Suffering can be a pretty heavy topic, so as Christian women, it’s important that we have some good tools in our theological toolboxes for understanding and handling suffering in a biblical way the next time it happens to us or someone we love. One thing that can help us to have a good theology of suffering is to understand some of the ways we, and others, might approach suffering in an unbiblical way.
A Proper Perspective of Suffering
Have you ever heard someone ask the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It seems like, when you’re sharing the gospel with somebody who’s a tough nut to crack, this is something they always bring up. “If your God is so good and so loving, why does He allow innocent children and nice people to suffer?” It’s actually such a common question that there’s an official name for it. This concept is called “The Problem of Evil,” or theodicy. And I’m sure lots of us have wondered about that, too.
The thing is, that question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is flawed. R.C. Sproul Jr.¹ answers it this way: “Why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and He volunteered.” The point is, bad things don’t happen to good people, because there are no good people except Jesus. None is righteous, no not one.
Maybe we should be asking why good things happen to bad people. God would be completely justified in sending every one of us to Hell, right here, right now, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. He does not owe us a blooming thing, and certainly not all the blessings He has been gracious enough to shower upon us- blessings we have been thankless enough to take for granted. We are beggars at the table of the King. To say, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” shows us just how entitled, arrogant, and oblivious to our sin we are.
I say all of that because we’re about to look at two different categories of suffering, and I want us to be mindful of our position before God so we don’t start off on the wrong foot thinking that we don’t deserve suffering. Instead we should be grateful to Him for blessing us and sparing us so much suffering- especially, as Christians, for sparing us an eternity of suffering.
Two Types of Suffering
When somebody says the word “suffering,” do any of the following types of negative scenarios come to mind?
Spending time in jail for committing a crime.
Your husband leaving you because you had an affair.
Grieving the loss of your child because you drove drunk with her in the car and got into an accident.
Losing your job because you were late to work every day.
My guess is that’s probably not the kind of thing that initially pops into your mind when you hear the word “suffering.” Why? What do all those scenarios have in common? They’re all a result of personal sin. You “deserve” for those things to happen to you, whereas you don’t “deserve” to spend time in jail for a crime you didn’t commit, or for your husband to leave you because he had an affair, or to lose your child to cancer, or to get laid off work because the company is struggling financially.
So there are two types of suffering: the type we “deserve”- something that’s a natural or logical consequence of our own sin, and the type we “don’t deserve”- something that’s due to someone else’s sin, or an “act of God,” or “just one of those things.” (And, please understand, when I say “deserve” or “don’t deserve”- that’s just shorthand for the way we perceive these two different kinds of suffering. We think we deserve or don’t deserve whatever is happening to us, but those words have very little to do with whether or not we actually deserve or don’t deserve what happens to us.)
We tend to understand suffering we feel is deserved. It may be just as painful as “undeserved” suffering, but it intuitively makes sense to us when we suffer the consequences of our own sin.
It’s that so-called undeserved suffering that we’re going to focus more on today that’s a lot harder, because in addition to the pain you’re going through, there’s always this sense of “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this?”
Because we have a lousy theology of suffering.
How? Let’s take a little quiz.
Pop Quiz: True or False Theology of Suffering?
Answer each of these questions “true” or “false,” then scroll down for the answers.
1. Scripture promises that if Christians walk obediently with the Lord, life will go well for us.
2. I’m suffering because God is punishing my parents for their sin, or God is punishing me for my parents’ sin.
3. I’m suffering because God is punishing me for my own sin.
4. I’m suffering because Satan is attacking me.
1. Scripture promises that if Christians walk obediently with the Lord,
life will go well for us.
False. That’s pretty much what the prosperity gospel (or Word of Faith heresy) teaches- if you just obey well enough, pray hard enough, have enough faith, believe hard enough, whatever enough, everything will go your way. You’ll always be healthy, God will prosper you financially, your wayward child will come back to the Lord, etc.
And it’s partially based on Scripture, but it’s based on out of context Mosaic covenant Scripture. The Mosaic covenant was kind of an if/then thing. God said: If you obey Me, I’ll bless you, your families, your fields, your flocks, your finances, your fighting men. If you disobey me, I’ll curse you in all of those areas. As New Testament Christians today, that’s not the covenant you and I have with God. Through Christ, we are under the covenant of grace. And Christ says,
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
2 Tim. 3:12-13
For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
In the world you will have tribulation.
Anybody who tells you “Come to Jesus and He’ll give you a problem-free life,” is lying to you. You’re going to suffer in this life. Everyone suffers. It’s just a question of whether you’re going to suffer with Jesus or without Jesus.
2. I’m suffering because God is punishing my parents for their sin,
or God is punishing me for my parents’ sin.
False. Years ago, I knew a precious lady who was conceived via incest. She had a number of pretty serious chromosomal medical problems, she had been physically and sexually abused as a child, and, as if that weren’t enough, she’d had relatives tell her in some pretty cruel ways that she was God’s punishment to her parents for their sin.
Ladies, I know there are at least a few of you who have had some really sad and scary things happen to you at the hands of another person- maybe your parents or a boyfriend or your husband or possibly even an adult child. And I want you to hear me- God is not using you to punish or get back at someone else, and He’s not punishing you for their sin. God deals with each person individually about her own sin.
Ezekiel 18 is a fantastic passage that explains this very clearly. Verse 20 says:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
Now we do sometimes suffer as a result or consequence of someone’s sin. If a drunk driver hits your car and kills your child, you and your child have suffered as a result of that person’s sin, but that suffering isn’t God being punitive against anyone.
And, really, if you think about it, all suffering is the result of someone’s sin, whether it’s someone directly responsible for the suffering, like the drunk driver, or whether it goes all the way back to the sin of Adam and Eve with something like disease or a natural disaster that entered the world due to their sin. We suffer things like that simply because their sin causes us to live in a broken and fallen world.
3. I’m suffering because God is punishing me for my own sin.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
If you are a genuinely regenerated believer, Christ was punished for your sin, past, present, and future. He took the punishment for your sin so you wouldn’t have to.
But even if you’re not a believer, what is the penalty for sin? Romans 6:23 says,
For the wages of sin is death…
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
2 Peter 3:9
If you are not a believer, the fact that you are still alive and walking around on this planet, no matter what kind of circumstances you may be going through at the moment, is God’s grace to you. Because the moment you draw your last breath is when the punishment for your sin begins.
Now, certainly, both saved and lost people can suffer as a direct consequence of their own sin, but the purpose of that suffering is not retributive. It’s not to punish.
4. I’m suffering because Satan is attacking me.
OK, that was kind of a trick question because the answer is: it doesn’t matter whether or not your suffering is caused by Satan because God is sovereign. Nothing happens outside His control. Let’s take a look at part of Job 1. (If you’re not familiar with Job, the quick back story here is that Job was very godly and very rich.)
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Who was attacking Job here? Satan. Who allowed Satan to attack Job? God. Could Satan have attacked Job if God had told him he couldn’t? No. Does anything in this universe happen that God doesn’t have control over? No. Your heart won’t beat one more time, you won’t draw one more breath, you won’t think one more thought unless God permits it.
And the same is true with your suffering. Even if Satan is the one behind it, he can’t do a thing to you unless God allows him to. Martin Luther once put it this way: “Even the devil is God’s devil.”
And what’s more, you’ll never know for sure in this lifetime whether your suffering was caused by Satan or it was a gracious gift of God. Look back over that passage in Job. How do we know it was Satan causing Job’s suffering? Because God revealed it to us through Scripture. But where was Job when this conversation was taking place between God and Satan? He was down there working his farm and enjoying his family. He had no idea where this terrible suffering came from all of a sudden.
A lot of people these days seem to have the idea that if you’re suffering, it’s caused by Satan and if your life is going great, that’s God. But that’s not always true. Remember, it was the will of God to crush Jesus, and Jesus learned obedience by suffering. Sometimes that kind of thing is God’s will for us, too, and for good reasons. Even Job saw that:
And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job knew that whatever came his way was because God allowed it, and that God had good reasons for it.
So if those are not reasons for suffering, why does God cause or allow suffering to come into our lives? Check out God’s Good Purposes in Suffering.
¹I’m aware that R.C. Sproul, Jr., in the last couple of years, has committed sins which led to his stepping down from ministry. I have included his name here for quote attribution purposes only.