THE BLESSING OF SUFFERING
Human suﬀering exists. Death, grief, tragedy, abuse, loss, injury, disease, prolonged hardships. We can’t escape it. It takes many forms. It can happen in an instant and take our breath away, it can move in for a season leaving its ﬁngerprints all over our lives, or like an unwanted guest, it can overstay its welcome and wear us down. All that is broken and evil in the world is ampliﬁed in suﬀering. It can crush.
For those who have no belief in a god, suﬀering just proves their point that life is purposeless and the universe is cruel. If they believe in many gods, they may have a slight reprieve by investigating which gods are good and which are bad⎯and what they might have done to call down the wrath of one of those gods.
Christians, too, wrestle with suﬀering. We follow and emulate a God who willingly suﬀered himself. Suﬀering has always been an important characteristic of a Christian worldview. In our current series, we have learned that God doesn’t cause suﬀering, but He can bring good out of it. We have discovered how suﬀering can give us the right perspective on life. But these concepts are hard to remember and embrace in a moment of suﬀering. I ﬁnd myself needing a bit more to hang on to.
How can a loving and good and powerful God allow suﬀering?
Can I ask what questions instead of this how question? My questions are these: What does God do in the midst of our suﬀering? What is God’s response?
He hears and sees and is moved.
I can only imagine what a hopeless misery slavery is, overwhelmingly accumulating day after day, stretching out year after year, covering generation after generation. The Bible tells us that the enslaved Israelites’ groans and cries were heard by God and that He was concerned. Can we sit on that for a moment? God⎯ whose thoughts are higher than ours, who is so holy that we can’t see him and live, who is enthroned over all creation⎯emotionally enters into our situation with us. And He is moved to act.
For the Israelites, God acted by hardening a ruler’s heart, inflicting plagues on an entire nation, powerfully splitting seas apart, faithfully guiding his people by visible manifestations, miraculously sustaining them on their journey. And the icing on the cake is this: He acted to bring them up into a good and spacious land that He had lovingly prepared for them so they wouldn’t need to “slave” away to survive anymore. What did it feel like to go from slave, to sojourner, to settler in a spacious land? After all those years, isn’t that wonderfully sweet?
Long before this, another slave, Hagar, was sent to sleep with her master⎯probably without much choice⎯and was mistreated and beaten by her master’s wife. She was exiled to the desert with her young son. Unable to watch her own son die from thirst, her body racked by sobs, she heard from God. She did not return to her previous circumstances. She received neither apologies nor justice. But God entered into her pain, fear, and despair. He oﬀered comfort through His presence. He not only sustained her physical life by giving her water, He ﬁlled her with hope by sharing a vision of the future.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). This is who He is. The God of all comfort!
It would be easier if God delivered us from all our troubles and insulated us from all suﬀering. And I, too, feel confusion, frustration, even anger when God doesn’t do that. But in this moment, I am going to relish the realization that we have a God who stoops down, enters into our suﬀering with us, and brings comfort.
Centuries later, God entered into our suﬀering again, this time not just as a voice or as a spiritual presence, but in the ﬂesh. Jesus not only walked on the earth, He walked into the suﬀering that engulfs this broken world.
This is highlighted so well in Luke 4. After Jesus healed the mother-in-law of one of his disciples, word spread throughout the region. And by the time the setting sun hovered over the horizon, a crowd had gathered in the front lawn. Imagine this: People lying immobile on mats littered across the expanse, bodies shaking and lurching from seizures, the blind stumbling and groping to find their way, groans from the sick and shrieks from the demon-possessed, lepers hidden in the shadowy periphery. A crowd can be overwhelming at any time, but can you imagine a crowd like this? The immense need. Faces full of deferred hopes mounting up one more time. Perhaps as the daylight faded, it was more the smells, sounds, and reaching hands that Jesus experienced.
We know from Scripture that Jesus’ main mission was to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God all over the region⎯to preach and teach and disciple. Yet here on this one night, Jesus hit pause. He sacriﬁced sleep. And He walked into the center of that crowd. Scripture tells us that He laid his hands on each one. Every suﬀering one.
The reality is that Jesus could have spoken a word and healed the entire crowd. He had done it before with others. But He chose not only to walk into the crowd, but also to enter into each person’s suﬀering. He acknowledged them with his presence, his time, his attention, and his touch. And oh, yes, He also healed them. But let’s not jump so quickly to the life-correcting healing that we miss the life-altering presence.
Jesus never went completely oﬀ-mission. But in this moment, He chose to fully enter in with the suﬀering that surrounded him. And might I add here⎯how could He not? I’m not sure He could help himself. He saw and He heard. He was standing in the midst of it. He knew what we humans were created to be, and in that moment He witnessed what sin and brokenness and evil caused us to become. So He brought comfort to these hopeless, hurting, forgotten people.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suﬀered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, ﬁrm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)
Thank you, God for a message embedded in your Holy Word that puts a time limit on suﬀering. It may not happen on our timeline, but suﬀering will end⎯on this side of heaven or the other.
And thank you, too, that you, God, will restore us. Neither other humans, nor time, nor circumstances, nor ruling powers, nor our own efforts. No, He himself will enter into our suﬀering and restore us. He will restore all that has been lost in our suﬀering and He will strengthen us. In other words, He won’t leave us a crushed mess!
He enters into suﬀering with us. He always has. And He always will. And it was never clearer than on the cross. He is a God who suﬀers with us and He is a God who suﬀers for us. One oﬀers us abundant comfort and the other oﬀers us permanent hope. Hallelujah!