Pastor John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Which I think most Christians can agree with this when life is going like it should. We do this well when everything is easy and comfortable, but what about when life becomes hard. What is our mindset when loved ones die, a miscarriage occurs, or someone you know is diagnosed with terminal cancer? How can the glorification of God relate to suffering and the pain of this life? Can the Gospel really offer us joy in times of death, heart aches, disease, war, and tragedies?
Why does God allow suffering?
The first thing we need to make clear is that suffering and evil are two totally different things. Evil can coexist inside of suffering, but please don’t confuse the two. God is not the author of evil nor sin (1 John 1:5), but He does allow sin and evil to live in a fallen world. God is totally sovereign over all suffering, and he ordains it to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11). This means even if Satan is involved in your suffering, the Father still has a hand in it. Ultimately God is in control of the amount of suffering we experience and the boundaries of the affliction to the ones He loves (as it was in Job’s case). Satan has no power or authority to do anything. I think a good many people have a problem with this concept. It usually leads to the question “Why would a loving God allow suffering?” I think C.S. Lewis answers this question best in his book the Problem of Pain. Lewis states:
“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word "love", and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. "Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created." We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest "well pleased".”
We as human do an awful job of misinterpreting the word love and try to make everything about us. So when things aren’t going the way we want them to go, initially we begin to doubt. We raise our fists in the air and complain because things didn’t go the way WE planned. Why is this our initial reaction? Though we may not admit it, sinfully we prefer a god that we can grasp or understand, or a god that would do what we would do. So when God does something that we can’t grasp or goes against our plans, we claim he is not fair. But ultimately God’s motives is making himself most glorified, and sanctifying us in the process (and sometimes sanctification can be an extremely painful process.)
God’s Intention for Suffering:
In John 9, Jesus and his disciples spot a blind man on the streets. The disciples begin to ask what sin this man committed to deserve this suffering. The disciples reasoned that because of this man’s personal sin he was being punished. I feel we do that at some regards still today. Somehow in Christian circles we have adopted the Buddhist concept of Karma (my actions in the past will affect my future), which is the exact opposite of the character of God. We tend to think someone must have done something terribly wrong to disrupt them from their comforts, but let’s rationalize why the Christian God does not work on the concepts of Karma. If we truly believed that God works on the basis of Karma then there would have been no point in God bringing his perfect son to die the death we deserved. Why? Simply put, we deserve the death Jesus paid in full. If you looked at the core of the theory, if God really worked on the concept of Karma, He would not trade our sin for miniscule deviances of this life. If we truly got what we deserved, we would all perish eternally and we would have no rebuttal. Isn’t it amazing our God is the exact opposite and that He loves us unconditionally to see past our sin because of the perfect sacrifice of his son? Anyways back to John 9, after the disciples questioned why the man was blind, Jesus answered with weighted words. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus eventually healed the man, but his suffering was not in vain. Our suffering is ultimately used to magnify the Lord. Even if we aren’t healed from our troubles, even if depression persists, God ultimately uses the ones he loves to magnify himself during tragic times.
Another reason God allows suffering is to show us our dependency for Him. When we begin to be prideful or start to rely on other things to satisfy us, do not think He won’t strip idols out of our life so we can once again fully enjoy Him. God doesn’t do this because he hates us but on the contrary. Imagine a small boy who wants to pretend to be in the army so he picks up a steak knife from the kitchen and begins running around with it. When his father sees him doing this he immediately stops the child and takes the knife away. The child begins crying because he assumes his father is taking away his fun. The same happens to us. When God takes away our physical health, mental capabilities, relationships, and our temporary pleasures we assume he is taking away our joy, but in the moment, we are blinded to his goodness for us. We can’t see his love behind every motive in our lives, protecting us from things that are hindering us from Him.
Joni Eareckson Tada on Suffering:
I don’t think anyone had a better understanding of suffering than Joni Eareckson Tada. At the age of 18, Tada was paralyzed from the shoulders down during a diving accident. If anyone had a reason to feel sorry for themselves it was Tada, but instead her tragedy brought her closer to the Lord. In her books, Tada states deep truths about suffering. She says, “Sometimes God allows what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” Tada goes in depth about the compassion the Lord has for us when we suffer: “There is nothing that moves a loving father's soul quite like his child's cry.” She also realized there was more than just physical healing: “He has chosen not to heal me, but to hold me. The more intense the pain, the closer His embrace.” When tragedies do occur, our Father longs for us to look at Him. C.S. Lewis says, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When life is dark and we can’t seem to press forward, we have a God screaming at us to cling to Him.
Why we can Have Hope in Suffering
It would be hard for me to understand suffering if I believed in a God who never had suffered, but I do not have to wrestle with that because my God has suffered. One of the elements that separates Christianity apart from any other religion is the fact God came down to earth to suffer for the ones he loved. Hebrews 2:9-10 says, “But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.” So when life throws you a curveball, we can’t scream at God for not understanding, because he has been there. He empathizes with us. He matches us step for step through life. Whatever hardship I go through I can rest in the fact Christ went through it first. Suffering allows us to come to the realization that our time on earth is temporary. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Our afflictions won’t even make a dent on the surface of eternity, and gives me eager anticipation to be in the presence of Him. I long for the day I can run into his arms free from any more pain. As Christians our time on earth is the worst it gets, but we look forward to the kingdom, to eternity. We shall gladly persevere until that day.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. –Romans 21:3-4