Suffering and God’s Love

None of us like suffering. When violence or famine strikes a country, when fires, hurricanes or drought threaten our communities, when a loved one is in a serious accident, when a child is born with a disability, when we are sick, something deep within us cries, “No!” And we may wonder, “God, if you really love us, why don’t you stop this suffering?”

The truth is, we all have trials and, in this life, we will continue to have more. Why is this? Let’s take a closer look at this common-to-all, uncomfortable subject of suffering.

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of this world; it is an upside-down kingdom. In the kingdom of heaven, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The meek inherit the earth. Understanding is hidden from the wise and learned and revealed to little children. And suffering is valued because God works it for the eternal good of those who love Him.

Scripture tells us, “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13). “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2). Great good is hidden in suffering; God weaves suffering, love and glory together in inseparable ways.

I understood none of this when personal suffering came my way years ago. I was 32 when, over a period of a few weeks, my eyes quit working together and I became dizzy and unable to walk in a straight line.

One memorable night, after a long day of seeing doctors, as I lay in an MRI machine confused and scared, Romans 8:28 kept going through my head: “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

“I am going to be okay,” I told myself. “God is going to work this out for good. I’ll be able to take care of our four children. I’ll continue working at the university helping malnourished kids around the world. And when our children are older our whole family will go overseas and start Christian orphanages just as we’ve planned.”

But my idea of “good” never happened. The next day I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—a disabling, progressive neurological disease that affects the central nervous system and often results in death.

I gave up my job at the university. My sister and her family moved from 2,000 miles away to help out. Depressed and so, so tired and weak, I spent my days on the couch unable even to take care of our children. Pain. Anguish. Confusion. “God, why am I suffering? You could stop this illness; I know You could. So, what are You doing? How is this supposed to work for good? God, I don’t understand; You are a loving and caring God, so why all this suffering?”

How we answer these types of questions tells a great deal about who God is to us. Who we let God be to us in difficult times—how we live out the answers to the why of suffering—determines the effect suffering has on our lives and becomes the testimony we pass on to others.

So, let’s look at a two of the most common questions asked about suffering.

Why is there suffering in the world?

The first answer to that question is, we suffer because we live in a fallen world. And we live in a fallen world because Satan works his evil through the free will God gave Adam.

In the Garden of Eden, God created man in His image. He said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). An essential, foundational part of being made in God’s image that we have the ability to give and receive love. And the ability to give and receive love requires that we inherently have free choice to offer or withhold that love.

God could have created us as robots to do exactly as He says and never make mistakes. But He didn’t do that. He didn’t do that because you can’t love a robot. And a robot can’t love you. You can’t make someone love you. Neither can someone make you love them. You get to choose who you want to love. If you don’t want to let someone (including God) love you, you have the freedom to reject their love. An intrinsic part of God’s love is free choice. And free choice really means free choice. God will work with us to help us make right choices; He wants our wills to be conformed to His desires for us. But He will not block us from making wrong choices—with widespread, hurtful, suffering-producing consequences.

Humans have made a horrible mess of the earth by choosing their own will over God’s. Satan works through the will of broken humanity to bring suffering, pain, death and destruction to earth. Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Edi Amine are names we associate with terrible suffering. Yet, even though God knew of the wars, genocides, famines—all the horrors and sufferings to follow—He took the risk and gave us free will.

Love is that valuable—that precious—to God. “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). He doesn’t just have love; He is love. God is a lover. Therefore, in order for us to know God and accept Him for who He is—full of love for us—He had to give us free choice.

What “good” purpose does suffering serve?

To answer this question let’s consider four separate, but interwoven threads.

Thread One: In a world without affliction, God would not have been able to demonstrate His love for us.

Love is measured by the sacrifice it willingly makes for another. Without suffering, there would be no sacrifice. All the persecutions, sufferings and trials that Satan poured out to defile Jesus, God used to show His perfect love.

Jesus did not come to earth riding in a diamond-studded chariot, blowing love-kisses to a cheering humanity. He left His perfect heavenly home and came as a helpless baby born in an animal shed. To escape Herod’s deadly rampage, His family fled to Egypt. Jesus was tempted by Satan, misunderstood and falsely accused. He was betrayed and abandoned, whipped and cursed and nailed to a cross between two thieves.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). God’s “greater love” was demonstrated against the backdrop of pain, suffering and death. Without that backdrop, we can’t see the full, grand display of God’s love. The “greater love” of Jesus was manifest in His perfect obedience in suffering.

Thread Two: God uses trials to give us opportunities to grow in our dependence on Him.

Paul gives us a beautiful example of this principle when he writes, “A thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might separate from me. 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. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Paul prayed fervently for his “thorn” to be removed. But when God did not answer as Paul requested, the Apostle did not become disheartened or bitter. Rather, he came to realize that the eternal good God intended far outweighed the fleeting, earthly affliction of the thorn itself. In his weakness Paul learned greater dependence upon God.

In my life, my multiple sclerosis gave me the push I needed to surrender to God and let His definition of “good” replace my own. As the months of suffering turned into years, I gradually came to desire God—not for healing so I could get back to my own version of “good”—but for who He really is.

I had been a Christian since I was 16, but as the disease lingered and intensified, a desperate longing to know God grew within me. I craved to know God like someone dying of thirst in the desert would crave a drink of water. The desire for God didn’t make sense to my rational mind. I thought I knew God. But I couldn’t deny my desperate longing.

One night I went to a meeting at church and afterward felt that I should go to the front. “What do you want?” the preacher asked me. “I just want God,” I sobbed. “Lift up your hands and say ‘I surrender all,’” he said.

I did … and God poured His love out on me. In a cascade of tiny, white lights, I felt His love poured down on me from the center of the cross. I fell backward and lay there. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. God’s love just kept coming in wave after wave of sparkling lights flooding into my heart. When I got up off the floor a few hours later, I wasn’t healed, but I was changed. Something in me was set right. God’s love was the foundation of the good He had planned for me in suffering.

That marked the start of me opening myself to more and more of His transforming love. On that night in 1995, when the concept of websites was in its infancy, had its inception.

God knows what He is doing and He doesn’t make mistakes. He has a plan. We do not know the details of His plan in advance and we may never even see His plan beginning to unfold.

Often in this world, we like to acknowledge those who have come through trials and received some earthly assurance that helped them see God’s goodness in a tangible way. We like stories with happy endings to hardships. We like the story of Sarah who, after enduring years of barrenness, grief and ridicule, gave birth to Isaac. Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and spent years wrongly imprisoned in Egypt. But he was released, elevated to the position of second in command to Pharaoh and used to save Egypt and the Israelite nation from famine.  Upon seeing his brothers when he was in a position of power, Joseph said, “Do not … be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 44:5). We too rejoice over seeing God’s hand move in this way.

Yet, God is just as pleased with those who do not receive any kind of earthly assurance that their suffering has been of value. In the great faith chapter of Hebrews 11, we are told, “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings … chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword…. And all these having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise” (vv. 35–39). God is looking for people who endure the hardships He allows and stand firm.

God’s ends always result in gain rather than loss, but God’s means often result in loss rather than gain. God’s ends are measured in the eternal, spiritual commodities of heaven—like peace, joy, love and glory. But the means God uses include the fleeting, physical commodities of earth—such as health, wealth and prosperity. Beware of any “gospel” that teaches otherwise. Watch out for those who resist accepting anything but earthly benefits.

Thread Three: God uses suffering to mold us into the image of His Son.

In persecutions and afflictions, Jesus’ obedience to His Father was purified like gold in a furnace. Scripture says of our loving Savior, “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Imagine the Son of God having to learn obedience. And He learned it in suffering.

What is true for Jesus is also true for us. The trials and tribulations we face are meant to mold us into the people God created us to be.

The word tribulation comes from the Greek word tribulum. A tribulum was a heavy wooden structure with iron spikes protruding from its underside. At harvest time, the oxen pulled the tribulum over the sheaves of grain on the threshing floor to separate the wheat from the chaff. God uses tribulation and affliction to perfect His nature in us.

Our heavenly Father uses the sufferings of this imperfect world to purify us so we live out His will on earth and grow increasingly to be like His Son. Scripture repeats this for us over and over.  Romans 8:28, the same verse that kept coming back to me as I lay in the MRI machine, is followed by verses that tell of God’s purpose in our suffering.

“All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 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. Moreover whom He predestines, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Romans 8:28–30).

When we love God, He uses all things to mold us into the image of His Son. God uses suffering to get us to the point where He can share His glory with us.

To glorify something means to attribute true and proper value to that something. When we glorify God, we attribute to Him all the honor He deserves as all-loving, all-powerful Creator of the universe. And when God glorifies us, He attributes to us our true worth and value in His eyes.

God uses suffering to work His nature into us. As we come to rely on Him and know His love and care for us in deeper and deeper ways, we come to surrender our version of “good” to Him. We let go of our will and way and embrace His will and way. And as we do this, we become more and more like Him—partakers of His divine nature and radiant with His glory.

Romans 8:17–18 says, “If indeed we suffer with Him … we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us

His glory will be revealed in us when we choose to suffer—not alone—but with Him! God’s purpose in suffering is to share His glory with us—to mold us into the image of His Son.

It doesn’t matter if we are suffering on the mission field, in a secular job, as a stay-at-home parent, as a student … Suffering, whenever it occurs in our lives—whether it is because of our sin or because of our witness for Christ—is beneficial when endured with Him. For those of us living “ordinary” lives, we may be tempted to think that our suffering doesn’t count because we are not “missionaries,” but that is not true. We are His witnesses, wherever we go.

Since that time in the MRI machine, ongoing trials have compelled me to surrender to God—over and over again. I can look back on each one of those past afflictions and see God at work. I can praise God for the trials … of the past.

But there is a great current trial that involves my precious grandsons. In the midst of this ongoing difficulty, I find it hard to trust God. Innocent children are suffering. I am confused and cannot see how God could possibly work this for good. I do not know what to do—except love all those involved with God’s love—which I seem to repeatedly fail to do. Answers, like those just presented, help, but don’t stop the pain.

And so, I need you. I need the body of Christ to listen, to comfort, to pray, to encourage me to keep looking to Jesus. Which brings us to our next thread.

Thread Four: Suffering unites the body of Christ.

In trials we get the privilege of coming along side and bearing each other’s burdens. Suffering creates need. Need creates opportunity for giving. Giving is the channel through which the love of God flows. And God’s love binds the body of Christ together so that we become one with each other and with Him.

Suffering strengthens the worldwide body of Christ. As we pray for those in California affected by fire, as we open our arms to those fleeing civil war in Syria or Central America, when we send money to help orphaned children in Malawi or leprosy victims in India, when we stop and consider the heartfelt needs of others in our families and communities, we are sharing Christ’s love and helping to unite the body of Christ.

Do Not Lose Heart

In suffering we learn of God’s goodness, are conformed to His image, grow in His glory and are knit together in His love. And so I remind myself as I encourage you: No matter the suffering, keep trusting God. Let Him hold you in His arms. Let Him work His good into your life and out through your life to others.

Trusting that God’s purposes and plans are being worked out through our losses and trials frees us from bitterness, blame and anger. It allows us to forgive others and worship God for who His is. How we live our life in suffering is powerful testimony to the God we serve. In the midst of his trials Job cried out, “Though He slay me, yet will I praise Him” (Job 13:15). Those words echo down to us today encouraging us that, even when we do not understand, we trust our loving Lord.

A pastor friend told me of a recent experience he had in an African nation. To get to one of the meetings, a group of church leaders from that country walked all day barefoot though mud and potholes. Yet there was no bitterness, despair, frustration, anger or hint of jealousy. Outside the meeting center they each cleaned up and put on the pair of shoes carried. Then with smiling, eager faces, they entered the meeting.

When they began praying, not one of these leaders asked for a motorcycle, money for bus fare or even a second pair of shoes. Not one of them asked for a better house or for ample food for their families. Their prayers weren’t focused on relieving their own needs or fixing their country’s economic or political problems. Their prayers were focused on God’s highest and best. On bent knees, with faces on the floor and tear-stained cheeks, these leaders prayed simultaneously from around the room: “Lord we have sinned.” “We repent for the sins of our nation.” “Come and heal our land.” “Make our hearts ready.” “Give us eyes to see.” “God, visit us.” “Jesus have mercy.” And the room was alive with the presence of God.

Suffering sets the stage for faith and faith sets the stage for God to work His good. In our tribulations, let us hold fast to the promises of God and not lose hope. He loves us and has our best interests—and the best interests of our families, communities … and all of humanity—at heart. Paul in his afflictions encourages us, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:16–17, NIV).

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All Scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version ®. Copyright© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Italics included in Scripture quotations have been added by the author for emphasis.