WHY DO CHRISTIANS SUFFER?
When we are in a mess and there are things in our lives we find extremely distasteful, unjust, intolerable or painful, we experience suffering - and we tend to ask questions. “Why, Lord?” is a frequent response. And sometimes, when we are focused only on self, we even ask, “Why ME, Lord?” Here are some examples of life’s tragedies:
Jenny moved to the city a year ago to attend university. She now has new friends and leads a busy social life, but most of her friends do not believe in Jesus. More and more she slips into their habits. She doesn’t talk about her faith any more because she knows they wouldn’t like it. She hardly finds time to meet with other Christians. She still talks to God, but their times together become shorter and less frequent. When she first arrived, things seemed to go well for her and she loved her new life. But gradually her mind became focused on worldly things, and she began to feel more and more dissatisfied. Now her grades are slipping, some of her ‘friends’ are turning against her, and her boyfriend has just broken up with her because she wouldn’t sleep with him. Jenny feels angry and exhausted most of the time. “Why is everything going wrong for me?” she cries out to God.
Carmen and her husband are happily married and have three sons. Two of their sons are walking with the Lord and doing fine, but the third one has been addicted to drugs for a number of years. His parents have tried to help him. They have prayed; they even moved to stay close to him to offer support, but all to no avail. Carmen loves her son and has suffered for years. “Why are you not changing him, Lord?” she moans.
Mary’s daughter is about to move out. She is expecting a child and wants to set up home with her non-believing boyfriend. Mary is distraught. Hasn’t she always been conscientious in teaching her daughter the ways of God? She has prayed for her since she was born, encouraged godly habits, and tried to be a good role model herself as both mother and wife. And now this…She wonders whether her daughter was ever truly born again and petitions God for the welfare of her soul. Mary wrecks her brain – did she do something wrong in rearing her child? Why is her daughter so distant? “Lord, why are you not stepping in here?” she cries.
Melanie is ecstatic. She has a wonderful husband and three small children, and just last week they moved into a brand-new house. Melanie is having fun as a homemaker, but she is starting to feel so tired all the time, and her headaches are getting worse. She puts it all down to the stress of moving, until she starts feeling sick as well. Maybe she is pregnant again? A trip to the doctor and many tests later, a shocking revelation is made: Melanie has cancer. All she can utter is, “Why, Lord? Why?”
Anna is our final example. Most people like her, but her closest co-worker constantly undermines her wherever she can. What has gone wrong? Hasn’t she always been nice and helpful to this woman? Anna prays about the problem and continues with her positive attitude, but the behaviour of the other woman becomes worse instead of better. And then Anna doesn’t get the promotion she deserves and hears that her co-worker has influenced the decision-makers. Someone also tells her that this woman calls her ‘Miss Goody Goody’ behind her back, and that she hates Christians. Anna’s question of “Why?” has been answered.
Most Christians encounter messy circumstances at one time or another, and it would not be wise to jump in and offer advice – just think of Job’s misguided friends. They were miserable comforters and God rebuked them sharply for assuming wrongly. Job’s response to suffering, on the other hand, is a marvellous example to us: When Satan attacked and murdered his servants, destroyed his flocks and killed his children, Job grieved terribly. Nonetheless, he asserted his belief in God’s sovereignty: “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Then came another attack. Satan struck Job’s own body with painful boils from head to toe, and his wife suggested that he should curse God and die. But Job responded differently, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10)
When one of Job’s friends tried to tell him that innocent people do not suffer (thereby suggesting that he must be guilty!), Job’s anguish heightened. He pointed out that no one is righteous before God, and that no one is able to withstand the only sovereign God (Job 9:2-12). He also grappled with the concept of wisdom and came to the conclusion that, “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). And then Job went to great lengths to defend himself before his friends. He asserted his innocence in regard to three issues: sensual sins, trusting in his wealth, and being uncaring toward his enemies. Finally, he pleaded to meet God personally in order to defend himself before the highest authority. But then God turned things around and questioned Job directly. And what did Job do? He admitted his ignorance and confirmed God’s ability to do anything He purposes. His conclusion, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
Job’s mess was organised by Satan and approved by God in order to demonstrate Job’s faith and God’s faithfulness. But what about our troubles? Sometimes we suffer for the same reason, but at other times we may endure the consequences of our own foolish actions. Or we may suffer without apparent fault of our own because of the transgression of others. At times we may even be privileged to partake in the sufferings of Christ, and at other times the hand of God chastens us for the very reason that we are His children. He prunes His trees to bring forth more fruit. He cuts and refines and polishes His jewels, so “that in the ages to come He might show forth the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph.2:7).
When we are in a mess, we need to seek God’s wisdom to discern the reason for our suffering. Rather than asking, “Why?” point blank, it may be more helpful to ask, “What can I learn from this situation, or what can I learn through the process of suffering? How can I honour God through it all, and how can I grow spiritually?” Since God is in control, all suffering has the potential of drawing us closer to Him while at the same time magnifying His glory. Death itself is not something to be feared by God’s children, but a promotion to glory.
At certain times of my Christian walk I myself have experienced great anguish but, looking back, each encounter has strengthened my faith and reliance on Christ. For over a year now I have been forced to live with a mess that I can neither understand nor define or resolve. God has not answered my questions, and all I can do is trust and remain patient. God’s timing is not our timing, and His thoughts are higher than ours. My favourite verse is, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Prov.3:5-6). I am comforted by the fact that He is in control, and that He promises to work “all things…together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom.8:28).
I will leave you with the well-known words of the hymn writer H.G. Stafford, who also knew suffering:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
May you trust in Christ no matter what befalls you...