Why do Christians suffer?
The answer to this age old question lies in the pages of God’s Word. Yet, for the Christian, the answer is often difficult to find.
Suffering Christians sometimes feel betrayed by their religion which preaches God’s love, which proclaims a God who cares and teaches children songs like “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
Such betrayal, however, is unjustified. Though the feelings of betrayal will continue to occur, such feelings are often the result of various influences on the lives of well-meaning Christians.
Culture, for example, can influence our feelings on suffering. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, stated,
“We need a culture…which will accept the mysterious meaning of suffering and death.”
In a culture which defies death, minimizes pain and decries suffering, people have largely found suffering to be a haunting nuisance. When there is pain, take medication. When there is suffering, take an antidote. When there is rejection, see a therapist.
Unfortunately, though medications, therapists, doctors and so many in the helping profession are there to help support people in pain, ultimately the Christian experiencing the pain will not successfully manage their suffering—whatever its origin—without a proper Christian perspective on suffering.
The following Reflections on Christian Suffering are intended to provide the Christian with such proper perspective. Though there is no simple antidote for the immediate relief of the spiritual struggle which accompanies pain, suffering and loss, these Reflections of Christian Suffering will hopefully direct the leader to a greater understand of the hurt—and healing—they can expect.
Bad things do happen to good, Christian people. During those times of tragedy and trial those Christians must seek some reasonable answers, some coherent system of belief, some rationale which somehow will help them reconcile their intense suffering with God’s unconditional love. Indeed, for many, the greatest pain—yet greatest reward—is in the personal reconciliation these two seemingly contradictory ideas.
As the reader considers the following reflections, the author truly hopes that these reflections—and the explanations which follow—will help them through their trial. No matter how God determines how the physical and emotional suffering may be resolved, whether through healing or death, to begin to resolve the spiritual issues relating to Christian suffering is to begin coming to an even more meaningful relationship with a loving God.
God is loving. He does not let a sparrow fall without his knowing. (Matthew 10:29ff). Though sparrows fall and die, they die in the loving hands and with the careful eye of their Creator. Though we suffer or even face the worst possible suffering or death, we rest sure in God’s promise given to St. Paul in Romans,
“I am confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord…If God is for us, who can be against us.” (Romans 8:31ff.)
May this reading encourage you in your suffering and cause you to rejoice that in Christ you “more than conquerors” in all circumstances in life.
Thomas F. Fischer
True Faith will be tested.
When people become Christians, they often think they are being called to a higher level of existence. After all, they reason, now I’m God’s child. I’m redeemed, forgiven and living just as God wants me to live. Since I’m just what God wants me to be, Jesus will love me and protect me. Of course, since Jesus really loves me, He will make me immune to any pain and suffering.
Such reasoning, at best, is just plain false. At worst, it can destroy faith. Christians because they are Christians, will undergo constant testing.
Many signs and testimonies of this truth are found in the Scriptures. In addressing the issue of persecution, Jesus himself said, “Fear not those who can destroy the body but not the soul….” (Matthew 10:28). Implied by these words is that there will be those who will try to destroy Christians.
No place in the Scriptures is suffering more obviously seen than in the person of Jesus Christ. Though totally and perfectly holy, He also suffered. Did he deserve it? No. But did He bear suffering? Yes…and even death!
Christians can and should expect suffering. Dr. Norbert Mueller in an excellent article on suffering in the July, 1995 Lutheran Witness wrote,
“Christians do not court suffering, but we do expect it. A disciple, after all, is not above his Master.”
If Jesus, God’s only, special and beloved Son was not spared of suffering, neither should we expect any immunity in this world of sin, sickness, suffering, pain and death.
That was Paul’s perspective. But an important additional aspect of Paul’s perspective was the recognition that once he became a Christian, his primary focus was not so much on his own well-being as on how God could best use his “earthen vessel.” He wrote,
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
When Paul was converted, everything that Paul represented and lived for was crucified with Christ. His desires, his goals, his plans, and his ideas for what life should be were all crucified—killed—with Christ. No matter what happened to Paul, he would live in faith and quiet submission to the One who loved and died for him.
Since Christ lived in Paul, whenever suffering came his way, such suffering was not an indicator that Jesus had left him. Instead, no matter what suffering came, nothing could ever sway Paul from the confidence that the central fact of the Christian faith that Christ was with him.
Christ also lives in us. If God is for us—and He is—and if Christ lives in us—and He does—then the Christian’s experience of suffering is not an indicator that God has left or judged us. Instead, it is an indicator that God will be right with us to help us overcome whatever obstacles, difficulties or unbearable circumstances we might encounter.
The greater the potential for increasing an individual’s faith, the greater the magnitude of suffering that an individual should expect.
One of the remarkable accounts of suffering in Scripture is found in the Book of Job. Job, chapter one, described Job’s great wealth. His amassed wealth was greater than even the richest financial magnates of our era.
Job recognized that all this wealth came from God. Those around him, and Job included, likely concluded that his wealth was a sign that God really loved him. Indeed, as Job 1:1-2 recorded, Job’s love and devotion to God was unparalleled.
“In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; He feared God and shunned evil…He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.”
Was Job a likely target for suffering…albeit extreme suffering?
By our standards, definitely not. His faith resume was impeccable. What greater Christian model could be given than to be blameless, upright, fearing God….and shunning evil? But God doesn’t care about our plans and preferences. They have been, as St. Paul said, “crucified with Christ.” (Galatians 2:20).
Christians must look at God’s plan. Considered in the light of God’s standards, Job was the perfect subject for testing…severe testing. It was because he loved God, because he was blameless, because he shunned a resisted evil that God subjected him to suffering.
When God allowed Satan to test Job, God gave Satan free reign to test Job as severely as possible. Because Job’s faith was so strong that God Himself suggested Satan test Job. “Have you considered my servant, Job?” God asked Satan.
God does the same thing to Christians. Especially when a Christian’s faith is strongest, God showcases the Christian’s faith before Satan saying,
“Aha, Satan, look at this child of God. He (or she) really loves me.” Then Satan replies, “Ya, well let’s see it he (or she) really does!”
Each time the testing begins, God allows Satan to work…but only within parameters. Though the testing may be severe, God will not let us be tested beyond what we are able to endure. Instead, He disciplines those whom He loves. The greater His love, the greater the discipline may be (Hebrews 12:5ff).
Testing and suffering remind the Christian
who the Lord of his life really is.
Testing and suffering remind the Christian
who the Lord of his life really is.
In I Corinthians 6:20, St. Paul wrote,
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”
When Paul reminded Christians that their body was not their own, he was also reminded them that Christians don’t exercise ultimate control over their bodies either.
Whether one considers Jesus, St. Paul, Job or any other Scriptural writer, time and time again one finds suffering is the most ultimate reminder that we really don’t control our lives. At no time in a Christian’s life, regardless of how one might feel—does anyone really run their own lives. All the decisions one makes are really subject to the full knowledge and control of God.
Some think the hardest lesson to learn in suffering is patience. Certainly patience is in the top two or three lessons to be learned. Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn, though, is giving up the illusion of autonomy and giving God control over our whole lives.
Human beings are stubborn. Christians are certainly included. Spiritually blind and desirous of independence and autonomy, often the only way God can bring anyone to a sober realization of God’s control is through some dramatic or catastrophic change or loss.
It is only when, through such loss, that one regains “spiritual sobriety.” Such sobriety recognizes that every individual is really absolutely powerless and dependent on God. Only when one begins to come to the realization that that he is always subject to God’s will will he more freely accept God’s loving intervention and direction in our lives…no matter how sudden and catastrophic.
Often people, even Christians, give up on God in this early stage of testing. Christians, no matter who they are, don’t easily give up our sense or perception of power in their lives. When forced to give it up, Christians may become angry, grieved, tearful, lonely and bitter. They may also become prone to self-pity and depression.
Setbacks and tragedies must occur in our lives before we come to the total, heightened recognition of God’s ultimate control of one’s life. In Romans 14:7-8, St. Paul wrote,
“For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
One can only imagine the continued onslaught of successive setbacks Paul must have experienced preceding the time this was written. Beginning with his conversion on the Damascus Road in Acts chapter nine, Paul suffered numerous times and repeatedly experienced absolutely total weakness. By facing death “all day long” (Romans 8:36), St. Paul finally recognized that the final goal of suffering was to bring him to the realization that the Christian life is really a death to self and a resurrection to Christ.
The hardest thing about suffering is remembering the central focus of suffering.
The hardest thing about suffering is remembering the central focus of suffering.
Why do Christians suffer? As hard as this question may be to answer, perhaps it is the most important question the suffering Christian can ask.
The problem, for most Christians, is that they answer the question with presuppositions rooted in guilt and anger. Such presuppositions necessarily lead one to some devastating conclusion that Christians suffer because they are being punished, God is unfair, He is unloving, He is punishing me, or the like.
No matter how intense, unbearable, prolonged or painful the testing which one might experience, Christians who effectively endure do so because they have a tenacious singular focus on–and understanding of–God’s mercy and grace. Since God sent Jesus Christ to “suffer in all respects as we do” (Hebrews 2:18), such Christians confidently—even in their greatest weakness—believe that everything will work out for the good for those who love God. (Romans 8:28).
In suffering, Christians need to recognize God does not intend their destruction. Instead, they recognize that God’s testing is simply to keep faith strong and focused. If one loose this focus, one fails the test of faith.
Do Christians ever fail in their exercise of faith? Definitely! Scripture is full of examples of people who, though faithful, fell from faith. Then, having regained their focus on God’s love and forgiveness, God restored and strengthened them. Perhaps there is no greater example of this restoration than Jesus’ post-denial restoration of Peter.
Remembering the central focus of suffering, to strengthen faith, is extraordinarily difficult to do. Christians—even the best of them—often fail in this area. That’s why Christians, during suffering, must needs approach the mercy seat of Jesus Christ frequently. As they are forgiven and receive the cleansing of God, their faith is strengthened. As their faith is strengthened and their failings forgiven, such repentant Christians find that they become renewed through their suffering. Recalling God’s desire for their faith to increase, their focus on Christ and His gracious love for them is restored
As the Christian regularly and daily prays for a stronger faith, he can also expect that trial may be the primary through trial.
As the Christian regularly and daily prays for a stronger faith, he can also expect that trial may be the primary through trial.
Christians who uphold the Sacraments as God’s means of grace understand that suffering is not a Means of Grace. Enduring suffering bravely, patiently and in a “Christian” manner does not make us worthy or deserving of heaven. Nor does it give us certain “rights” or “privileges” for meriting eternal life. Only God’s written Word and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper can convey God’s unconditionally overflowing grace and forgiveness for our salvation.
Though suffering does not save us, it is how the arena in which our Christian faith is tested.
Everything in this life which must be depended upon must be tested. . . each in its own specific arena. Race cars, if they are to win, must be tested in the arena of the race track. Students, after learning specific areas of knowledge, must be tested in the arena of testing and examination. One’s fitness for marriage can only be tested in marriage. The strength of ones faith, also, can only be determined by placing it under stress.
When Christians pray for a stronger faith they are, de facto, praying that God place them in an arena where there faith can be tested. Since God unconditionally promises to answer our prayers for the strengthening of faith, Christians ought not be surprised that yet another difficult testing of their faith will follow.
But they are. No matter how strong one’s faith, no matter how long one has been a Christian, at no time is a Christian not surprised when another testing comes along. As one’s faith grows, one expects the testing to be easier. After all, they reason, if my faith is stronger, God must love me more.
What they fail to recognize is that the stronger one’s faith, the greater the testing and the more difficult the consequences for failure. This is why so many outstanding Christians of exemplary spiritual character often have bad things happen to them…en masse. God knows their faith is stronger than most. Thus, they are placed in an arena of testing far above that most could possibly endure.
When such testing occurs, at least two things happen.
First, those weaker or less mature Christians who observe the intense suffering view one of the greatest witnesses of faith. Imagine the spiritual impact that Noah’s family had as they watched Noah continue to defy the people’s mocking and doubting.
What lasting and eternal impressions has Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, for whom he waited one hundred years, made on those closest to him? Though promised and designated to be the “Father of Many Nations,” what faith it must have taken to throw all God’s promises to the wind at such an old age that, humanly speaking, there would be no time to recover or recoup the loss of this one son…and the promises of God represented through Isaac.
The second thing that happens is that the person going through the suffering, having succeeded in the trial, learns that God is far greater and more loving and worthy of praise than before the testing. That’s why both Noah and Abraham, after the flood and the offering of Isaac, respectively, did the same thing. They offered magnanimous sacrifices to a God who had saved and faithfully kept His covenant promises of protection. Each sacrifice on the mountain was, in more sense than one, a mountaintop experience.
Their joy, their love, their celebration of God’s power and providence was never greater in all their lives. Hence their response, after successfully enduring trial, was one of humble worship before a God who loving guided and graciously controlled their lives.
Christian faith is Christian faith is never so strong that it is ever exempt from or immune to testing and, at times, failure. Even when faith fails, Jesus never forsakes His loved children; He constantly prays for them.
Christians suffer; stronger Christians suffer more; the strongest Christians suffer most.
Those caught in a good works-oriented faith believe that good works protect them from suffering. Such orientation deceives one into thinking they have been such good Christians that they are more worthy than others. Since they are worthier than others, they should not experience an unjustly intense level of suffering. “If God doesn’t like sin, and if God punishes sin, then if I do many good works God will not allow me to suffer” they reason. Such mentality is not only unscriptural, but naively assumes God can be manipulated by our good works and worthiness.
The only reason a Christian does a good work is to thank and worship God for what God has done in Jesus Christ. Good works are not merit badges or insurance policies to protect us. Nor do good works make us worthier than others before God.
Jesus, in sending the disciples out two-by-two warned of those who would persecute the disciples while doing the greatest good work of all—proclaiming the Gospel. Were they spared? Were they granted immunity? Definitely not. They were sent out, as Jesus described, “like sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16).
A cursory examination of the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Letters, the General Epistles and especially the book of Revelation all repeatedly demonstrate that Christians are not only not immune to suffering, they are specifically targeted for suffering. “Consider it pure joy,” James wrote, “when you are persecuted.” (James 1:2). “Blessed are the persecuted, for they shall see the kingdom of heaven” Jesus wrote in Matthew 5:10.
St. John, enduring a grueling persecution on the island of Patmos, reminded the Smyrnan Christians of Jesus’ words which indicated they would be subject to both suffering and death,
“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)
Christians often fail when subjected to suffering and testing. Though they fail, they are never disqualified from receiving Christ’s unlimited forgiveness. Never are they cast out from all possibility of forgiveness in Christ. No matter how great their failure, how devastatingly catastrophic their fall-out, Jesus always—without fail–forgives them totally and completely. His promises are unconditional; His forgiveness and cleansing absolute.
When the Christian finally experiences this out-of-this-world forgiveness, the Christian finally finds the joy which God intended for them to discover in their suffering.
Remember when Jesus predicted Peter’s denial of Him in Luke 22:31? He said,
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your bothers.”
In addressing Peter as “Simon”, Jesus pointed to this disciple’s pre-Christian existence. Jesus knew that Satan would sift his faith. While being tested, Peter would be tested so severely that his faith would be pulverized into a fine powder.
Jesus knew that Peter would deny Him, curse Him, swear against Him, blaspheme Him and do everything possible to dissociate himself from Jesus—not once but three times. Jesus knew that this very best friend and trusted leader of the disciples would turn fickle and painfully reject Jesus at the time Jesus would have needed him most.
In spite of this horrendous foreknowledge, what did Jesus do? He prayed for Peter, the disciple destined to fail and reject Him. For what did He pray? He prayed that Peter would not fail. He prayed that Peter’s faith, though battered, would remain. And, most importantly, He prayed that Peter would turn back to strengthen the other brothers in their testing.
A notable observation is that Jesus, before the testing, knew Peter would turn back. His faith would, though it had failed, would be restored after the testing. Why was such testing necessary? Simply to strengthen Peter’s faith by exposing its weaknesses.
Peter, the over-confident “I’ll-never-deny-You Disciple” had to endure the testing. Jesus had to endure the rejection. To both of them, it would be nothing less than one of the most horrifying, grueling and lonely experiences of rejection they would ever experience. Unless Peter’s weaknesses had not been exposed—at Christ’s own expense—his usefulness to God would have been minimized. He would not and could not have been—humanly speaking—the Peter of Pentecost or the Peter of the Epistles of Peter encouraging Christians and preaching Jesus’ overwhelmingly unconditional forgiveness.
The fact that Jesus, as God, would also suffer as a result of this test did not in any way keep Jesus from following through on the necessity to test Peter. When we fail, God not only senses our failure; He feels the grief, the sighs, agony and groaning that we feel.
Thus, even when we feel as if God has left us, He hasn’t. Instead, as He watches us in our testing, He also prays for us. As He prays for us, we can be sure that He really does know the horrifying intensity of our suffering and the torturous testing of our faith. Yet, with Him praying for us we are, as St. Paul wrote, “more than conquerors in Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:28).
In order for faith to be strengthened, it must be refined. In order for faith to be refined, it must be strengthened.
Bernard Schumacher, in the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord,” wrote,
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
Suffering is not an act of God’s rejection; it’s an action of God’s most intimate working in our lives. It is because God’s working is so intimate, so personal that suffering and trial are so very, very painful. It is because the experience is so personal, so intimate that in suffering we experience things we have never, ever experienced before…nor dreamed we could.
In our testing we discover just how vulnerable we really, really are. We discover through the suffering and rejection just how fragile our whole existence it. We realize how so very, very close to total weakness we really live each day.
During the testing we can also experience other things, too. Tears like never before will pour from our eyes. A sense of helplessness and depression will often be experienced. In our sense of helplessness and powerlessness, an indescribable feeling of loneliness and isolation will swell up. The loneliness felt can linger for months, years and decades, leaving a very sensitive scar which, at any moment, can start to bleed again.
People who have never experienced this loneliness many times feel as if they are going insane. Others around them may think that they are unstable or have “gone nuts.” Even those perceived to be the closest friends will find this expressed loneliness too much to deal with. Thinking such loneliness is due to a lack of friends or whatever, such friends may, in their confusion and fear, flee. Such rejection only adds to the life-long loneliness and hurt. The one suffering such loneliness may never, fully, ever recover from the loss from those considered friends who have turned away from them.
No matter how hard we pray, this loneliness and the trial may painfully continue for the rest of our lives. Such continuance is not an indication of our lack of faith or God’s rejection. Rather, it is intended to focus us to the grace of Jesus Christ which, alone, is all-sufficient for our lives.
St. Paul, in II Corinthians 12, prayed three times to have his thorn in the flesh removed. What such thorn was is unknown. Whatever it was, it was a “messenger from Satan” which truly impeded Paul’s ability and effectiveness as a missionary. Though Paul’s faith exceeded even our own, God told Paul He would not remove this thorn in the flesh. Why? Because, as Jesus said,
“My grace is sufficient for thee. My strength will be made perfect in your weakness.”
God takes off the “skin” of dross which gives us a sense of confidence in ourselves and replaces with our greatest weaknesses exposes and laid bare. Such weakness, then, serves as a reminder to us that
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.”
Such weaknesses—physical, spiritual and emotional—will stay with us as long as they are needed to remind us of God’s great grace in our greatest weakness. For St. Paul such weakness lasted the rest of his life. We can also expect the same. After all, the greatest refining of faith is the refining which removes the dross of our own self-righteous confidence and sense of control and replaces it with a weakness through which God’s strength is shown.
As our faith is refined, one’s feelings will, if possible, undermine one’s faith.
The most vulnerable faith is a faith based on feelings.
Certainly, this does not mean that Christians should not express their spiritual emotions of joy, peace, and spiritual happiness and sadness. What it does mean, however, is that unless ones faith is founded on something solid, namely the truths of God’s Word, such faith is a foolish faith build on sand…and not on the Rock.
Often those Christians whose faith is based more on subjective feelings, spirituals “highs” and the “feeling” that Jesus loves them experience the most devastating consequences in suffering. Associating good feelings with Jesus’ love, when suffering enters, they loose their happiness and, with it, the confidence that God is with them.
For such people, the refining of faith is specifically directed to shake up their mistaken foundation of faith and move them to build on the objective foundation of God’s Word and, for certain denominations of Christians, the Sacraments.
Yet, in the midst of extreme suffering, feelings tend to overwhelm even those with the strongest objective faith. During times of energy loss, depression, lack of focus and discouragement Satan finds such weakened Christians to be easy prey. In intense suffering, one will undoubted feel emotions they have never felt—or every imagined they would ever feel–in their lives. In extreme cases, such individuals might even be surprised at the behaviors they exhibit. Such behaviors might include addictions, depression, chemical dependencies, uncontrolled anger and abuse, thoughts of suicide and the like. Such behaviors are signals that things are out of whack, out of control and needing personal, professional and pastoral attention.
Such signals are also indications of what Peter wrote about—and no doubt experienced in his life—from I Peter 5:8-9.
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
I Peter 5:8-9
Be “self-controlled and alert.” A faith based solely or primarily on subjective feelings without the firm confidence of God’s Word is a faith which, when attacked, will be devoured and torn to shreds. Thus, in times of trial, the Christian must needs turn to God’s Word as the primarily source of strength, shelter and encouragement.
God allows Satan to test Christians for the purpose of demonstrating to Satan just how strong a believer’s trust in God really is; it is Satan who does the damage…to the extent allowed by God.
One can hardly forget how in Job, Chapter one, God led Satan by the hand to His faithful servant, Job. Though Satan may have eventually found Job, God took the initiative to showcase Job before Satan. Why?
I believe that it is because God chooses not simply to show His power directly, but also through His people. Satan, of course, is always eager to search, test and destroy those whom God claims are His strongest advocates. If Satan can deceive, devour and destroy these “showcase Christians,” then Satan can experience victory.
In this “tug of war,” the Christian may feel like a pawn being tugged back and forth between God and Satan.
Such tug of war began right at the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden. Eve, God’s specially created and loved creature, was quickly tested by Satan, In the temptation to eat the fruit the issue was not simply whether Eve would eat the fruit. The larger issue was whether God’s love was stronger than Satan’s influence over God’s creation. The result? In this circumstance Satan unveiled the shallow weakness of Eve’s—and Adam’s—trust in God.
The same battle happened within Judas. As Satan entered Judas, he tested Judas’ loyalty, as one of the beloved and chosen twelve to Jesus. In this case, Satan also won. Judas, on the other hand, experienced one of the most tragic suicides recorded in Scripture.
Such battle happened many other times as well. Most notable was Satan’s testing of Jesus Himself. In this account the issue at hand is the same as above namely, whose influence is stronger—God’s or Satan’s. As in all the other accounts, the stakes are high. But, unlike the other accounts, Jesus’ triumph over Satan’s testing indicates two things. One, that Jesus truly did suffer all things even as we do, except without sin. (Hebrews 4:15). Second, it indicates that though men may fail their testing, God has not failed, is not failing, and will never fail. All ones needs to do is trust God, trust God, and trust God…and trust Him patiently and absolutely.
In the meantime, such trust in God will be tested in the most powerful and devouring manner possible. God simply sets the “allowable limits” of the range of damage Satan may do; Satan pursues them to the max.
Though God, as in the case of Job, may allow Satan to inflict damage on God’s chosen, God never lets Satan go beyond that which God has set. Saint Paul wrote,
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 NIV
God will provide a way out of suffering. Such “way out” we might hope., may not necessarily be an end to circumstances causing the suffering. Indeed, some suffering will be lifelong. Yet, as He promised, He will provide a way—some way—to be able to help the Christian endure and stand up in the suffering—no matter how great, how prolonged, how intense or how personal the nature of the suffering might be. God knows our limits; Satan pursues them to the max.
The limits which God places on suffering may be exceeded if we neglect our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
St. Paul wrote,
“Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
Ephesians 6:13 NIV
In severe crisis, one must use every available resource which God might give to survive. Certainly the study of Scripture is a major important resource.
However, as one considers the “full” armor, other tools, weapons and defenses must also be considered. Professional counseling, by a competent Christian counselor, can often be one of the best ways to more ably defend oneself. Friends can only go so far; a Christian counselor can give support that no one else can give.
Other armors may include medications for various chronic conditions including depression, hypertension, fits of rage, mania, etc. Another armor is regular exercise, avoiding over or under eating, avoiding alcohol and, in general, taking very good care of oneself. Paul, in encouraging the young pastor, Timothy, alluded to the necessity of attention to physical well-being. “Take a little wine for your stomach” he wrote in I Timothy 5.
The greater the suffering, the greater the spiritual battle one is engaged in. St. Paul reminded his Ephesian hearers,
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12 NIV
While undergoing suffering, it is important to remember that the Christian must always be fully equipped, fully armored, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Unfortunately, it is the spiritual equipping which, for many Christians, is the weakest chink in their armor. Having avoided or neglected a regular study of the Word, having neglected worship, having never grown in their prayer life and in the understanding of God’s plan for them, such individuals are Satan’s easy prey. These individuals are the “infants” still feeding on “milk”. As a result, they are tossed “back and forth,” “to and fro” by every wind of Satan’s scheming (Ephesians 4:14).
For Christians engaged in the spiritual battle of suffering, the normal limits of toleration which God permits can often be threatened—if not exceeded—if we neglect the spiritual. God gives His strength in His Word. It is His word which is the “power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1). Especially in time of trouble, His word, as the Psalmist wrote, “is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 27). To neglect the strength, ignore the power and turn off the lamp of the hope and protection which God gives—especially in crisis—is to flirt with certain spiritual disaster.
If such disaster has occurred in the past, or is occurring now, and if you have failed perhaps the most disastrous way to hand Satan the victory is to refuse to come before God and seek His forgiveness. When we finally overcome our resentment, anger, stubbornness and are no longer too proud to confront God with out failure, God always—ALWAYS—forgives. Perhaps that is why God, against His own wishes, finally releases us to go to battle unprepared. Sometimes the only way we can finally learn God’s goodness is by making a mess of our own lives. Then, when totally devastated, God can work with our broken hearts and show us the greatest weapon we can ever have—the confidence in God’s total and absolute forgiveness—even for you.
“Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Ephesians 6:13
Every instance of suffering is not properly
called “bearing the cross.”
God does not wish that Christians suffer. However, He must test us in those areas of our life needing to be tested.
When one considers the many accounts of testing in Scripture, all of these testings have at least one thing in common. The testing involved the Christian’s attitude and attachment to the most valued thing in their life.
Some, like the Rich Young Man of Matthew 19, failed the test. By his confession, he believed he kept all God’s commandments perfectly. Like so many, he couldn’t imagine how Jesus could possibly deny him eternal life. After all, spiritually he “had it all together.”
The Rich Man’s attitude indicated that his faith had reached a plateau. In order for it to grow, it needed to be tested.
Scripture indicates that God knows all our needs. Often we think this only refers to food, shelter and the “daily bread”. Even though we pray, “And lead us not into the test,” we always pray that God’s will be done.
In the case of the Rich Man, Jesus knew this spiritually self-confident man needed his faith tested. “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said, “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21).
Notice two things about the nature of this testing. First, the Rich Man came with the agenda of wanting eternal life. Jesus responded with a different agenda–to bring this man into true discipleship. The second thing to notice is that the test to which the Rich Man expected and submitted himself was not the test which he asked for—and expected–Jesus to give him. The result? He failed!
When God tests Christians, He almost always tests them when their faith is plateaued or dying. It is said, “Whatever is not growing is dying.” Especially when faith has stopped growing God must, in love, intervene in our lives to that our relationship to Him will be daily renewed and strengthened as we live in–and discover–the promises of His comforting Word.
It is this discovery which is the essence of discipleship. The very moment when we, after suffering, finally realize victory, joy and the confidence of faith, God already makes preparations for our next test as His chosen disciples. He must work in our lives in such a way that our faith will continue to grow stronger and our dependence on His Word and Sacraments will increase and our desire to follow Him as disciples deepens.
Thus, when God allows suffering and trial in our lives, He doesn’t do it to destroy our faith. Instead, He does it so that, being challenged to greater growth by greater trial, we will experience His grace in trial in a greater way than ever before. This experience of grace will certainly expose us to unprecedented weakness, failure, loneliness and pain. The testing will certainly not be comfortable. It may even end in death. Yet, it is only in our experiencing our greatest weakness that the power of God can be demonstrated in our lives in the most remarkable way. Such demonstration results in joyful thanksgiving to God and growth as His disciples.
Like the Rich Man we often feel confident and ready for God to do whatever He wants to do in our lives. Looking at our track record, we are certain that we can handle whatever God has coming. Sometimes, when we feel we are most ready for the test, as was the Rich Man, God gives us the test…but not the test we expected. The result? We, like the Rich Man also fail.
We don’t know what happened to the Rich Man after he failed Jesus’ test of discipleship. We can only hope—though likely in vain—that sometime later in his life he turned back to God, repented, and enjoyed the restoration and strengthening of His faith in Jesus Christ.
Whatever happened in his case, we can be sure that even when we fail the simplest of God’s testings, our failure is never final. Even it such failure happened weeks, days, years or decades ago, there is—and never will be—a failure so large that God cannot and does not want to forgive. After all, “Forgive” is God’s middle name and “He will save people from their sins” is His only-begotten Son’s Name!
The most effective and beneficial testings involved those things we consider most essential in our lives.
What one person or thing is most valuable to you?
Everyone has something that is ultimately and supremely important to them. It could be their self-esteem, their work, their children, their spouse or even their ministry for Jesus Christ. Whatever it is, if it is supremely important to you, you can be sure God will test your love and dependency on Him over against your love and dependency for your supremely esteemed value.
Indeed, the most critical and difficult testings one will endure will certainly involve those things, people (friends, family, etc.) and issues which, from our perspective, are most highly prized, precious, valuable, esteemed and loved. Indeed, during the testing, every essential value, belief, moral, attitude, motivation, attitude, world-view and perspective by which we live will be rigorously questioned and doubted, painfully overturned and jettisoned.
During this testing, one will enter a depression and loneliness unlike any they have ever experienced. Such emotions arise not so much from external reasons as from internal causes. When one’s value and self-esteemed is undermined, a pervasive almost incurable feeling of “bottomless-ness” overtakes ones soul. This helpless downward spiral diverts whatever residual energies one has remaining to simply trying to live one more day.
Energies directed toward external goals, drives and achievements are depleted. Motivation to regain and redirect these energies is almost non-existent as positive encouragement from ourselves, others and Scripture ring hollow. Why do they ring hollow? Because, during this testing, all we can see around us is how everything has been taken away from us. Was it our fault? Very likely not. Yet, it is almost impossible to be able to consider this loss in God’s perspective until we have eventually began recovering by God’s grace. Such recovery, however, will not and cannot come until we first come to the recognition that we are nothing. We are dust, as Job declared, and unto dust we shall return. (Job 1)
During Job’s remarkable testing, it is remarkable how God, in Job 1, allowed Satan to take everything away. It was a four-stage testing. In each state of testing, Job’s myriad of servants were killed, animals were ravaged by the “fire of God”, enemies raided and stole the camels, and all his children were killed when a mighty wind caused the house to collapse on them. Certainly this testing demonstrated how every value, goal and aspiration Job had was destroyed before his very eyes—in a moment.
Jobs reaction, though not recorded in Scripture, must certainly have been one of grief, pain, tears and untold sorrow. Yet, barely had he began to deal with these great multiple and catastrophic losses that God allowed Job to endure another test. Though told by his wife to “curse God and die!” (2:9), even after he lost single good thing he ever had, “did not sin in what he said.” (2:10).
The testing of the most precious, valuable and essential parts of our being is the most severe test one can endure. It is this testing which will either drive us to despair and desertion of God…or to the victory of faith in Jesus Christ. It is only when God finally makes us emotionally and spiritually naked that we are confronted with the reality that the only thing we have in life is our faith in Jesus Christ. There is nothing else. Nothing.
This testing is only completely successful when we, like St. Paul, recognize that “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” However, one will experience much grief, anger, shock and loneliness until the point of acceptance comes when one can declare, “The Lord gave, the Lord took away. Blessed by the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
One need not—and should not—blame God for suffering which is a result of one’s own foolish actions.
Some of the most difficult testings come as a result of our own intentional or unintentional actions. Whether foolish or not, even the most well-intended actions can result in dramatic pain, loss and questioning. When such “boomerangs” occur, one’s first response is often to blame God. The reality, however, is that all we are doing is bearing the consequences of one’s own actions.
Unfortunately, as one wallows in the anger, bitterness and blaming of God, one overlooks one’s own weakness and culpability. Until one has given up one’s stubborn refusal to recognize how it was their own oversight which caused the problem, God will continue to take the brunt of their misdirected anger. More importantly, one must not only recognize that their own actions caused, contributed to or amplified the problem, but one must also be willing to make appropriate changes in their lives and actions lest such consequences happen again.
Some individuals are either unable to change or too stubborn to change their lives. As a result, God unfairly becomes a handy whipping post to conceal their own short-sighted perspective.
The real tragedy is that individuals caught in such a situation would rather deny their guilt and culpability than come to an absolutely, unconditionally forgiving God. Those who refuse to repent and acknowledge their weakness will never overcome the pain of their own undoing. Nor will they ever turn from blaming God. However, those who do repent will find an enormous release and healing as they finally find a loving God who accepts even the most foolish and rebellious sinners. What joy there is over one sinner who repents!
Suffering for the Christian is not punishment; it is discipline. It is the way God demonstrates that we are His children.
“Why is God punishing me?”
Christians demonstrate a remarkable level of misunderstanding when they ask this question. At issue, of course, are the very promises of God and the essence of the Gospel itself.
Certainly, the essence of the Gospel is that Jesus has born all the punishment for every single sin we have, are and will ever commit. As Isaiah wrote,
“The chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5 KJV)
Indeed, if Christ had not born the entire guilt and burden on sin on the cross, He could not have said—in the most certain of terms—”It is finished.”
Perhaps one of the reasons we have trouble believing that God does not punish the repentant sinner, no matter how great the sin, is because we live with the consequences of forgiven sin. For example, an intentional or unintentional sin such as drug abuse may have caused irreparable damage to ones body. Or a the pain of a divorce may have left relational scars that will never be forgotten.
Though sinners live with the consequences of our actions, this in no way means that God’s forgiveness is not absolutely and totally complete to all who believe. I John 1:8-10 testifies
“God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (KJV)
Thus, what we often think might be “punishment” is really, perhaps, a short-term, long-term or lifelong burden. Such lifelong pain will constantly nag us with a false sense of punishment. Admittedly, bearing the consequences of ours—or someone else’s—sin in ones body can easily lead to an unhealthy self-absorption in guilt. Often such guilt causes repentant Christians to continually recount every single detail of their life trying to discern for which specific sin—or sins—God is punishing them.
The danger in this circumstance is that the inability to let go of the notion of God’s punishment confuses, in their minds, the real love of God. Perhaps the greatest trial in this circumstance is patiently—and sometimes not so patiently—struggling to accept the unfathomable love of Jesus Christ. He said,
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34 KJV
The same forgiveness is for those who did know what they were doing. That’s how Paul could rejoice in the gracious mercy and undeserved forgiveness of God for him when he declared,
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Romans 8:1 NIV
Perhaps that the most important key for those wresting with the issue of God’s punishment. “But now there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Later in the same chapter St. Paul, having declared that no repentant sinner is condemned or rejected by God wrote,
“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all– how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:31-32 NIV
Christians are never alone in their testing, even when they feel they have left God.
Christians react differently and uniquely to various pressures, circumstances and testings. Regardless of what reaction is most prominently and initially expressed, sooner or later the Christian will find himself or herself wrestling with intense feelings of isolation, loneliness and emptiness.
Such emptiness, as mentioned earlier, will be greater than any emptiness ever experienced. This lonely feeling weakens and emotionally isolates Christians even from those who might normally be able to encourage the Christian. This often includes family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances and even God.
Though St. Paul wrote,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35, 37 NIV)
It is precisely these kinds of trials, distresses, persecutions and tragic circumstances which cause us to most greatly doubt God’s presence.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, recorded in Luke 15, Jesus gave one of the greatest images of God’s love for His people. Even in the worst-case-scenario of rejecting our heavenly Father, the Father’s love never gave up, never gave out, and never gave in. The Father patiently waited—and prayed—for his wayward son to return. He didn’t care what the son had done, didn’t care how grossly or crudely he had treated his father. All he wanted was to have his son return to receive and celebrate the unconditionally forgiving and accepting love the father had for his son. When he returned, even the angels rejoiced (Luke 15).
No matter how dramatically we have rejected, rebelled or jettisoned God He, like the father in the parable, always waits with open arms for us…ready to celebrate our repentance and return…eager to be present with and strengthen us in our greatest weakness. Indeed, this desire for those in weakness to return to Him was also demonstrated by Jesus who, immediately after condemning the Jerusalem elite said—weeping,
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing..” (Matthew 23:37 NIV)
If a Christian is alone in their suffering, it’s only a feeling, not the reality. For those who have forsaken God, a weeping God would invite them, urge them and gather them under his wings. “Come near to God,” James wrote, “and He will come near to you” (James 4:8 NIV).
Suffering is the gracious and careful preparation of God for greater exaltation in His grace. Thus, whatever suffering one endures is cause for joy, not despair.
Suffering is the gracious and careful preparation of God for greater exaltation in His grace. Thus, whatever suffering one endures is cause for joy, not despair.
Certainly suffering is not a means of grace. It is not a good work which helps us merit eternal life. But suffering is a way by which God strengthens and reinforces key areas of our life which bolster faith. Paul, in Romans 5, wrote,
“We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
(Romans 3:2b-5 NIV)
The key aspect of this reflection of suffering is that Christians do not receive the full benefit of suffering until such time that they move from self-pity, self-absorption and anger to taking on a spirit of perseverance. Indeed, there are a few select Christians who have endured the greatest sufferings one can imagine…time and time and time again.
Often one might wonder how they can continue to hold up under such catastrophic pressures. One reason is that they have, through their many sufferings, learned perseverance. As they persevered, they developed a sense of Christian character, not unlike that of Job. They live sprightly, they give witness to God’s love patiently, and they inspire in others with lesser tribulation an overwhelming and convincing sense of hope.
In their suffering they have learned that suffering is a necessary contributory to hope. Having such hope in Christ, these Christians are not at all disappointed by any suffering they experience. Why? Because they have a character of faith which basis its hope on the love which God had poured out on them. Such Christians truly understand, in a very profound way, the words of James,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (James 1:2-3 NIV)
“Why” questions are not in themselves sinful. Instead, they are an important part of the Christian’s response and reaction to God’s testing.
Why do Christians ask why?
Sometimes Christians ask “why” for information. This is perhaps one of the most frequent uses of this question. In suffering, Christians—and non-Christians—legitimately want answers.
Some think that asking “Why” is, in itself, sinful. Not necessarily. In fact, asking the heart-wrenching question, “Why God?” is an act of faith…and an important act of faith at that. The question “Why, God?” is often one of the greatest indicators that there is a relationship, an interaction of faith between God and the questioner.
In the Book of Job, nearly thirty-six chapters deal more or less than Job’s “Why God?” probing. Those around him also shared, perhaps, the same question. The greatest danger in asking “Why God?” is that if the asked is not patience, he or she may turn away from God for a time…or forever.
Perhaps the most ironic thing about “why” questions is that they are presented most often after some sort of irreversible event has transpired. Perhaps it might be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the onset of an incurable disease or other sudden, unforeseen and permanent change in ones’ life.
When “why” questions are asked in situations such as these, where nothing more can be done to change the situation, the why questions becomes part of the testing itself. Sometimes, these questions become the main part and reason for the testing.
Answers for “why” questions usually require lots of time and energy to deal with. Answers for “why” may be received at a later time or, more often, in the eternal courts of God. Thus the “why” questions require faith—in its purest form.
The writer of Hebrews wrote,
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1 NIV)
It is when we want the answers—but don’t see them—that raw faith is challenged, disturbed and developed.
When a Christian can put the “why” question to rest, such person has learned to trust God and His loving will…sight unseen. As Abraham discovered when god called him to go from Ur to an unknown land known only to God, God is not and encyclopedia of answers. He’s a dispenser of guidance. Trusting God’s guidance, day in and day out, especially when we don’t know what to expect is the act of greatest trust and faith.
“Why God?” Because God recognizes that our faith and trust in His loving will grows more when He withholds all the answers. All we need to recall are Paul’s words,
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NIV)
Next time you ask God, “Why?” remember His answer, “So that you’ll trust me completely and for life.”
From God’s perspective, a Christian’s trial is not successfully completed until such time that the Christian has come to a deeper understanding of God’s enduring promise of grace.
Perhaps the main purpose of all suffering is to strengthen our faith and relationship with God. Such strengthening only occurs as God’s Holy Spirit breaks down our resistance to God’s Word and receiving His will.
There are many signs which indicate such resistance. Christians who refuse to deal with negative emotions and bitter attitudes resulting from suffering never successfully endure suffering. From God’s perspective, even though the physical trial and suffering pass, even though miraculous physical healing might occur, the Christian who continues to demonstrate doubt, anger, self-pity and unresolved grief toward God has not successfully completed their trial.
Indeed, Christians who continue to experience the overwhelm of these emotions and resist the resolution of these often hostile feelings of bitterness, rage and/or indifference toward God may never completely come to terms with God’s grace for them. Resultantly, their trial continues…sometimes until the end of their life.
Sometimes, such Christians rebel against God, their pastor, their families, their church and others who might otherwise be supportive. Such rejection is often most destructively targeted against those Christians closest to them who could otherwise be the most helpful. Such rebellion, resistance and spiritual stubbornness is a source of innumerable tears and frustration for those closest to them causing those seeking to support the one in trial to go through an intense and exhausting spiritual trial of their own.
For the one in trial and those loved ones assisting, supporting and praying for the individual in trial, it is often easy to forget what God’s design for the suffering or tragedy is. Though Christian encouragement might be helpful, those in and supporting one in trial will never realize God’s gracious and loving hand until they begin to open their hearts to God’s Word—regularly and intentionally.
As the Word of God is opened, God’s Holy Spirit will help them to see the Psalms, Moses, Elijah, St. Peter, St. Paul and Jesus in a totally new way. Such perspective will demonstrate to them that these and others suffered greatly. Reading of Scriptures will enable them to see how the suffering and trials of Biblical personalities is often quite similar—and often more intense—than their own suffering.
Regardless of the intensity of the pain, the permanence of the suffering, or the end result, God would have those suffering see how—time and time again—God never left His chosen.
“Be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” (Hebrews 13:5 KJV)
This is God promise to us.
When the Christian in trial discovers and, by the disciplined, daily reading of Scripture, internalizes such promise of God—though the suffering continue—the trial is successfully endured and completed.
The most powerful testimony of one’s faith in God is patient endurance which trusts and submits itself to God’s gracious and loving will.
Perhaps the hardest thing for any Christian—especially the Christian in suffering—is to give up control. Those most accustomed to independent, self-sufficient and self-determining often have the greatest difficulty in suffering. Often their reaction to trial goes from one emotional extreme to another. One might experience extreme anger or depression, stubbornness or resignation, extreme aggressiveness or absolute passivity.
Often such extreme reactions are a reaction to the lonely helpless and powerless feeling they experience. Such reactions might also be due to a sense that God, not having answered their prayers as they would desire, has left them. Most commonly, they are a reaction of bitterness and rage—obvious or concealed—directed at God directly or through others.
St. Paul experienced the ongoing chronic pain of the “thorn of the flesh.” Though the nature of this condition is unknown Paul, in II Corinthians 12, described it as a “messenger of Satan,” This affliction undoubtedly pained Paul. It also likely hindered his effectiveness as an Apostle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul undoubtedly wrestled with this affliction. Praying to God to remove it, he may have reasoned that God should certainly remove this thorn in the flesh. After all, he may have reasoned, it was hindering Paul’s ministry for God. Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, finally prayed that God would remove this thorn.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
(II Corinthians 12:8-9 NIV)
God’s answer to Paul’s prayer was simply, “No.” The thorn in the flesh, this messenger of Satan would not ever be removed. Paul would bear it to the end of his life.
Was this because Paul didn’t know how to pray? No. Was Paul not healed because he didn’t have enough faith? No. Was Paul not healed because God was punishing Him? No. Even though Paul had persecuted Christians and even overseen—with his full consent—the death of Christian martyrs such as Stephen, none of these were the reasons God did not grant Paul’s request.
Instead, the reason God allowed the thorn to remain was to remind Paul of his weaknesses and his ultimate and exclusive dependence on God’s power.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for St. Paul was that after having prayed—and been denied by God–three times for the removal of this affliction was that he would have to adjust his life, albeit painfully. Without such adjustment Paul would never have fully realized the all-sufficient grace of God for him. Neither would he have recognized an even greater power of God working in him than he had ever experienced before.
Only after Paul made the adjustment could God’s power and all-sufficient grace have been experienced. Making the adjustment, however, was undoubtedly a painful adjustment demanding sacrifice, determination and an unprecedented hope and trust in God’s power. Such change was rewarded. As Paul in his weakness experienced the power of God, he found a loving God of whom he could boast.
Though this God lovingly denied Paul’s prayer, though this gracious God allowed Paul’s suffering to continue even at the apparent expense of the Christian Church, Paul weakness pointed him to the power of God and an unprecedented deepening of faith. Paul could boast in His God. His grace was all-sufficient. God could, would and did demonstrate His almighty power in Paul’s weakness in a most remarkably unimaginable manner.
Often God allows things to happen in a Christian’s life which irreversibly changes that person’s life. Physical weaknesses and disabilities such as blindness, paralysis, loss of limbs, debilitation illnesses and the like often initially draw the Christian away from God, especially after countless prayers had been spoken.
When God’s answer to their request for healing is, as it was to St. Paul, a clear “No”, the Christian must recognize that God’s answer to their prayer is identical to that He gave Paul. In order for the Christian to apply this answer to their life one, like Paul, must submit oneself to patiently enduring the suffering even until the end of their life.
As the Christian comes to terms with submitting themselves to God, the intense emotional outbursts, withdrawals, and the roller coaster o emotions will give way to a growing trust in a loving God who makes His strength in our weaknesses.
Such growing trust, in turn, will result in a patient submission to God. Such heightened trust and patience then prepares the individual for new opportunities for demonstrating God’s remarkable power through them. As God’s power works in them, such Christians boast in their Lord as they discover God’s all-sufficient grace for them…even in their greatest weakness. This is the most powerful testimony which a Christian can make.
Those whom God has graciously provided to sustain the Christian in trial may be painfully removed, as part of the trial, at such time God deems necessary.
Do you remember the Lone Ranger? The only time he was on the scene was when he was most needed.
If there was a bank robbery beginning, he would not be at the bank. He might not even be in the same town. As the bank robbers would start tying up the tellers and customers, he and Tonto were nowhere to be seen. But, just as the robbers were about to take the money and run off with the spoils of their scheme, the Lone Ranger would suddenly—and unexpectedly—enter, apprehend the robbers and free the hostages. Before anyone knew it, he’d be off riding off into the sunset. “Who was that masked man?” was the typical reply of those grateful recipients of his timely intervention.
In trial God also sends “Lone Rangers”. Such individuals or institutions may be churches, pastors, hospitals, or other such agencies which, during the most intense and difficult time of trial, give invaluable support in the time of greatest confusion and depression. Other times it might be someone who totally unexpectedly supports us at such time the suffering Christian is about to “crack.” God’s sending of such individuals is just one indicator of His great love for His children.
Sometimes Christians stubbornly refuse the Lone Rangers which God has sent. Refusing God’s intervention, they continue in their grief. Refusing the intervention of ministers, therapists or other professionals, the suffering Christian, by refusing God’s assistance, will undoubtedly get weaker, angrier, more depressed and more vulnerable to their condition. Such individuals, if they change, will change only when the pain they experience becomes greater than their ability to resist God. When such is the case, because God is loving He must turn up the pain so that the sufferer will finally cease to resist God.
Sometimes the Lone Rangers God sends are not recognized until after the most critical time in suffering. Sometimes they are people whom we might least likely suspect to be used by God. Such individuals, in their unique, God-gifted manner, give the support, encouragement and prayer the suffering Christian needs to stay focused during suffering.
Almost always, the intervention of this Lone Ranger comes just at the exact time—and for the duration—needed. As soon as God perceives their intervention is no longer needed, they are taken away from us. Left holding a silver bullet, the suffering Christian responds, “Who was that masked man?”
Because of their supportive intervention, one will often feel a life-long gratefulness and appreciation for their support. Those enduring the suffering recognize that without God’s provision of the Lone Ranger, the sufferer may have fallen into greater danger, made grievous mistakes, or even ended their own life.
Lone Rangers may also be a source of some of the greatest pain which trial brings. Because the Lone Ranger helped in the most critical time of suffering, their loss signifies the loss of a very special relationship of trust, vulnerability, trust and spiritual intimacy. The unprecedented trust and confidentiality of sharing ones deepest and most raw emotions is unlike that in any other human relationship.
When God takes such individuals away, there is great pain, extreme emptiness and an abysmal loneliness no one can ever describe. It is heart-wrenching, grueling and will often “scare the hell out” of one. Sometimes, the unintentional Lone Ranger, not understanding this, will think the sufferer has gone crazy. Other times, exhausted, the Lone Ranger may painfully deny friendship or otherwise irreversibly change the relationship. The pain of such broken relationship often leaves a lifelong trail of tears.
Intentional Lone Rangers, specifically helping professionals such as pastors, therapists, consultants, nurses, etc, may be especially effective in assisting the sufferer through trial. In the closeness of the relationship which develops as they intervene to assist, a special friendship and respect may also develop.
Much pain may also be experienced by the recovering sufferer as the helping professional gradually withdraws. Such withdrawal may be understood as indifference or a lack of genuine caring. It is not. The gradual, prudent withdrawal is simply a recognition that healing is occurring. As healing occurs, the most caring helping professional will encourage an increasing level of self-sufficiency and dependence on God’s power.
Whether the Lone Ranger is a helping professional or someone totally unexpected, God uses such individuals for two purposes. The first purpose, as discussed, is to support us in our greatest need for the exact time that God deems necessary. The second purpose is less obvious. As the Lone Ranger helps in our need, they mirror God’s love, support and concern. The third purpose is to prepare the Christian for a deeper and more intimate relationship with God.
The intensely personal relationship of trust and absolute dependency one develops with a Lone Ranger is a training ground for a greater relationship of trust and absolutely dependency upon God. When the Lone Ranger leaves, he or she often, from our perspective, leaves in an untimely manner. Though stabilized and strengthened, one still feels the road to complete healing is still far away. Resultantly, one may feel betrayed, dumped, rejected or put off by one’s Lone Ranger.
As God removes the Lone Ranger, He recognizes ones weakness. He knows the trial is not over. He knows much more must happen before healing finally occurs. In taking away the Lone Ranger, God’s desire is that the trust, intimacy and sharing one developed with God’s lone ranger be transferred to God. This handoff is extremely difficult and painful.
When the Lone Ranger leaves, with no one else to turn to one will often shares their feelings of loneliness and rejection with God. Through the many, many tears, groanings and heart-wrenching sighs of painful loss and loneliness, the sufferer finally finds a deepened relationship with God. Such relationship is less formal, more open, more honest and more intimate…not unlike that which had been experienced with the lone ranger whom God had sent to prepare and tutor us for this deepened relationship with God.
As one looks in hindsight on this experience, one will often see that it is this deepened relationship with Him which, during our trial, had been God’s loving and gracious plan all along.
After trial, the Christian is never the same.
St. Paul in Romans 5:1-5 wrote,
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:1-5 NIV)
Suffering, as Paul wrote, not only directs the Christian to the justification and forgiveness which Christ has given, but to the very peace of God. As peace only comes as a result of war, so our peace with God comes only as a result of the strife and trial which characterizes suffering.
But suffering also points the Christian to joy. Unlike happiness, joy is an unshakable state of inner confidence not dependent upon external events. Paul certainly was not happy when he suffered. Neither are Christians. However, having experienced God’s peace, no suffering, no pain, no tragedy and no sudden catastrophic loss can take the inner joy the Christ has in the peace of Jesus Christ.
Such joy, however, is not automatic. Though given at conversion, such joy deepens only as God allows suffering to produce perseverance, character and hope in our lives. The greater our hope, the less our disappointment with God as we come to realize how greatly He has poured our His love into our hearts in Jesus Christ.
How does such realization occur? Only as the trials of God deepen and expose our weaknesses. Trial, as God intends, exposes one’s weaknesses albeit painfully. During trial, individuals are often frightened as God as they experiences weakness never before experienced.
Like Peter, those areas deemed to be one’s greatest strengths will be “sifted like wheat.” One’s self-esteem, pride and sense of identity will be shattered, beaten down and humbled. Such experience will evoke an unprecedented emotional experience. One will feel intense anger, depression, confusion and fear. Untold tears will also occur spontaneously and in an unstoppable manner.
These tears of trial are the chisel God uses to change the Christian’s heart painfully—but skillfully—to enliven our hope in Jesus Christ. By exposing one deepest weaknesses and testing even our greatest strengths, God uncovers and begins to develop new strengths, new perspectives, new gifts and new visions for ministry.
Unless the trial or suffering had been experienced, the Christian would not have been tempered for the next chapter in their life as God’s chosen vessel. As the Christian prepares for and enters the next chapter of life, the Christian must also be prepared for what will undoubtedly be greater trial as God continues to make His grace demonstrated in our weakness.
God ultimately uses suffering as an act of Gospel to draw us to renewed understanding of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In Romans chapter one Paul wrote,
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16 NIV )
Though often understood to describe Paul’s unashamed proclamation of the Gospel, these words reflect Paul’s depth of faith and experience as a Christian. In repeated suffering, though repeatedly battered, beaten and left for dead, Paul’s experience of the Gospel was that in it was power. Such power was his even—and especially—in suffering.
Most remarkable is that in suffering Paul was not directed to the Law but to the Gospel. He was not directed to this works, his greatness, his merits, his workings of faith or any of the things He had done to Christ. Neither was he directed to his failings or guilt. Instead, he was directed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He knew there was power in the Gospel. There was power in the suffering of Christ for him. As Christ overcame suffering, by faith Paul also received the same power to uphold him in suffering. As Christ became victorious over death in the resurrection, even though Paul’s suffering might lead to death he, too, knew the power of the Gospel which gave him certain victory over death.
As Christians suffer and endure trial, they ought focus not on the Law. They ought not focus on their power, workings, successes and failures. Instead, focusing on the Gospel of Jesus Christ they, like Paul, will bask in the surpassing power of Jesus Christ. It is His Gospel which is the very power of God to salvation.
Death, at God’s time, is the final blessed
deliverance from suffering.
A society which is ignorant of the meaning of suffering will also deny the meaning of death.
A Christian, anticipating the imminent death of a very close friend once asked, “Pastor, please pray for a miracle.” The pastor responded, “Which miracle should we pray for? Should we pray that your friend be healed or taken to his Lord Jesus Christ?”
Such perspective reflects a common attitude held by Christians. Simply stated, such attitude believes that death should be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, such an attitude often believes that any and all use of medical technology ought to be used to spare the Christian from this terrible, terrible fate of death.
Such is not the Scriptural view of death. Jesus described death as “sleep”.
When sharing with his disciples the painful loss of his very best friend, Lazarus, he told his disciples,
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” (John 11:11). Because Jesus described death in such a disarmingly fearless and casual manner John recorded how,
“Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.'”
(John 11:13-14 NIV)
Jesus described death as sleep repeatedly in the Gospels as He did in the healing of Jairus’ daughter.
St. Paul’s reflection on his life caused him to reflect on Jesus’ death. He wrote in Philippians,
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21 NIV)
Anticipating his own martyrdom, in II Timothy 4 Paul described his death.
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.”
(I Timothy 4:6-9 NIV)
Though he may have been afraid of the pain or suffering which might cause death or be anxious about the uncertainty of what dying would be like, and though he would certainly miss those he loved most, St. Paul did not fear death. Instead, when his time had come, he recognized, accepted and embraced God’s timing.
More importantly, he embraced the lifelong hope of eternal life. While facing death, his perspective was not a backward brooding on how bad life was, how unfair God had been. Nor was it a melancholy muttering of how God was so mean and cruel to allow him to be killed. After all, hadn’t Paul done so much for God? How could God let him be killed—martyred—by such an evil Roman regime?
Paul’s perspective was one of hope. He kept the faith; now he looked to the crown of righteousness. For Paul, death was a reward for him and
“Also to all who have longed for His appearing.” (II Timothy 4:9 NIV)
All Paul’s life he wanted to see God. His entire life he prepared himself and others to meet the Lord of Glory who would award salvation to all who would believe. Like Job, he knew,
“I myself will see him with my own eyes– I, and not another.” (Job 19:27 NIV)
For Paul, to resist death would be to resist God’s greatest gift—eternal salvation in Jesus Christ. Now, in God’s time, Paul would receive this blessing. Death, for Paul, was the final blessed deliverance from suffering. At his last hour he, like Jesus, would in great confidence and victory say, “It is finished.”
In facing death, the Christian enjoys the same anticipation, the vision, the same confidence, the same victory. Such experience ought not be avoided but, in God’s time, welcomed. In the final days of his life J.S. Bach did not avoid death. In Christian faith, he openly welcomed death in the last of his Chorales, “Come, Sweet Death.”
The Christian’s final response to suffering
is always to bless God.
Having begun this overview of suffering with the account of Job, this final reflection underscores the entire purpose of suffering in the life of a Christian.
Why does God allow Christians to suffer? He does not allow them to suffer so that they give up faith. He does not send suffering so that they will blaspheme Him. Nor does He cause Christians to suffer as a way to “get back at them.”
No, the reason for suffering is that in the area of suffering God causes His closest and dearest children to experience His love, His Gospel in the greatest and most immediate, practical and intimate way possible. In suffering, he causes Christians to grow. In trial, He causes Christians to look not at their strengths, but at God’s strength.
Having recovered from trial, the Christian in retrospect will be able to look at their episode of trial as part of the loving plan of God for them.
Regardless of what is taken away, regardless of the pain or consequence of suffering—even if it be death—the Christian rejoices in the hope of God which declares with Job,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:21 NIV)
Before suffering, during suffering or after suffering, the Lord is with us always. Blessed be the name of the Lord!
Thomas F. Fischer