Understanding Suffering

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4).

- Psalm 23

Christian or not, suffering remains an inevitable result of living in this world. Human beings often find themselves asking “why?” any time they encounter a terminal illness, a child with birth defects, unjust imprisonment, or any other such tragedy.

Non-Christians have offered several answers to this question, and it is helpful to examine some of them since these replies can influence us. Some non-believers adopt a docetic view of suffering, which denies the reality of pain altogether. Suffering is merely an illusion in this view. The docetic view is held by the Christian Science cult, and it has many affinities with the teachings of Eastern religions.

Our culture has embraced the hedonistic view of suffering more than any other. This worldview seeks to reduce pain and acquire pleasure, at any cost. To dull their physical and emotional pain, men and women turn to sexual infidelity, illegal drugs, gluttony, and other sinful behaviors believing that “if it feels nice, don’t think twice.”

The stoic view of suffering says that we have no control over what happens to us externally. All we can do is choose how we will respond internally; the goal here is to let nothing bother us. We should do our best “to keep a stiff upper lip” and to “let nothing get us down.”

Evangelicals have probably been most affected by the stoic view. Regrettably, we are often prone to minimizing the reality of our grief and will act as if the proper way to face suffering is to pretend nothing of any consequence has happened. But this is not the approach of Jesus; after all, John recorded that He wept (John 11:35). It is not sinful to mourn the loss of a loved one or to admit our pain.

Christians ask God “why?” when we suffer, and sometimes we find that it results from the Lord’s discipline (Heb. 12:3–17). However, Job’s life shows us suffering is not always due to our sin. And as with Job, God may not tell us the “why” of our pain in every case.

God is not obligated to give us the reason for our suffering. Still, whether He is disciplining us or not, we know He is always with us in our pain (Ps. 23:4) to use our suffering for good, redemptive ends and to bring glory to Himself (Rom. 8:28).

Coram Deo

The Lord never tells His people that they will not suffer. This is all the more important to remember in the midst of a culture that wants instant gratification and believes it is a divine right to avoid pain and have a comfortable life. Knowing that suffering will surely come encourages us to look for God’s presence in our troubles. For as we see in today’s passage, we can be assured that He is with us even as we go through the darkest times.

Passages for Further Study

Ps. 105:4
Isa. 43:1–7
Jer. 30:11
John 14:15–17
Phil. 4:9

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