§ God as a loving, caring, and omnipotent Father will never want or allow His children to suffer for no reasons. Yet, just like a father, He sometimes permits his children to suffer (Ac 14:22) because of many benefits.
◦ Ac 14:22 …strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.
A. Suffering is an avoidable part of life.
(1) Suffering is a natural consequence of being human. Christians, like other people, live in the same world and experience similar sufferings.
(2) Suffering is also a natural consequence of being a Christian (1Pe 2:21). Christians may be persecuted because of their faith (Mt 5:11-12). It is described as a baptism of fire, resulted from the conflict of values between believers and non-believers (Lk 3:16; 2Ti 3:12).
◦ 1Pe 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
◦ Mt 5:11-12 Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
◦ Lk 3:16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
◦ 2Ti 3:12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
B. Suffering can have positive effects for the Christian who suffers. It has educational value for spiritual and psychological growth. It is a refining process for deeper faith (1Pe 1:6-7), like gold refined by fire (Rev 3:18).
► C.S. Lewis says, “God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
◦ 1Pe 1:6-7 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
◦ Rev 3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich.
(1) Training (rebuke) and purification: (Heb 12:5-6,11; Rev 3:19)
● Force us to leave sin, repent and be holy
● Shock us out of potentially disastrous thinking
● Prove that God still loves
◦ Heb 12:5-6 My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.
◦ Heb 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
◦ Rev 3:19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.
(2) Humility and reliance:
● Keep us from pride; keep us humble (2Co 12:10); keep us in touch with the facts of human frailty; keep us out of illusory contentment
● Force us to break down self-reliance and rely on God
● Force us to obey and receive subsequent blessings (Rom 8:17)
◦ 2Co 12:10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
◦ Ro 8:17 if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
(3) Strength and steadfastness:
● Strengthen moral character, such as courage and higher tolerance
● Produce steadfastness and patience (Jas 1:3-4)
● Remind us of Christ’s suffering for us
◦ Jas 1:3-4 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
(4) Compassion and empathy:
● Help one to learn compassion, sympathy for suffering people, and self-sacrifice in providing help
● Cause us to look beyond this brief life; remind us that the world is not our permanent home and we should not love the world (Heb 11:13-16; 13:14)
● Help us to reconsider the true meaning and value of life, the changeability of the world and the non-changeability of God
◦ Heb 11:13-16 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
◦ Heb 13:14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
C. Suffering may be beneficial for others.
● Suffering leads to conversion; persecution leads to evangelization. For example, martyrs in early church demonstrated their courage in facing death for their faith attracted many non-believers to seek the gospel. That is why the blood of martyrs has been described as the seeds of the gospel.
● [Related to this issue but not about Christian suffering: A non-believing person is forced by suffering (such as terminal illness) to think about meaning of life and may subsequently come to Christ. Some people describe cancer as a Christianizing disease because it provides ample time for the patient to reflect on the meaning of life while waiting for death, at least the threat of death.]
● Our courage in encountering suffering with peace (even joy) can demonstrate our faith to non-believers and attract them to the gospel. It can also encourage other Christians.
(3) Ability to help:
● One’s suffering will enable one to later comfort others who have similar sufferings (2Co 1:3-5). Those who suffer are more willing to listen to someone who suffered the same fate in the past.
◦ 2Co 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
● The fellowship will be stronger after passing through the same suffering together, including praying, spiritual encouragement, emotional support, practical help.
● Tragedy is often what binds hearts together, forces people to overcome differences and causes individuals to truly appreciate each other.
D. Sufferings sometimes give God the opportunity to demonstrate His power (Jn 9:1-3; 11:4), thus bringing glory to God and affirming the sovereignty of God.
◦ Jn 9:1-3 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
◦ Jn 11:4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
e. Because of the above four reasons, God permits us to suffer, just like a father sometimes permits his children to suffer (Ac 14:22). Yet, even during our suffering, God’s love is always with us (Rom 8:38-39); God’s grace is sufficient (2Co 12:9); all things work together for the good (Rom 8:28).
A hymn says: “God hath not promised skies always blue,/ Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through;/ God hath not promised sun without rain,/ Joy without sorrow, peace without pain./ But God hath promised strength for the day,/ Rest for the labour, light for the way;/ Grace for the trials, help from above,/ Unfailing kindness, undying love.”
F. Do not over-emphasize the benefits: It is important that we should not simply emphasize the benefits of suffering and conclude that all suffering is good. Suffering can also break the spirit, destroy the character, and sap the energy for spiritual growth. Yet, everyone will encounter some sufferings so it is important to learn to face sufferings with a positive attitude.
§ Suffering could be a temptation from Satan, or it could turn into a temptation.
A. Three sources of temptation (see temptation of Jesus in Mt 4:1-10):
► Satan the tempter (through subconscious suggestions, 1Th 3:5)
► ourselves (from our own desires, Jas 1:14; 1Ti 6:9)
► the world (explicit suggestions from our surroundings, 1Jn 2:15-16)
◦ 1Th 3:5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labour would be in vain.
◦ Jas 1:14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.
◦ 1Ti 6:9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
◦ 1Jn 2:15-16 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.
B. God is never the source of temptation (Jas 1:13). He will only permit those temptations that we can bear and He promised to provide a way out (1Co 10:13).
◦ Jas 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.
◦ 1Co 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
C. Sometimes, the suffering is originally neither a temptation nor a test but suffering can turn into a stumbling block to our spiritual journey (for example, blaming God) and in effect becomes a temptation. That is why Christians need to be cautious when suffering comes.
§ Most important attitude: Do not blame God or man but rely on God.
A. General attitude:
► Avoid the suffering that can be avoided rightly.
► Remedy the suffering that can be remedied rightly.
► Accept and make use of the suffering that, without doing evil, can neither be avoided nor remedied.
B. Passive actions:
► Must avoid improper reaction: blame men (or self), blame God, feel helpless
► Stop wrong attitudes, such as attitude of “hang on to” something (either something lost or something wished for)
► Dispel feeling of unfairness; forgive those who hurt us
► Clear up own sins (if these are the probable cause of suffering)
C. Active actions:
► Remember how Christ also suffered (Isa 53:4-5; Heb 2:18; 1Pe 2:21)
● Hymn: “Are you lonely? Really lonely? Jesus was more lonely still.”
◦ Isa 53:4-5 [Jesus also suffered] Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
◦ Heb 2:18 [Jesus also suffered] For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
◦ 1Pe 2:21 [We follow Christ’s example of suffering] For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
► Think of suffering as following Christ’s suffering (Mt 16:24; Php 3:10, bearing “our” cross)
◦ Mt 16:24 [We have to bear our cross] Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
◦ Php 3:10 [We share Christ’s suffering] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.
► Find values in suffering and be joyful (Php 4:4; Rom 12:12)
◦ Php 4:4 [Always rejoice, even in suffering] Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
◦ Rom 12:12 [Be patient] Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
D. Rely on God:
► Remember that God’s love is always with us in sufferings, even though consolation may not be apparent (Ro 8:38-39; Mt 5:4)
◦ Ro 8:38-39 [God’s love is always with us] For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
◦ Mt 5:4 [Suffered person will be comforted] Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
► Hold onto God’s promise: He is our refuge (Ps 46:1), our strength (Ps 28:7), our shepherd (Ps 23:1; Isa 40:11)
◦ Ps 46:1 [God is our refuge] God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
◦ Ps 28:7 [God is our strength] The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
◦ Ps 23:1 [God is our shepherd] The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
◦ Isa 40:11 [God is our shepherd] He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
► Be assured that God’s grace is sufficient (2Co 12:9) and all things work together for the good (Ro 8:28)
◦ 2Co 12:9 [God’s grace is sufficient] But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
◦ Ro 8:28 [Everything will turn out good] And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
► Abandon self (self-denial, Gal 2:19-20) to the will of God (letting-go, not hanging-on, Job 1:21)
◦ Gal 2:19-20 [God lives in me] For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
◦ Job 1:21 [Obey God’s will] And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
► Think about the glorious future that God prepared for us (2Co 4:16-5:3; Ro 8:18; Rev 21:4).
● Teresa of Avila says: “The most miserable earthly life, seen from the perspective of heaven, looks like one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
● A hymn says: “God hath not promised skies always blue,/ Flower-strewn pathways all our lives through;/ God hath not promised sun without rain,/ Joy without sorrow, peace without pain./ But God hath promised strength for the day,/ Rest for the labour, light for the way;/ Grace for the trials, help from above,/ Unfailing kindness, undying love.”
◦ 2Co 4:16-5:3 [Focus on eternity] So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.
◦ Ro 8:18 [Hope for future glory] For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
◦ Rev 21:4 [No more suffering in eternal life] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
§ We need to share the suffering with those who suffer and encourage them to rely on God. All actions depend on individual situations. Ask for God’s guidance and use your wisdom to select the appropriate actions.
A. Be available: visit the suffering person, only if it is agreeable as some suffering persons prefer not to see visitors. If so, do not insist.
B. Share the suffering: remain with the person and stay quiet. In most cases, no words are needed. (Job 2:12-13)
◦ Job 2:12-13 And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
C. Be sensitive: do not ask questions, definitely no questions about the causes and details of suffering. If the person shares about the suffering, listen patiently and attentively but do not ask questions. (Job 16:1-4)
◦ Job 16:1-4 Then Job answered and said: “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Shall windy words have an end? Or what provokes you that you answer? I also could speak as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you and shake my head at you.
D. Offer support: where appropriate, offer verbal support (encouragement: you are in our prayers, suffering will eventually end) and offer practical help (share the required work such as chores and transportation).
E. Read the Bible: when appropriate, ask for permission to read the Bible together.
F. Offer to pray together: ask God for strength (to overcome the suffering) and for deliverance.
Supplement to Q.33: SUMMARY to Christian suffering
► The problem of evil is the most difficult question for Christianity to answer. Every Christian should study and understand it.
► To deal with this problem, God gives Christians the assured hope (based on God’s promise in the Bible) that God will destroy and annihilate evil in the future. More than just hope in the future, God gives Christians the strength and power in the present life to overcome all the negative feelings linked with sufferings.
► There are excellent logical responses to various questions surrounding this problem (Q.3 to 9). However, all good logical, apologetical, theological, or Biblical explanations are useless when facing the reality of pain and suffering. When one is in the midst of suffering, none of the rational answers make sense. So rational explanations should be understood before sufferings come.
► When someone is in sufferings, Christians should give direct support in person (Q.12) and moral support through reliance on God (no.5 in Q.11).
► We have to admit that one or two questions (innocent suffering, Christian suffering) may have no fully satisfactory answers.
● We have to trust God’s heart. Remember how God has loved us and blessed us in the past, so be assured that God will surely lead us pass the present difficulty. (2Co 1:10)
● We will understand the real reason behind all our sufferings when we see God. (1Co 13:12)
● It is certain that all God’s actions are just and that all questions will be satisfactorily answered in the end even if we cannot imagine so right now.
§ Are you lonely? (Hymns of Life no.338, Anonymous Author)
1. Are you lonely? Really lonely? Jesus was more lonely still,
Came as man to earth from heaven, Bore disgrace and treatment ill.
He was lonely in the city, More alone on Calv’ry’s hill.
Not one soul with Him to suffer, O what grief His heart did fill.
2. Are you weary? Really weary? Jesus was more worn than you.
As He bore the cross to Calv’ry, Cruel torture He endured.
Weary, sleepless in the garden, Bending ‘neath sin’s crushing load,
As He kneeled and prayed in anguish, Sweat did fall like drops of blood.
3. Are you needy? Really needy? Jesus poorer was than you.
Nests for birds and holes for foxes, Only He ran to and fro.
Place to place He walked a lifetime, Preaching truth to heedless men;
As a babe born in a stable, Buried in a stranger’s tomb.
4. Are you burdened? Really burdened? Jesus’ load was greater yet.
He can carry all our sorrows, Comfort us when griefs beset.
He Himself bore heavy burdens, Wore a thorn crown, suffered pain.
On the cross He hanged in anguish, Died that we might heaven gain.
§ Sonnet: Death, Be Not Proud! by John Donne (1572-1631)
DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; nor yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go—
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke. Why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!
Supplement to Q.36: Joy vs. happiness
► Joy (true happiness) can exist even in the midst of suffering:
► The “shallow” meaning of happiness (our modern meaning) is a subjective state, and is a present, temporary phenomenon, and is largely a matter of chance or fortune, and its source is external.
► The “deeper” (the older meaning) meaning of happiness is an objective state (be happy without feeling happy such as Job and happiness described in Mt 5), and is a permanent state, and is under our control, our choice, and its source is internal. This requires wisdom and virtue.