Suffering is such a big part of life.
From the cradle to the grave, the human experience is one of almost continual suffering. Therefore, it is indispensable that we correctly view suffering. Most of us suffer our suffering and don’t know how to use it for our good and God’s glory. We must have a view of suffering shaped by the Bible rather than a view shaped by personal feelings or, even worse, given to us by the world.
It may not have crossed your mind that the Bible presents a doctrine of suffering, but it does. The statements of Scripture on the topic, when examined separately and then correctly synthesized, produce a comprehensive teaching.
One text of Scripture stands out in this grand doctrine of suffering. It is Psalm 119:71, 75:
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes . . . I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, And that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.
Not only is suffering a huge part of life but it is a great perplexity. Why must we suffer? But even more difficult—why must we suffer by the hand of a good God? We could feel more confident tackling the question why suffering by the hand of a bad devil. But David did not say suffering came to him by way of Satan, but by way of the Lord. In His faithfulness to us, God afflicts us. In other words, in His goodness to us, He makes us suffer.
How do we account that a holy, loving, compassionate, and good God can permit it? The problems this presents are many, and I do not pretend that we can understand all these questions and their complexities. However, I do believe that the Bible can bring clarity to these issues, which will help us to suffer well.
C. S. Lewis wrote a small book titled A Grief Observed.
It is a random journaling of his grief after the death of his wife Joy, and in it he spoke of a good God afflicting His children.
The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably [relentlessly] he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.
Then Lewis asks—“But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us?” Lewis answers with a profound depth of wisdom.
Take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.
Either way, we’re [in] for it.
Finally, Lewis asks an insightful question that demonstrates our own inconsistency when thinking or talking about the goodness of God,
What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because I know He is good?” Have they never even been to a dentist?
What Lewis and the Bible want us to know is that you cannot define goodness as pain-free.
For most people, if it hurts it isn’t good. But the Bible differs with that opinion and shows that one of the most loving acts of God is the introduction of pain into the life of one of His children. But our attitude of entitlement stands in the way of receiving the good delivered to us by the errand boy of pain. The moment bad news comes to us, we immediately question God’s goodness, thinking we surely don’t deserve the ill because we have been good. In our minds, it’s all a matter of rewards and punishment. If I have been a faithful servant of God, then He owes me blessing; if I have performed less than I should or badly, then I deserve suffering. Thankfully, God is not on the quid pro quo system.
It is an evidential fact that although Christians are redeemed they are not yet perfected. Martin Luther, the German reformer, called the believer a simultaneous saint and sinner. I prefer to say that the Christian is a saint who still can sin and unfortunately does. Our depravity remains, although not totally. And it is this remaining corruption that suffering aims at removing, as the furnace removes the dross. The flames cause the impurities of the precious metal to rise to the surface and the gold or silversmith extracts it.
The question is why does the Lord not perfect us immediately at the moment of conversion, as He will when we get to heaven?
Wouldn’t that solve the problem and eliminate suffering altogether? Wouldn’t that be good? At least it would be easier than the kind of goodness David and C. S. Lewis is talking about.
Well, it might make our philosophical problem with suffering go away but, in the end, it would not help us. Help for us is not making us to have heaven but making us suitable for heaven. In the wisdom of God, it is better to put us through a process of conformity rather than instantaneous conformity to Christ. Certainly, God can do anything within the confines of His character. He could suddenly transform us. But even if He perfected His children in a moment, which He will at the resurrection, perfection in heaven does not mean there is no room for growth. Our perfection doesn’t mean we become deity. We will not know everything there is to know, nor will we be all-powerful. We will forever be depending upon the Almighty.
So the saint’s perfection in heaven will be for the most part—the removal of remaining corruption, both spiritual and physical, and the removal of the ability to sin. This perfection will not eliminate the need for development. Christians will continually be expanding, growing, maturing, and learning in heaven.
Therefore, before glorification, to help us grow in our love of Christ, we need to be better aware of how gracious our Lord is to us. The point of Jesus’ parable to Simon the Pharisee was that the more a person understands his or her sinfulness, the more he or she will love the person who forgave them of their sins. Simon was as evil as the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and poured out perfume on Jesus’ feet. The Pharisee just didn’t know it, but the woman knew how much sin was forgiven.
Thus, to teach us just how great the grace we experience is, it is necessary for God to allow us to remain in a less than perfect state so we learn the depth of our depravity.
When converted, we think we are terrible sinners. But it isn’t until we have been walking with God for a while do we begin to see how terrible sin is and how deeply it runs through our natures. The more we learn of our utter weakness, the more dependent upon God and His amazing grace we become. In the end, we love more because of the process.
I get concerned when I hear professing believers quip that sometimes they wish they had lived more sinful lives before being saved so that they could appreciate God’s grace more.
Which do you think grieves the Father’s heart more, the sins of a rebel and outcast who hates the King or the rebellion of the King’s child?
“Well,” says one, “can’t God make us know all that the moment we are saved? Isn’t that the whole point of the conviction of sin that we underwent before being saved?” Yes, it is the point of conviction of sin, but to be made to understand and experience grace is not enough to make us absolutely dependent upon grace. When converted, we are saved by grace, but we’re far from living by grace alone.
Here’s a two-part question that I hope sheds light as to why God allows suffering in our lives.
Which would bring God more glory—saving a sinner and instantaneously perfecting the sinner that he or she will never sin again? Or saving a sinner and allowing him or her to still be able to sin, but with time, change them, so they do not want to sin and instead become more and more like Jesus?
If He saves sinners but leaves their corrupt flesh to remain, then they will, again and again, prove that they did not deserve salvation. The Lord will glorify His grace over and over again that He is a God that mercifully, kindly, tenderly, and patiently forbears with sinners until they enter into a state of perfection.
It is this struggle that reminds us of our sin and teaches our continual need for God’s grace. This is what brings immense glory to the Lord and proves to other sinners that they too could be recipients of such lovingkindness.
Therefore, we too can say with David that it is “good for me that I have been afflicted. . . and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.”