~by Randy Bushey
And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:2-4).
What is the first thing you pray for when you are suffering? Or when someone close to you is in deep pain?
Naturally, we ask the Lord to terminate the ache.
And yet, often He does not – at least not right away. Why is that?
Nineteenth century British philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that this issue hit at the great weakness of Christian theism.
He saw this as an intellectual contradiction.
If God is a good, loving Deity, then He would stop suffering, particularly when asked by His children.
If He does not, He is either not good and loving, or He wants to do so but lacks the power to achieve it.
Mill’s conclusion was that Christ-followers can’t have it both ways: we can believe in a loving God or an omnipotent God – but not both.
However, that thinking is misaligned with the teaching of the Bible.
A classic case in point is the Old Testament story of Job. This ancient man, although godly, experienced agonizingly prolonged suffering that was physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual. His misery appeared to be totally incongruous with his righteous living. And so his “comforters” asserted that he must be guilty of some grievous sin to have merited God permitting such disfavour and loss.
Rabbi Harold Kushner had a crisis of faith triggered by the experience of his teenage son Aaron from a disease that caused premature aging, finally taking Aaron’s life in 1977. Kushner could not believe that an Almighty God would knowingly allow such suffering to occur.
And so he altered his theology of God, choosing to believe that God must not be all-powerful. In short, he paid a heavy price, forfeiting God’s omnipotence to reconcile, from his perspective how he interpreted the circumstances.
Job teaches, however, that the Lord is loving AND all-powerful, but that He allows suffering in the lives of His loved ones for reasons that we may never understand in this life.
But what reasons could God have for allowing suffering? How could He possibly work through it?
In the verses above from Romans 5, Paul writes one of the most audacious phrases in the New Testament: but we also rejoice in our sufferings!
Obvious Question: how can a mentally healthy person take joy from suffering?
Biblical Answer: by knowing that when the Lord allows suffering to attack His child, it is always and only for a greater purpose – soul-development. Building into my character perseverance, character and hope.
While writing this post, I was on the phone with a good friend who this morning had a surgeon perform a biopsy of a tumor expected to be cancerous.
He is in that suspended animation period of awaiting news, yet to be 5 or 6 days.
We talked openly about the haunting, sleep-eroding possibilities ahead.
But my friend acknowledged the redemptive value of suffering: that God sometimes leads us through suffering – even to the point of death – for His greater purposes in our lives.
And suffering is at the heart of the Gospel.
Our God, incapable of physical suffering took on humanity, acquired a body for, among other purposes, suffering to an excruciating degree – an anguish that concluded in death.
Contemporary writer Chris Price on the Gospel: “A forsaken God in what feels to be a God-forsaken world is the paradox at the heart of the Christian tradition.”
The Apostle James begins his letter with this exhortation that sounds strange in 21st-century ears: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4).
Takeaway: as we pray – for ourselves, and for others – may we increasingly realize that prompt, reversing intervention by the Lord, while possible, is not usually His response to our suffering.
He can. He might.
But, we need to be satisfied that the One who loves His loved ones best, while having the power to change their circumstances, also has the breadth of eternal knowledge to know how this suffering will work in their/our lives for the best!
And for His glory.