A little boy falls and scrapes his knee. His father runs to him and . . . gives him a science lesson about velocity and gravity and a lecture on safety. Right?
No, of course not. The father comforts his child and tends his wounds.
I’ve heard some people say that’s all they want when they’re suffering. They don’t need to know the why behind it: they just want their heavenly Father’s comfort and assurance of His love.
But some of us do want to know why. The question of why God allows suffering is one of the biggest issues people wrestle with.
Some think it’s wrong to ask God “Why?” Elisabeth Elliot said in her book, On Asking God Why:
I seek the lessons God wants to teach me, and that means that I ask why. There are those who insist that it is a very bad thing to question God. To them, “why?” is a rude question. That depends, I believe, on whether it is an honest search, in faith, for his meaning, or whether it is a challenge of unbelief and rebellion. The psalmist often questioned God and so did Job. God did not answer the questions, but he answered the man–with the mystery of himself.
When we lived in GA, a man in our church had Von Hippel-Lindau disease, which caused tumors to grow throughout his body. The tumors weren’t cancerous, but their growth caused multiple problems, especially when they began in his spine and brain. He once said, “I could bear this if I knew God had a reason for it.”
We may never know exactly why God allows hard things to happen in our particular cases. But the Bible gives some general reasons why God allows suffering and how He uses it.
No, suffering doesn’t mean the person experiencing it is being punished for sin. Job’s friends mistakenly thought that of him and God soundly rebuked them. When Jesus’ disciples asked him whether a certain man was blind due to his own or his parents’ sin, Jesus said neither (John 9:1-3).
But sin and suffering entered the world when sin did. Man’s inhumanity to man falls here. Sin, sorrow, sickness, etc., will be eliminated for believers when they get to heaven (Rev. 21:4), but not before. So some degree of suffering is just due to living in a fallen world. That doesn’t mean it’s random: God still is in control over what He allows.
Yet sometimes God does chasten His children, and He may use suffering to do it. Proverbs has a lot of corollaries about the consequences of certain actions. Discipline is actually a proof of our sonship. The psalmist said affliction helped him learn and obey God’s Word. Hebrews 12:1-12 says: “all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
In Revelation, God brings calamities to get people’s attention and accuses, “yet you still did not repent.” At least one purpose behind the events was an attempt to bring them to repentance.
One of the most meaningful metaphors concerning suffering for me is described in John 15. Jesus said He is the true vine, His Father is the vinedresser, and we’re branches in Him. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (verse 2).
I’m not good with plants. But even in my limited experience, I’ve learned that some plants grow fuller when they are cut back. I’m told that expert rose pruners don’t just cut off the dead blooms: they remove perfectly good blossoms as well. Energy and nutrients are redirected to where they are most needful.
Somehow, when God “prunes” something in our lives, we grow in ways we would not have otherwise. Romans 15:3-4 says our suffering produces endurance, character, and hope. Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 says sorrow teaches our hearts things that could not be learned by feasting and laughter.
James 1:3-4 says, “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Malachi 3:2-3 speaks of God refining and purifying the sons of Levi. The Hebrew word for “refine” there means to smelt, to apply heat to separate impurities from the ore. Hebrews 12:25-29 speak of God shaking the earth “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (Spurgeon has a wonderful devotional on this here). Trials and suffering have a way of clarifying what’s important, of burning off any excess in our lives.
That we may learn who God is
Nebuchadnezzar went through an extensive trial through which he learned that God was God and Nebuchadnezzar was not. Though Job knew God, after his ordeals, he knew Him in a much more intimate way. Many people testify that, although they would not have chosen their trials, they don’t regret them because of how much better they knew God after the process.
That we may learn what we are and what we trust in
Moses told the children of Israel that “the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3). God knew what was in their hearts, but He had to bring it out so they could see it.
One of the reasons God caused the events in Exodus was to get people’s attention and to show that their gods were no gods, that He alone was God. He did get their attention, and there are signs some believed (Exodus 18:5-11; Exodus 14:18; 14:31; 11:9).
Sometimes we don’t realize we’re trusting in something other than God until God removes it. Though that process is painful, it’s ultimately kind in turning us from a false hope to the only true God.
To humble us
As mentioned above, part of God’s purpose for bringing Israel through the wilderness was to humble them. Nebuchadnezzar had to be humbled before he would see his need of God. Paul’s “thorn” mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7 was partly to keep him from being too proud because of all the revelations he had received.
For the sake of others
“Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Paul mentions several times that some of his suffering were for others:
- “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:10).
- “And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:14).
- “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” (2 Corinthians 1:6).
- “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:5-6).
- “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:10-12).
Joni Eareckson Tada has suffered for 50+ years since her diving accident. God may have had reasons unknown to us for allowing this, but her suffering has opened a ministry to untold numbers of people.
I mentioned earlier Jesus telling the disciples that a certain man wasn’t born blind due to sin. He went on to say that the man was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 1:3). When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, He said this illness was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:1-4).
I admit I have wrestled with this one. When I was about 38, I read about the man who had been paralyzed for 38 years and imagined his being paralyzed my whole lifetime. Part of me wondered how God could ask this of him. But 38 years is not that long compared to eternity. Paul said, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). Paul didn’t use the word “light” lightly: he had been speaking of excruciating suffering earlier in the chapter. But compared to the “eternal weight of glory,” it was light.
It’s like pregnancy: expectant mothers go through a range of discomfort all through pregnancy, culminating in the pain of childbirth. But they count all the suffering worth having that little one in their arms (John 16:21).
After speaking about the inheritance laid up for us in heaven, Peter says: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
“For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
That the world may be shown what love and obedience mean
I’m grateful to Elisabeth Elliot for this one. In John 14:27-31, Jesus said, as he was preparing for the cross, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.” Elizabeth wrote in Keep a Quiet Heart:
The disciples’ worst fears were about to be realized, yet He commanded (yes, commanded) them to be at peace. All would be well, all manner of things would be well—in the end. In a short time, however, the Prince of this world, Satan himself, was to be permitted to have his way. Not that Satan had any rights over Jesus. Far from it. Nor has he “rights” over any of God’s children… But Satan is permitted to approach. He challenges God, we know from the Book of Job, as to the validity of His children’s faith.
God allows him to make a test case from time to time. It had to be proved to Satan, in Job’s case, that there is such a thing as obedient faith which does not depend on receiving only benefits. Jesus had to show the world that He loved the Father and would, no matter what happened, do exactly what He said. The servant is not greater than his Lord. When we cry “Why, Lord?” we should ask instead, “Why not, Lord? Shall I not follow my Master in suffering as in everything else?”
Does our faith depend on having every prayer answered as we think it should be answered, or does it rest rather on the character of a sovereign Lord? We can’t really tell, can we, until we’re in real trouble.
Paul said that somehow “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:8-10). So we don’t display His working and wisdom only to other humans, but to beings in the heavenlies.
To learn that His grace is sufficient
Paul had asked God to remove something troubling in his life that he called a thorn. God said No. Instead, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
I believe it was Corrie ten Boom who said, “When all you have is Christ, you find that Christ is all you need.” The times in my life when anything I normally depended on was taken away and I felt the rug pulled out from under me were the times I came to know by experience that Christ truly was sufficient for every need.
As children grow up, they depend on their parents less and less until they are able to stand alone. But Christians grow more and more dependent on God as they mature.
To spare us from something harder
We tend to overlook this part of Israel’s journey from Egypt. Exodus 13:17-18 says God didn’t bring Israel a nearer way through the land of the Philistines because the people might be tempted to turn back when they saw war. Instead, He led them through the wilderness to the Red Sea—where they were stuck between the sea and Pharaoh’s army. God already knew how He was going to deliver them, and they should have been able to trust Him for that trial.
To teach us to depend on His Word
In Deuteronomy 8:2-3, mentioned earlier, God says He led Israel through the wilderness and gave them manna partly to “make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Psalm 119:67 says: “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word.”
To identify with Christ
This is one of Scripture’s mysteries. I have several passages on this topic, but since this post is long already, I’ll just share a couple:
- “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).
- “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:8 10).
- “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
These truths from Scripture help, but in some ways they don’t satisfy. Elisabeth Elliot said once, in a source I have not been able to retrace, that even though God accomplished great things through her first husband’s death, he didn’t necessarily have to die to accomplish those things. God calls people to salvation and service all the time without requiring someone’s death. Yet He chose to work that way in this case.
Even when we don’t know why, we know God. We are “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). We know His character. We know He is wise and good. We know He is with us (Isaiah 43:2; Daniel 3:24-25) and loves us. He is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). He promises His grace is sufficient. and He will bring good out of everything He allows. As Joni Eareckson Tada says, God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”
For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief,
he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
From “How Firm a Foundation,” attributed to “K”
(Revised from the archives)
(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Global Blogging, Senior Salon, Hearth and Soul,
Happy Now, Tell His Story, Purposeful Faith, InstaEncouragement,
Recharge Wednesday, Worth Beyond Rubies, Share a Link Wednesday,
Let’s Have Coffee, Heart Encouragement, Grace and Truth)
I just finished reading The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, and then had to go back over the whole thing again and re-read underlines and dog ears to make sure I got the point. (Lewis is like that for me.)
One thing stood out, but I’m not sure I’d share it with someone in pain. Lewis sees the love of God in our suffering because God is not content to simply let us be, but brings into our lives whatever is necessary to create the masterpiece he envisions. (very rough translation)
That’s stunning evidence of his love, but still hard to lean in to that truth when you’re under the plow.
Lewis is like that for me, too. I read Elisabeth Elliot somewhere saying that she could understand him, but couldn’t explain or reproduce what he said without multiple readings.
I don’t know that any of this would comfort right in the midst of pain. These thoughts help me when I am philosophizing about suffering, but when I hear of something horrid happening, I still wrestle. (Actually, I wrestle with much less than the horrid–like when I stub my toe or am frustratingly delayed in something i need to accomplish.) Something Amy Carmichael said in Rose From Brier helps a bit:
“There is only one place we can receive, not an answer to our questions, but peace — that place is Calvary. An hour at the foot of the Cross steadies the soul as nothing else can. ‘O Christ beloved, Thy Calvary stills all our questions.’ Love that loves like that can be trusted about this.”
I am mightily encouraged to know that even Elisabeth Elliot had to stop and chew on Lewis’s words. (Truthfully, I find myself stopping and chewing on hers as well…)
This is a post that I must read again and mull over. I have read several books on why there are pain and suffering in the world. It’s a question I think about often. I think maybe the best book I have read on the topic is Annie Dillard’s “Holy the Firm”. This may be one topic (among many) that I don’t ever completely understand.
I’ve wrestled through God’s reasons for suffering often and read many books on the subject, but I have to wrestle all over again from time to time. I have not heard of that book–I will look it up. Some of my favorites are Rose from Brier by Amy Carmichael, A Path Through Suffering and Suffering Is Never for Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot, and When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes.
Sharing this with someone today. Thank you. laurensparks.net
Thank you, Lauren.
Oh my, I feel like I need to break this up to read several days; so much meat and good stuff here. Thank you! I love the Elisabeth Elliot thoughts, as usual — also the idea that while children rely less and less on parents, we must rely more and more on God as we age. I too often struggle with “why” but you’ve given much good food for thought. I often struggle when I hear someone talk about, maybe, a spouse who died and how things worked out so great for the living spouse afterwards. I always think, “but what about the person who died?” I know, hopefully they’re in heaven, but still … Your post helps me focus more on the big picture; our entire lifespan is not a long time to God. Good perspective on patience, I think.
I have the hardest time when something happens to young children. One former pastor has a grandson battling leukemia and an different pastor’s young adult son is fighting the same. So hard. If not for God’s grace, it would be unbearable.
What a beautiful, eloquent, and concise answer to this timeless question. I am saving a copy of your post to share and to re-read again when I find myself suffering and ask the proverbial, Why?I know from my own experience that my suffering has drawn me into a deep and intimate relationship with the Lord. This is why He made us – to be in relationship with Him. If it takes suffering to get there…then so be it. Awesome post!
I had to smile at your word concise because I felt bad that this post was so long. 🙂 Yet I didn’t want to break it up into parts. Somehow mysteriously suffering does draw us closer. I think of times the church has been under great persecution, yet grew.
This is a very well thought out and encouraging post. Thank you. I’m printing it for my binder of papers I know I’ll want to read again!
Thank you, Janine. Even though I have wrestled through these things many times, I still have to do so again periodically.
Thank you for pointing out the people who suffer haven’t necessarily sinned (or aren’t hiding a big sin)–I can remember at least one pastor who thought this when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. Not helpful. We are fortunate enough to know now why my husband suffered–for many of the reasons you listed–growth, to strengthen someone else’s faith, to glorify God (his healing was a miracle), and to draw us closer to him. But these reasons weren’t immediately apparent.
That’s true that attributing suffering to sin can be so hurtful (I wonder if these people have never read Job?) Or some blame a lack of faith–but all the faith in the world can’t alter God’s timing, as Abraham found out. And that accusation heaps more hurt on. I do think that’s true, too, that the reasons for our suffering aren’t always apparent right in the middle of them.
I think growth and refining are two of the most overlooked reasons for suffering. Thank you for writing about this, Barbara.
Thank you for linking up at InstaEncouragements!
Thank you, Patsy. I tend to squirm and think, “Surely there’s another way.” But God knows what we need.
Barbara, this is such a solid post on the topic of suffering! And although God is so gracious and gives us His perspecrive and solid truth, some mystery still remains. I think that while we suffer we need both – Love in the form of comfort and presence and Truth to lean on and remain steady.
That’s a good perspective, Hadassah. We need both.
An excellent post, Barbara. I just finished reading Elisabeth Elliot’s book, Suffering is Never for Nothing…and what a wonderful book it is. I totally agree with her regarding the quote you included in your post. If we are honestly seeking God in regards to what we are to learn from a trial as a child would to their earthly father then I feel it is right to do the same with God our Father…but not if we are stomping our feet at Him and saying, “Why me?” So much good information here. Thank you.
Thank you, Dianna. I read that book and enjoyed it a few months ago. I agree, how we ask why makes a difference.
I love this post, Barbara! I believe there is always a reason for suffering, even though I don’t always know what it is. The reasons you listed here are so clear though. I can see them to be true in my own life as well as your examples.
I can see how all of these reasons apply in my life. God has used every tear! Such a tough question, and you have provided the best list of answers I’ve ever seen.
Hi Barbara. Suffering is such a difficult topic, but you’ve done a beautiful job of addressing it. I think it’s something people will always struggle to fully understand. I’m grateful we serve a God who understands suffering-even choosing it for Himself out of love for His own. What love the Father has for us! Peace and grace, Tammy
I think finding out ‘why’ is so important to show us our mistakes and allow us to grow, which is why He gave us freewill in the first place. Thanks for linking up with #globalblogging
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