By Aubrey Schieuer
I used to think that trusting in God meant a rosy future filled with nothing but good things. The more I trusted him, the easier my life would be. Picture an “up and to the right” graph—this was going to be my life.
What I’ve learned since then is that suffering is a normal part of the human experience, and especially part of the Christian life. An emotional upheaval gave me the biggest opportunity for growth in my relationship with God. This article is meant to give some Biblical perspective on the issue of suffering.
Suffering is normal
Suffering is part of life. The Psalms are full of David pouring out his sadness to God, like in Psalm 13:1-2:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
And every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?”
There’s a whole book of the Bible dedicated to suffering in Lamentations: beautiful, heartbreaking poems about the destruction of Jerusalem. Suffering is part and parcel of being human, as we see played out over and over again in the Scriptures. To deny that we experience pain is to deny that we’re living in a flawed world.
Am I being punished?
When I was struggling with a difficult time in my life, I asked God why over and over again. Why was I suffering? Why me?
A wise and compassionate friend encouraged me with John 9:1-3, which says:
“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.’”
For another example of unjust suffering, take a look at Job. God’s own description of Job is nothing short of praise: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8b). In spite of his innocence, Job lost his wealth, his children, and his health.
While suffering is often a direct result of sin, sometimes bad things happen to good people. For the ultimate example, look at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. These experiences often point to God’s glory, which takes me to the next point.
Suffering has a purpose
My view of God before was extremely limited — I knew he was powerful, yet he felt distant. He created everything and promised us eternal life if we believed in him, but did he really care about my personal life? After working too long in an unhealthy workplace, I was diagnosed with depression. God told me to quit, so I prayed for him to show me where to go next. Yet for months, I heard nothing. I was at my worst and genuinely seeking his comfort and direction, and all I got back was silence.
Then one day, I opened myself up to him. I asked him to speak to me, and speak he did. Just one simple question that cut to my heart:
“Do you know I am God?”
Talk about conviction! If I truly believed that God was who he claimed he was, then why did I cling to control? And why was my job more meaningful to my identity than being a child of the Most High?
What the enemy intends for our destruction, God intends for our good. I was devastated about leaving my job. But until my identity of who I told myself I was was stripped away, there was no opportunity for growth or change.
The parable of the sower (found in Matthew 13:1-23) talks about leaving seeds on rocky ground, on the path, among thorns, and on good soil.
In Everything Belongs, Father Richard Rohr talks about how the parable relates to spiritual growth:
“The parable says the seed fell on several different types of soil. Some just aren’t ready for the Word. They’re not there yet. It’s not their fault; when the student is ready the teacher will arrive. Normally we let God in the way we let everything else in. We meet God at our present level of relational maturity: preoccupied, closed, stuck, or ready. Most spiritual work is readying the student. Both soil and soul have to be a bit unsettled and loosened up a bit. As long as we’re too comfortable, too opinionated, too sure we have the whole truth, we’re just rock and thorns.”
I now see that this immense pain gave me the most precious gift I could have ever been given. The gift of intimacy and a real relationship with Christ. I now trust that He is not only powerful, but personal. Not only Creator of All Things, but caring. My suffering, though I didn’t seek it out, had a purpose.
Finding joy in the midst of suffering
Jesus tells us flat out that things won’t always be rosy. John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Paul exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Paul is not saying here to rejoice when we feel like it. Or to give thanks only when things are going our way. Paul says always and in all circumstances. So what does this look like in everyday life?
One thing you can try is a gratitude journal. I try to write five things each day that I’m thankful for. It could be something small, like a tasty meal. Or it could be gratitude for a friend who cares for you. Or anything at all. I write them in bullet form, starting the first one with: “I'm grateful for…”
What this has done for me is that I find myself watching for the times where God has provided for me, instead of dwelling on things that I wish are different.
Seek wise counsel
Sometimes, the clearest way to discernment is through the wise counsel of people speaking the truth of the Holy Spirit. There's no shame in telling someone that you're not okay. You might talk to a trusted friend or professional therapist.
It’s also important to remember that God is our Great Counselor. God really does care, and he is always there for us when human friends and mentors let us down.
Remember who is in control
I can be pretty hard on myself sometimes. Why am I constantly not living up to the standard that I should be? But then I remind myself that if I change for the better, it’s not because I’m so talented and special and religious. It’s because God is all-powerful and he chooses to (slowly) change the hearts of his children.
I love this story from Mark 9. A boy is suffering from an evil spirit, and his father asks Jesus to drive it out after Jesus’ disciples had failed to do so. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
Jesus knows that both the boy’s father and his own disciples struggle with doubt. He quotes the father back to him: “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaims, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
Lord, we do believe! Help us overcome our disbelief. Open our heart to see suffering as an opportunity to grow closer to you, and for your glory. Amen.