After a conversation today with a faithful man at my church who has faced an immense amount of suffering for well over four years now, I asked myself this question once again:
Q: What are the traditional biblical perspectives concerning suffering? In other words, how do you see biblical writers reflecting on and reconciling suffering among the faithful?
Two things before I offer my insights: (a) The traditional biblical concept of suffering in Jewish and Christian thought is simply far too vast to attempt any in-depth analysis in this venue. (b) I’m certainly not trying to be insensitive to anyone who may be afflicted with suffering with my comments. I have been blessed with a life that has had little to no real adversity, and in most cases I’m unable to imagine the pains some are experiencing. These are just Bible observations.
By my best estimations, there are three general observations to be made here:
(1) Suffering is always connected, in some way, to sin. In Eden, sin happened and suffering followed. Similarly throughout history, sin happens and suffering follows. If it weren’t for sin, there would be no suffering.
Ironically, it is not always our own sin that causes us to suffer. Sometimes we get dinged up by the sins and misdoings of others. Unfortunately, we are all in this thing together.
(2) Some suffering is also connected with the plight of the righteous. The tests and tribulations of life serve to nurture wisdom, endurance, and virtue. God uses trials and tribulation in order to strengthen our faith and character.
C.S. Lewis writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but he SHOUTS in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
I believe that God always has something to say to you in your struggles, but the question is: are you able to turn a listening ear?
(3) It’s not a matter of “if”, it is a matter of “when”. Plain and simple, Christians suffer. Whether it be from persecution or whether it be from self-sacrificial living.
Reflecting on the New Testament alone, a majority of the canonical texts are all written out of a context of suffering or persecution. I wonder how Christ-like we can call ourselves if we rarely experience any suffering? In an affluent and comfortable West, we like to turn an indignant scowl toward God every time things seem not to go as planned.
Perhaps we should count our blessings and be thankful we didn’t make Hebrews’ Hall of Faith, “But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. 36 Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. 37 Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated” (Hebrews 11:35b-37).
Q: What observations have I missed? Any to add?
At the end of the day, my thought is this – if suffering is inevitably a part of the human condition, especially for Christians, what ultimately matters is how you respond to it. The paradox of suffering is that the same experience can either tear you down or build you up depending on how you perceive it.