Sunday, May 22, 2011

Traction in Trouble: Making Sense of Suffering

The headlines in our local paper were shocking. One of the brightest lights in our little town, a leader in so many ways, and a sterling Christian as well, was senselessly murdered, leaving two married daughters and two young grandsons.

All of us who knew this lady struggled for answers to questions that defy simple answers.

“Why do good people suffer?”

And, equally difficult to grasp, “Why do bad people so often seem to ‘get away with murder.’”

Since the beginning of time, mankind has experienced suffering. Some of it we bring on ourselves, and some we seem to inherit for no apparent reason. Here are some thoughts on human suffering I hope you’ll find helpful.

First, suffering is pervasive.

Everyone experiences suffering on some level; it’s a universal reality.

Oswald Chambers addresses the universality of suffering when he declares, “Suffering is the heritage of the bad, of the penitent, and of the Son of God. Each one ends in the cross. The bad thief is crucified, the penitent thief is crucified, and the Son of God is crucified. By these signs we know the widespread heritage of suffering.” (Christian Discipline)

Secondly, suffering is painful.

Just consider some of the synonyms for suffering: trials, tribulation, adversity, struggles, difficulties, trouble, pain, hardship, affliction, distress, and tests.

No one enjoys suffering, except perhaps someone who is emotionally off balance. Pain is never fun. Most of us flee situations that we think could be painful.

Paul relates how, when faced with a “thorn in the flesh” that caused him pain, he pleaded with God three times to remove it. (2 Corinthians 12)

Suffering is a product:

 Suffering is a product of evil. We live in a fallen world. Sin is rampant. People, since the beginning of time, have gone their own way, oblivious to the God who made them and who loves them. (Isaiah 53:6) The fact that God allows evil to exist is evidence of his love and of his willingness to give mankind the freedom to love Him in return, or not to love Him if they so choose.

 Suffering is a product of our own foolishness. People do stupid things and suffer the consequences.

 Suffering is the product of persecution. Christians have always suffered for their faith. Believers have been persecuted, abused, and mistreated since the beginning. Jesus told us to expect persecution.

 Some suffering is a product of God’s own doing. Again, Paul says that his thorn in the flesh was given to him and that God purposed it. Jesus’ suffering and death were purposed by God. And there are times when God either causes or allows His children to go through trials and suffering for reasons known only to Him.

Suffering can be purposeful.

First, suffering produces purity. It is like the crucible used to produce pure metal. It does not consume nor destroy, but it refines, removing all impurities.

Next, suffering produces endurance and strength. I visited a vineyard recently, and noticed how severely the branches had been pruned from the vine. The vintner explained that this process is necessary to produce the highest possible quality of grape. God prunes us to develop strength and endurance, cutting away anything that is not fruitful. (see John 15)

Finally, God uses suffering for the purpose of developing in us the character of Christ. In other words, as we suffer we grow to become more like Christ.

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.” Malcolm Muggeridge (Homemade, July, 1990)

God’s people are certainly not immune to suffering. Someone asked C.S. Lewis, "Why do the righteous suffer?" "Why not?" he replied. "They're the only ones who can take it."

Let me share some verses that speak of suffering along with a brief paraphrase.

1Peter 2:21 – we follow Christ in our suffering
1Peter 3:14 – if you suffer you will be blessed
1Peter 3:17 – better to suffer for good than for evil
1Peter 4:1 – because Christ suffered and is victorious
1Peter 4:13 – we share in Christ’s sufferings
1Peter 4:15 – Don’t suffer as a criminal
1Peter 4:16 – suffer to glorify God
1Peter 5:9 – all followers of Christ suffer
1Peter 5:10 – God will use our suffering to strengthen us
1Corinthians 12:26 – as a body, we suffer w/each member
Acts 9:16 – we suffer for Christ’s name
Romans 8:18 – sufferings are temporal and of the earth, not heaven
James 5:10 – we have many models in scripture of those who endured in suffering
2Corinthians 1:6 – God allows us to suffer so we might benefit others
Galatians 3:4 – don’t let suffering be for nothing
Philippians 3:10 – we participate in the fellowship of his suffering – identity w/Christ
2Thessalonians 1:5-8 – God will make things right at the judgment
Hebrews 2:18 – Christ helps us when we are tested because he suffered for us
Romans 5:3-5 – we can rejoice knowing that suffering produces endurance
2Timothy 1:8 – we share in suffering, identifying with one another
2Timothy 2:3 – suffering is like soldiering
2Timothy 2:8-9 – we suffer as we declare Christ and live in him
2Timothy 3:10-13 – if we follow Christ we will be persecuted

A famous evangelist told the following incident: “I have a friend who in a time of business recession lost his job, a sizable fortune, and his beautiful home. To add to his sorrow, his precious wife died; yet he tenaciously held to his faith -- the only thing he had left. One day when he was out walking in search of employment, he stopped to watch some men who were doing stonework on a large church. One of them was chiseling a triangular piece of rock. '’Where are you going to put that?' he asked. The workman said, 'Do you see that little opening up there near the spire? Well, I'm shaping this stone down here so that it will fit in up there.' Tears filled my friend's eyes as he walked away, for the Lord had spoken to him through that laborer whose words gave new meaning to his troubled situation. (Our Daily Bread)

So, as James admonishes, count it all joy when you suffer, knowing that God is at work, shaping you for His purposes. (see James 1)