Suffering is one of the most difficult aspects of life. Although suffering is not something we ask for, it is common to all our experience and is no respecter of persons. At one time or another, and more likely multiple times throughout the course of our lives, we will all drink of its dregs. Whether young or old, wealthy or poor, educated or illiterate, suffering, in a variety of forms will find its way into every human life and will often return for unwelcome visits. With some, namely those with chronic pain or disability, it settles in as a permanent guest. How do we understand this “intruder” that visits us all? How do we handle something that refuses to be controlled? What do we do with suffering? Maybe a better question would be, “What do we allow suffering to do to us?”
I have come to realize that Scripture supplies us with the most helpful and hopeful truths on this very difficult subject. But before we can even look at some of the “whys?” of our hardships and pain, let’s back up a little. Could a large part of our struggle with afflictions be due to the fact that we really don’t take God at His Word when it comes to our expectations for life in this world? Christ wanted His disciples, and consequently, all of us as His followers, to realize that trouble here on earth is inescapable. He declared in John’s Gospel that, “In this world, you WILL have tribulations” (Jn. 16:33). We should expect trials and suffering as a normal part of life in this sin-tainted and corrupted world. It’s not an option but a guarantee. Christ’s disciples could count on it and in fact, did experience this as their reality throughout the remainder of their lives. Can we do any less? Do we really believe that in this world we also will have tribulations? Do we respond as if we believe this truth about inescapable suffering?
The apostle Peter, who in his earlier days ran from trouble, reminded fellow believers of the inevitability of suffering when he compassionately warned, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as if something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). He was trying to encourage those suffering that this was not something out of the ordinary. Despite the clear and repeated admonitions from God’s Word, how often are we blindsided, surprised and even devastated when calamity and troubles descend on us? How often am I taken aback in my own life when troubles or suffering come my way? If both pagan and God-fearing persons throughout Scripture did not escape suffering and even Christ Himself endured loneliness, betrayal, abuse, misunderstanding, persecution, abandonment, torture and more before finally giving up His life as a criminal on a cruel cross, why do we as Christ followers expect to avoid suffering and hardships? No servant is greater than his master! Most of us have heard or even posed the question ourselves in the midst of heartache and trials, “Why me?” Perhaps we should be more accurately wondering, “Why not me?”
In his book Friendship Counseling, Kevin Huggins contends that “while suffering is an inescapable part of the human experience, it’s not the source of our psychological problems. Choosing to respond inappropriately to suffering is” (p.16). That’s certainly a different perspective than the world’s approach to suffering! If I recognize and truly believe that God is interested in my response to affliction and heartache then my greatest concern would not be escape or relief but a desire to cooperate with him and discover his purpose for allowing it in my life. Huggins further points out that, “Meaningless suffering is the hardest to endure. If we see no purpose or value in our suffering, we think and act in destructive ways. Our focus becomes relief. But God uses our suffering to purposely and lovingly give us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with him, to develop our character, and to serve him in ways we couldn’t or wouldn’t on our own” (p.33). Trials and painful circumstances definitely have the potential for grabbing our attention, helping us to see God, ourselves, and others in a new light.
In their comprehensive book, When God Weeps, authors Estes and Tada offer a host of Biblical reasons for the value and purpose trials and suffering serve in our lives. Suffering teaches humility, refines, perfects, strengthens us, casts us upon the Lord, teaches us to be more concerned about character than comfort, conforms us to the image of Christ and more (p. 232-240). In spite of the rich lessons our tribulations have to offer, sometimes answers just aren’t sufficient. Some are in such deep pain and anguish that answers don’t necessarily help. As someone familiar with deep trials and suffering, Joni Tada encourages us that, “The problem of suffering is not about some thing but Someone. God, like a father, doesn’t just give advice. He gives Himself” (p. 124-125).
After all, isn’t that what we need most in these dark and difficult times? We need Him! It’s the presence of our Almighty and loving God that makes the difference in our deep sorrow and distress. Suffering causes our theoretical knowledge of God to become real as we experience for ourselves that He truly is our God of peace, our God of hope, the God who will never leave us and who strengthens and sustains us in our storms. Suffering can teach us first-hand and lead us from what was merely head knowledge to a rich, personal knowing that lodges in the deep recesses of our hearts. The sufferer may never find the answers that will satisfy the soul but the continual presence of the Father’s strength and compassion are enough.
This is such a profound truth to remember. In the initial moments of raw grief and sorrow, the sufferer is rarely looking for explanations that will magically soothe and relive their heartache. They are in far greater need of comfort and compassion, not creeds or discourses. In the Old Testament narrative, Job’s three friends did well when they sat quietly with their bereaved and broken brother for seven days, comforting him with their silence and presence while allowing him to grieve his unspeakable losses. This was not a time for answers and platitudes but for compassion and joining together in the sorrow of their friend.
One of the contributors to the book Suffering: The Goodness of God speaks to this same kind of sensitivity in light of overwhelming suffering. In his article entitled “A Journey in Suffering; Personal Reflections On the Religious Problem of Evil,” John Feinberg admits his naiveté in firmly believing that a sufferer supplied with the appropriate intellectual reasonings for their situation would certainly be satisfied … that is until fifteen years later, when he himself faced overwhelming suffering after receiving news of his wife’s degenerative and progressive illness. He urges those involved in pastoral care to seriously consider offering comfort and compassion rather than philosophical platitudes at the outset of others’ pain and trials. He provides a helpful illustration of a young child, who after having skinned her knee, runs to her mother for comfort. Rather than dealing with her hurt by explaining the laws of physics, cause and effect, or offering warnings of being more careful, or even of expounding on lessons her daughter might learn from the experience, John exhorts his readers, “The child doesn’t need a discourse; she needs her mother’s hugs and kisses” (p. 220).
We belong to a compassionate Father. He is the God of all comfort. And like the loving mother in the scenario, He invites us to respond to our suffering by running to Him with our pain and sorrow so He can comfort and envelope us in His love. This is Who we have to offer those who are distraught, hopeless and suffering. What a humble privilege it is, not only to offer Christ’s compassion and comfort to those hurting but to lead them to Him so they can drink deeply of God’s comfort for themselves and find that He is more than enough to sustain them in their suffering.
Written by Helen VanSumeren, M.A.