Thursday, May 20, 2010

God + Suffering, 2: Why Do I Suffer?

In my previous post, we started looking at the relationships between God & suffering, seen in Biblical verses like Philippians 1:12-18. The Bible promises that God is both sovereign and good, and also that suffering is promised to His people. If that's true, then God has a purpose in our suffering.

Why might God allow me to suffer?

There are several reasons God might allow us to suffer - probably way more than we can ever realize or understand (Rom 11:33-34 - "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?'..."). But here are some of the more common ways that God seems to use suffering for his purposes:
  • To discipline you: not "to punish you," as if you sinned one too many times, or offended God in such a great way that he responds in anger and sends calamity to your life. The wages of sin isn't suffering; it's death (Rom 3:23) - for the Christian, that debt has been paid and God doesn't "double-punish" us for our sin! But, as a loving Father, God might use pain, trial, and suffering, to discipline us, his children: in ways we might never know, he might protect us, refine us, or guide us, using suffering to lovingly direct us. That's good discipline, right parents?
  • To equip you for future ministry: God could use suffering to prepare you for something later in your life - specifically, he could be using your suffering to prepare you to be better used for his purposes. We don't like this thought, because well, we're selfish! We don't like that God might make US suffer, to benefit others or to benefit his kingdom! I knew a college guy who, as a child, had been molested by an older man - this produced emotional and spiritual turmoil for him, as he daily battled homosexuality and same-sex attraction. So many times he would ask me, "why?" After he graduated and began working with a church's youth group, he called me one day, nearly in tears. A high schooler he had begun working with had, as a child, been molested by an older man, and this student now battled homosexuality and same-sex attraction. After my friend heard this and was able to encourage the student, the student said "I didn't have anyone else to turn to, who understands - thank you." My friend's words to me? "I think I finally might understand why God allowed this to happen to me."
  • To encourage others: An equally-unpopular, equally-others-focused reason as the previous one, others might be encouraged in your suffering. But could God, in his sovereign goodness, allow you to suffer for the benefit of others? He did with Paul. Philippians 1:14 - "And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear." Even Paul's Philippian readers are encouraged as they see him suffering well, dying to himself and pursuing God's purposes in suffering. Would you suffer for the benefit of others?
  • To give you a platform for sharing the gospel: When we suffer well, people notice. And this might be God's way of putting opportunities in our lives to simply share the gospel. In John 9, Jesus is asked why a blind man suffers - "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). Jesus' answer shocks his listeners: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him" (9:3) - and then Jesus healed him and proclaimed the gospel. John Piper suffered well and publicly, and people noticed and responded, and the gospel was advanced; Matt Chandler is suffering well and publicly, and people are noticing and responding, and the gospel is being advanced. Many others have done so too, and God has worked in them for his purposes.
The apostle Paul, in prison and awaiting execution, suffered well, and people noticed and responded, and the gospel was advanced: Philippians 1:12-14 - "I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear."

The key to all this, though, is our mindset, worldview, and goals - how do we respond when we see suffering in our lives? That's where the next post takes us.

Thoughts? Comments? Post below.