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I sat quietly in the hospital room, somewhat shell-shocked. I didn’t know what to say or do. The family was all there, weeping as the mother and father held their infant son in their arms, still cradling him an hour after he passed into eternity.
The sense of loss was staggering. No one was saying much as we all sat and cried pondering what had just happened. The mother cradled her baby boy with tears running down her face, while their church and family gathered around them.
Pain will either cripple us or strengthen us.
In those moments, comforting words are difficult to voice. A loss like this will cut a wound into the hearts of the family which may never fully heal in this life. The intensity of the moment may fade, but there are certain kinds of pain that never fully fade away.
The reality is that pain will either cripple us or strengthen us. It’s true that suffering changes us, but how we allow it to change us will ultimately depend on the foundation on which we’ve built our lives.
Suffering is inevitable, but is it meaningless?
As we go through life, we will experience suffering, some greater than others. At times, suffering is physical pain caused by an injury or disability, other times its emotional or mental anguish. Suffering could be the result of the loss of a relationship, or an uncontrollable economic hardship which has brought us to our knees.
It could be abuse, or death of a close friend, or a host of other issues. The point is that we will all suffer to some extent, but the question often boils down to, why? And is there any meaning is suffering? Well, the answer to that questions comes down to who you ask.
A secular worldview of suffering acknowledges its existence while denying it any meaning
Secular psychologists and philosophers have tried to answer this question for years, but they have little hope to offer people. Our western society often views pain and suffering the same way they view the world; a random result of chance without meaning or design. In the secular worldview, our highest goal is self-fulfillment and pleasure, and suffering is merely an interruption to our pursuit of happiness.
In fact, noted philosopher & evolutionary scientist Dr. Richard Dawkins wrote in his book, Rivers Out of Eden, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice” (pp.132-133).
Cultural anthropologist Dr. Richard Shweder put it this way, “Suffering has no intelligible relation to any plot, except as a chaotic interruption” (Why Do Men Barbecue? P.125). In short, suffering just happens and there is no purpose in it and no reason for it.
A biblical worldview of suffering acknowledges its existence while promising a greater meaning
In the biblical worldview, suffering is not a “chaotic interruption” to our pursuit of happiness, but it is often through the fire of suffering that we find purpose.
Jesus, the very Son of God, suffered intensely on this earth. When you consider the physical torture (crucifixion was one of the most painful ways to die), emotional pain (betrayed and deserted by his closest friends), and spiritual anguish (bearing the sins of the world) Jesus endured, one could argue that He suffered more than anyone in history ever has or ever will.
Through times of pain and suffering, we are changed into who God wants us to be.
It was through this suffering that His ultimate purpose for coming to earth was fulfilled. Through His sacrifice on the cross, we have been offered peace and salvation. It was not in spite of His suffering, but because of it, His destiny was fulfilled.
In the same way, through times of pain and suffering, we are changed into who God wants us to be. I am not saying that God is the ultimate cause of all suffering on earth, I am simply saying that because of God, there is purpose and meaning to the difficulties we face in life.
If we try and make sense of our suffering in the moment, our suffering will not make sense.
A few years ago, my wife and I were starting a church in St. Louis, and things were tight. I am not talking tight as in we cut our Starbucks down to one caramel latte a week; I mean tight as in wearing our winter coats inside our apartment because we could not afford to turn up the heat.
The church was not growing as quickly as we had hoped, so I was working full-time for an agency which helped homeless people in the city, then pastoring in the nighttime hours and on the weekends. Our car had broken down, so I had to borrow a bike from a friend to ride the 8 miles through some pretty rough neighborhoods to get into my office.
One morning on my way into work a huge truck came barreling down the crowded city street and didn’t see me on the shoulder. I swerved over at the last second, narrowly avoiding being crushed by the truck, only to hit a parked car at full speed.
I flipped over the car, destroying the borrowed bike, parts of the car, and much of my exposed skin in the process. I didn’t sustain any lasting injuries other than a few scars, but the emotional cost of that incident is something I will never forget. I remember standing on the street, blood pouring out of my wounds, as I looked up to heaven and yelled at God, “Do you have any idea what you are doing?!” As I looked at our situation, I could make no sense of our suffering and certainly couldn’t see how God was using it for any greater good.
When we fail to trust God in our suffering, we will blame Him instead of praising Him
At that moment, I was in pain, and I was frustrated. I was not thinking about all that God had done to that point or all that He had promised to do. All I knew was that life was bad, and it had just gotten worse.
Had I been thinking clearly, maybe I would have been able to see that despite my pain, God was at work. But suffering does that to us; it poisons our judgment and corrupts our feeling. It dements our perspective so that we cannot see clearly.
When we fail to trust God in our suffering, we will find ourselves blaming Him for it instead of worshiping Him through it.
Soon after the accident, we would be given a vehicle, our bills would be paid, and we would end up feeling the overwhelming love of Christ through our church. God was using the very pain I was resenting to prove His faithfulness and shape me into the man He was calling me to be.
Whether or not we can see it, our suffering has a purpose. The reality is that when we fail to trust God in our suffering, we will find ourselves blaming Him for it instead of worshiping Him through it.
When pain blinds us to the spiritual realities of suffering, God’s Word & His people help us see the truth
To find perspective and strength in the midst of suffering, we must turn to the Church and the Scriptures. The church is the one place on earth that is designed and equipped to help us gain perspective, and the Bible is the one book in which we can find purpose in the midst of sorrow. It is the community of Christ which helps us to see what the pain of our situation has blinded us to. It is the word of God which helps us stand when we cannot, to move forward when our will is broken.
For the believer, suffering ends not in defeat, but in victory!
Do you want to know where God is when you are suffering? The Bible answers that questions for us: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?…No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us” (Romans 8:35, 37).
When we are suffering, God is right beside us. Nothing can separate us from His love. He wants to show us His love through His church, and give us a purpose through His Word!