Why do we suffer?
Connected to prayer
This article was first featured alongside our Prayer Diary in April 2019. You can download the April 2019 prayer points here or sign-up to receive future editions by post or email.
Firstly, we have to come to recognise the sheer magnitude and awful intensity of pain that exists in the world. We are surrounded by pain, and the only condition for suffering it is to live long enough to experience it. Suffering is one of the most consistent themes of the Bible. We live in a fallen, broken, bleeding world.
The Bible is an honest book. It knows all about frustration and bereavement, about childlessness and depression. It tells us that we suffer because we are human, and because we are Christians. Sometimes, we suffer because we are stupid and do sinful things. Sometimes, it’s because we are faithful and do righteous things. Sometimes, there seems to be no cause at all, suffering appears out of a cloudless sky.
Any cheap and tawdry theology that teaches us that it is possible to escape pain in this world has to contend with the overwhelming testimony of the Bible. We live in the middle of the book.
“The Bible is an honest book. It knows all about frustration and bereavement, about childlessness and depression.”
Pastoral ministry for over thirty years has confirmed this first conviction. As I look out at the congregation on a Sunday morning, I know I am preaching to people who have suffered, who are suffering or who are about to suffer. For some, it is a struggle even to be at church in the first place.
For many people, it’s the daily struggle with the effects of chronic physical pain that colours their whole existence. However, there are other forms of pain just as devastating in their effects. I think of the young couple who have been told that they can never have kids of their own. They leave the Mother’s Day service with tears in their eyes. Or I consider the bereaved wife who has been so brave for so long, helping her husband battle terminal cancer. Now that the battle is over, she cannot see any reason to get out of bed in the morning. Then there is the guy who has suffered depression for forty years and for whom the brightest day is grey and frightening.
Where do we go with our pain?
The concept of being crushed beyond measure is a common theme in the Bible. When we are in pain, where do we turn? To those who have been right where we are. Job passed through the most excruciating agony imaginable. Did he think that, thousands of years later, people would be turning for comfort to the book that describes his experiences? Probably not. The same is true of the laments in the Psalms or the grief-gripped cries of Jeremiah or the sober musings of Ecclesiastes.
In the New Testament, we find comfort and help from the words of the apostle Paul, words wrung from a bruised and battered heart. We sometimes think of Paul as the supreme theologian of the early church, its great missionary strategist and its evangelist par excellence. Perhaps we picture him as a man who had everything worked out, the ultimate ‘cool communicator’. Then we read words like these:
‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.’ (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
There’s nothing ‘cool’ about that. Paul’s words show the intensity of his suffering. He is ‘under great pressure’, crushed under a great weight. He feels as if all his resources of courage and strength are spent. Like a prisoner on death row, he even ‘[feels] the sentence of death’.
He experienced much distress and hardship because of his faithfulness to Christ. And he ministered to others out of these experiences. Indeed, he was convinced that the purpose of suffering was to fit him for ministry. His ministry flowed out of his hardships. He seems to suggest that a personal familiarity with pain is an essential prerequisite for sensitive pastoral care.
It goes with the territory
The words ‘crushed beyond measure’ (also translated as ‘utterly burdened beyond our strength’) are taken from the first chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
“Personally, you will experience the wonderful comfort of God in your own life. But, more than that, you will find yourself equipped and enabled to be a blessing to others.”
The Corinthians were troubled by a new breed of teachers who had invaded the church. Paul calls them ‘super apostles’. He is being sarcastic – frankly, they are not really apostles at all. The essence of their message is that real servants of God would be more remarkable than Paul, who is not particularly impressive at all. What is more, real apostles would not suffer as Paul has suffered. To put it bluntly, Paul is a bit of an embarrassment.
Paul doesn’t duck the issue. Indeed, he ripostes by cataloguing the sufferings he has endured for the sake of the gospel. He has been imprisoned and endangered, flogged and beaten, stoned and shipwrecked. He was in constant danger and felt crushed under the daily pressure of caring for the churches (2 Corinthians 11:21-29).
He goes even further. Suffering is the mark of a true apostle. Ordeals and distresses and troubles and hardships go with the territory. This is the cost and inevitable result of all true ministry. Paul’s sufferings are the result of being a servant of a crucified Saviour. They are not a mark of shame, but a badge of honour.
So what is the purpose of such suffering? In 2 Corinthians 1:5-6 Paul describes a clear sequence.
Step one: The sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives. We share abundantly. Christ suffered because he had come to obey his Father’s will. If we are servants of Christ, we should expect to share his suffering. We follow a crucified Saviour and therefore should expect to live crucified lives. Notice that Paul does not envisage a little trickle of suffering – he is thinking of a flood swelling up and flowing over from Christ to us.
Step two: In the midst of these trials, God’s comfort also flows over into our lives through Christ. God comforted his Son in the ordeal that he passed through, and this comfort now overflows to us. We are united to Christ and therefore experience all the comforts and blessings that he experienced. Notice again we are not thinking of a trickle but a flood.
Step three: This is the climax of the sequence. Our lives are like a goblet. First suffering flows in and then comfort flows in. Then, out from our lives flow the comforts that just flowed in. So our lives become a source of blessing and help to those around us. When we first experience the suffering that faithfulness to Christ brings, we may well be troubled and perplexed. But look at the outcome, says Paul. Personally, you will experience the wonderful comfort of God in your own life. But, more than that, you will find yourself equipped and enabled to be a blessing to others. Through you, they find grace to endure.
Suffering forges us, making our hearts tender and sympathetic. My first pastor was a man called Les Coley. He was a great preacher and a wise friend. When I told him of my call into the ministry, he said, “Anyone engaged in pastoral ministry should have a thick skin but a tender heart”. What gives you a tender heart? Suffering that softens and makes it a vehicle through which God can minister his mercy.
That is why Christ is the perfect comforter of his people: ‘Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those being tempted’ (Hebrews 2:18).
Do you see the principle? God sends suffering in order to fit us for service.
Invest your Suffering
Taken from Invest Your Suffering by Paul Mallard, published by Inter-Varsity Press 2013, used by permission. For more details, or to purchase the book please click the link below: