Here is the post where I extol the virtues of sickness, suffering, and other obstacles that we contingent beings generally prefer to avoid. Though I extol God’s love, healing, and goodness, let it never be said that I denigrate the value of suffering to a person’s spiritual development.
What I’m saying is that it’s probably not God’s will for you to live a pain-free, sickness-free, poverty-free life. I’m dead serious.
Of course, I believe that God loves to heal his people. God loves to free his people from the things that hold them back, to make his people prosper! Yes, yes, and yes.
On the other hand, I hope that I will never be guilty of denigrating the value of suffering.
I would not be comfortable making the claim that God always wants to deliver people from their illnesses, financial problems, bad relationships, etc. The Biblical stories simply do not bear out this line of thinking.
One example is the apotle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” — an irritant which I suspect is a pointed reference to one or more of the people who were trying to undermine his ministry. As Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:
a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated [by my spiritual experiences]. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Another example is the man who born blind, as described in chapter 9 of the Gospel of John. Jesus’s disciples notice the blind man and ask their rabbi whether the man’s blindness was the result of the man’s own sin or the sins of his parents. Jesus replies that neither is the case. Instead, the man was born blind so the works of God might be seen in him. (John 9:3). Jesus then heals the man, and through the rest of the chapter the man becomes a witness for Christ. The hard years of blindness made something beautiful possible that would not have happened otherwise.
Even beyond these examples, the didactic portions of scripture frequently extol the spiritually beneficial side-effects of struggle, weakness, and pain. As James 1:2-4 says,
whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
Or Romans 5:3-4:
we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope
So, it makes me uncomfortable when people say that God is against people suffering or being sick. We need difficulties to become mature and complete, and to develop character and hope. In fact, when Christian teachers preach against suffering, striving, and occasionally feeling weak, I wonder whether they might be inadvertently working for the other side.
To address the issue theologically, if God is not ultimately responsible for suffering and sickness, then God is not really in charge. Although I believe Satan is the one who torments us, Satan does this with God’s complicity because it is the Lord’s plan to make us strong and mature through struggle.
The book of Job contains one of humanity’s most fine-grained theological examinations of human suffering.
Here is what one learns from reading the whole book. It is clear from the early narrative of Job that (1) Satan (literally “the accuser/prosecutor”) is the one who directly inflicts suffering on Job, including the deaths of his children and livestock and the disease of Job’s body. Nevertheless, it is also clear that (2) God expressly gives Satan permission to test Job in these ways. God is complicit in the horror. Throughout the center portion of the book, which is a philosophical dialogue written in poetic meter, (3) Job consistently holds God responsible for his suffering. At the end of the book, when God climactically appears to Job, wrapped in the terrifying blanket of a whirling tornado, (4) God never once refutes Job’s theory that God is to blame for all that has happened. The Lord implicitly accepts responsibility for the crippling pain. All of it.
What was the point of all the pain in Job? Was it really just that God was trying to win a bet with Satan? Job was already the most righteous man in the world, so he had no pressing need for suffering to help him build character. Although the brief narrative at the end of the book describes Job receiving more children and more livestock, I doubt that any of his post-trauma wealth could replace the earlier children he had loved and lost. Is there any meaning, anything profound and beneficial to be derived from Job’s senseless suffering?
Yes. Job’s suffering created the opportunity for one of biblical history’s most awesome theophanies. Job got to see God. Who but Moses and Abraham ever had a conversation like Job’s? You cannot put a price tag on having YHWH himself show up and blow up right in your face. Job’s suffering meant something because it led to a unique and awesome and terrible encounter between a puny mortal and the Almighty. The book of Job doesn’t give us a philosophical answer for the problem of human suffering. The answer to the question is the story itself. It’s a riddle. But it’s a riddle where God himself shows up.
In my own life, the darkest times that my wife and I experienced have now blossomed into a new phase where we feel closer to God than ever. When the kids were toddlers and Lydia was sick, the Lord seemed far away and unwilling to help. But then, he broke through the hopelessness and brought healing and power into our lives. We know we’re stronger and braver than we would have been without the struggle.
As Carrie Judd Montgomery observed in her “Life on Wings” sermon:
The only way God can develop our faith is through trial. You ask the Lord to give you a stronger faith, and what does He do? He puts a trial upon the faith you already have. He will take your faith and test it and try it, and you think all is lost, but that very testing and trying of your faith is what brings out the pure gold and causes you to have a stronger faith than ever you had before.
Having been bedridden from age eighteen to twenty, Carrie knew all about suffering, frustration, and weakness. But when God finally brought her miraculous healing, the power that accompanied her hard-won faith changed innumerable lives.
I, for one, am wholly open to the idea that at times, suffering may be exactly what God wants from me. Or you.
What does your experience tell you?
Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.), is a lawyer and former minister who blogs at BrenHughes.com and recently authored Heaven’s Muscle: Unleashing the Power of the Spirit Within You. If this post was meaningful, share it!