Why Must We Suffer?

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

MANY FACTORS TODAY IMPACT how we feel about ourselves and life. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We question the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil and social unrest. America is embroiled in doubt and fear, depression and anxiety, hopelessness and a loss of meaning; caught in a national angst we have not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Great Depression. Some of us turn to psychology and psychiatry, hoping medication and talk therapy will cure our misery. Others turn to “religion.” Tragically, many Americans try booze and illicit drugs, and some choose to end their life. What is the answer?

How Could You?

I sat, alone, quietly, wondering what was about to happen. Misery had brought me to this place. I was so sick and tired of myself, yet I had no idea how to change me. And what if I cannot change? Would I be able to live, period? Perhaps you or someone you are close to has been at this point. My complaint, for lack of a better word, was simple: God, how could you? Why did you give me this life, this complete mess. I felt impotent and alone. Nothing thrilled me anymore. Not. One. Thing. I decided to find out why, or die. Why am I lost and alone, confused and burdened? I am so tired of hearing my own voice―especially the one in my head that never seemed to stop making excuses for my circumstances. It is quite unsettling to give one’s self an ultimatum. What happened to the hour I first believed? I saw the face of Jesus at age 13, and asked Him into my heart and my life. There was an unambiguous call on my life to serve as a pastor or teacher of the Word. Finally, my raison d être.

But things did not go “according to plan.” Life got complicated. I got lost on the way to my calling. I’d never really been happy in life, but at least I wasn’t a nihilist. My belief that something matters, no matter what that something is, seemed to propel me toward hope. A chance to see the horizon. Light. There has to be light, right? And doesn’t that light illuminate, reveal? Like that new GE light bulb, giving the best light, filtering dull yellow light to give incredible color contrast and whiter whites for exceptional clarity. That’s what I needed. Exceptional clarity. Let’s get real here. My life did not seem to be “exceptional” and I had absolutely no “clarity.” Instead, I was kneeling in my bedroom, alone, broke and broken, asking God, “How could you do this to me?” How could a Christian lose hope. Lose the horizon? Give up the reigns to a task master like substance abuse?

I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know why my grandmother and father got cancer. Why my father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Why he contracted COPD, emphysema, and chronic hypoxemia? When he eventually needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, he said to me, “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” Shortness of breath robbed him of his many favorite activities: woodworking, painting, gardening, landscaping. No longer could he ride his lawn tractor without suffering compression fractures of lumbosacral vertebrae. He had stopped smoking after his heart attack at age 55, yet he still suffered the horrific medical consequences. He passed away in 2014 from pneumonia. Why God? He’d quit smoking decades ago. Why is he gone now that I finally have a life worth living? Why isn’t he here to see the amazing turnaround I’ve finally made? He’s not here to see me preparing for ministry. God, how could you? Thankfully, I am not prone to thinking this way any longer, but it took some exegetical research for me to determine the best way to address these issues without blaming God, my father, or others.

If God Loves Us, Why Must There Be Pain and Suffering?

If God loves us and is an omnipotent and benevolent God, why does He allows pain and suffering. These questions are not limited to skeptics and nonbelievers; they haunt many Christians as well. Surely, He can rid His creation of wars, murders, torture, sickness, tsunamis, earthquakes; He must be capable of arresting evil, right? This issue has stymied believers and non-believers for centuries. Richard Dawkins sees universal suffering as an indictment against the existence of a loving God. Further, he writes, “There is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity” (1). Dawkins believes theodicy (the “vindication” of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) must keep theologians up at night. However, he provides no further evidence of this claim. Second, I and many other theologians and biblical scholars I know, are not suffering from insomnia over the conundrum of evil in the face of a “good” God.

Dawkins says it is “…childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god – such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Dawkins’ detractors see the foregoing comment as a straw man fallacy, especially because Christian theologians and biblical scholars do not claim that the issue of evil is easily overcome, nor do they believe Satan is “a separate evil god,” responsible for the existence of evil in God’s creation. Designating one cosmic power “good” and the other “evil” presupposes a third element for making the evaluation, namely an objective standard (or “measuring stick”) of good and evil. For the terms of “good” and “evil” to be meaningful, they must be linked to some objective standard, but “…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God” (2).

C.S. Lewis writes, “Each [entity] presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy… Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other, or else we are saying that one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself good” (3). Lewis argues that no created being can be intrinsically evil or love evil for evil’s sake. He contends that there is no way that an evil being can stand in the same relation to its evil that an ultimate good being can stand to its goodness. He adds, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. There must be something good first before it can be spoiled” (4). Augustine of Hippo postulated that evil has no existence of its own; instead, evil is the absence of good.

I understand this conclusion sounds a bit counterintuitive. So, let us take an exegetical approach to the origin of evil. When God created the heaven and the earth, He paused and saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, after surveying all He made, God said it was very good (1:31). When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see no mention of God creating anything bad, corrupt, malevolent, ugly, or wicked. Yet, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the fall of man and introduction of original sin. So, good is morally “prior to” evil such that evil is damaged goodness and love of evil is desiring evil as though it were good. Natural laws and libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a variety of valuable relational situations (within humanity and with God).

Lewis believed pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” emphasizing pain’s capacity to shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency. But this is not a dyed-in-the-wool formula; pain only sometimes shatters our false sense of self-sufficiency and at other times drives us farther from God, depending on our response. Further, Lewis did not make sweeping generalizations about the purpose of all pain, although some interpreters mistakenly represent him as doing so. Moreover, Lewis did not address “evils” such as natural catastrophes that wipe out hundreds of people without giving them a chance to reorient toward God; nor did he engage human wrongful acts like the torture and murder of children who cannot respond productively to the pain. To be sure, however, God can work redemptively with pain when it does occur. There is simply no guarantee that all persons, even when pain exposes their insufficiency, will choose relationship with God.

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about good or bad, right or wrong? What are we to conclude about evil and wickedness? If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong. To admit this would force philosophers to admit that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.

Created Selves and Reality

As a created self, a finite personal being possessing intelligence, will, and agency, Satan’s true good would have been realized by accepting his place (as Lucifer) in creation, which he refused to do. We human beings are also created selves who must either accept our nature and ultimate destiny in God or craft for ourselves a destiny apart from God, which Lewis sees as “a free choice.” Essentially, a series of accumulative moral choices in which “good and evil both increase at compound interest” (5). It is inevitable that left unchecked, bad temper, jealousy, narcissism, selfishness, and other spiritual or character defects, gradually get exponentially worse and become Hell when projected out over an eternal future. Finding our true selves, then, is a matter of letting God heal and transform us spiritually. But God will never force himself upon us. He will not ravish, He can only woo. As perfect love, God can do nothing less than will our true good. Lewis said, “He cannot bless us unless He has us” (6).

Concluding remarks

We all hear the question so many typically ask, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” Yet, the truth is, people send themselves there. If you see someone walking toward a cliff and you yell to them, “Wrong way! There is a cliff ahead. You’re going to fall off and die if you don’t go the other way.” But if the person foolishly responds with “I’ll take my chances”, “I don’t believe you”, or “All roads lead to safety,” then he or she ends up falling off the cliff and into the abyss, who sent them there? They did! I wrote a poem during my active addiction that looked at the excitement and the peril of living my life right up to the edge of the abyss. Certainly, God did not want me to push myself away from Him, coming closer and closer to the cliff. He wanted to rescue me from myself, but I had to make the first move.

Lewis said a “Cosmic Sadist” might hurt us, but he could not do positive things such as invent or create or govern a universe. To hurt us, the Cosmic Sadist might bait traps, “…but he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend” (7). It is goodness that is original and fundamental and evil that is derivative and parasitic. I, as Lewis, remain confident that the Christian worldview explains evil and suffering better than other worldviews explain it. Evil occurs within a total world context that includes other important phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by an evil source. The problem of evil itself, as Lewis indicated, can be credibly formulated only if these other realities are assumed. In the final analysis, when Lewis lost his wife Joy, he did not waiver one bit in his faith in God. His theory that pain is a catalyst for spiritual reorientation (a belief he articulated frequently and that many of his readers took as categorical) encountered the hard fact that sometimes we just have to endure pain that seems to serve no particular purpose.

Footnotes

(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2008), 135.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), 43.
(3) Ibid, 42-43.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 132.
(6) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London, UK: SCM Press, 2000).
(7) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961), 65.

Overcoming Suffering

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 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. (2 Corinthians 1:1-4)

Sunset on green Field Landscape

There seems to be two types of suffering: (1) the suffering that comes of our own making, and (2) the suffering that comes when God prunes us. I’m sure you have experienced both. The suffering of brokenness is never easy. This second brand of suffering refers to the state of surrender and defeat we experience when hardship comes to our usually steady and painless life. Certainly, you can imagine that many of us bring about hardship based upon choices we make. In any event, the suffering of brokenness is never easy.

What’s the Point in Bringing up Suffering?

Why talk about this subject of suffering? Can we please just talk about something else? You’re going to ruin a great day. The sun’s shining. Your belly is full. You love your job. What suffering? After all, just thinking about the word or recalling the trials of Job is enough to frighten anyone. But what happens when God calls us to experience suffering firsthand? How can we bear it? It is a difficult pill to swallow, but we all suffer in one way or another. There are those who suffer physically; some suffer emotionally; others seem to suffer mentally; and, finally, many who constantly fight God’s calling in their lives suffer spiritually. Why? We suffer because we refuse to surrender and yield everything to God’s lordship. Suffering is a difficult truth, and without God in our lives, it’s impossible to understand or see any good in it. But with God’s help and His Spirit’s empowerment, it can be the sweetest thing a believer ever experiences.

God’s Spirit chooses certain people that He knows will accept the pain and sorrow of suffering.  He knows they will trust Him fully and learn How work to work.  He will make them an instrument so powerful, so special, and so sweet that no one will be able to resist them. He’s only asking us to do one thing for Him – simply put our trust completely in Him. We often forget what God has already declared in His Word. God’s ways are higher than ours. (See Isaiah 55:8-9) His wisdom and insight into who we are and what we need in our lives are perfect. And, much to our dismay, the Lord does not always reveal to us what He is doing in our lives.

When we get into the arena of suffering, often our faith begins to waver in disbelief, our hearts begin to question everything about God’s love, and our minds begin to challenge God’s authority. We take our eyes off of His love and begin to question God Himself. Satan then throws us into the pit of despair. We start spiraling out of control and we end up in a horrible and sinful place, crying out, “It doesn’t seem fair!” A question from our heart: “Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous have to suffer?” Why, for example, does a young Christian woman, who is living her life for the Lord and with great virtuousness, get raped? Why must a Christian couple have to experience the pain of a child suffering from cancer?

Even in my own life I have questioned why I have needed to wrestle endlessly with the bondage of addiction despite my sincere desire to break free? Quite frankly, I don’t think any of us can truly answer these tough questions. If we didn’t know God, we could likely brush it off as the way of human existence on go on, moving forward. But because we know the goodness of God; because we know that He is filled with grace, mercy, and compassion; and because we know that no experience – painful or otherwise – can touch us unless it goes through His hands, we struggle to make sense of the pain and suffering in life. When we are struck with pain and suffering, we automatically think that we have done something wrong and that God is trying to teach us a lesson. This is not always the case. In fact, some of the most horrific suffering can take place when we are doing exactly what we should be doing! One thing is certain: suffering produces character.

SOME TRUTHS ABOUT SUFFERING

When we encounter trials, tribulations, and sufferings, it’s then that our Christian walk really meets the road. It is often during these times that the Scriptures truly become alive to us and the Holy Spirit does His greatest work in our lives.

Suffering Helps Us Comfort Others

The Bible promises us that we will be comforted in our suffering. It does not promise that we will always understand our suffering, nor does it promise that God will deliver us from pain, suffering, or even death; but it does promise He will always be with us. Perhaps the prophet Isaiah says it best: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.” (Isaiah 44:2) We receive our comfort from God, and He will use the very experience that is causing our suffering to help us comfort someone else. This concept is very much alive in the realm of addictions counseling and 12-step meetings.

Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same things we suffer.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-6, NIV)

At times God shakes up our lives. He brings us to a place in which we are uncomfortable in order to mold and correct us. As these verses state, sometimes we will suffer for no other reason but to make our hearts tender, and to give us great compassion toward other people. When we experience difficulty in life, we are able to turn to the Lord for His comfort. We get to mirror to others how God moves us from despair to victory. The comfort of God is something that your spouse or your best friend cannot give you. The Lord strengthens us by coming alongside us and walking with us through the storm. This coming alongside another is the very essence of the ministry of helps. (See 1 Corinthians 12:28) The Greek translation of this verse indicates literally “to relieve, succor, participate in, and/or support.” Those with the gift of helps are individuals who can aid, render assistance, or counsel others with compassion and grace.

Suffering Turns Our Focus on God

The Apostle Paul talks about the extent of his own suffering when he wrote, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us, you also helping together in prayer for us, that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the gift granted to us through many.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11) What was the reason for Paul’s suffering? He suffered so that he would not trust in himself, but in God, who raises the dead.

I believe that every bit of suffering God allows us to experience has at its core the purpose of bringing us to a place where we do not look to ourselves, but rather to God. He wants to destroy that place of self-confidence in our lives, and to bring us to a place in which we trust only Him. God wants us to understand and know His place of comfort and, in turn, be able to reach out and comfort others just as He has comforted and taken care of us.

Suffering Allows Us to Better Glorify God

In all ways, we want the Lord to be glorified in our lives. Sometimes He gets greater glory in what may seem like nothing but suffering on our end. Remember in the book of John when Martha and Mary were crying because their brother, Lazarus, had died? Martha told Jesus that if only He had been there, Lazarus would not have died. It’s likely that the sisters had a hard time understanding why Jesus didn’t drop everything to come and rescue His friend. And, understandably so, this furthered the suffering they were experiencing. But Jesus said to them, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of Man may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) Jesus loved Mary and Martha. He allowed them to suffer temporarily because it was part of God’s plan to do an even greater work than healing Lazarus. That is, to raise him from the dead. Not only would this greater miracle reveal the deity of Christ and give God glory, it would also give Mary and Martha tremendous hope. God loves His children and uses suffering to bring about far greater glory than what we could ever imagine.

Suffering Allows Us to Be More Appreciative

When we struggle through difficult times, we find ourselves being thankful for the simple things, the blessings the Lord has given us. Think of it this way: When we are sick, we become very appreciative of our health. When we are broke, we become appreciative of basic provisions. When we experience a broken relationship, we become very grateful of just having someone to eat meals with. So often we ignore God’s daily provisions for our lives and the many blessings He has bestowed on us. Not taking things for granted is a key lesson of suffering. We need to appreciate what God has given us (including each breath we take) and live each day with a thankful heart. No one likes to suffer, but it’s a necessary part of life. If our attitude is right, we will thrive during the suffering and, on the other side, be better because of it.

HOW TO VIEW SUFFERING AND COPE WITH IT

Ultimately, there are two ways to look at suffering. One way is like looking in a mirror. When trials come and difficulty hits, we immediately look in the mirror and all we see is ourselves. We see our hurts, our problems, our pain, and what others have done to us, but we are oblivious both to God and to what is going on in other people’s lives. The more we look in the mirror, the further we slide into despair. If we deal with suffering when it comes by looking into a mirror, we will never overcome it. We will never enjoy and experience the fruit God wants to bring into our lives through our suffering.

However, God wants to take the mirror away and replace it with a window – a view on the rest of the world! If we look out the window, we will see other people who are also hurting. Although we may not see the purpose of our suffering at the time, we will see that God is moving, and He is placing people and circumstances in our life for a reason. When we are looking out the window, we have no time to look in the mirror.

It’s Time for a New View

I have spent way too much time staring in the mirror, feeling sorry for myself, and blaming others for my circumstances. Looking in the mirror at my own pitiful reflection causes me to dwell on the negative aspects of my situation. I develop the attitude that no one understands, no one has experienced what I am going through, and nobody cares. It took a while for me to realize that I was staring in the mirror every day, moping, seeing nothing but heartache and suffering and loneliness. Frankly, that’s enough to destroy anyone! But the day we all choose to through the mirror away and look out the window, then we can look through our pain and suffering – the agony of our own life – and see another human being.

The Lord will lift us out of the sorrow, out of the situation, and use us as an instrument of righteousness within His kingdom. He will give us His compassion to reach out to others who are suffering, to comfort them with the same comfort that we have received. Suffering is common to all men and women. Every one of us goes through difficult times. Jesus, who did nothing wrong, suffered more than any other man or woman in history. Yet, He was able to say from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Throughout His life and His suffering, Jesus looked through a window instead of a mirror and was able to see others, not Himself.

Help to Cope With Suffering

We need to get out from our looking position (the inward focus, the looking in the mirror) to a helping position –  taking our eyes off our own situation and helping others through their suffering. But how do we do this? We do it by receiving God’s comfort and strength. In the Bible, the word paraclete is given to describe the Holy Spirit. In the Greek, it means “one who comes as a pillar of fire by your side.” God will be with us through the fire. He will be with us through the fire. He will be with us through the storm. He will be with us when the rivers begin to overflow. The Lord is able to comfort and help us in all situations of life. The apostle Paul, who had his own share of suffering, wrote, “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.” (Romans 8:28)

Concluding Remarks

Are you battling a painful time in your life? Are you trying to make sense of it all? It’s important to stick with what you know. The Bible promises to help dispel the horrible and nagging question of “Why?” So stick with these truths: You know God loves you. You know God is true. You know He is righteous and Holy. You know God will not allow anything to come into your life that you cannot handle. You know God will use your suffering to help you minister to someone else. You know God will use your suffering for ultimate good.

We must look to the Lord and stand upon His promises. This is the only way to get through our personal suffering. We must remember what Jesus said: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Paul suffered through beatings and stonings and shipwrecks and imprisonments and rejection and hunger and thirst and homelessness – far more pain than most of us will ever have to endure. What did Paul say in Romans 8:18? “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

God is always around us. He is with us in every situation. When we’re ready to drop with exhaustion, or we fear we’re losing our way, are we to think, “I can handle this?” No, we remind ourselves, “It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.” (See Psalm 18:32)