Over the last sixteen years, I have found myself sitting across people in various degrees of pain—physical and emotional—and have often felt helpless in my inability to offer anything more than an assurance of prayer.
I am wary of offering anything else, because I have seen the effects that well-meaning and godly, but often extremely confused people, have on those who are suffering.
Some walk into a patient’s room with cheerful banter and gay bonhomie, telling the patient and his family that everything is going to be fine. All he needs to do is pray with confidence and God will make him well. A few days later he is dead.
Others talk about how sickness and suffering is a result of sin, and if one is in pain it is because there is unrepented sin in one’s life. The poor patient, who has confessed every sin she remembers committing ten times over just in case she has forgotten some, is left racking her brain about what unremembered sin she has committed to offend God so much he has struck her with this terrible infirmity.
Then there are those who tell the patient that he needs to just thank God for his pain, praise him for the mighty God that he is, and God will heal him.
Still others tell a patient about how God has specially chosen her to suffer for his kingdom, and to offer up her pain for the salvation of souls. This will fill her with tremendous joy and hope. Really?
It is only when you are on the wrong side of the bed that you find these solutions bewildering, because often nothing seems to work. What makes it even more confounding is that many of these suggestions are based on Scripture. In the course of this two-part feature, we will look at some of the deeper aspects of pain, but this time, we will just consider the question: why would God permit it? There could be several possible reasons, and we suggest a few. They will not serve to alleviate suffering, but there is often relief to be found in the understanding.
Suffering keeps the world from becoming too attractive
As children, most of us have found the world a very likable place to live in. After all, everything is provided for us and we don’t have to worry about anything. As we grow older, there is the predictable teenage angst, but for all that, the world remains a pretty nice place. If we continue to live a life where we are always happy and comfortable, there is the chance that we would become very complacent and not want to move on. But, as Jesus says, we are not of this world (see John 15:19). We are, as Peter puts it, aliens and exiles (see 1 Peter 2:11), living in the world as temporary residents until we get to heaven, where we belong. As we grow older and are unable to do the things as we used to do when we were younger, or are in pain because of an incurable illness, we may wish that there was a better life to be had. Suffering helps us to look forward to that better life that is promised to us.
Paul writes: For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling (2 Corinthians 5:1).
Suffering brings out the best in us and those around us
When we suffer, we often discover that we possess a resilience and strength that we never knew existed within us. We find the courage and the ability to rise above our suffering and become a brave person. Over the course of the last few years I have come across so many people who are sick, and have been amazed to see how boldly they face their battles. Two among them, both suffering from kidney failure and requiring dialysis to survive, are among the most joyful people I have ever encountered. It is an amazing testimony of fortitude.
This isn’t always the case. On quite a few occasions, one of them—a sweet young girl not yet out of her teens—has broken down, weeping bitterly, asking the question that is on many a sufferer’s lips: Why? What did I do to deserve this? And I could only hold her, in an impotent attempt to comfort her in her pain.
But when she is not so weak, her answer to my question about how she manages to remain strong is the same as that given by the other person with the same ailment. “God is gracious,” she says. And that is something that actually makes a difference to people in pain. We will talk about grace in our next point.
Suffering also brings out the best in the people around us. During floods, earthquakes, or other natural disasters, people instinctively put aside differences to render assistance to those in need. Sometimes this assistance is rendered at the risk of personal life and limb. Those who are unable to actually go to the stricken areas, dip deep into their pockets to provide financial assistance to help out. And in this we see that there might be hope for the human race after all; humankind is not as bad as we sometimes imagine.
Suffering helps us to understand grace and bear witness to god’s love
In Daniel (see Chapter 3) we read of how, one day, King Nebuchadnezzar erected a huge golden statue of himself and ordered that whenever the band began to play, everyone in the kingdom had to bow down to his statue. Now, three of Daniel’s friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—refused to do this, saying the only person they would bow down before was God.
The King got furious and threatened to throw them in a furnace if they disobeyed. But they were not swayed. They were confident that their God would save them, and even if he didn’t, it didn’t matter; they would not bow down before him. The King became so enraged he ordered the furnace be made seven times hotter than was customary, and the three men thrown in. The flames were so intense, they killed the men who threw them in, but nothing happened to the three youngsters. When the King looked into the furnace, he saw four men instead of three. The fourth man, he said, “has the appearance of a god” (Daniel 3:25).
The point of this story is that the three men were not alone in the furnace, they had God with them! One might argue that God was not actually with them in their suffering, because he was protecting them from it, but that is exactly the point. He might not always do it, but God will sometimes protect us from the pain, failing which he will help us cope with it cheerfully. This is how some people in terrible pain are able to go through life with joy in their hearts. This is the grace of God, and it offers a tremendous opportunity to bear witness to his love. When the world sees the look of complete peace on their faces, it is obvious that God is with them, and like King Nebuchadnezzar, will recognize this fact.
Suffering makes us appreciative of the blessings we have received
During one of my missions in America, I was invited to minister to a group of youngsters. They began the session with prayer, and at one point, each one took turns thanking God. When it was her turn, a very beautiful girl, who had come for the first time, was very effusive in thanking God for her eyes. She went on and on about how beautiful they were, and how grateful to God she was for them, and I couldn’t help thinking of the prayers of a certain Pharisee in a certain temple (see Luke 19:9-14). It appeared that I wasn’t the only person who felt that way, because after the meeting, the leader of the group remarked about it, saying he had never heard anybody thanking God for their eyes so effusively before. Low murmurs suggested that everybody agreed. In a very soft voice the girl said that she was so grateful to God for her eyes because she was going blind. Everyone froze in shock, not quite knowing how to react. But I knew we all left with two lessons learned. One, was to be careful how we judged people. Two, not to take the blessings we have received from God for granted. You surely must have heard the famous quote, attributed to Helen Keller, but most likely by Persian poet Saadi Shiraze: “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” So, when we suffer we learn not to take things for granted but instead to be grateful to God for the many blessings he has showered upon us. For the most part, these blessings far outweigh anything bad that happens in our lives, and when we start considering them, things get into proper perspective.
Suffering makes us realize our need for God
One day Jesus called a little child to him and told everyone present there that unless they changed and became like a little child they would not enter the kingdom of God (see Matthew 18:2-3). As adults, we believe we are powerful people who are masters of our destiny and can do whatever we want, but it is only when we suffer that we come to the realization of how truly helpless we are and how much we need God.
Like many things, I learned this the hard way. I was an atheist for 25 years, boasting I was a “self-made” man and I didn’t need to believe in God; I had enough faith in myself. This worked very well until one day I found myself in a jail cell having lost everything I had in the preceding twelve months. In that jail cell, utterly helpless, I realized that I had found myself in a position where I could do absolutely nothing! And if I wanted a way out, not just out of jail, but out of the total mess my life had become, it had to be through a power greater than what I possessed. God? Yes, as I discovered.
In the sixteen years since that time in the cell, I have moved from unbeliever to evangelist, and have discovered that it is suffering that brings people to God. When things are going well, nobody has any need for God. It is the very rare person who comes to God without pain. Which is why C. S. Lewis said that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. So, no pain, no God. No God, no salvation. I am grateful to God for mine, because if it hadn’t been for the pain I went through, I’d be suffering with it for all eternity.
Suffering deepens our relationship with God
I don’t know if you have noticed this, but when things are going well in our lives, we don’t pray much, and if we do pray, the prayers tend to be dry and dispassionate. We don’t really care about what Jesus might have to say to us. But when we are going through a storm, we tend to get more fervent in our prayers, more devoted to reading his word. This is only a good thing, because then we discover that God is quite amazing. He assures us of his love and his involvement in our lives. When we are afraid, he tells us not to fear (Isaiah 41:10), when we are anxious he tells us not to be worried (Philippians 4:6), he has words of comfort and consolation for every situation. And, when we see that his promises are true, our faith in him increases, as does our love. And our relationship with him deepens.
Suffering helps purify us
A few years ago my wife had a problem with her oesophagus and could not swallow anything. She lost 20 kilos and suffered with this problem for almost for a year. Eventually, she had to go in for surgery. During the time that she suffered, I began to purify myself because if God wanted me to be a channel of grace, I didn’t want anything to block that.
When we suffer, ourselves, we will do anything to relieve our suffering. I have noticed that under normal circumstances, when everything is going well in our lives, if we are told to go for confession, to forgive others the pain they have caused us, to surrender our lives into God’s control, we largely ignore the advice. However, when we are suffering with mental trauma or sick with a physical ailment, when our relationships are breaking, we, or someone close to us, is dying, when we are in a financial crisis, we will do pretty much anything we are told to do. If we are told to make a good confession, we will, even if we haven’t been to confession for dozens of years before, if we are told to forgive everyone in our lives, we will, no matter how grievous the injuries; if we are told to drop to our knees and pray, we will, even if we have not said a single Our Father for months. And when we start to do these things, even though the motivations might not be entirely right, they serve to bring us closer to God, even as they purify us.
Suffering lets us share in the glory of God
One day Jesus told his apostles that he was going to die. Two of them, James and John, went to Jesus with a request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”. Jesus told them that they didn’t know what they were asking. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”, he asked (see Mark 10:32-45). The cup which Jesus was talking about was the cup of suffering. We see Jesus talking about this cup when he was in the garden of Gethsemane when he pleaded: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me”, before adding: “yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Both the apostles said they were willing to pay the price and they did. James was the first of the apostles martyred for Christ. John was the only apostle not martyred, but he didn’t have an easy life, spending the latter days of his life in exile on the island of Patmos. Before all this happened, they went through much suffering. It is the price we pay for the glory we seek. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:16-17; emphasis added).
Suffering lets us share in god’s redemptive plan
Now, if you are a questioning type of person (and it’s good to be that), there are sure to be a few questions after reading what Paul wrote. “Didn’t Jesus pay the price for all time by his suffering so that we don’t need to suffer? Then why would Paul write that we need to share in his suffering?”
These are good questions, especially because Jesus himself said something to that effect. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:22-24). Carrying our cross is a euphemism for suffering and death. Why would Jesus say that? And why would Peter and the other apostles rejoice in the suffering they underwent all their lives? See Acts 5:17-42 for one such example.
And most confusing of all, why would Paul write in the midst of his pain: I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Colossians 1:24)?
We must realize that “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” does not mean that the work of redemption is not completed by Christ. Rather, it means that the redemptive work still continues, because although Christ has redeemed the world, not everyone is saved. Salvation is an individual choice. We can help make that happen through our own suffering.
Let me try to explain this as simply as I can, because understanding this will bring much hope to those of us who suffer. Jesus is no longer physically present with us here on earth. But in a way he is here through us who call ourselves Christians because he is IN us. Christians should be the face of Christ to the world who are largely lost because they don’t know him. They have to see Jesus in us. So how do we become the face of Jesus?
Consider this. In the world, if somebody slaps us, what do we do? Slap back, harder if possible. But Christ’s way is to turn the other cheek. Not to retaliate, no matter what. If we were to retaliate, the cycle of pain just continues. If we were NOT to retaliate, however, we would end the cycle of pain, and be the face of Christ to the offender. But in doing this, there is suffering. We suffer, right? But this suffering can help to bring the offender to salvation, as it has happened to so many people.
Let us spend some time reflecting on it, asking God to throw additional light on the subject, and I believe that when we understand this we will rejoice as Paul and the other apostles did in the midst of our suffering.
Suffering lets us rejoice because we share in Christ’s pain
On one occasion, after healing somebody, the apostles were rewarded with a good beating. They were ordered not to speak about it to anybody and let go. Scripture tells us that as they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41).
Who rejoices in suffering? The lover does!
I have sometimes seen men and women with a partner who is in tremendous pain, and when they tell me that they would gladly share, or even take all the pain the other is suffering upon themselves, I know they mean it because I can feel the great love in their hearts. Love makes you want to share pain, and if we can, I believe it actually becomes a cause of joy. We may not be able to share the pain of a lover, but we can share the pain of Jesus, through the suffering that following him often brings. This is even more true when we realize that he went through so much pain because of our sins. Then, those who have begun to love him, think it would actually be a good thing to be able to share a little of what he went through. Most of the early Christians understood this very well, because in the first century after Christ, following him often meant death, and a painful death at that.
Suffering lets us enjoy the resurrection
Which brings us to another reason. Last year, as I was preparing a sermon for Easter, an image from Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ suddenly came to mind. When Jesus was taken to the gates of the city and given his cross to carry, he embraces it, hugging it for dear life. It is such a powerful image, if you have seen the movie, there is a good chance that you might recollect it.
Why did he embrace it as he did? And even as I asked the question, I had a rapid succession of insights about life and death that were very illuminating, the notable one being that there isn’t any way to the other side, to be truly born again, without the death that comes before, and the darkness and the pain. It is why Jesus said that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it bears no fruit (see John 12:24). I put it all down in song, and if you would like it you can find it on YouTube (https://youtu.be/bCzqBIpurXE). It’s called “Jesus, I Know How You Felt” and it might bring those who are suffering, especially emotionally, some comfort and understanding.
Our Own Doing
Before I conclude, there is something important that needs to be said. While some of the suffering we experience might be out of control, much of it is because of our own doing. God has placed natural laws into effect, and every action has a reaction.
If we eat McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, what is going to happen? Not only are we going to get very obese, our arteries are going to get clogged and our heart will not be able to function effectively. We will fall sick! Ditto, if we drink like the proverbial fish, or smoke like the proverbial chimney.
If a married person starts an affair with another person, who also happens to be married, what is going to happen when it is discovered? (It always is!) There will be a lot of pain caused to both families, not to mention the heartache the two erring individuals will experience.
Although many times the devil is responsible for pain, we don’t really seem to need his help to create painful situations. We do this very well ourselves. So saying that the devil causes all our suffering is a poor cop-out. As poor a cop-out as saying somebody else caused it. In fact, if we were to take responsibility for what we have messed up in our lives, instead of blaming others (we always like a scapegoat), we will discover that many times God starts to fix things.
Should something be wrong in your life, should you be in pain at this moment in time, either emotional, or physical, or even spiritual, I pray that this article has brought some understanding about the possible reasons you may be going through what you are going through. I also pray that God reaches out and touches you.
May the Spirit be with you.