Across all nationalities and all generations and all religions, suffering is the common human experience.
For the past couple of days I’ve been writing a message that I’ll preach soon on the relationship between glory and suffering, but before I could get past suffering to talk about glory, I needed to tackle the question everyone asks:
Why do we suffer?
If God is so good, if he is so powerful, why do we suffer?
I’ll tackle this quite a bit in the message when I preach it (Note: if I get a recording of it, I’ll link here later). But since the topic has been on my mind all week, I wanted to write about this question in more depth here.
Religion has long sought an answer to the cause of suffering and long sought the ability to end suffering. In fact, Buddhism, one of the largest religions in the world, is built strictly on defining suffering and its end. But all religions have attempted to define suffering and root out its cause because it encompasses so much of the human experience: sadness, depression, anger, fear, pain, loss, confusion–all of these emotions are connected to suffering.
One could argue that the average human life is comprised far more of suffering than the absence of it.
As believers, where does Scripture tell us suffering comes from?
The Bible actually identifies four sources of suffering:
1) Our sin.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve committed the “original sin” which condemned all flesh to be not only inheritors of sin but active participants in it. Regardless of where you land on the born innocent/born guilty theological argument, the end result is the same. All have sinned, all sin, all will sin. That “all” includes believers. Take a look at Romans 7:18-25. Paul makes it clear that even as in his inner self he’s pursuing holiness and has a desire to be righteous, there is a war within his flesh. He acknowledges that this fight is fierce, even saying that the war in his flesh is “making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Does this mean we can have no victory over the flesh? Of course we can. As our spirit is strengthened by his Spirit day-by-day, we increase in our victories. But our flesh, which is a slave to sin, will sometimes have its day. In those moments, our sin has consequences. The consequences of those sins often result in suffering. By God’s grace, we’ve escaped eternal punishment. But spiritual grace does not always exempt us from temporal suffering. Very often, suffering in our lives is the result of our sin and mistakes.
2) Others’ sin.
Just as we cannot escape the temporal consequences of our sin, we often cannot escape the realities of others’ sin. Though you may be obeying the Lord, not everyone around you will. People will slander you, betray you, lie to you. People will abuse you, hurt you. Sometimes the consequences of others’ sin is felt indirectly. That’s to say, the person didn’t aim to hurt you personally, but the implications of their sins impact you personally. As a result, their sin causes you suffering. This is an inevitable part of the human experience. If you haven’t yet, at some point you will suffer for someone else’s mistakes. No, it isn’t fair. It isn’t right. But it’s the byproduct of the fact that “all have sinned.” Since sin has a ripple effect, your sins are causing consequences in someone else’s life, too. In that sense, we are all both victims and perpetrators of suffering. Paul displays this truth in action. In 1 Timothy 1:13-15 Paul states that he was “formerly a blasphemer” but that he would still call himself the chief of sinners–meaning that both his past and present sin in the flesh hurts others. But in 2 Corinthians 11:24-33 Paul details the implications of others’ sin against him, and the suffering it has caused him.
3) Spiritual oppression.
You would be hard-pressed to find a Christian leader who hasn’t battled what Gary McIntosh aptly called the “dark side” of leadership. Outside the realm of leadership, all believers will likely experience what is often called “the dark night of the soul.” There is a very real suffering that is subtle, and under the surface. This suffering doesn’t arise as a result something external–like a betrayal or physical pain. Instead, this suffering rises up from the inside. Doubt, anxiety, stress, worry, depression are all inward manifestations of suffering. Often, the source, then, isn’t external and physical; it is inward and spiritual. Paul writes that more fierce than the battle we have against our flesh is the spiritual war that rages all around us, and even inside of us. In Ephesians 6:11-12 Paul says that we wage war against the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” If there are no easily identifiable external factors that could be contributing to your suffering, there’s a very real possibility that spiritual forces are at play. A word of caution, though. We must be mindful (no, on guard!) against spiritual warfare, but we must not blame all suffering on spiritual warfare. This is one (very significant) source, but there are three others. The reality of spiritual warfare should not be used as an excuse for sin or as a weapon against those who are hurting as a result of the final source of suffering.
4) Common brokenness.
This final source of suffering is the hardest to accept. Most people have witnessed the effects of their own sin and others’ and so it is (relatively) easy to accept that some suffering comes as the result of bad decisions. For Christians, we accept that there are spiritual forces at play. So there’s a temptation to stop at those three sources, to say that suffering comes either from sin (ours or others’) or spiritual warfare. But there’s one more source that’s just as real: common brokenness latent in creation itself. People get cancer. Cars crash. Equipment fails. These things don’t always happen because someone sinned or because Satan made it happen. Our very planet–no–our universe is broken and breaking. The Second Law of Thermodynamics attests to this. Over time, the universe is bending towards chaos and destruction. Paul echoes this truth in Romans 8:20-23 where he says that the world is “subjected to futility” and that it is “groaning” to be redeemed. In all of our lives, a measure of that latent futility, that resident brokenness, will be the cause of our suffering. But I want you to notice something else in that verse. It says that creation wasn’t willingly subjected to futility, but that God subjected it so that it would later “obtain the glory of the children of God.” I recognize that makes a whole lot of us uncomfortable. What a jerk God is, right? He’s the one who subjected the earth to futility, and all of us peons down here are left to literally suffer the consequences.
I want to point you towards a story that I think is our best shot at understanding this incredibly challenging question.
Take a look at John 9. Go ahead. Read the whole thing. Open it up in a new tab, and read the whole thing.
Did you read it?
I love that the perspective of the disciples and Pharisees are the exact same. They look to just the first two causes of suffering in the world, a very Hebrew understanding of suffering–that it’s the result of someone’s sin. Just read the book of Job. His friends are always trying to pin Job’s problems on someone’s sin.
The disciples say, “Who sinned? This guy or his folks that he was born blind?”
And did you catch Jesus’s response? It’s amazing:
“It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
This wasn’t a little kid. This was a grown man. For his whole life, he has been blind. He’s been suffering under the implications of being a blind man in the first-century Jewish culture. He can’t live near his parents because they don’t want people thinking that they’re sinners and that’s why their kid is blind. And the man is dependent upon the pity of his community, the very few that aren’t judging him for the sin he must have committed himself to be blind from birth.
And here’s Jesus. Jesus says that the suffering that this man has suffered for a lifetime isn’t the result of sin. Jesus redirects from the source of the suffering and points to the purpose of it.
The story goes on. Jesus heals the blind man. The man goes before the authorities and witnesses to them about the power of God in Jesus. The Pharisees are given a very real, very raw opportunity to acknowledge who Jesus is. But they don’t. In this rejection of the man and the rejection of Jesus, they reveal what real blindness is.
This man’s suffering had a purpose. He was born blind for a purpose.
The source of our suffering means a lot less than the purpose of our suffering.
The hard reality is that many times we don’t have the “aha!” moment that we see in John 9. Jesus doesn’t show up in a vision and all of a sudden we say, “Ohhhhh, that’s why I’ve been suffering for the last six months, six years, six decades…” Instead, life leaves us in a such a way that we only have our questions.
Yet this is faith.
Not that we see and understand the exact purpose of our suffering, but that we have hope that there is a purpose to our suffering.
The unbeliever shakes his fist at God and says, “You did this to me!”
The believer goes to his knees and declares, “You’re doing something in me.”
Romans 8:18 says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.”
I actually love the old King James Version translation of this verse.
It says, “For I reckon…” Reckon. Such a great word.
Now, I live down here in East Tennessee, and grew up in Texas. In the South, we like to use the word “reckon.” Reckon can mean, “I suppose” or “I guess” or “I expect.”
We’d use it like this:
“Weatherman says it’ll be a hot one today. I reckon it’ll be a good day for some ice cold sweet tea.”
We don’t know if it’s going to be hot–not for sure. But we reckon it will be. We don’t know if there’s going to be some sweet tea on hand, but we reckon there will be.
Reckon isn’t a guarantee, but it’s hope that borders on guarantee.
So Paul talks like a true Southerner in Romans 8:18, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed in us.”
Paul can’t guarantee that the glory is greater than the suffering, but he reckons it is. And that’s as close to a guarantee as you can get.
So, I don’t know how you’re suffering right now. Maybe you’re sick, tired, depressed, worried. Maybe you’re hurt, overworked, confused, or despondent. Maybe you’ve been betrayed, lied to, wounded, or abandoned. Your suffering is real, and it is painful.
Where does it come from? Your sin, others’ sin, spiritual warfare, or the mere common brokenness of our universe.
Why does it exist?
I don’t know.
But I reckon it cannot compare to the glory God is working out in you, if like the blind man you’ll believe in the power of the Son of God. And one day, you’ll see Him, and that moment will outweigh the years of suffering.
Amen and amen.