September 11th, 2001 is a day that we will all remember. Every year people recall what they were doing and where they were the moment they heard that a plane had hit the first tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. I was in my first year of college and involved in Campus Crusade for Christ. A group of us immediately formed and on September 12th we loaded up a van and drove to Manhattan to be available to talk to and counsel people who were still in shock from the events of the day. Cru loosely organized the students that poured in from around the country to pray, counsel and comfort those in need, and to guide us in our conversations they gave us a pamphlet entitled, “Where is God in the midst of suffering?”
This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions for the 21st century world. The United States is built on the value that we all have the God-given right to pursue happiness and no one can stand in our way. The industrial revolution has developed cars and air conditioning so we rarely have to suffer physical discomfort, and medical research continues to develop vaccines, supplements and treatments that can heal most ailments and keep us alive longer and longer. We have developed to the point that I have multiple friends in their thirties who have never been to a funeral. We understand suffering less and less, so much so that the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or any other relatively normal form of suffering will send us into bouts of depression, we will abandon faith in God, and we will despair of life itself.
When something tragic does occur, those of us who claim faith in Jesus intrinsically ask the question, “Where is God?” We think that if He is love and if He is good, then suffering cannot be a part of His plan. We are so out of touch with the nature of life, we are so narcissistic that we think suffering is foreign, is bad, that we do not deserve it, and if it happens then something is wrong with the universe and with God.
The most Spiritual among us will admit that perhaps God can bring good out of it, but it would never be His intention or plan that we suffer.
But what does the Bible say?
Let us first consider Jesus. Jesus is the son of God. The incarnate person of God. The visible image of the unseen God (Col 1.15). He came to the Earth to seek and to save that which was lost, and to do the will of God the Father (Luke 19.10, John 6.38). And how, exactly, did Jesus do all of that? By being brutally murdered on a cross and rising again three days later (Matt 26-28). As Jesus was approaching the cross, He was broken in His spirit and did not want to endure it. He begged God in prayer to let Him not have to suffer thus, but He ultimately submitted saying,
“Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”
– Luke 22.42
And it was the will of the father to slay Him. In fact, Scripture says that it pleased God to crush Him:
“But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering…”
– Is 53.10
Now, one might be tempted to say that Jesus’ situation was different. It was bringing about salvation, after all. But what did Jesus promise us?
“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”
– John 15.18-21
Jesus promised us that if we are in Him, we will suffer as He did. The world will hate us, persecution and trials will come at the hands of others. And Scripture teaches us that God uses all trials – not just persecution for our faith – as part of His plan for our lives.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”
– James 1.2-3
I got to visit my family this weekend, and my niece and nephew were over as I was getting ready to head out for a run. They adamantly wanted to join me on my run, and so I bargained with them that I would run my long run and then we would do a short run together afterwords. In planning the short run, my four year old nephew told me that the longest he had ever run was 46 miles. They, with no training and a love of chasing each other in circles around the living room (and childlike faith), believed that they could go out and run many many miles. But when they saw the distance and time that only a four mile run was, they were surprised and affirmed that I can run for a long time!
We often view faith and suffering in that way. We hear the valiant stories of martyrs and the faithful and believe our faith to be of that type. But then the car breaks down, a water line breaks in the wall, or a friend turns into an enemy and we crumble. We thought we could run 46 miles, but we realize that we have never trained. We have no endurance and we have no idea how far 46 miles actually is. But God puts us through all sorts of trials to develop and mature our faith. Various trials, according to James, are those things that God puts in our lives to test our faith and will develop endurance.
“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.”
– 1 Peter 1.6-9
Peter explains that these various trials are necessary, and not only that, the very will of God:
“For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.”
– 1 Peter 3.17
“Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”
– 1 Peter 4.19
Not only is is God’s will that we suffer, but that we would suffer for doing what is right. And this is the same manner of suffering which Jesus endured. And Paul promises us,
“If we suffer with Him, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us…”
– 2 Tim 2.12
Our suffering is intentional and is the will of God to test our faith and to bring about maturity. It is not malicious, it is not abnormal, and most importantly, God is not evil because of it. Rather, He is good and is allowing us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus to obtain a deeper faith, greater love and trust for Him, and ultimately salvation. It is because of this that James commands us to rejoice in suffering. Paul explains that we should have joy and hope in our trials because of their outcome and God’s plan through them:
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
– Rom 5.3-5