The Sunday worship service at the church where I minister devotes a great amount of time to prayer. We have an opening prayer and a closing prayer, as well as several prayers during the communion (Lord's Supper). There are times we offer prayers to bless newborns, and prayers for people who respond to the invitation at the end of the service. Then there are the special prayer requests (members asking for prayer on account of illness or other trials that they may be experiencing) written out on "blue cards" and handed in to one of our elders (pastors) who will then offer a prayer on behalf of the people who have submitted these cards. This is in keeping with James' encouragement:
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;
- James 5:14
These special request prayers are an important part of our worship service because we are, as a group, led in prayer on behalf of church members who need help, and this draws us closer together in love and concern for each other's sufferings.
There is, however, a downside to this prayer time and that is the ever-growing list of sick and needy people that continue to request prayer support. Each week the elders read the names of those who have cancer (in its many forms), heart and other types of serious illnesses, tragedies suffered from accidents, the many problems that accompany advanced age, and prayers for the families of those grieving the loss of loved ones. Sometimes it becomes depressing because these prayers represent a never-ending wave of sorrow and suffering.
To make matters worse, the majority of the prayers are for Christians, good people who have obeyed and served the Lord all of their lives. When you see the many trials they have to endure, it makes you wonder, "Why should righteous people have to suffer?" They believe in Christ, serve Him, and want to be with Him. God could eliminate all of their suffering if He chose to, but he does not. Why? In this Mini Book I would like to give several reasons why God allows even righteous people to suffer.
Why the Righteous Suffer
Before dealing with this question, however, I want us to understand that a major reason why suffering is such a challenge to peoples' faith is because they automatically think that suffering is a bad thing. Bad things may happen to us that cause pain but the pain itself doesn't have to be a completely negative experience, and here are a few reasons why:
Suffering Motivates Us
Pain and suffering are very effective motivating forces. The most common example of this is when someone is prompted to change the behavior that may have led them to their suffering in the first place. Suffering also moves us to prioritize our lives because during times of trouble we usually see more clearly what is important and what is not. Close calls with death on account of illness or accidents become occasions that lead us to think about our mortality and how fragile we are. It is often at these moments that we begin to seek for answers to questions about life, death, and the hereafter.
For example, if it were not for suffering, Job would not have found the answers to the questions that his suffering made him ask of God. It is suffering that motivates most people to search for God, search for His will, and search for His presence in their lives. Without suffering we tend to stay in one dimension and not think too deeply about things. Suffering forces us to look beyond ourselves for answers, for relief, and for redemption.
Another reason why God allows the righteous to suffer:
Suffering Enables Us to Sympathize
When I say it allows us to sympathize, I don't simply mean it helps us to sympathize or understand what it's like to feel pain. We all know what pain is like, it gives no insight all by itself. When I say, "sympathize" I mean the ability to understand how people continue to live their lives despite their pain. For example, I have had lower back pain for years and during this time I have gained a greater appreciation of how other folks, with worse back problems than I, lived their lives without complaint or pity for themselves. How, with difficult jobs and in constant pain, they did their work, were faithful at church, had a sense of humor, and did all of these things while suffering chronic pain.
I was able, because of my own discomfort, to not only sympathize, but to appreciate the effort, maturity, and true spirituality of these brethren by observing how they dealt with their suffering in such a positive way. I was also able to understand those who had fallen to discouragement and despair under the burden of their suffering because it was so easy to do when the pain never stopped.
The Bible tells us that even Jesus had to suffer pain in order to become our Savior and Mediator, and to truly sympathize and empathize with us;
Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.
- Hebrews 2:17-18
Humanity finds its common denominator in the experience of suffering. Everyone understands suffering because regardless of race or religion, pain is pain. When our two eldest children, Paul and Julia, were in the military I would pray for them but I also prayed for others in the military as well, even for our adversaries in this world because I knew that they had mothers and fathers praying for their sons and daughters too. Much good comes from suffering because it brings us closer to one another and helps us appreciate others who, like ourselves, share in the very human act of dealing with pain.
God lets us suffer because:
Suffering Reveals the Horror of Sin
Of course, whenever someone suffers, especially as a result of sudden tragic illness or accident, the question that begs to be answered is, "Why?" There are a variety of explanations that try to give suffering a happy ending (e.g. you are suffering because something good will be produced out of it). Some people blame God for their suffering or are angry at Him for not stopping the suffering. They lay at His feet the blame for their sorrow as if He was the cause of their pain. But the Bible clearly reveals that sin is the cause of all suffering and death, not God.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 6:23
It began with Adam and Eve who disobeyed God resulting in the fall of the human race, and as the sinfulness of mankind multiplied, the fall of the creation as well. Man's sinful nature, combined with a creation now subject to disease and catastrophe, have brought untold suffering upon every generation in the history of mankind. In addition to this suffering, there is also the fact that a sure death is inevitable for all. The saddest part of this is that there are so many who do not realize that sin was, and continues to be, the root cause of suffering and death.
For those enlightened by the gospel of Christ, suffering is a constant reminder of the horror and power of sin in this world. This understanding can produce a healthy revulsion and rejection of sinful things. You get to hate sin when you have seen enough of the damage it has caused in peoples' lives. This understanding also leads us to appreciate the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. His cross removed all of our sins and saved us from eternal suffering. Without the linkage between sin and suffering, we might never come to know and obey the gospel of Christ.
One other reason why God permits the righteous to suffer:
Suffering Draws Us Closer to God
Some blame God for their pain, others draw closer to Him because of their pain. Paul, the Apostle, who was already quite knowledgeable concerning God's Word and his will, drew nearer to God when he suffered, not when he studied. It was his pleadings with God to remove his "thorn" in the flesh that led him to hear the Lord say, "My grace is sufficient for thee."
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
- 2 Corinthians 12:7-9
Paul pleaded with God to heal him of his illness or infirmity (we don't know the exact physical problem, only that it had a debilitating effect on him). He wanted his strength and vitality back; he wanted this thing that interfered with his work to be taken away. God responded by telling him that Paul's weakness and greater dependence on Him was good enough.
This episode in the Apostle's life highlights the fact that if left alone, we humans will attempt to go it alone, become self-sufficient, and depend on no one. Suffering, in all of its forms, moves us back to where we should be, depending on God for everything. To be dependent on God is not a shameful thing or a sign of weakness, it is an acknowledgement of reality. The simple truth is that we depend on God for every breath we take, but suffering is usually needed to bring that reality home to us. The greatest waste is when someone suffers but their suffering leaves them as self-dependent and proud as ever. The greatest benefit of suffering one can receive is not getting their health back, or their freedom or happiness back. The greatest benefit is a new reliance on God each day whether the suffering stays or goes.
No one likes to experience trouble and pain, not even Christians. However, Christians do not simply lament over their suffering or pray for relief. They use their experience of suffering as God intends:
- They allow it to motivate them to change or reorder their lives.
- They permit their suffering to open their eyes and hearts to others who are experiencing similar pain.
- Christians never lose sight of the fact that sin causes all suffering, and Christ is the answer to all sin and ultimately all suffering for everyone.
- Finally, Christians use suffering as an occasion to draw closer and more dependent on God regardless of the outcome of their circumstances.
What is your condition? Is your suffering causing you to be angry or to lose hope? I encourage you not to give in to these destructive attitudes in regards to suffering, whatever the cause. For all those who are suffering, the Lord makes this invitation:
"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
The first step to end, not the suffering, but the emotional and spiritual burden that suffering creates, is to give this burden to Jesus who will carry it for you. Peter says it this way:
...casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.
- 1 Peter 5:7
To those who are burdened with emotional and physical pain, Jesus invites you to come and cast your burden upon Him and allow Him to give you the sweet rest that goes beyond understanding.