Suffering and Pain: What Does It Mean and How Can God Use It?
"For to you has been given the privilege not only of trusting Him, but also of suffering for Him." (Philippians 1:29 TLNT)
The question of pain and suffering has been around for a long, long time. . .and it will last until the very end of time itself. To be honest, there’s probably more philosophical frustration over this one issue than any other known to mankind. Offering explanations, rationalization, and excuses will persist, but offer little satisfaction. The following thoughts are no attempt on my own part to explain the mind of God, but rather to consider the perennial subject itself.
Many have pointed out that without the possibility of pain as a guard against further extreme harm (the hot stove, the undiscovered fracture, etc.) further damage or even tragedy might go undetected. That benefit of pain, however, does not eliminate the unhappiness which it brings. I am a firm believer in the sovereign will of God in all of life and that His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. Trying to explain or rationalize God’s thinking in every event in life could drive one mad. Still, the issue is there, and we all ponder it.
Therefore, I invite you to examine with me some of the reasons suffering and/or pain are experienced universally by all people. Adding painful irony to my thoughts as I try to write today was a call I just received regarding a dear friend who had a head-on auto accident yesterday and passed away just moments ago. “You do not know, nor does any mortal, what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1).
To begin, we must recognize two all encompassing truths about the existence of pain and suffering.
1. The original cause is rebellion against God’s ordained will. Satan said to Eve and Adam, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). In no way am I called to sit in judgment of God. “Where was I when God laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). 2. The ultimate cure is the return of God’s redemptive Son. “God will be with His people. . .and will wipe away every tear. . .no more death, or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21: 3, 4).
Within the larger scope of pain and suffering, I believe there are three areas of possible pain, comparable to the very nature of created man. They are the body (physical), the mind (mental), and the spirit (emotional). A few illustrations should clarify.
1. The Body: I have suffered many illnesses, from childhood through old age, and measles and mumps to arthritis and pneumonia, from a broken wrist sliding into third base at age sixteen to my total hip replacement seven years ago, and quadruple heart bypass six months ago and severe canal stenosis three years ago when I couldn’t stand or walk five feet without grabbing for support. That was pain! Paralysis, wheelchairs, canes, and cataracts. . .they all bring real pain. 2. The Mind: What parent has not experienced anxiety and sleeplessness over a child? What human has not had depression over a relationship or mental anguish observing dementia in a loved one? Many will agree that bodily pain and suffering often seem less painful at such times. 3. The Spirit: Discouragement and disillusionment rank high among the elderly. The broken-hearted are most difficult to inspire, reassure, or buoy up. Loneliness can become bitterness after parting with a spouse and the “should haves” and “if onlys” and the “could have beens” can add to the pain of guilt, if allowed, to taint the memories unchallenged.
Now, having summarized briefly and incompletely some of the many elements of pain and suffering, we come to perhaps the greater and deeper question to be asked by everyone of us sooner or later—“Why Me?”
We compare ourselves to the more fortunate and indulge ourselves with pity. Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to “weep with those who weep,” than it is conversely to “rejoice with those who rejoice?” There is a definite “me” factor in the problem of suffering with each of us. Let’s look at four or five of the possible reasons why we may experience pain and/or suffering.
1) Some suffering is self-induced, i.e., brought on by our own sin. That is not to say in any way that all suffering is brought on by sin. I am so glad Jesus addressed that question directly in answer to his disciples’ inquiry in John 9. Upon noticing a man born blind, his disciples asked the question of Jesus: “Who was it that sinned, the man or his parents, that he was born this way?” Please notice the inference there. Their thinking was it had to be one or the other because they believed that all pain or suffering is caused by sin and nothing else. Jesus wanted to make sure they rejected that simplistic and erroneous idea! Jesus answered that neither “this man nor his parents sinned.”
At the same time, recognize that when we choose to be disobedient to the specific commands of God’s Word, there is a consequence. Whether it be a violation of one of the ten commandments or simply a subtle errant lustful thought, pride in our lives, or jealous coveting, our same Lord called for repentance as the only remedy.
It is also true that sin will bring suffering to others. White-collar criminals, liars, and embezzlers all bring pain on others. They themselves should suffer the penalty for their actions. Those who run red lights and cause a traffic death or irrecoverable damage owe a debt for the suffering they caused which their own pain cannot adequately compensate. The concept of the sanctity of life is founded on our innate belief that the penalty for crimes committed should be commensurate with the crime itself.
The Apostle Peter gives a stern warning to every human being. “Let no one suffer as an evildoer” (2 Peter 4:15).
2) Some pain and suffering must be viewed as suffering brought on as a direct result of the Fall of Man. Certain tragedies brought on by the laws of nature, such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., are often mislabeled by insurance companies as “acts of God.” (There’s that same thinking that triggered the disciple’s question in the texts noted above.) While in our hearts we want to deny the reality, the sin problem emerges as liable.
Stated briefly, in Genesis 3:17-19 we see the initiation of toil, sweat, and irksomeness to the issue of “work,” not previously experienced in that Edenic period. Paul corroborates that, saying in Romans 8:22, “The whole creation [nature, animals, plants, etc.] groans and travails in pain, awaiting the complete redemption” of the universe in Christ’s coming Kingdom (author’s emphasis).
The word for pain is the suffering of nothing less than the mother’s birth pangs. Thus we see that all suffering is indeed traceable to the fall into sin. I find much irony in all the “why does God allow” questions posed by philosophers who dismiss the actual existence of God, thereby attempting to have it both ways.
3) While denying that all suffering is a direct result of God’s punishment, there is the reality of godly discipline leading to sanctification (Hebrews 12:5-11). Here the inspired writer makes the point that, as a father disciplines a son he loves, so our Father deals with us (verses 7-8) through pain (verses 10-11) to “give birth” to righteousness (verse 11): “Being punished isn’t enjoyable while it’s happening; it hurts! But afterwards we see the result—a growth in grace and character!”
Our son was about eleven years old when, by his actions, he convinced me he needed some severe discipline. The brief “lecture” about this hurting me more than him completed and discipline having been administered, I paused, I’ll admit, in fear and trepidation, awaiting his reaction, resentment, or possible retaliation. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Thanks Dad. I needed that!” We hugged, and I wept with him. Obviously, that was a precious moment indelible in my memory.
Be it jungle camp training for a missionary candidate such as my sister Ruth had with the snakes and rodents and bugs or boot camp for the wartime recruit, both bring pain. However, both are designed to pay a dividend under tough conditions to come. I can personally testify to that with my combat experience on Okinawa in WWII. I zigzagged across an open field after the officer selected three Marines and me to “get out there and see if you can draw some fire” in an attempt to locate the enemy’s exact position. Yes, I did want to go home, but the boot camp testing pulled me through.
4) Sometimes suffering is specifically designed by God to equip us for a particular ministry. Two outstanding contemporary examples of this are Joni Erickson Tada and Chuck Colson. Joni, who became a quadriplegic in a diving accident as a young girl, is an author, painter, radio, and conference speaker ministering to thousands. Her gift of encouragement and hope to the heavy-hearted and suffering has come through her pain.
Chuck, a confidant of President Nixon, was caught up in the Watergate scandal and sentenced to prison. Following his release and conversion, he founded a ministry to the two million prisoners in our nation. He would most likely never have conceived of this without his own incarceration over thirty years ago. Each of them gives God the glory through their pain and suffering.
5) Lastly, and this, too, is a toughie for any who have experienced the call to serve. Sometimes, suffering can be for the benefit of another. That’s right! The benefit of another! You say, “That’s not fair, God!” And the natural mind agrees.
I have been around long enough to see how often a mature, kind, patient, and committed Christian has been hurt by a jealous, bitter, or immature fellow believer. In such an instance, you wouldn’t blame the first for wanting to strike back with a vengeance. However, to apply the fruit of the spirit to that issue, I would say: “You don’t know what self-control really is until you’ve had a legitimate reason to blow your stack.” A personal experience will explain what I mean and how it was used.
About thirty years ago a man who had been on the board of a church that had asked me to resign came to my office in Chicago. He had been one of the four who, though in the minority, led the resolution to remove me. He had come because I was now, five years later, in a position to award a large contract for the type of services his business could provide to the school. He assumed I was probably holding a grudge and would not receive him. He had concluded that I would never forgive him for his action against me.
I will never forget how he came and stood outside my open office door, sheepishly and sadly looking at me, and spoke. The first words I heard him say in over five years were these, “I knew that some day I would have to pay dearly for the way I treated you.”
What a burden he had carried all that time. I had forgiven him and forgotten the matter years before. Apparently, he had not wanted my forgiveness, preferring to hang on to his misery and bitterness. He could not believe I was willing to consider his bid. Hopefully, after recognizing the reality that a person he had harshly maltreated could forgive and accept and offer reconciliation, he himself would come to understand how the fruit of the Spirit could produce spiritual growth and maturity in his own soul. That is what could make my suffering worthwhile.
Love and forgiveness are gifts to another person. Neither is an investment guaranteed to yield interest back to you. Ask yourself if you are willing to forgive and love without insisting on some reciprocal benefit or recognition. Rather, recognize that you really don’t know what love is until you’ve poured your life into another person and gotten nothing back in return. That is our calling. “If you only love those who love you, what reward have you?” (Matthew 5:46).
Oswald Chambers writes, “Thoughts about myself hinder my usefulness to God. I am called to live in perfect relation to God so that my life produces a longing after God in other lives, not admiration for myself” (December 2).
"By looking at the good change in your hearts, everyone can see that we have done a good work among you. They can see that you are a letter from Christ, written by us, not a letter with pen and ink, but by the Spirit of the living God, not one carved on stone, but in human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:2, 3 TNLT).