Why Christians suffer
The existence of suffering in a world controlled by a good God is one of the most perplexing and difficult problems with which the church throughout the ages has had to wrestle. It has perplexed the best theologians and tormented the soul of perhaps every person who has called upon the name of Christ in time of trouble.
If God is truly a good God, how can he permit the existence of so much evil and so much undeserved suffering? If Christ suffered and died for all who trust in him, why do so many faithful Christians continue to suffer the ravages of famine, disease, and persecution? The faith of many a would-be believer has crumbled beneath the weight of these questions. So it is important that we know what the Bible has to say about these issues – not just for the sake of fellow Christians who are in pain, but also for the sake of troubled and lost souls who are in need of a Savior.
God is in control
There is no doctrine of Scripture which, when firmly rooted in the heart, will have a greater impact on the demeanor of men in adversity than the doctrine of divine providence. The man who believes that his circumstances, however difficult, are the work of a loving and just God, will behave very differently from the man who believes that they are the product of chance. The difference between the two is the same as that between the strokes that a child receives from his father and the bruises that a man receives from a mugger.
The Bible teaches that there is no such thing as accidental suffering. The sovereign rule of God extends to every thought, word, and deed of every man, woman, and child throughout history, not excepting even the fall of Adam and the relentless evil that has flowed from it. To deny this, as so much of professing Christendom has done, is to rob God of his divinity and enthrone a figment of our own imaginations in his place.
The Scriptures are very clear about this. The most wicked crime ever committed in this world was the betrayal, torture, and murder of Jesus Christ. Yet even that deed, we are told, and the entire complex of events and decisions that led up to it, were decreed by God (Acts 2:22-23; 4:25-28). Are we then to believe that the far less significant events that comprise the history of our individual lives are somehow beyond his control?
If even a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God's decree (Luke 12:6), surely the greater falls which we suffer are in his hands as well. The believer may not understand how a God who is so pure that he cannot look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13) can decree the existence of evil. And he may seldom, if ever, understand fully why the Lord has done what he has done. But he will not accuse God of wrongdoing.
Christ surveyed the suffering that was before him and shuddered! But it was enough, for him that it was his Father's will (Matthew 26:39). May we all be given the grace to respond in like fashion to our own trials, which are so small in comparison.
"Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" Job 2:10
Suffering in unbelief
We must distinguish very carefully between the suffering of believers and the suffering of unbelievers. The Lord brings them each to pass in his own time, but for very different reasons. Perhaps the greatest curse that God can place upon those who do not know him is to bless them abundantly with health and prosperity and to permit them to rest comfortably in their sins with no thought of the terrible judgment that awaits them. Their own prosperity, says Scripture, will destroy them (Proverbs 1:32).
The suffering and death that are so much a part of this world are, for unbelievers, only a foretaste of the terrible judgment to come (Luke 13:1-4). They are a sober warning to any who have ears to hear, and in that sense they are a great mercy. The pains and sorrows of this world are the faint whispers of the torments that one day will shout the justice of God from the bowels of hell.
All suffering is deserved
No suffering is so severe that its infliction on the godliest of men would be an injustice. "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). "There is none that doeth good, no, not one" (vs. 12). Every true Christian knows this in his heart of hearts, and this knowledge should temper his reaction to adversity.
A man who deserves the torments of hell and receives infinitely loss, and knows very well that this is the case, will be far less likely to grumble in the midst of suffering than a man who thinks well of his own merits. The times when we are in the greatest pain should be the very times when we think most about what we really deserve and how gracious God has actually been to us. Paul saw himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and that explains in large part how he could suffer such persecution (2 Corinthians 11:23-27) with such joy (Philemon 2:17; 3:1, 3; 4:4).
Suffering is a means of humbling us
Nothing reveals the true state of a man's heart like adversity. When hard times come, as surely they must, men will either shake their fist in defiance of God or bow to a wisdom much higher than their own. Suffering will drive a man away from God or it will cause him to flee to God for shelter. It should not surprise us, then, that when we drift away from God, he often uses adversity to humble us and draw us back home.
It has always been true that devotion to God flourishes in the midst of adversity. It should not surprise us that Pilgrim's Progress was written from a dungeon, or that the prodigious literary and ecclesiastical labors of John Calvin were the product of a life filled with personal tragedy and medical problems that culminated in his early death. Paul himself was afflicted with an unspecified disease that was given to him by God to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:7).
"In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath, set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him." Ecclesiastes 7:14
Godly men throughout the ages have invariably looked back on their sorrows as needful reminders of their dependence on God and of the danger and futility of seeking worldly peace and comfort.
There is a suffering for sin even for believers
While it is true that not all the suffering that Christians endure is the result of God's chastisement for particular sins, it is certainly true that some of it is. God will not be mocked, especially by those who profess to be his children (Galatians 6:7; 1 Peter 4:16). The examples of Ananias and Sapphira and of the believers at Corinth who died or became ill for profaning the Lord's Supper are sober reminders to us of the seriousness of sin (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:30).
If our personal lives or our churches are filled with strife, disease, and adversity, then we need to take a close look at the state of our hearts and the conduct of our lives. If we (or our churches) regard iniquity in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us (Psalm 66:18). There is always value in self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5), but especially in difficult times.
God uses suffering to bring glory to Himself
It is not true, however, that all of our trials are God's judgments upon our sins. John tells us about a man who was born blind in order that his healing might bring glory to God (John 9:2-3). God allowed Job to suffer simply to prove that his godliness was not dependent upon the blessings that he had received (Job 1:10-12). We love God because he is worthy of our adoration even when his hand lies heavy upon us. As Job declared, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15).
The believer who patiently endures suffering brings glory to God, irrespective of whether he is delivered in this life. Most of us have known dear Christians who have confronted debilitating disease or great adversity with grace in their hearts and praise on their lips. I have known a few such believers briefly and can only say that I was greatly blessed by their demeanor. A faithful life that is brief and painful brings infinitely more glory to God than a long life characterized by complacency and comfort.
There is in suffering a fellowship with Christ's suffering
Believers who suffer for righteousness' sake share in the fellowship of Christ's suffering (Philemon 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13). We will never suffer judicially for our sins in the way our Savior did in our place. We can add nothing to the work which Christ has done for us on the cross, but through suffering we can come to better understand what he has done for us. Flow impoverished our understanding of the cross would be if there were no sufferings in our lives! If we would have this thought always before us when troubles arise, our burden would be lightened immeasurably and our darkness would by God's grace be turned into the most marvelous light.
Note: Quotes from the King James Version.