Happy New Year, friends! It’s been a while since my last post. 2016 was a hectic year with many highs and lows, and I wanted to start 2017 off right. Having gone through one of the most difficult seasons of my life, I resolved to write on the topic of suffering, and one post is not enough to cover such an extensive topic. Welcome to Part 1 of Biblical Suffering, where we will be addressing how Christians should respond to suffering.
There are so many different forms of suffering. It’s no secret that we live in a broken world. We suffer spiritually, emotionally, and physically. It’s no secret that cancer kills, wars happen, and accidents devastate us. A few months ago, I was driving home with my parents from church. It was a regular Sunday evening. We were in the middle of a three-lane, 40 mph road, and then our lives turned upside down. An oncoming car going nearly twice as fast crossed the road and hit us head-on. There was no time to see it coming, no time to think, and no time to pray. I was in the back and had the least trauma. My parents got the brunt of the crash, suffered many terrible injuries, and each underwent multiple surgeries. It’s been about 4 months, and they are slowly recovering by God’s grace, but that night remains fresh in my memory. I can see the totaled car, the other driver lying motionless on the road, the gushing blood; I can hear groans; and I can feel the freezing air and the tears running down my face. In a moment like that, there’s only one question that always comes to mind: WHY?
“God, why is this happening? Lord, why did you allow this? Jesus, what is going on?” The questions are endless. Bad things happen, to believers and unbelievers. And we have a tendency to create a list of questions, and come up with our own answers. The great news is, the Bible does not shy away from the topic of suffering. It embraces it.
There are a few common and wrong responses to evil and suffering in our life, and in his sovereignty, God addresses the validity of such responses in the Scriptures. These responses usually take the form of some sort of accusation. We look at either ourselves, or others, in the midst of suffering and we say, “You must have sinned. God must be punishing you. This is because of something you did.” It’s in our nature to assume that the world revolves around us and our actions. I believe that this stems from a misunderstanding of the Scriptures, and particularly, the New Covenant.
The author of Hebrews asks, “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (12:7). In the time period of this book’s writing, Christians were undergoing persecution, and the author explains God’s hand behind it. But it’s crucially important to notice and understand the use of the word discipline. The author of Hebrews is trying to tell his readers that the pain they are experiencing is particularly that, discipline, and not punishment. You might say I’m just arguing semantics. But I firmly believe that a Christian should not look at suffering as punishment because punishment is retribution. It’s exacting justice. It’s paying the penalty. The author made it abundantly clear that justice was done once and for all on the cross. Jesus bore the penalty for our sin, and to say that we have to bear some of that penalty is blasphemy. The Christian gospel is not that God will bless our every good action and punish our every bad action, like some sort of Karmic system. The Christian gospel is that we all have gone astray and Jesus died so that we can walk in purity and freedom. Punishment is payment, but discipline is growth. If you’re a Christian, God isn’t out to get you; he’s out to grow you.
There are difficulties that we face, brought on by the hand of God, but they are done so for our good. The author continues, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (12:11). God will use our pains to help us grow in different ways. So what do we do when we see someone in the midst of suffering? Here’s the catch. We’re aren’t God. We don’t know if God is disciplining a person simply because they have room to grow or because of a specific sin that needs to be weeded out. In addition, we don’t always know if the troubles that come our way are the disciplines of God. Let’s take a look at a story from Luke’s Gospel.
 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5 ESV)
In this scenario, a few people come to Jesus telling him a horrific story; Pilate killed some Galileans in the temple. Jesus’ audience must have immediately seen this as some sort of judgement by God and wanted to get his opinion on it. Jesus, being the masterful teacher that he is, used this as a teaching moment. He asked them if the victims did something special to merit that suffering, if they had sinned in some special way that the other people didn’t. The answer is, no. Jesus then brings up another horrific tragedy about a tower that in that day fell over and killed some people. Once again, Jesus asks the crowd if those victims were somehow less spiritual or greater sinners. The answer is, no. So why then, did all these terrible things happen? The most honest answer is we don’t know. The lesson is clear; it’s not our place to ascribe causes to every wrong.
In John’s Gospel, we once again see people judging suffering people because their thinking isn’t refined by God’s New Covenant.  As he passed by, he [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth.  And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples’ assumptions are so obvious. They don’t ask why the man is in this state. They “know” someone must have sinned. All they care about is who. It’s a typical, pagan mindset, and Jesus refutes their question:  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3 ESV)
Once again, Jesus tells us: If you see suffering, don’t assume it’s personal sin. There’s no place for you to judge others in their weakness. This particular suffering was ordained by God so that people can see the glory of Jesus in this suffering. Sadly, those who remained judgmental completely missed it. They didn’t want to hear the testimony: “They [Religious leaders] answered him [the formerly blind man], “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.” (John 9:34 ESV)
Responding With Wisdom
So how do we respond to suffering? It’s definitely not by playing judge. Yes, in the big picture, all suffering is the result of sin. The world used to be perfect, and sin has ruined it. But on a micro level, sin may or may not have to do with it. It might be our sin; engaging in sinful behavior usually has immediate negative consequences. It might be someone else’s sin; a drunk or foolish driver, for example, driving recklessly and hitting another person. Or it might be no one’s in particular. It could just be a part of life in this broken world.
If we experience suffering, it’s a good aim to reevaluate our life, check our hearts, and see if there’s anything God may be disciplining us for. If not, there’s no sense in being overly pious. What we should do is walk confidently and faithfully knowing that our God, even if he is disciplining us, aims to make us better with every experience of life. James says it this way: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Every trial can be an opportunity to grow, and God is right there to help you through it.
Often times, we have the wrong responses to suffering. We reach the wrong conclusions because we’re full of questions and complaints, but I don’t want to overstate my case. God will let you complain and vent to him. If you bitterly complain about God, it’s grumbling. If you honestly grieve to God, it’s prayer. Read the Psalms; about a third of the entire book is made up of lament: people crying out to God to do something, people wondering why God is hiding, people questioning God and begging him to move. Sometimes we get overly religious and become so dishonest with ourselves that we can’t even take our hearts to our Father. Trust me, he can take it. Our Father waits for his children to run to him in our problems.
Be honest with how you’re feeling. Be honest with your pain. Learn to grieve well. Take example from the Scriptures. They don’t shy away from lament and suffering.
With my voice I cry out to the LORD;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him. (Psalm 142:1-2)
Thanks for reading. In Part 2, I will discuss how God responds to suffering.