’s back? I expect that Paul was in almost constant pain. This may be why he said, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27 KJV). (The Greek word translated “keep under” can mean to “subdue.”)
Yet Paul, writing from a Roman jail, could say, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). He wrote, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). He could say, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
How did Paul achieve this? I think we can see some keys.
I want also to mention one fairly contemporary example, from among a great many. The terrible suffering of the Nazi Holocaust has been hard for many to accept and understand. Yet there are those who overcame it. One such was Corrie ten Boom. During the Nazi occupation of Holland, her family hid a number of Jews in their home and enabled many of them to get out of Holland, knowing the great risks of doing so. They were betrayed, and imprisoned by the Nazis. Corrie’s father died in prison. Corrie and her sister Betsy were sent to one of the Nazi death camps, Ravensbruck. Betsy died there. Corrie, by what may have been a clerical error, was released just before she was scheduled to be gassed. She spent the rest of her life ministering to others, telling them of God’s greatness, his love, his tender mercy, his goodness. She was even able to forgive one of the Nazi guards who had mistreated her and her sister, and to bring to Christ the man who had betrayed her family. She lived a life of joy and gave great joy to many. Despite the terrible things she endured, Corrie was an overcomer. I believe that she, too, kept her eyes on the greatness of God, rather than the terrible circumstances in which she had found herself.
HOW CAN WE DEAL WITH
There are no easy answers, no formulas. Everyone has to work it out for themselves. Dealing with suffering can be extremely difficult, but with God’s help, it is possible.
We need to be wary of the pat answers that are sometimes given. They usually do not work. Job’s “comforters” gave him pat answers, and God said of them, “You have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:8).
One pat answer is that suffering is always the result of sin, so the way to deal with it is to discover and get rid of the sin. It is well to examine ourselves and see if there is sin that needs to be dealt with. I have heard of people suffering from painful arthritis who finally brought themselves to forgive someone and found that the arthritis had gone. But suffering is not always caused by sin. Jesus was sinless; yet he suffered terribly. Paul suffered much; can we say that this was because of sin he had not dealt with? Christians have been persecuted and martyred from the First Century until today. Would anyone suggest that this is because of sin?
Another pat answer is that, if our prayer to be relieved of suffering is not answered, it must be because of lack of faith. We do need to pray, believing (James 1:6). There have been times in my present illness when I realized that I lacked faith, and was able to do something about it. But lack of faith is not the only reason why men endure suffering. The prophets who suffered in terrible ways were commended for their faith (Hebrews 11:32-40). When God refused to heal Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” he said nothing about a lack of faith; he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God did not answer Jesus’ prayer that he not have to endure the Crucifixion (Matthew 26:36-42). Would anyone suggest that it was because of a lack of faith?
Let me suggest a few Scriptural principles that may be helpful.
Have the Right Attitude
Underlying everything else is the attitude with which we deal with pain, suffering and difficulties when they come, as they will to most of us. I can identify three general kinds of attitudes.
(1) When suffering, difficulties, or hardships come, we say, “Why me?” We dwell on the seeming injustice and unfairness of it. This easily leads to self-pity, to feeling sorry for ourselves, which is one of the devil’s most effective schemes for making a Christian ineffective. From there it can go on to blaming God for allowing the suffering, and to anger and bitterness at God. Ultimately, this can in some cases lead to a total turning away from God, a total rejection of God.
This approach can be very damaging, very destructive. It does nothing to relieve the suffering or make it easier to bear.
Many of us go through the early stages of this approach for a while when suffering or difficulties come. But if we stay there, and do not move on, the result can be very destructive to us.
(2) We can decide to take a constructive attitude. We can say, “God, this suffering, this difficulty, is here. I don’t like it but I need to accept it. What are you trying to teach me by it? How can I use it to grow? How can I bring good out of it?”
With this approach, we can turn the suffering, the difficulty, to our good. We can use it to increase in maturity and strength. We get our mind off our suffering and onto God and what he is doing in our lives. And I think we will find that, if we can see some good purpose in the suffering, it becomes easier to handle.
(3) There is a third approach which builds on the second and is even better. Paul asked that he might “know Him [Jesus] and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). What does this mean? I am not sure. I am not there and have not experienced what Paul is talking about. But I suggest that Paul is saying that, when suffering comes, we can see it as a means of drawing closer to Jesus. As we suffer, we can begin to understand better what Jesus voluntarily suffered for us, and appreciate more fully what he did for us. As we are unjustly treated, we can begin to understand more fully the rejection, injustice and false accusations that Jesus continually suffered. We can become more like Jesus, which is the goal of our transformation. (See Chapter 14.)
A related concept is found in 2 Corinthians 1:4-5, where Paul says that God “comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.”
Those who have lost a spouse can understand what others are going through who have lost a spouse; they can speak to them in a way that others cannot. Those who have been physically or sexually abused can understand what others are going through who have suffered abuse. Those who have endured physical pain can understand what others are going through who have to deal with physical pain. Etc. Our own suffering enables us to minister more effectively to others who are suffering. Thus our suffering helps to bring us together more closely as the body of Christ and it helps us “…encourage one another and build each other up…” (1 Thessalonians 5:11 NIV).
Once we have taken care of our attitude, there are some other specific things we can do.
Pain and suffering occur. They are part of this world. No one is immune or exempt from them. There is no guarantee that they will not occur. When they come in our life, we need to be able to accept them. As Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12 NIV). This is not easy, but it is essential.
Scripture tells us to go further, and to consider it pure joy when trials come. I confess that I am not yet at this point! But if we can see pain and suffering as experiences from which we can learn and grow, then perhaps we can begin to see them as things that God is using for our good, and be able to rejoice in them.
Decide to Overcome
Scripture says that, in God’s power, we can be overcomers. We need to come to a decision to believe those Scriptures. We need to make a conscious decision that, with God’s help, we can and will overcome the pain and suffering. We need to decide that we will not allow it to undermine our faith in God, our joy, our peace, or our ability to function.
Do What You Can
Paul wrote, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the evil day comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13 NIV). He was talking about facing the devil, but I think the principle applies to every kind of adversity. God wants us to do everything we can.
In the case of pain and suffering, this means to get all the help you can. Medical science knows quite a lot about pain management. What they have to offer does not always work, does not always work fully, and sometimes has side effects we prefer to avoid, but we might as well use it when we can. If the pain is emotional or psychological, there are various counseling resources; some of them can be helpful if they are based on Christian principles. Most churches offer ministry of one kind or another; some have small groups, which can be very supportive. There are other support groups. Having a prayer partner, or a close friend in whom you can confide, can be very helpful. Prayer is always valuable. My point is, avail yourself of anything that will be genuinely helpful in relieving your pain. There is no virtue in unnecessary suffering.
There are, however, some techniques of pain relief that Christians should avoid. Two examples are hypnosis (which involves allowing someone else to manipulate your mind while you are not aware of what he is doing) and New Age forms of meditation (which originate in pagan religions). Anything that derives from, or involves, a pagan religion should be avoided by Christians. There is little sense in relieving physical pain at the cost of spiritual harm to yourself!
One of the things we can always do, and one of the first things we should do, is to pray. “Is any among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13). Prayer brings us in touch with the almighty power of God. God does not always take us out of difficult circumstances. But he is with us in them. He is “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Prayer also takes our mind off of our circumstances and puts it on God.
Focus on God, and Not
Paul, who went through a remarkable amount of suffering, wrote that in all circumstances we should give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Our thanks do not depend on the circumstances. Our thanks depend on who God is, on the salvation he has so freely given us, and on the relationship we have with him. As Paul wrote, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
To Paul, five whippings, three beatings with rods, stoning, and many other hardships were a “light affliction,” which was just for a moment! This seems amazing. But when we compare all that Paul suffered during some 60 years on earth to the joy of spending eternity in heaven with God, it becomes quite minor.
Because our thanksgiving does not depend on the circumstances, we are not at the mercy of the circumstances. I think this is what Paul was talking about when he said that he had learned how to be content in every situation (Philippians 4:12). You don’t look at the situation, you look at God. It is by this, also, that we can achieve “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
Our faith and hope also need to rise above our circumstances. Abraham “in hope believed” (Romans 4:18). All the circumstances gave Abraham reason to believe that he and Sarah could not have a child. But against that expectation based on the circumstances, Abraham set his hope, his confident expectation, based on God’s promise to him. He went past all the natural circumstances to believe God’s promise. Whatever the circumstances, we need to believe that God is bigger than the circumstances, he will enable us to bear them, and he will bring us through them. Whatever the circumstances, we need to believe that God will strengthen us with all power according to his glorious might, so that we may have great endurance and patience (Colossians 1:11).
In painful situations, many have found that it helps to focus on God. Jesus endured the Cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He looked at God’s power and his promise rather than at his own physical agony. Stephen, while being stoned, had a vision of heaven with Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). After Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and put in stocks in the inner prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God, and God moved mightily (Acts 16:25). The Christian martyrs in the Roman arena, we are told, sang hymns as they faced the wild beasts who were about to eat them. Many other martyrs have faced their martyrdom with praise to God.
Let God Bring Good
There is a further reason to focus on God rather than the circumstances. God works for good in all things, even in the most unlikely situations (Romans 8:28).Use praise, prayer, Scripture reading, meditation on Scripture, whatever works for you, to draw closer to God and see things more from his perspective. Turn your situation over to him in prayer. Ask him to deal with you and to show you anything he wants to show you about it. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).
Be honest with God. He can handle anger, frustration, and even discouragement and despair. Job complained and got angry at God. And God spoke to him at length, revealed himself to him, and said that Job had “spoken of Me what is right” (Job 42:8). David often complained and poured out his heart to God, and God called him “a man after my heart.” God does not mind hearing the distress and even anger of one who is genuinely seeking after him.
Remain Faithful to God
“Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). When suffering comes, that is always the question. Do we love God for what he gives us, or for who he is? Can we love him and serve him even in suffering, even when he seems to have deserted us, even when he seems not to answer our prayers?
In his great end-time prophecy, Jesus told the disciples that they would be persecuted and put to death, that many would turn away from the faith, and the love of many would grow cold, but that “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). (Also see Matthew 24:3-14.) In each of the letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation, there is a promise of blessings to the one who overcomes. God has promised that we can be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4). God has made it possible to overcome pain and suffering, no matter how severe and prolonged.