Why Do We Suffer? Rethinking Pain’s Role in the Christian’s Life

   

Image by Jade Hewitt

Guest Post by Andy Scott

Suffering. Our world is full of it. From the single mother who is trying to feed her five children on a minimum wage job, to the little girl who is lying on her deathbed as a result of a losing battle with leukemia. The world in which we live is inundated with anguish.

But where did suffering originate? To put it simply, suffering is a result of sin entering the world, a ramification of the fall. Since that time suffering has become widespread, and hardship has not remained unique to a particular time, place or event. Trials and difficulties are not just an inevitable part of our modern world, but also a common occurrence throughout all of history.

This is even true of the history that is recorded in the Bible. For instance, of the 150 songs that compose the book of Psalms, a third of them are songs of lament. Not only that, there is also an entire book of the bible dedicated to the reality of suffering, a book known as Lamentations. And to top it all off, the most important figure in all of scripture, Jesus, lived a life that was marked by suffering. In fact, not only was the life of Christ one plagued with suffering, Jesus also suffered in His death. And as followers of Christ, Jesus promises that we will suffer as well.

But there is hope. As followers of Christ, our suffering can be used for God’s glory and our joy. Just as in the story of Joseph, God can use evil actions to bring about good consequences. “The idea that suffering may be redemptive is a specifically Christian notion rooted in the biblical teaching that suffering produces character. A significant part of the biblical explanation and justification of the existence of suffering is that it has a redemptive element. People grow and mature out of hardship, and God uses the process as a chisel to chip away the rough edges of a person’s character (Rom. 5:3-5; 2 Cor. 4:16-17; James 1:2-4). Suffering further equips the believer to be a source of comfort to others who experience hardship” (Scott Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, p. 234).

But even though suffering can be used for good, suffering itself is not good. So why do we suffer? Although there are many more reasons for suffering than those I am about to list—some of which we might never come to know—here are three that I believe are significant.

The first is that God might use suffering as a means of discipline in order to build the character of his children (Hebrews 12). Just so we’re clear, when I use the word discipline I do not mean punishment. God punished His son in our place through the work of the cross. Thus, God does not continue to punish those He has justified. To put it clearly, God does cause his followers to suffer for the reasons that criminals go to jail: to pay for their crimes. Discipline on the other hand is not punishment. The goal of discipline is behavior correction, not retribution.

The second reason we suffer is because of the sins of others. An example of this would be Dr. Gerald Sittser*. While driving home one night, Gerry was hit by a drunk driver, the result of which was the death of his mother, wife, and daughter. You see, Gerry’s suffering was caused by the sin of another individual who made the choice to drink excessively and operate a vehicle. Thus, since we live in a world full of sinners who have the ability to make free choices, we will inevitably be on the receiving end of others mistakes.

The third reasons why we suffering is because of personal sin.  Some suffering is merely a consequence of our own bad choices. For instance, the homeless man on the street corner could be there because of an unquenchable appetite for gambling. This third reason is the one I would like to spend the most time on. A common misconception that Christians have is this, “I’m suffering, therefore I’m like Jesus”. Wrong! You may be suffering because you make horrible choices. If you speed you’ll suffer a traffic ticket. If you always show up late to work you’ll suffer unemployment. If you are lazy when it comes to studying you’ll suffer bad grades. As Christians we mustn’t excuse our bad choices by appealing to the redemptive value of suffering. “From a biblical perspective, it is suffering that cannot be avoided, such as suffering for one’s faith, that has redemptive value. There is no particular value in enduring suffering that can be avoided; rather, that is foolishness” (Scott Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, p. 235).

Therefore, as Christians we are called to two things. The first is that when we encounter suffering we need to suffer well. Don’t waste the opportunity to use suffering for God’s glory and your joy. The second is that although suffering is not something that should be avoided at all costs, it is something that Christians should not chase after. In light of this, followers of Christ should do their best to make Godly decisions, and not use the fact that their sins can be redeemed by God as an excuse to make poor choices.

*For more information on Gerald Sittser, check out the book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss

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  • Kayla

    Great post Andy. In times of suffering i’ve found that i draw closer to God. I don’t know if its because of the comfort He provides, or if its a cry out to figure out the craziness of life, but either way, through suffering, a peace can be found in the power of God’s healing and mercy. Good job!
    Kayla

  • Firedude2894

    A very thought provoking article indeed.

    Could you clarify “To put it clearly, God does cause his followers to suffer for the reasons that criminals go to jail: to pay for their crimes”. Shouldn’t this be referring to those who rebel against God, not His followers? Since, as followers, we are NOT required to pay for our crimes.

    My apologies if I misread it.

  • Well written Andy. Suffering, the greatest of questions in the mind of those who seek and analyze whether God exists. One of my favorite writers, Bart Ehrman—a one time pastor now historian and critic of Christianity—said that what drove him from the church, Christ, and Christianity was the existence of suffering. How could such a good God allow such terrible suffering and darkness in our world. Thank you for taking this issue on. You have provided some interesting insights, most particularly that God disciplines us as children not as criminals. What do you think, than, of the millions who starve every year, young girls raped, and other such terrible and dark realities of our world. Is God punishing sinners?

  • Firewife1

    Good job Professor Scott!!!

  • Andy Scott

    Thanks muhdur!

  • Andy Scott

    Thanks for the comment Kayla. I share in your experience. Some of the most difficult times in my life have also been some of the most foundational, in terms of strengthening my relationship with Christ. Through Jesus our suffering can be redeemed!

  • Andy Scott

    Whoops! That should say “God does NOT cause his followers to suffer for the reason that criminals go to jail: to pay for their crimes”. Basically, because of Jesus’ death on the cross God does not punish those who believe in Him. In the article I didn’t address those who do not follow Christ. However, I do believe that those who do not except Christ’s pardon will ultimately be be held accountable for their crimes after the final judgment.

  • Andy Scott

    Thanks for the comment Jon. “What do you think, than, of the millions who starve every year, young girls raped, and other such terrible and dark realities of our world. Is God punishing sinners?” This is a huge question. One that many books have been written about and one that will surely take up the pages of many books to come. This answer will be far from complete, but here is my answer: in general I do not think that God punishes sinners while they were still living on this Earth. I do not think that God cannot punish sinners who I still living, I just think that if He does those instances are very rare–one example of this would be King Herod in Acts 12. I also think that God is perfectly good and perfectly powerful, so any suffering that is taking place has been allowed by God. God must have a good reason. As a final note, I think it is interesting that many of those who posit the same complaint as Bart Ehrman are not champions of compassion. They complain that a good God would not allow suffering but their lifestyle does not reflect that they themselves genuinely care about those who suffer. There is much more to say on the subject than is found here. Perhaps another post can be dedicated to this subject in the future.

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