...It just does.
It is a part of the fallen, broken, and groaning world that we are a part of. Suffering takes many forms – markets fall, people get sick, jobs are lost, quarrels ensue, marriages break, loved ones die, tears flow, violence hurts, anxiety attacks…and a million other incidents and accidents remind us that the world is not as it should be.
In the midst of suffering many questions are raised about why God allows suffering to happen. While this is a huge theological question, debated by brilliant minds over the centuries, scripture reveals to us that God has a purpose for us in the midst of suffering. I believe that there is a redemptive purpose in all suffering… the hard part is finding it!
As Christians, who will experience suffering (John 16:33), we need to be wise in determining what that purpose is. If we can determine God’s purpose through suffering not only does it help us persevere by providing hope, but it allows us to better learn the lessons that God would perhaps want to teach us through suffering.
Unfortunately though, many of us want a “one-size-fits-all” answer to find purpose in suffering. E.g. “This happened so that _______”. The problem is that there is no “pat purpose” for suffering and we must use our wisdom to discern what God’s purpose is for us in the midst of our trial. A “one-size-fits-all” answer to the problem of suffering will at times take us away from determining God’s purpose through suffering.
So how do we determine what God’s purpose is? Listed below are seven questions that I have put together based on some of the purposes that are found in scripture that emerge as a result of suffering. This list is not exhaustive, but perhaps can be helpful as we seek to understand the unique purpose that God has in the unique suffering we are go through.
These are perhaps best used as reflection questions to consider when life gets tough. Here they are;
1) Is this suffering my or our fault? So often we are quick to blame God for our own mistakes and the suffering that is caused by our sin. If the suffering is because of my actions, let’s seek to forgive, repent and change our ways.
2) Is this suffering a painful, corrective lesson because of my disobedience? The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to accept hardship as discipline (Heb 12:7) suggesting that God will use suffering to change our behavior. Is the suffering you are enduring challenging you to be more obedient to God?
3) Is God teaching me to respond appropriately? We read in Hebrews 5:8 that Jesus learned to be obedient through his suffering. It wasn’t that he was disobedient before his suffering, but that his obedience was tested through his pain. Perhaps God would want to test your obedience through your suffering? Will you respond appropriately?
4) Is God reminding me that suffering is a painful part of life? Complacency and apathy are two of our biggest threats to real life. They have the potential to paralyze every part of our being. Yet we only become complacent when things are going well, and we forget that life sucks at times. If we forget that this life is fallen, we can forget that we have one who has raised us up. If we forget that there is pain in the world, we misappropriate and misunderstand his peace. If we forget suffering, we can forget about our need for a Savior. May we never forget our need, dependence and reliance upon Christ! The Apostle Paul says,“...but this (suffering) happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” (2 Corinthians 1:9)
5) Could the pain that I am feeling be an act of love? Is God working through my suffering to show me more of him? Is he protecting me through this? In some way, could my struggle be a sign of God’s love for me? I know it sounds counter intuitive, but sometimes God will give us a vaccine of pain to protect us from a whole lot more pain. (Romans 8, Philippians 3:10)
6) Am I suffering so that I can share? In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, we read –“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God”. Did you see the closing to this verse? We are comforted so that we can be a comfort! Often God’s purpose in pain is to pull us through so that we can help others pull through. Henri Nouwen calls these kinds of people “Wounded Healers”, claiming that we aren’t fully healed until we use our pain to help others through theirs.
7) Can I trust that there is a purpose, even when I don’t understand what it would be? This is my catch all question, because often there are purposes in suffering that we will never understand this side of heaven. It is important that we recognize our inadequacies and limitations, but it is even more important that we trust God through situations that we just don’t understand. Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us that God’s ways are much better and bigger and higher than ours.
Suffering happens. It is inevitable. Perhaps though, these questions can help you determine God’s purpose through your pain. Hang in there!
Find God’s purpose in your pain.