Some suffering is unnecessary. Suffering that we bring on ourselves through our sin and brokenness means that if our actions change, our suffering can change. But not all suffering is “unnecessary.” How do you handle the suffering you cannot avoid?
There was a lot of response to my previous article How to Escape Unnecessary Suffering. So many people are wrestling with the shame and the consequences of sin and brokenness. The good news is that Jesus loves you just the same! And He wants to walk with you through this and into the next season of healing and joy.
And yet not all suffering in this world can be prevented or escaped through our own healthier actions. Sickness and accidents happen. Bad people and corrupt human institutions bring harm. Satan is real. And following Jesus can bring persecution.
I experienced much suffering as a result of my husband’s death. Yes, the comfort and presence of Jesus bring real and lasting hope. But death still hurts – a lot!! In this world grief is the price of great love. And all the “smaller” ways in which we suffer hurt a lot too.
We need a better theology of suffering.
A Brief Theology of Suffering
Whole books, indeed whole careers, have been devoted to this topic. We can only be brief here. A few important points:
Jesus promised suffering.
So don’t be surprised.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
“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.” (1 Peter 4:12)
John, Peter, Paul – would you have really chosen the life they had? As Paul said, stoning, beatings, shipwreck, imprisonment, exile, martyrdom – it was all part of the expectation of following Jesus. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)
Remember that God’s enemy harasses those following Jesus. We can live in and experience the victory Jesus won for us, but while here on this earth we still experience the fallout from the war between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.
Jesus is with you even in suffering.
Remember the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace? Jesus was with them right in the middle of the fire. (Daniel 3) (If you enjoy contemporary worship music, check out Another in the Fire.)
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2)
New Testament? Yes. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
In the “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11, some faith heroes experienced amazing miracles and deliverance from trouble. Others experienced suffering and death. Same faith! (Hebrews 11:33-38)
Jesus will use “necessary” suffering for His glory.
He never enjoys your pain. But God is well able to use your pain for good – in your life, and for His kingdom. (Genesis 50:20) It’s not the fact that you hurt; it’s what you allow Him to do as a result.
“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)
“If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Peter 4:14)
Less than 200 years after Jesus, Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And even now, images of the 21 Copic Christians beheaded by ISIS on a Mediterranean beach in 2015 have been seen around the world, and who can measure the impact for the kingdom of God?
So what now?
What To Do About Suffering
Some people wilt under suffering, seeing pain as inevitable and wondering why God would treat them so poorly.
Other people make no room for suffering in their view of God, believing those who follow Him will only experience health and wealth.
Neither is true. Your popularity, bank account, or physical/mental wellbeing are no measure of your spirituality or maturity.
If you are suffering in any way, here are three things to do.
Ask for God’s interpretation.
Pain does not mean God is punishing you. Beyond that, you may well need to earnestly seek God in prayer to understand what’s going on.
Is your current pain the result of your own sinful behavior? To any degree that is true, conviction from the Holy Spirit always points “up and to the right”, showing you the pathway to healing and restoration. Refuse to buy into the devil’s condemnation! (Romans 8:1)
Might this suffering be at least partly “escapable” through growth such as practicing healthy boundaries, healthy forgiveness, better skills, increased wisdom, inner healing, etc? Could this be a matter of spiritual warfare, where applying the victory Jesus won on the cross will press back the enemy? Could this be a place where God is using the deteriorating world around you to mature you and increase your resilience? Or could this be a matter where your stand for Jesus is stirring up persecution from God’s enemies?
Allow God to change you through suffering.
Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8) If even Jesus, as the sinless Son of God, learned through suffering, you and I will need to do the same.
For us, we may need to learn, in part, to allow God to change our sinful hearts and grow us up so we are not experiencing unnecessary suffering.
But we can learn even through “necessary” suffering. Sometimes we may need to learn to work more effectively, empathize with others who are suffering more closely, or grow other aspects of our character. There may well be wisdom to be gained. And engaging in healthy spiritual warfare makes you stronger.
My journey through grief has been one of suffering, but I wouldn’t trade who I have become as a result for anything. Don’t waste your sorrows!
Jesus had to look to “the joy set before Him” in order to “endure the cross, despising its shame.” (Hebrews 12:2) You and I will need to keep our eyes on the future as well to make it through this suffering.
Paul, who experienced perhaps as much suffering as any follower of Jesus, considered “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” (2 Corinthians 4:17)
You and I have two things going for us that those who do not know Jesus don’t have.
- God Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is WITH US.
- We know the end of the story. Spoiler alert; Jesus wins!
Whatever your suffering now, it is “light” and “momentary”! Don’t lose sight of that.
Your Turn: How have you interpreted your suffering? Do you need to seek God’s interpretation for more clarity? Leave a comment below.
Tweetables: why not share this post?
- There is some suffering you cannot avoid. When that happens, seek for God’s interpretation, remember that Jesus is WITH you, and keep your eyes on eternity. Tweet that.
Don’t Do This Alone!
Having a community and support around you can make all the difference in both knowing what to do, and actually doing it.
The Fully Alive Group is an online community of people seeking to live God’s kind of Fully Alive life – physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. You can live Fully Alive – suffering or not!