Pain and hardships
We have already looked at suffering with an eternal perspective. Now let’s dig in a little deeper into this subject. In the modern church, we have been led to believe that pain and hardships are symptoms of mistakes or a greater problem in our lives. This is a tragic misconception. The Bible clearly teaches that we will reap what we sow, therefore bad choices and consequences may cause us pain and hardship, but this is not always the case. We live in a fallen world. Anyone who looks at this life and expects heaven on earth will be disappointed. Even the apostles acknowledged:
1 Corinthians 15:19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
Often times God uses our struggles to shape our character, alter our course, or put us in a position to benefit in ways that we cannot see during the difficulty we may be enduring. When we run from problems we are running away from what God is doing. We can expect God to continue bringing us into these circumstances until we learn what He is trying to teach us. Unfortunately, because people are taught that hardship is the result of failure, we then avoid suffering at all cost. Most of the time failure is not the cause of suffering. In this study we will take a look at how the Bible addresses these issues.
Why is there physical suffering?
One of the age-old critical questions often asked to Christians is, “Why does a loving God allow so much suffering in the world?” The faith of many believers has been overthrown because people cannot accept the fact that God allows and even uses suffering. One of the greatest testimonies of love is that God identified with our sufferings by suffering with us and for us. Hebrews 2 explains:
17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
Jesus Christ was tempted and He suffered in all ways like us so that we could be confident that He can identify with our struggles. This life is not the way God intended. God indeed knew beforehand that this world would fall to sin, but that does not mean that He desired it to be corrupted by sin. The Bible tells us that suffering, sickness and death are the results of sin. When sin entered the world through man, instead of cursing mankind, God cursed the ground for man’s sake (Genesis 3:17). We inherit the curse indirectly, but we are still in the image of God. The curse in this life is an act of mercy. Instead of judging man directly, God ended the ‘heaven on earth’ that was created for man to enjoy. Now all of creation groans for the redemption that will occur when Christ returns to reign (Romans 8:22) and we groan with it.
This is not heaven. God does not intend for us to be satisfied with this life or this world. We look forward to the life to come. It is those who put their hope in this life that are disappointed and discouraged with God. The Bible tells us in 1 Peter 2 that Jesus suffered and left us an example that we should follow. Jesus did not avoid suffering. We do see Jesus in the garden asking if there was any other way to accomplish His purpose without suffering, but He also stated that the will of God was greater than the human desire to avoid pain.
Most people suffer and cry out ‘why me God?’ Man-centered religion (even if it is under the guise of Christianity) puts the focus on ‘me’, therefore I can’t see what God is doing in my life. One thing that we have as an assurance is that God will not allow anything to come into our life that does not work for our good. Even so, the greater concern is ‘what is God’s will’? God must be the focus. God has the right to accomplish His will with or without our consent. However, if we truly trust God, we will put our confidence in His promises. Ultimately everything that happens is an act of God’s mercy. It is God’s grace that gives us confidence. Grace is unmerited favor. God’s favor gives eternal benefits to us even when we don’t deserve it. God, out of mercy and grace, carries us through suffering for our benefit. Even while we lash out at God, He is extending grace without merit and we are given His valuable promises to cling to. Most of us are familiar with these passages, but they are worth reviewing.
26 Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
27 Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
1 Corinthians 10
13 No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
These passages make two things clear: everything has a purpose and God will keep us from suffering or being tempted beyond what we can bear.
The Purpose behind suffering
Look at 2 Corinthians 1:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.
You are a given the privilege of being a conduit of God’s love, grace and compassion. The world does not know God but the world can discover God through you. When we suffer, God is our comfort. Because we have experienced and understand the comfort God gives, we can comfort those who are without Christ by the comfort we have experienced. Our suffering can then become a picture of God’s grace to draw others to Christ.
Misconceptions of suffering
The biggest travesty against grace is to heap guilt on top of agony. Because the church has not been equipped to deal with suffering, instead of offering compassion in someone’s time of need, people often offer blame. Instead of obeying God’s command to lift the heavy burdens, God’s own people often increase the burden without any thought of compassion. Let me use an example from my own life. My grandfather served God his entire life. For almost eighty years, he was a picture of health. When he was 78, he contracted cancer. He had surgery but it spread. The church prayed for him while my grandmother continuously read ‘healing scriptures’ over him. Slowly his health deteriorated until he died. During my grandmother’s greatest time of need the church was her biggest enemy. A lifetime of service in the ministry was quickly forgotten and they were blamed for this disease. One person told her that she was the reason that he was going to die because “she just didn’t have enough faith to heal him”. They were both blamed for their lack of faith. During the time she needed friends to comfort her, encourage her and help bear the burden, she received criticism and a heavier burden.
To point a condemning finger to someone suffering is unbiblical and we have many examples where God deals severely with those who do this. The most vivid example is found in Job. Job’s friends blamed Job for his own suffering and God judged them. We are commanded to do just the opposite of the traditional pointing the finger of blame. Isaiah 58:6-12 teaches that it is our responsibility to lift burdens, care for the needy and not point the finger at those in need. The acceptable sacrifice is meeting the needs of those suffering who God has placed in our midst. Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Whose sin causes suffering?
Ultimately it is the fall of man in the beginning that is the root cause of all suffering. It is true that we can cause our own suffering as the result of consequences of our actions, but most suffering comes from circumstances beyond our control. Even so, human nature always seeks someone to blame. Even the disciples of Jesus struggled with this. Look at John 9:
1 Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth.
2 And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him."
Even though this man was blind at birth, the disciples wanted to know if somehow he was to be blamed for his blindness. Jesus made it crystal clear – it wasn’t because of sin that he was singled out to be blind, but so that God could reveal Himself through the blind man. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, God declared that His strength is made perfect in our weakness. Exodus 4:11 tells us that God has created the blind, deaf and weak. Why? So God can reveal His glory through them. We all have a purpose in life and we are all called to glorify God according to His purpose, not our will.
God delivers or give grace.
Healing is not a guarantee. Sometimes God glorifies Himself by a miraculous healing. Sometimes He is glorified by the strength He provides us to endure joyfully. We don’t know the heart of God or the plan that He will execute. We can be certain that He is faithful. Some people come to Christ after suffering from drug, alcohol or other addictions and they are instantly set free. Others gain a new perspective on life and then strive to overcome the addictions that try to bind them. Why doesn’t God deliver all people the same? We cannot know, but we do know that God is faithful and uses us individually for the special purpose He has called us to.
One problem in the church is that Christians often that how God has dealt with them is the standard of God’s will. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your life reveals God’s plan for everyone’s life. I have heard people say things like, “If you don’t have a passion to [insert your passion], you probably do not know Christ”. God gives us a passion for what He calls us to do. If God delivered you in some way, this does not mean someone else who is struggles has less faith or less favor from God. In fact, the Bible tells us that to the one who much is given, much is required. In other words, the one delivered miraculously has a greater responsibility. God gives His grace for a purpose that goes beyond our comfort. We are the grace of God to those in need around us. We are not appointed as judges to condemn those who God has placed before us.
There are many examples where God delivered those in need in order to show His glory. God sent Elijah to save a starving widow. Ruth was redeemed from her poverty by Boaz. Job was delivered from his poverty, sickness, loss of family and shame. Jesus healed countless blind, lame and sick people during His walk on earth.
God is perfectly capable of healing anyone; however, not everyone is delivered. The purpose of this study is not to deny miracles or God’s ability to heal. The purpose of this is to be alert to the misapplied scriptures that alter the truth and give people a false hope or false shame. Our hope is not in healing. Our hope is in God and His purpose. If I were allowed to choose my own path, I would never suffer. God does not send us through the valley because we desire to suffer, but so that He can do a greater work through us. Physical healing does not change the heart of any man or woman. Many who are healed will never submit themselves to Christ. Experiencing the grace of God takes us to a deeper faith. Spiritual healing is eternal; physical healing is not – though God can use it to touch someone spiritually. Ultimately only God can know who will respond from the heart as the result of healing or suffering or both. Jesus made it clear that God is sovereign and our worthiness is not the measuring stick for God’s choice. Look at Luke 4
25 "But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land;
26 "but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.
27 "And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
Many were starving, but God only sent Elijah to one widow. Not because she was worthy, but because God was gracious. Many lepers were suffering, but only one was healed. Not because he was worthy. If you read the story, you will see that he was far from worthy. He was proud and faithless. He initially refused Elisha’s instruction to wash 7 times in the muddy waters of the Jordan because he thought it was a meaningless task. In the end, his servant persuaded him to wash as Elisha had instructed and Naaman was healed. It wasn’t personal value or worthiness, but God’s sovereign will that healed Naaman. Jesus also showed us this truth from the opposite perspective. Look at Luke 13:
1 There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And Jesus answered and said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?
3 "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
4 "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?
5 "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
Jesus pointed to two tragedies and clarified this issue. It wasn’t for their sins that these people died before their brethren. Perhaps Jesus was teaching something that contradicted what the religious leaders believed so they presented him with these examples in order to challenge His doctrine. Jesus clearly taught that those who suffered these two tragedies were not any more of a sinner than those who were claiming it was God’s judgment. How many righteous people died in the World Trade Center bombings? How many ungodly people just happened to be late or stepped out moments before the collapse? Those who died were no greater sinners than those who lived and vise-versa. Not a single person died in that tragedy without God’s permission, but from this side we can’t fully see what God’s purpose is in tragedy.
Those not delivered
The apostle Paul is a good example of God’s favor in spite of suffering. Paul revealed why he suffered. Look at 2 Corinthians 12
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
9 And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
God used Paul to pen 2/3rds of the New Testament. It would be so easy to begin to think that you are God’s main man and be lifted up with pride, therefore God gave Paul a physical infirmity that Paul considered to be a great hindrance. Since Paul begged three times, I am sure that he, like each of us, bargained with God and was certain that he could remain focused without this problem. I am sure that Paul tried to humble himself and promised God that he would stay humble. However, God sees clearly the things that we will never understand. It was for Paul’s own protection that God allowed this to happen. It must have been severe because Paul said a messenger of Satan offered continuous harassment using this infirmity. The Bible also makes it clear that when we are lifted up with pride, God resists us and we do not have His power in our lives. When we are humble and dependent on Him, His power and glory rests upon us. Paul had faith enough to trust God’s will and use this pain to grow closer to God.
Another example where delivery did not come is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:20-31. Lazarus was never cured of his diseases, yet God rewarded him. Some teach that prosperity is the product of faith and righteousness, but sickness and poverty is the result of sin. Some even claim that sickness and poverty is a sin. Yet in this passage, the rich man is in the torment of hell and the poor man is comforted in Paradise. Who received the better reward? It is clear that suffering is a benefit to the faithful. God is able to deliver us, but even if we are not delivered in this life, God abundantly rewards us when we get home. The Bible tells us that the suffering of this life is not even worthy to be compared to the reward to come when we shall stand before God.
This is another sore spot in the church. When someone suffers emotionally or has a mental health problem, the church traditionally is not very supportive. Here is a typical, yet unbiblical example of advice for those suffering from depression:
"It is impossible for that man to despair who remembers that his Helper is omnipotent." Bishop Jeremy Taylor (17th Century England)
Even though this quote is almost 500 years old, it is typical of the average church’s position. If you are depressed, you just need more faith. Let’s take a moment to look at the topic of depression. I have always been taught that depression is the result of sin in our life or a lack of faith and that mental illness is from sin or possibly demon possession. While in some circumstances any of these can be true, this fails to take into account that emotional health can be and often is outside of our realm of control. I truly believe that demon possession is real and Jesus showed it is real, but demons are not the cause of every disease or mental health issue. Some extreme groups equate all sickness to demons, but the average Christian recognizes that sickness and disease are the byproducts of a fallen world waiting to be redeemed. We can understand that our heart is an organ that can be diseased. Our thyroid can be dysfunctional. Our digestive system suffers many different diseases. Yet when it comes to the brain, physical illness is considered off limits. This is irrational. Not only is it irrational, but it is also cruel to heap guilt and blame on someone who is already suffering from an emotional illness beyond their control. “Just have faith” is easily said by someone who does not suffer.
Often times, someone suffering emotionally or mentally is caught between two worldviews. Christian counsel often refuses to consider a medical solution. Psychology refuses to consider the need for a deeper relationship with Christ. The truth is that both are necessary. Certain disorders are easily identified, but depression may be caused by any number of problems. It is important to examine our lives to see if there is an underlying cause. If I am running from God, I will feel the heavy burden of my sin and can fall into depression. If I am worrying about a problem, this also can be the root cause. In our modern culture, depression is at an all time high. Our busy lives can plummet us into depression as well. Many committed Christians will give it their all until they become exhausted and depression takes its toll. It can become a self-perpetuating problem. People are so busy in church that they never take time to rest. Exhaustion creates depression and people misidentify this as guilt. They try to do more to please God and remain exhausted which leads to more depression.
We as individuals are not called to save the world. We are not called to fill in all gaps. I heard someone say, “where you see a need, there is the call of God”. It sounded good, but it is not true. I see needs everywhere and there are so many good things that I would like to do. However, God created me with limitations and called me for a purpose. If I try to be a ‘super-Christian’ and step beyond my physical or emotional limitations, I am also outside of God’s will. If I am trying to do everything, I will accomplish nothing correctly. We are never called to neglect our family. We are not called to be so busy that we never have down time. I must evaluate God’s call in my life and the needs I see. In my case, I am called to teach, preach and disciple. When I am asked to meet a legitimate need, I must ask myself, “Is this what God has called me to do, and can I take this on without being hindered from accomplishing what I have been called to do”? If both of these can be answered as ‘no’, then I am stepping outside of God’s plan. Wanting to feel needed is not God’s call. If something falls outside of my calling, I should put it down. If no one picks it up, it is not important. Exhaustion is caused by business without down time. Exhaustion will cause depression and other health issues as well.
Depression can be the consequences of reaping what we have sown. I am not a psychologist, but common sense tells us that if I know something is wrong in my life and I do not deal with it, it will affect me emotionally. The longer I carry that burden, the harder it is to see the light. I say this to make it clear that I am not eliminating the possibility of a spiritual problem. When someone seeks counseling or gives counseling, both the spiritual, emotional and physical should be acknowledged as possible root causes. Too often mental health issues are considered a taboo in the church.
Just because someone suffers from depression or other disorders does not make them any less of a Christian and does not make them any less godly. Let me give some examples to back this claim. Some of the greatest men of God suffered from depression.
Charles Spurgeon – one of the greatest theologians in history.
Martin Luther – Reformer who led the protestant movement.
Hans Christian Andersen – writer of timeless fairytales and moral stories
President Abraham Lincoln – it was his Christian convictions that led him to abolish slavery
From the Bible:
King David – writer of the Psalms
Job – "cursed the day of his birth" (3:1). He said, "I will speak in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul" (7:11). In addition, he cried, "My spirit is broken, my days are extinguished, the grave is ready for me" (17:1).
Moses – Begged to die in Exodus 32:32
The prophet Jeremiah – "Why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow?" (Jeremiah 20:18)
The prophet Jonah
Elijah – was incapacitated with depression soon after he had been an integral player in one of the great demonstrations of God’s power (I Kings 19).
Even some of the greatest Christians in history suffered from depression. If these men suffered, how can we claim that this suffering is only a symptom of faithlessness or sin? When someone says to just get over it, you know that they have never been where you are. The best Christian advice I have found comes from J.B. Phillips who authored the book, ‘Your God is Too Small’. He dealt with depression all his life. In one letter, he offered this advice to someone who also was struggling:
"As far as you can, and God knows how difficult this is, try to relax in and upon Him. As far as my experience goes, to get even a breath of God’s peace in the midst of pain is infinitely worth having."
Chuck Swindol also gave advice that was equally as valuable. He said that when his father died he was heavy with grief. Countless people came to him with advice about trusting God, how his father was in a better place; this was God’s will; just trust God and all the usual advice. He said, “I couldn’t wait for them to leave. But then a dear friend came and sat with me without ever saying a word. I hated to see him leave”. The best compassion is to bear one another’s burdens. We are not called to fix it, but to help bear it. It is ok to grieve. It is ok to suffer. When you go through pain, when you are comforted you become a conduit of God’s grace to comfort someone else. The church has lost sight of its commission to be grace bearers. However, you are a minister that God has called to share your compassion with those who hurt. When we hurt, God comforts us and we then comfort others. God uses people. It is our responsibility to recognize our calling to touch lives and let God love through us. Nothing equips us for serving like suffering.
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