IF YOU'RE SUFFERING, OR KNOW SOMEONE WHO IS
WHY DO CHRISTIANS SUFFER?
Suffering is universal for the entire human race, and Christians are no different. No one is immune from the realities of living on an imperfect, tangible planet. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the saying goes. In high school I memorized a funny little poem to that effect, written by Charles Bowen:
The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.
Because the unbelieving world is tired of or turned off by, preaching, I believe that God uses suffering in a mighty way to testify to the Gospel. When a believer suffers, his life becomes real. Others are watching, and they see how the person of faith handles severe stress. That’s when our testimony rises from the level of mere words and flies straight into the human heart. Without suffering, our ability to proclaim the Gospel would be anemic. We should not be surprised when a Christian suffers. If we were such woosies that we could never endure pain, why would the unbelieving world want to give us a shard of respect?
Nor should we assume that the suffering is because of sin. It might sometimes be, but that doesn’t mean it’s the norm.
Our objective is not to eradicate Christian suffering or persecution. To do so would strike at the very heart of Gospel power. Eradication (on this mortal coil) has never been God’s intention.
Why do we suffer? There are many reasons. We suffer for righteousness’ sake, we suffer because it is God’s will, we suffer for a purpose, and we suffer for discipline (punishment or not). We may suffer because God wants to use our testimony for others to see.
What if our suffering were to encourage someone to endure? What if their spiritual life grew deeper as a result? What if an unbeliever came to the Lord because she was so inspired by your example? Would your suffering be worth it then? Watch your perspective, therefore, when you’re suffering. It has landed upon you not because “God hates you,” but because he wants to use you as a testimony. In that sense, it’s honorable to suffer.
It is also true that suffering may come as discipline. Look at discipline this way: When you’re being disciplined for sin, you know what the sin is. There’s no mystery to it. When I was at Florida State I took a class on ancient mythology. I was intrigued by the fact that the “gods” of the ancient world were a hybrid of supernatural power and human, fleshly, sinful emotion. In their peevishness, they would lash out on a whim. God does not do that. He is not petty, and he doesn’t play games with you. So, if you’re suffering for sin, you’ll know it, and you’ll see that you need to repent.
But, not all discipline is “punishment.” God may be pruning you so that you may produce greater fruit. Pruning is painful, but it’s one of the best tools of a Master Gardener. It works.
If I say that God may cause you to suffer to “test your faith,” you are probably taking that comment in a negative direction. But that would be to misunderstand the meaning of the word “test.” The word “test” in ancient Greek, and even in modern-day English, often means to affirm the quality of something. If you were to go to your local creek and find a nugget of gold, you would take it to a metallurgist who would test the true quality of it. What we’d all hope is that he would find it to be of high value. To “test” may well be to do something positive.
When God tests you, he may be wanting to show the high value of your faith. Such a purpose means that you can rejoice in your trials. Read 1 Peter 1:6-7 and see if it isn’t worth it to suffer in that context. Victory over suffering does not mean that we eradicate it. Victory means we rise above it by acknowledging the Lord’s purposes and glorifying him. Our faith and attitude are tested and found pure.
What happens when it’s another believer suffering instead of you? How do you minister to her? Our prime goal should be to love and support her by saying, “I’m sorry you’re going through this, I love you and am here for you, and I am praying for you.” Don’t play “Christian pharmacist” and prescribe cliches or verses for your friend. Such techniques are uncaring and become acid poured on the sufferer’s open wounds.
Suffering draws us closer to the Lord. We learn better how to trust in him day-by-day. When I visited Sudan, I met a pastor who lives in an area which is regularly bombed by the government as a part of its persecution of Christians. The pastor told me, “I pray that our war does not cease, for when it ceases our faith will cool.”
COULD GOD BRING THE PAIN?
After the fire, I got some pushback from Christians who didn’t like the fact that I said that God brought everything I had into one place only so that he could take it away three months later. They responded with, “God doesn’t do that.” Doesn’t he? I think their perspective of Scripture is incomplete. Hebrews says that God disciplines the sons he loves. There’s no discipline without discomfort. God is described as the active agent of discipline, not a weak, helpless creature who stands by and watches it happen while he wrings his heavenly hands. The fruit of our fire has been phenomenal.
The Bible tells of many times in which God brings the pain. After all, isn’t discomfort a form of pain? I’m not saying, though, that pain is evil. It may ultimately spring from evil, in the sense that sin unleashed pain in the universe, but God knows no evil himself. He does not deliver it.
What if pain were not evil? What if it were, at times, a force for good?
I have a firm belief in God’s sovereignty. He either actively produces pain, or as the Sovereign-in-control-of-the-universe he allows it. Either way, it rolls down on his sovereignty. He could stop it if he wanted to. I’m perfectly content to leave it there and let him sort out the rest. I take great comfort in having a sovereign God who knows what he is doing. I’ve learned to allow him to keep the score (as if he needed my permission).
If there is a God, he is sovereign, by definition. He is all-knowing, all-powerful. He does what he wants. He has the power to do whatever he wants—and that which is consistent with his nature. Proposing that there is a God also suggests that miracles can take place, for what can an almighty being do if not whatever he wants? And, it assumes that he can engineer circumstances and, yes, suffering.
Pondering sovereignty is equal to going into an impenetrable fog—we do not see where divine election and free will meet, or where the convergence takes place between God’s active and passive will. We can’t assume, though, that he’s ever caught by surprise.
WHAT ARE THE TAKEAWAYS?
Going back to the Garden of Eden, man wants to control his own destiny, even independently of his creator, and knowledge is one of man’s weapons to do so. Ever after, men and women have “insisted” that they know what is going on, that they understand the “whys” of their sufferings, and that they know what is coming next. As a result, we humans do faith poorly.
God responds by telling us to accept the fact that his ways are higher than ours and to trust that he knows what he is doing. Live day-by-day and fulfill the role you’re designed to play. If God calls us to talents and vocations, can he not call us to circumstances?
I encourage you to worry less about the “why” for the suffering and to focus more on how you’re going to serve God with it. Think about the audience around you. People are watching to see how you handle it. What if your suffering were God’s platform for your testimony? Would that change how you saw it, and what you did?
At the same time, I don’t think we have to be stupid or emotionally numb. Be honest about your pain. Cry out to God; the “big names” in the Bible sure did. It’s okay. In fact, that’s what it means to be human.
But, do immerse yourself in the Scriptures to absorb encouragement and strength. Remember, the suffering is short-lived. Better days are ahead, and they’re coming sooner rather than later. 2 Corinthians 4:17 encourages us that, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Compared to the glory of your reward, your suffering is feather-light.
For further study, look into these Scriptures:
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
1 Peter 2:19-25
1 Peter 4:12-16
1 John 3:13