God’s original plan, and His final plan for the new earth, do not entail or involve suffering. Yet suffering is a way of life for all of us on earth. Some may suffer more than others, but there is no-one who does not suffer at some time or other.
Although God is not the cause of suffering it seems He does use it to teach spiritual lessons. The first is that all mortals suffer, and we must learn to face our pain and not run from it. The fact that Jesus—the best man who ever lived—could suffer, forever disassociates suffering from sin. While suffering may be caused by poor choices—there is a cause and effect—we cannot equate it with God’s wrath.
Every day, patients ask their physicians: “What have I done to deserve this cancer, this injury, this death sentence?” The answer is that they have not done anything to deserve it. Anyone can fall prey, in this broken world, to undeserved suffering. If the disciples had stayed awake in Gethsemane, they would have seen this lesson played out.
The second lesson from Gethsemane is that whatever suffering you may have, there is probably someone who is suffering more. A quote from Hellen Keller comes to mind:
“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
You may be uncertain, fearful, and downcast like the disciples in Gethsemane, until you see a man sweating blood, as they did. The most difficult lesson from Gethsemane, however, is to see God’s hand in suffering without despairing of God’s love. A friend who is no stranger to suffering wrote this to me:
“To feel privileged in suffering is to see the hand of God in it. But if we fail to do so, it is sheer wasted, fruitless, unbearable suffering.”
This statement contrasts holy suffering (which has God’s hand in it) with mundane suffering (which does not). Only through holy suffering can we understand God’s love more fully. Some may suffer more than others, but we cannot say they are cursed. To my friend, they are blessed. The premise is that more we suffer, the more we can understand the depth of God’s love.
The pain, discomfort, and distress of suffering can be physical, psychological, or spiritual. Paul used the metaphor of a tent to describe it:
For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:15-18)
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight— we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:1-6)
Another lesson from Gethsemane is that we must face our suffering and not run from it. Watching and praying implies facing suffering with our physical senses. That is the watching part. Prayer calls upon the strength of the holy spirit to shore up our inner senses, our soul:
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
We are promised peace from suffering:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Jesus takes the suffering away:
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
It takes unusual spiritual insight to see God’s hand—and even more, to see His love—in suffering. Those who have the insight reveal to us the truth, which is why we must not turn our eyes away from them and their suffering, lest we miss the lesson, and we must pray to understand the spiritual insight ourselves. The lens of prayer itself reveals insights.
How is that we can see God’s love and blessing in suffering? How is it even possible? It seems counter-intuitive. and utterly illogical. Is it true that those who suffer most will also love the most? If it is of spiritual value, should we not just embrace suffering but even seek it?
David: It seems to me that any value in suffering is purely spiritual in nature. One is never closer to God than when one is suffering. No-one wants it, but God and suffering go together. Nothing makes this clearer than the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), where sufferers are blessed directly.
Robin: It has a humbling effect to realize that we are not in control of everything in our lives.
Donald: Satan wanted that control over our lives. Some of us bestow our allegiance to another power, granting that power control over us. The Bible depicts Christ chiefly as a comforter and peacemaker. We should be anxious for nothing. It’s hard to fathom what life would be like if had no pleasantness, no meaning, for oneself. The concept of heaven is hard to understand. Most of our lives are spent if not on trying to be comfortable then at least on avoiding suffering. We live in gated communities. We avoid dangerous areas. We avoid things and places we cannot control.
Robin: On the one hand there are people who thing that they suffer because they have angered God; on the other there are people (Martin Luther was one) who think that suffering brings them closer to God, so they self-flagellate and inflict other methods of physical pain on themselves.
David: Several Christian sects self-harm; so do some Shia Moslems, and some Hindus. In all cases, the physical suffering is intended to produce spiritual benefit.
Don. Most people seek to avoid pain.
Donald: Heaven is said to be pain-free. Doesn’t that leave a void?
David: God does not want us to suffer, but we must not turn away from it. Who was more blessed: The Good Samaritan or the mugging victim he helped? Should the victim not have waved the Samaritan away for hampering a burgeoning relationship with God? It doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that God will be at hand when we need Him.
Michael: People in their right mind do do not hurt themselves on purpose, except out of guilt. It has no other value.
Mikiko: Job suffered because Satan rules the world (1 John 5:19). Humans cause others to suffer (Ecclesiastes 8:9). Sometimes, people suffer because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time (Ecclesiastes 9:11). God loves us deeply and hates to see us suffer (1 Peter 5:7). Human fathers don’t want their children to suffer, and neither does our heavenly Father. God is love, God is mercy, but like a human father, He disciplines His children sometimes. Suffering and discipline are different.
Donald: The “father” analogy resonates powerfully. No normal human father would ever allow (let alone want) his children to suffer. It’s unimaginable that God would, except to the extent of teaching a child lessons to help it survive in life.
Robin: Experiencing suffering ourselves makes us empathetic to others who are suffering. It gives us something in common, something to relate to, a means to communicate with them.
David: Suffering can also cause feelings of hatred and revenge against the cause of the suffering, whether human or divine. With her life in ruins around her, Job’s wife said “Curse God and die!” She did not seem to feel spiritually blessed by her suffering.
Robin: But Job responded: “Though He slay me, yet will I serve Him.”
Donald: Christ lived in a sinful world and was surrounded by sin, yet never sinned Himself. But as a human, was He not susceptible to disease, and to aging, and other natural causes of suffering? Scripture does not tell us.
Don: In a typical caring family, when a family member suffers, other family members will suffer too. The husband of a wife who has been told she has an incurable deadly cancer can appear to suffer more than his wife. People strive to find meaning in something that may be just a random event.
Michael: Is empathy proportional? The greater your suffering, the greater your empathy and love for others who suffer? The Bible clearly says that Jesus was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Did that account for His concern for humanity, His care of the afflicted, His life spent among sufferers?
Robin: Job said to his wife, after she cursed God for their suffering:
“You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10)
Don: It seems there is something about suffering that makes it not just spiritually useful but also necessary.
Anonymous: Paul said that suffering purifies the soul. He told the church to let sinners suffer at Satan’s hands so that they would learn the Truth. Sometimes we need spiritual surgery, we need to swallow a bitter spiritual pill. Spiritual healing entails suffering. We heal from all kinds of wounds that life inflicts on us. We might be selfish, worried, feeling detached from God, feeling misfortunate. These are sufferings of a different kind.
Don: Of all the things that call into question the existence and the love of God, suffering is foremost. We think either that God is not powerful enough to prevent suffering, or He does not love us enough to prevent it. As loving parents ourselves, it is impossible to embrace the idea that God allows or inflicts suffering, or doesn’t take it away when it happens to His children. What kind of God rules a house where children are abused or die from leukemia or from lax gun control?
On the other hand, it appears that there is some value, some blessing, some love of God in suffering. How can we bring this out?
David: Who was closer to his father: The prodigal son or his elder brother? In a two-child family where one is healthy but the other is dying of cancer, do the parents love one more than the other?
Michael: If we are suffering and seriously believe that God loves us then we are forced either to abandon our belief in God or reach a new understanding of Him. We might conclude that we are not as significant in the grand scheme of things as we would like to think, and that God’s will matters more than ours.
Mikiko: God loves everybody impartially. The Prodigal son needed more of his father’s attention than his elder brother, and his repentance was worthy of celebration.
So listen to me, you men of understanding: It is unthinkable for the true God to act wickedly, For the Almighty to do wrong! (Job 34:10, New World Translation)
God does not cause suffering, and when we do suffer and pray to Him, He gives us strength and power through His love and mercy.
Chris: What would our relationship with God be like if we did not suffer? What would be our relationship with our own children be like if they never suffered? Would our love be the same? Would they need us as much? If we did not suffer, how could we understand God’s love? Christ’s suffering started when He said He was going to take on the sins of the world and thereby risk separation from His Father. Without suffering is it impossible to understand the relationship between parents and children, and between fellow human beings?
Donald: The dilemma is that a primary parental role is as protector, so a good parent should not allow children to suffer.
Chris: A good parent will allow children to make decisions knowing they will suffer as a result, in order to teach them lessons that will protect them later in life. There are different kinds of suffering. Some of them are non-negotiable, but some of them are.
Donald: Helicopter parents create an environment in which children are so protected that they have no opportunity to learn to deal with life’s pitfalls until after they are grown up and unprotected.
Chris: We are most protective when children are babies, and we grow progressively less protective as they grow older.
Donald: What is our responsibility to protect adults who seem (for whatever reason—reduced mental capacity would be on one end of the scale; willful obstinacy would be on the other) not to have learned life’s lessons—for example, persistent beggars?
Anonymous: If we go back to the beginning of the Bible, the Israelites suffered in Egypt, in bondage, and the Lord saved them, showed them the way out, showed them a better way of living, gave them specific laws telling them how be happier, better servants of the Lord, free from bondage. Yet from that point on we watch the Israelites go astray—ignoring the laws, worshiping idols, and generally disregarding their relationship with God.
Today we still suffer from our disobedience to God’s law. Our suffering is self-inflicted. But at least we can understand what happened. He asked us to worship Him “in gladness of heart.” He does not want us to suffer—we do it to ourselves. He is using our suffering, our brokenness, to show us the way, to heal us, to show us His love. He practically begs us to understand this, and when we do, the least we can do is humbly thank Him for not abandoning us, for continuing to love us despite our waywardness.
Love has to be strong to heal, to eliminate suffering. A parent must be prepared to watch a child cry as the nurse administers a vaccine injection. God allows us to suffer in this loving way. It is beneficial.
When we consider the question of suffering, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of the Bible and follow how God has tried relentlessly throughout to get us to come back to Him, to follow His laws, so that we will not suffer. We fool ourselves into thinking we have gone back to Him and that we do follow His laws, but we are far from doing so.