From the January/February 2014 issue of Discern Magazine

Why Am I Suffering?

Why doesn’t God protect us from all the troubles we face? Doesn’t He care? Or could it be that He allows us to suffer to serve a vital purpose in our lives?

[From the January/February 2014 issue of Discern.]

We live in a world of hurt, but should it be like this? If God is an all-powerful and loving Father, it seems He should be able to protect us from illness, accident, crime, natural disasters—or any other source of anxiety and sorrow.

Suffering is deeply personal, and we experience it in many ways. In times of severe distress there don’t seem to be adequate words or explanations. We grasp for answers to the urgent questions of the moment: “Why? Why me? Why not me? Why now? Why this? What’s next? Where was God when this happened?”

It’s clear that some people bring suffering upon themselves by the choices they make. But it’s also obvious that some are unsuspecting victims of others’ bad decisions or of seemingly random events. Why doesn’t God at least protect those who sincerely try to live a good life and obey His law?

In order to answer this, we need to take a step back to consider our circumstances from a wider perspective. It’s fundamental, though it may be confusing at first, to understand that God doesn’t promise to prevent all loss, heartache or stress in our lives. In fact, He acknowledges that at times we will suffer.

God has a plan

God has a plan for us individually and for all of mankind. His purpose is to create a family to live with Him for eternity in the Kingdom of God. There are many ways God works in the lives of His children to prepare us for our place in that Kingdom.

For example, by His grace God offered His Son so that we can be reconciled to Him (Colossians 1:19-21) by repentance and the forgiving of our sins (1 John 1:9). When we submit to Him through repentance, baptism and obedience, He grants us the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 5:32). Through the Holy Spirit, He gives us knowledge, understanding, confidence and hope (Ephesians 1:15-19). He promises to provide for our physical needs as we make His Kingdom and righteousness our highest priority (Matthew 6:33).

And He allows us to suffer (Acts 14:22). That’s part of His plan for us too. Not because He is arbitrary or cruel or takes any pleasure in our pain, but because there is a dimension of personal growth that can only be achieved through difficult and challenging times.

Jesus’ example

As we encounter hardship, it’s helpful to be reminded how much our Savior suffered. Jesus lived a perfect life, completely free of sin. If anyone deserved to not experience grief and pain, it was Jesus Christ. Yet He suffered terribly, both mentally and physically. On the night before His death Jesus cried out to the Father in emotional agony (Luke 22:42-44) because He understood the incredible burden of responsibility that He carried, and He realized the excruciating death He was facing.

Earlier, when Peter expressed on behalf of the disciples their understanding that Jesus was the Christ (Messiah), He told them, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Luke 9:22).

Jesus realized what was ahead. He knew He would suffer in many ways and eventually be murdered by the religious leaders.

On that same occasion Jesus made it clear that those who follow Him must also be willing to suffer. “Then He said to them all, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it’” (verses 23-24).

Just as a person being led to crucifixion was required to carry his own cross, Jesus said that His disciples would have to be willing to carry the burdens of life while faithfully following Him.

It’s evident that Jesus suffered and that we will too. But why? What are we to learn when we experience severe difficulties?

What good can come from adversity?

It’s natural to focus on our immediate pain, anxiety or fear. But on another level something much greater is being accomplished.

Paul wrote of a process of growth that starts with anguish and leads to absolute confidence in God. “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5, New Revised Standard Version).

Endurance and character are not easy to come by. They are forged in difficult times, giving us the strength to remain steadfast and exercise our faithfulness as we suffer.The Greek word translated “endurance” in verse 4 means the strength to stand firm in difficult circumstances (Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1988). We only develop this kind of strength by working through the severe challenges of life. Just as physical endurance is built by exercise, spiritual endurance is established in troubled times.

Hardship establishes and strengthens our resolve. The way we conduct ourselves in the face of hardship reveals who we really are at our core—our values, beliefs and commitment to continue to faithfully follow Jesus (“carry our own cross”) even if life seems unbearably difficult.

Endurance and character are not easy to come by. They are forged in difficult times, giving us the strength to remain steadfast and exercise our faithfulness as we suffer. As Proverbs 24:10 states, “If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength is small.”

Paul made the point in Romans 5:5 that as we grow in the qualities of endurance and character, we build a foundation of genuine hope—unshakable confidence in God’s love and the anticipation of His promises. Hope is a powerful resource that is the result of tested and proven endurance and character. Hope is our sure footing when life seems slippery, based on our certainty that even in the hardest of times, God has not forsaken us (Hebrews 13:5).

In addition to endurance, character and hope, there are other qualities we develop when we experience difficult times, such as:

  • Faith—our trust in the love, power and mercy of God to watch over us and care for us at all times.
  • Patience—a willingness to wait with confidence for God to take care of us in a difficult situation.
  • Empathy—an understanding and compassion for others based on a shared experience.
  • Courage—the determination to overcome our fears to continue to follow and trust in God.
  • Appreciation—the realization that, even in our most difficult moments, God has given us much to be thankful for and hopeful in.
  • Perspective—the ability to see our situation from God’s point of view and the good that can come from our circumstances.

Each of these qualities makes us stronger, more stable and more mature. Each is an aspect of character that God is looking for in His children. And each grows within us as we encounter and successfully work through difficult times.

A path to repentance

God also allows us to suffer to turn us toward Him, helping us to make a strong, deep and complete commitment to Him.

Hebrews 12 says that God disciplines His children: “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children.

“Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (verses 7-11, NRSV, emphasis added).

The word “discipline” has two applications. First, it means to train a person in accordance with proper rules of conduct (Louw and Nida). For example, one way God teaches us “proper rules of conduct” (His law) is through our study of Scripture.

Second, the word “discipline” means to punish for the purpose of improving behavior. Parents have the unpleasant responsibility of punishing their children to help them learn from their wrong behavior. But as parents, since we love our children, we have to be willing to help them learn even the hard lessons.

In the same way, there are times when God allows us to suffer the consequences of disobedience so that we can learn from our sinful mistakes. If God ignored our misbehavior and allowed us to continue in it, He would not be expressing the love of a Father who wants the best for His children.

We can have faith that suffering isn’t arbitrary or meaningless—that even when we don’t understand it, He always has our best interest at heart.Continuing in Hebrews 12 we read that the purpose of this kind of discipline is to strengthen and heal us spiritually, so we can continue in the “straight paths”—the way God wants us to live (verses 12-13).

Not all suffering is the direct result of God disciplining us. But when we suffer, we have an opportunity to look carefully at our lives, to consider the lesson of obedience that we can learn from the circumstances. Scripture calls that repentance, which is at the foundation of our relationship with God.

God will wipe away every tear

In His loving wisdom, God is teaching us powerful lessons that will strengthen us for future experiences and help to prepare us for our place in His eternal Kingdom. In this lifetime we’ll never completely understand why God allows some events to take place. But we can have faith that suffering isn’t arbitrary or meaningless—that even when we don’t understand it, He always has our best interest at heart.

God is creating within us qualities of character that cannot be gained except by difficulty. And He also uses suffering to draw our attention to changes we need to make to put us on the “straight paths” of life.

Yes, we do live in a world of hurt. But it won’t always be this way.

When we have learned those lessons and are prepared to become part of His Kingdom, there will no longer be any need for suffering—it will have served its purpose and will no longer be part of our lives. In His vision of the Kingdom of God, the apostle John wrote of a time to come when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Do you have other questions? For example, what role does Satan play in mankind’s suffering? See our article “Why Does God Allow Suffering?” on the website or download our free booklet by clicking below.

About the Author

Don Henson

Don Henson

Don Henson, along with his wife, Rannie, is currently the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Akron-Canton and Columbus-Cambridge, Ohio. He has been in the pastoral ministry since 1986, previously serving congregations in Oregon, Tennessee, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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