By Gary Deddo, President, Grace Communion Seminary
Sadly, some Christians embrace the non-biblical belief that if they have sufficient faith, God will not allow them to suffer severe trials. This erroneous belief is part of a false gospel called the “prosperity gospel” or, sometimes, the “health and wealth gospel.” It not only places huge burdens on believers who suffer (sometimes even overthrowing their faith), it badly misrepresents God and his plan for his people.
Perhaps there have been times in your life when you were suffering and asked, Why is God allowing this to happen? Where is God? We all relate with the feelings that accompany those challenging questions. To answer them, it’s vital that we understand what God tells us in Holy Scripture.
Scottish pastor and theologian George MacDonald (pictured at right) summed up the New Testament teaching on the suffering of God’s people by noting that God has not promised us a life free of suffering. Instead, God has promised that he will make our sufferings to be like those of Christ. By that he meant that, in the end, our sufferings will be redeemed and will lead to eternal life. Because that is so, when we, or a beloved family member or friend, suffer, we can be reassured by the words of Scripture, including these from the apostle Paul:
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:8-11)
Though none of us enjoys suffering, as believers our suffering is a place where we come to know Christ in his sufferings, and where we are able to witness to the reality that, because of Christ, our suffering is not the last word. For us, the last word is the resurrection that Jesus has promised.
By God’s grace, in suffering we experience intimate fellowship with our Lord—sharing in both his suffering and in his new (resurrection) life. It’s thus terribly wrong-headed to think that God’s will for us is that we never suffer, and that he has promised we won’t suffer so long as our faith in him is strong enough.
God’s answer to the questions that we understandably have concerning suffering does not come in the form of an explanation of the why of suffering, but as a promise that God will be near to all who suffer. Similarly, God does not explain why he allows evil in the world—in fact, he makes it known that there is no good reason for what some theologians call “the mystery of evil.” What God tells us is that evil is something that simply ought not be, and so he promises that, in the end, it will not be. In the new heavens and new earth that is coming following the resurrection, evil (and the suffering it causes) will have no place (2 Peter 3:13).
Jesus is the ultimate end of suffering and evil. Born into this fallen world, he suffered here with us, was crucified for us, raised to new life, ascended and, in the end, will return to make all things new. In the meantime, we offer him our sufferings, trusting that the one who intimately knows us and our sufferings will lead us through such times, including when we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4, KJV).
As we journey with Jesus, the reality of his reassuring, compassionate presence is sufficient for our need. By faith, we are reassured that our triune God will redeem our times of suffering, making them, somehow, serve his glorious purposes for us and for all people. We see how this works out in the suffering and resurrection of Jesus.
Whether we find ourselves in a “wide space” of peace and tranquility (Ps. 18:19) or in a time of suffering and sorrow, there is no way around trusting in God. Though faith does not assure us that we will be delivered immediately from all suffering, it does reassure us that God is with us and using what we are going through to accomplish his good purposes in our lives. We are reminded that Paul and Barnabas told a group of believers that it will be through “many tribulations” that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Paul also said this: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
Let us remember that it was for the joy that he saw ahead that Jesus willingly endured the suffering of his crucifixion (Heb. 12:2). Because he trusted that all he was going through was worth the pain, so too can we—joining Jesus in fighting the good fight of faith. Exercising the faith that Jesus shares with us, we return again and again to our faith in God—entrusting to him every aspect of our lives, the times of suffering included.
Our prayer for all who suffer (perhaps including you at this time) is that in the midst of their trials they will not be overwhelmed, but discover that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain them in all they are going through.