A Theology of Suffering

Today we share one of our chapters from CCIM College:

Chapter 63:  A Theology of Suffering

“For the minister is called to recognize the sufferings of his time in his own heart and make that recognition the starting point of his service.  Whether he tries to enter a dislocated world, relate to a convulsive generation, or speak to a dying man, his service will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which he speaks.  Thus nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which the minister can make his own wounds available as a source of healing.”  Henri Nouwen  

In plain words:  Each person must recognize the suffering of others as our very own suffering.  We must minister from a familiarity of sorrow, loss, brokenness, and despair in order to gather with others in a common human way.  Our service will not be real to others until we come in the same vulnerability as the ones we serve.  As we are aware of our wounds, Jesus can use these to touch and heal others.

As this diagram shows, our theology about pain and suffering can land in wild extremes.  We may have come to believe that pain is ‘the way’ of God; that we are not ‘with God’ unless we are experiencing pain and suffering.  In contrast to this, we may have come to believe that pain and suffering would never be part of our experience once we trust in Jesus; we may believe we are not ‘with God’ if we are suffering.

theology of suffering diagram

If we do not have a wise theology of pain and suffering we may believe for instance that in our suffering God does not love us or that we are not worthy of his love.  This is a lie from the pit of hell.

On the other extreme, we may fall into a belief that God gives us pain on purpose and that suffering is our calling in life.  We may have come to believe ‘all things happen for a reason’ as a way to accept and become complacent about pain.  This too is a lie.

While God can use suffering he does not need suffering to grow and mature us.  Even though we suffer we can know that God still does love us.  Suffering does not disqualify us from his love.  As we turn to God in our suffering we find strength, just as we would find strength in God turning to him when we are not suffering, (suffering is not the key to strength, turning to God is).

It is important to note that there is no value in pain.  Pain does not carry anything worthwhile.  The only solution to pain and suffering is to draw close to God.  Close into the Lord we find comfort and strength and peace that is beyond what we can find on our own, Philippians 4:7.  God delights to draw near to us in our pain and suffering.

The suffering we experience may be due to a number of things.  These might include:

  1. Suffering comes because we live in a broken world
  2. Suffering can be a result of sin in our lives
  3. Suffering can be participation with the work of the Lord
  4. We may experience suffering as we come into holiness

We will look at these one by one:

1.  We Live in a Broken World 

We suffer because we live in a broken world.  When mankind gave over the authority of earth to Satan many bad things spiralled into place and we will not be completely free of this until Christ returns to establish the new heaven and the new earth.

We must keep this in mind.  Our human brain wants to bring meaning to everything.  We want to understand and name this and that and consequently we sometimes make wrong conclusions.  Sometimes we accuse others of sin when really their trouble is because we live in a broken world.  Sometimes this is all we can say.  Often in fact, this is all we can say.

There are unaccountable difficulties and the people experiencing those difficulties are not to be shunned or rejected or gossiped about or judged because of their difficulties.  It is weak and immature people who condemn others for their trouble.  It is the pagans who reject others for their suffering — the children of God don’t do this.  It is the enemy who would attack others when they are down.  God does not do this and neither should we.

Rather, we allow for suffering in our understanding of this world and we purpose to come alongside those who are suffering.  Just as Jesus came as a friend in suffering so we can be this same way to others.

It is a tragedy for instance, that in some parts of the world the crippled and lame are condemned and avoided, rejected and despised simply because their body does not work like ours.  This is wrong.  This is of the enemy.  When we participate in rejection and condemnation of others we are doing Satan’s job.

Consider the following passage:

“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born bling? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” John 9:1-3 NLT 

Jesus cut right through the false thinking that assumed there was sin involved in the man blind from birth.  Jesus halted hearts of condemnation that would hold a persons disability against them.  It is Satan that would have us hurting those already hurt, that would have us rejecting those already struggling with life, that would have us condemning those less able.  God does not do this.

A lot of our suffering is simply because we live in a broken world.

2.  We suffer when we sin 

We suffer when we sin.  God does not just fix things for us.  Even with the covering of Christ there is still a natural outworking and justice process of restoration, a coming out of sin and into the light of God for each and every one of us.  Sin always brings suffering to those we sin against and to our own lives.

Often (not all the time as we just discussed), but often, our suffering is a consequence of our sin.  This must be worked out.  We must come to the Lord confessing, repenting, bringing our sin to the cross of Christ.  As we do this we begin to mature in character, humility, sober self awareness, with growth in our integrity, and right-living in this world.

This we enter into.  We welcome the maturity that comes of confessing our sins and realizing the suffering we have caused ourselves and others.

The Psalmist said, “Finally I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt.  I said to myself,  ‘I will confess my sins to the LORD.’  And you forgave me!  All my guilt is gone.”  Psalms 32:5 NLT 

“As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,” 1 Peter 1:15 ESV 

“There are six things the Lord hates — no, seven things he detests: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that kill the innocent, a heart that plots evil, feet that race to do wrong, a false witness who pours out lies, a person who sows discord in a family” 

Proverbs 6:16-19 NLT 

When we violate the goodness of God with our sin we will suffer.

* VERY IMPORTANT:  We recognize and come into the chastisement of the Lord for ourselves.  We do not use this to condemn or judge or hate or reject others.  This is always for you and I personally.  It is not a theology that now allows us to destroy another’s life because we have judged that they have not been holy.

Let us speak plainly.  Where religion has gone bad is this exact thing.  We know we are to be holy (this is good) but then we turn it on others, condemning them, reviling them, cursing them, (this is bad), when we do this we are not living the heart of our Father unto this world, (this would be our new sin).

In our flesh and in our ego we are very glad to call-out others as sinners.  Yet, this snarling kind of attitude against others is NOT the spirit of our Lord but rather of the enemy.

So, look at your own sin, deal with your own sin.  Ask God to show you YOUR heart.  You are not qualified to look at another’s heart and to give correct judgment, only God is qualified to do this.

Do not use Biblical and Godly truths to attack others.  Become a better person than this.

3.  Suffering can be participation with the work of the Lord 

As part of the work of our Lord we are often called to suffer with, to come in empathy, to weep, to sorrow, and to suffer alongside others.   We lament and we labor, willingly and gladly.  Suffering as a response to a broken world is worship, it is holy, it is the work of our Lord.  Suffering with others is to co-labor with Christ.

Suffering that is participatory in the work for the gospel becomes a privilege and an immense honour.  Our hearts and minds come to understand and say,  “If this (whatever it may be) can lead others to the grace and love of God then yes, yes indeed, I am glad to suffer this way!” 

It is the difference of this, for instance:

Scenario A – We see someone crippled from birth.  We call it sin.  We reject that family, the mother, the child.  We call them bad and wrong for we believe that God has punished them.  We tell others to avoid them, to reject then also.  We stay far away from them.  We condemn them.  We spread rumours about them.  We talk bad about any who might help them.

Contrast this with another way of response:

Scenario B – We see someone crippled from birth.  We realize how terrible this is for both the child and the mother.  We draw close.  We see what we can do to help.  We support them in any way we can.  We bring food when we pass by, and we stop in to see what we might get them from town.  We help them, we welcome them, we pray for them, we love them.

Which scenario,  A or B, is a godly response?  Which scenario would honour our Lord?

Which scenario expresses the love of God?  The answer is, Scenario B.

“By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  John 13:35 ESV 

God is calling us to come alongside each other and this may mean suffering with those who are suffering. As we come alongside those on the fringes of society, the outcasts and those rejected, we open ourselves up to suffering too, to rejection and to condemnation.  But this is the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is as we draw close to those suffering the most that we prove we know the love of The Father.

Here is another example:

Scenario A – There is a girl in our village who has been raped.  We call her bad and wrong.  We reject her, we condemn her, we despise her.  We find out she is pregnant.  We increase our rejection and our condemnation and we despise her even more.  When she has the baby we reject him, we despise him, we condemn him, we refuse him.  The girl has to leave the village because of the hatred of the villagers.

Contrast this with another way of responding:

Scenario B – There is a girl in our village who has been raped.  We do what is in our power to ensure that the man who raped her is brought to justice of some kind.  We bring emotional support to the girl.  We validate and affirm that rape should have never happened to her and we are so very sorry.  We learn that she is pregnant from this rape.

Our hearts ache for her.  We realize how hard it will be for her to raise her child and in this hateful world how hard it will be to find a man who will love her and marry her in the future.  But we come alongside, we share our food so the baby inside her can grow strong and well.  And when she gives birth to the child we celebrate with her because babies are always a gift from God.  We stand in support of her and both she and her child grow in the love and knowledge of God and community.  *

* (These two examples represent and sum up the primary mindsets of rejection and condemnation by which the majority of this world is kept in poverty.  We cannot expect the blessing of the Lord if we are carrying on in the spirit of satan.  Until we learn to love others, to receive them, to help them, to care for those who need our care, we will not have space in our hearts to receive the love of God for ourselves. The world over, men and women carry on the assignments of the enemy and call it godly – this must stop.)

Does Scenario A or B represent the heart of God in this world?  The answer is, Scenario B.

To create impact and healing and bring justice to this world will depend on people who are willing to enter into the mess and suffer as they act out the heart of God in this world.  If our suffering is for the sake of the gospel we can then be sure that this suffering is participating with Christ.  In this way, it does a work of the Lord on this earth.

In the most extreme cases of suffering, as a direct result of persecution and when people go to their deaths for the sake of the gospel, we can be sure that the world takes notice.  The world may realize that there is something very real about Jesus and about love and a life that can stare down death (or mockery, misunderstanding, rejection, and the condemnation of others).  If we are called to suffer for the gospel we can do so by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”  Matthew 16:24 NLT

God is right there with us.  We may be called to suffer, not as a badge of honour or something to brag about, but as a deep understanding that if we are suffering for the gospel then we can be brave and courageous.

And the grace of God is there as we need it.  In our moments of need the presence of the Lord surrounds us with peace that passes understanding.  The bible never promises all things good in God.  In fact, there is a deep warning that the gospel may require you to participate in the sufferings of Christ. *

* (But make no mistake, this does not mean that God ordains evil.)

4.  the Suffering of coming into holiness 

And finally, there is suffering as we submit our whole hears and lives to God.  As our sinful ways are removed we experience this as suffering.  As we are stripped of pride, broken of ego, cleansed of ill-motives, healed of sin, we think we are suffering.  Consider that a child with a badly broken arm must suffer a re-breaking if he is to have full use of the arm.  This kind of suffering is that of a child in the hands of a loving father who sees and understands much more than the child.  So are we in the hands of our Lord.  God takes much care with our lives but sometimes it feels like suffering.

Coming out of sin and into holiness feels like suffering.  Our selfish ways are exposed.  Our pride is taken down.  Our false motives are brought to light.  To participate in the gospel we are called to be made holy, to have the fire of God burn the dross  away.

Circumcision of our hearts is first understood and experienced as suffering,  Deuteronomy 30:6;  Deuteronomy 10:16.  We love our sin.  We love our hatreds.  We love our rebellion and our self pity and our greed.  Yet, the gospel demands that we suffer the removal of these things from the landscapes of our heart, our thinking and our lives.

There are things our natural humanity want that must be put to death as we choose to follow God.  There will be losses and hurts and sacrifices as we walk with God.

God sometimes asks us to lay down our own best ideas, our plans, our wisdoms.  We may even be called to lay down our needs to look good to others, to understand all things, to make sense of everything, to prove we are right, and more — we put these things down in service to the King of Kings.

We come to understand that our lives do not belong to us, but that we are invited into a great work alongside our Lord Jesus Christ.

“He was despised and forsaken of men,  a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;  and like one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we did not esteem him.  Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried;  Yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed.” Isaiah 53:3-12 NASB

At the end of the day, whether we are suffering or not, our focus is to be Jesus and with our trust resting solid in him.  Turned to Jesus we are made strong and whole and healthy from the inside out.  We don’t need suffering for this, just a heart that loves and seeks the Lord no matter what.

“But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water.  Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.”  Jeremiah 17:7-8

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart;  I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33 ESV

In Isaiah we find a summary of the suffering of Jesus who loves us:

“3  He was despised and rejected — a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.  We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.  He was despised, and we did not care. 4   Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!  5   But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins.  He was beaten so we could be whole.  He was whipped so we could be healed.  6   All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.  We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.  7   He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word.  He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.  8   Unjustly condemned, he was led away.  No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream.  But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people.  9   He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone.  But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.  10  But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief.   Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants.  He will enjoy a long life,  and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands.  11  When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish,  he will be satisfied.  And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.  12  I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death.  He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.” Isaiah 53:3-12 NLT

Prayer:

“God we come before you today in the name and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Thank you Lord for your sacrifice of suffering on our behalf.  Thank you that you hold back the worst of evil that may come against us.  Thank you for bringing comfort and peace to our lives even when things are not going well.  May we learn to turn to you in all things.  Jesus, be our wisdom as we go through life. 

God we ask that you would purify our thinking about suffering.  May we not claim suffering and pain as authored by you.  May we not blame you for our troubles or hardship but may we turn to you even when things are going badly.  May we remain in our knowledge of you as good, as kind, and as loving, even when we do not understand the difficulties all around us.  

Then, give us grace and bigger understanding so that we may come in compassion to all people in their suffering.  Remove from us sins of condemnation and blame.  Gives gifts of lament and shared grief as we walk life alongside our friends and family and all we know as they go through hard times.  May we be a light within the darkness of this world.  We love you.  Amen” 

Application: 

Take your entire life and dedicate it to the Lord for his glory and honour and your delight and future.  The enemy would twist up your suffering for his means, but we can give our suffering to the Lord which takes it out of the enemies hands and declares it for the glory of the Lord.  Suffering changes as we do this.  May God heal us and do a work to remove the attacks of the enemy to us through suffering.

It can be good to suffer in the work of Christ as participation with him, it is not good to suffer because the enemy is working against us.  We want to claim all and any suffering as belonging to God, for then, even in the midst of suffering we are kept and carried by the grace of the Lord.

“God, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I stand before you once more, again claiming that my life, all the good and the bad and the ugly is given to you for your glory.  I reserve and preserve my life 100% for your glory and honour.  I give you all the praise God.  Amen and amen.” 

Summary – A Theology of Suffering: 

We live in a broken world (that causes suffering)   John 9:1-3

We suffer when we sin   Proverbs 6:16-19

Suffering can be participation with Christ    Matthew 16:24

God strengthens us in our suffering     Jeremiah 17:7-8

God understands suffering     Isaiah 53:3-12

3 thoughts on “A Theology of Suffering

    • I’m not so sure that suffering is a necessary ingredient. Think about the original creation without any sin. Would suffering have been a part of that world? And if not for a perfect world then not for our world either. Does God use suffering? Absolutely. Do we have to suffer for God to reach us or use us? Of course not.

Leave a Reply