Making Sense of Suffering
Part 2: What good is suffering?
John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Some people think that when you become a Christian, your problems all go away. You’ve got God now, so everything will be happy, happy, happy! But Jesus never promised a trouble-free life. He was far more honest than that. “In this world you will have trouble.” It’s a broken world, and we’re broken people. Trouble happens.
But—and it’s a big but!—Jesus has overcome the world. Jesus has the last word. Trouble isn’t the last word, Jesus is! And today, we want to take another look at suffering and ask “what good is it?” If Jesus is the last word, what does He have to say about suffering, and overcoming it?
Offering and announcements:
Have you heard the buzz about Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion of the Christ”? I think that this movie is going to portray the suffering of Jesus like no other movie has. And because of that, I think it’s going to be incredibly powerful. We’re going to play the movie trailer for you to give you a taste. I should warn you that there are brief graphic images of Jesus’ beating and death; if you have small children in here, you may want to take them to their classes.
Show the trailer.
Just the trailer moves me! The movie arrives in theaters on February 25. We’re going to do two things.
First, I hope that every one of you will go see this film and then take a seeking friend with you; go out for dinner or coffee or dessert afterwards and talk about it. Then invite them to church with you to get the rest of the story. Starting March 14, I’ll be doing a four-week series called “The Passion of the Christ: What really happened on the Cross?” The movie presents a powerful picture of the physical events of Jesus’ suffering and death; I’m going to describe the spiritual realities, what God did for us through Christ’s death. So let’s partner to reach your friends—you take them to the movie, and then bring them here and I’ll explain it.
Second, we want to invite all of you who are not in a Life Group to test drive one for the four weeks of this series. Each week, we’ll provide discussion questions based on my talk and you’ll be able to dig deeper into the meaning of
Jesus’ death for you. Some groups may choose to see the movie together. We think it will be a very powerful four weeks, and we’d like all of you to experience life together in a group. Sign-ups for groups begin in two weeks. But if you would like to host a group, let us know today. Fill out the tab—write “host” on it—and drop it in the offering.
Worship, prayer, and sketch:
Have you ever felt like you were in the dark? You are suffering and can’t make sense of it? “Where are you God, and why are you letting this happen?” We’ve all been there, and the Bible says that in a very real sense, we are in the dark.
1 Corinthians 13:12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
The King James says, “we see through a glass, darkly.” We’re in the dark. The New American Standard says, “we see in a mirror, dimly.” The word “darkly” or “dimly” translates the Greek word ainigmati; it means “that which requires special insight to understand because it is expressed in puzzling fashion; a riddle; an indirect mode of communication.” We get “enigma” or “enigmatic” from it. An enigma is something hard to understand or explain. This is how we see: darkly, indistinctly. It’s a riddle, puzzling, hard to understand or explain. We’re in the dark.
Paul uses the illustration of a mirror. Mirrors as we know them today with their clear reflections weren’t perfected until the 13th century; prior to that, mirrors were made of polished metal. Corinth was famous for its bronze mirrors, but the reflection was poor, especially compared to seeing someone face to face. Paul says, “Now it’s like we’re looking at a friend’s face reflected in polished metal—it’s unclear, indistinct—an enigma. But someday we’ll see clearly, face to face. Now we know in part, but then we’ll know fully, as fully as God knows us.” We’re in the dark, but not forever!
Someday, we’ll understand—on that day when we see Him face to face. I used to think that I would ask God all my questions, but now I don’t think I’ll need to. I think when I see Him, it will be like the fog lifted and it all becomes clear. The enigma will be solved; I’ll see clearly then. But until then, I see dimly, and my knowledge is partial, and I have to live with enigma, with mystery, with incomplete understanding. I’m still in the dark. These are still The Mirror Days, not The Face-to-face Days.
Last weekend, we asked why people suffer, and we saw in the mirror—dimly—that the Bible names at least six causes of suffering. A lot of the reason we suffer goes back to the risk God took when He created us. He wanted people who would love Him, and that required a huge risk—free will—for love is always freely chosen and given. God made us to love Him and took the risk that we wouldn’t. And the suffering in the world can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to that risk and our choice to go our own way and defy our Creator.
This weekend, we want to go back to the mirror and ask “what good is suffering?” We tend to think of suffering negatively; what good comes of it? We’ll see dimly, darkly, imperfectly again…but we’ll see glimpses of God’s grace shining around the edges of the darkness.
The Bible presents a very robust theology of suffering; in contrast, most Americans have a very weak theology of suffering. For most of us, suffering is something to be avoided at all costs. We fear and avoid suffering while the Christians of the New Testament embraced it. We want to believe that comfort, convenience and happiness are our birthright, promised by God and guaranteed by the Constitution.
We want a gospel that promises us success and happiness, not one that offers us a cross. We want a Savior that rescues us from every unpleasantness, not one that invites us to join Him in suffering. “Make me happy,” we pray to God.
“I want to make you holy,” God answers. “I want to make you good. I want to make you strong.”
So let’s look into the mirror again, and see if we can understand how God uses suffering to achieve His purposes in our lives.
1. God is at work in the dark.
I gave a whole talk on this Wednesday night: God is at work in the dark. In those moments when He feels farthest away, He may be closest. When you think He has forgotten you is when He may be doing His very best work. God works in the dark! And He can bring good out of bad.
Of course, the supreme illustration of this is Jesus. When Jesus was dying on the cross, it looked like evil had triumphed. It looked like darkness had won. But God was at work in the dark accomplishing His purposes, redeeming the whole world. The worst thing that human beings ever did—nailing their Creator to a cross—became the best thing that God ever did! He took it our darkest hour and made it our brightest, our hope, our redemption.
If God can do that with our worst, imagine what He can do for you with whatever you’re going through.
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
I know that this verse has been used insensitively—it can sound like a tired cliché to tell a suffering person, “in all things God works for the good!” But it’s true, and we desperately need to believe it, especially when we’re in the dark, and we can’t make sense of our suffering. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” What are some of the good things God is doing with your suffering?
A. God uses suffering to accomplish His purposes.
God uses all things, including your suffering and pain to accomplish His purposes. That doesn’t mean that suffering is His purpose or intention. But God works in all things, including suffering, and God uses it to accomplish His purposes.
ILL: In Genesis 42:36, Jacob complains, “Everything is against me.” Have you ever felt that way? He has just heard that the ruler of Egypt wouldn’t give his family any more grain unless his sons brought their brother Benjamin down to Egypt. Jacob had already lost his son, Joseph, and now fears for Benjamin’s life. It is a dark moment: does he risk Benjamin to get the food they desperately need, or keep Benjamin safe and risk starvation for his entire family. “Everything is against me.”
Of course, Jacob had no idea that God was working for him, working in the dark. He had no idea that he was not going to lose another son, but find the one he lost. He had no idea that everything was about to be restored and healed. He was in the dark! From his perspective it looked like everything was against him. But we can see that God was working everything for him, for his good.
When the family runs out of food again, and is facing starvation, the brothers prevail upon Jacob and they take Benjamin to Egypt. There, they discover to their horror that the prime minister of Egypt is really Joseph, the brother that they sold into slavery years ago, and thought long dead. Now they think they’re dead! Joseph has all the power and could kill them. But in Genesis 50:20, Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid. You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Here are two very different purposes. Joseph’s brothers intended to harm him—that was their purpose and he suffered for it. But God intended it for good. God had a purpose—God was saving the entire family. God was at work in the dark, in the middle of Joseph’s suffering, accomplishing His purposes.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
“What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
Maybe you feel like Jacob: “everything is against me.” Maybe you feel like Joseph: suffering unfairly. The God who was working the night shift, accomplishing His purpose for Jacob and Joseph is doing the same thing for you. God uses suffering to accomplish His purposes.
B. God uses suffering to make us like Christ, to build character.
One of God’s most clearly stated purposes is to build our character, to make us more like Christ.
Romans 8:28-29 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Those whom God foreknew—that means that God knew who would believe before they did. God knew that you would believe. Those whom God foreknew He also predestined. To predestine is to pick out a destination ahead of time.
ILL: You all did it today. Before you got in the car, you picked out a destination ahead of time. “Let’s go to Life Center.” You didn’t get in the car and say, “Let’s just drive and see where we end up.” You had a destination picked out ahead of time, before you started.
God did that for you. He picked out a destination, a destiny for you. What is it? “To be conformed to the likeness of His Son.” God’s destination for you is to make you like Jesus.
ILL: Have you ever met someone from a family you know and said, “Wow! I can sure see the family resemblance in you! You look like your mom, dad, brother or sister.”
That’s what God is trying to do! He wants you to bear the family resemblance, to act more like Jesus. He wants that for all of His children. “You really remind me of your Father. You really remind me of your big Brother.”
Now put the two verses together: We know that in all things God works for the good of those who loved Him, who have been called according to His purpose. What is His purpose? To make us like Jesus, to build Christ-like character. God uses everything, including our suffering, to accomplish this purpose.
Romans 5:3-5 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
We rejoice in our sufferings! Like I said, the NT Christians saw suffering differently than we do. We pray, “Take it away! Take it away!” And Paul says, “We rejoice in our sufferings!” Were they masochists? No. They rejoiced because God used their suffering to produce perseverance, character and hope in them. Suffering produces character. Their sufferings made them better, not bitter.
ILL: I have to admit that when I suffer, I whine. I don’t rejoice. “God, thank you so much for this problem that is making me miserable! Woohoo!” Nope. What I do is whine: “Take it away! Take it away!”
I have something in my life that causes me to suffer almost every day—it makes my life hard, it sucks up my energy, it wears me out. I’ve prayed the “take it away” prayer over and over, and guess what? It’s not going away. So finally I started praying a different prayer. “What do you want to do in me, Lord? Please do it.” And you know, as painful as it is, I see God making me a better person, a more patient and mature person, a “more like Jesus” person. And every now and then, I can muster a tiny “thank you” for that.
Are your sufferings making you better or bitter? Are you letting God use them to build character and make you more like Jesus?
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Are you suffering? Don’t lose heart. Outwardly we are wasting away—how many of you are feeling that? I used to be able to almost dunk; now I can barely touch the bottom of the net! Outwardly we are wasting away, but inwardly we are being renewed day by day. My body is getting older, but my spirit is getting younger. My body is getting weaker, but my character is getting stronger.
Next verse: how does Paul describe our troubles? Light and momentary. You might think, “Light and temporary? They don’t feel light and temporary! Light and temporary compared to what?” Your troubles are light and temporary compared to what they are achieving for you—an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. Remember: this isn’t heaven. But what you’re going through here is getting your ready for heaven. And compared to the eternal glory of heaven, my troubles are light and temporary.
It’s like a cost-benefit analysis in a business. Paul says that the benefits you realize from your sufferings far outweigh the costs. So don’t lose heart, and don’t lose sight of the benefits. God is at work, making you more like Jesus, building character.
James 1:2-4 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
There it is again: rejoice when you face trials, troubles, suffering. What is being tested? Your faith. Can you trust God? If you do, if you trust God in the midst of your troubles, you will develop perseverance—staying power. And you will become mature and complete, not lacking in anything. “Complete” means all the parts are there; “mature” means that they are fully developed.
I like to think of the fruit of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Do you have all nine of those qualities? If so, you are complete—you’ve got all nine! Are they fully developed—that is, are you as loving as Jesus, as joyful as Jesus, as peaceful as Jesus, as patient as Jesus? If so, you are mature.
That’s a tall order, isn’t it? How do you get there? Through suffering. God uses our trials, troubles and suffering to make us more like Jesus: mature and complete.
ILL: A man found a cocoon of the emperor moth and took it home to watch it emerge. One day a small opening appeared, and for several hours the moth struggled but couldn’t seem to force its body past a certain point. Deciding something was wrong, the man took scissors and carefully snipped the remaining bit of cocoon. The moth emerged easily, its body large and swollen, the wings small and shriveled. The man expected that in a few hours the wings would spread out in their natural beauty, but they did not. Instead of developing into a creature free to fly, the moth spent its life dragging around a swollen body and shriveled wings. The constricting cocoon and the struggle necessary to pass through the tiny opening are God’s way of forcing fluid from the body into the wings. The man’s apparent act of mercy was the moth’s death sentence. Sometimes the struggle is just what we need. God is preparing us to fly!
God uses suffering to make us more like Christ.
C. God uses suffering to draw us to Himself.
I believe that one of the primary purposes of suffering is to bring us to God. Do you know what it takes to motivate most people to change? Pain. We don’t change until we have to, until the pain gets unbearable.
ILL: Peggy Noonan interviewed Mel Gibson about his new movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
Gibson said that about 12 years ago, he began asking all those “Hamlet questions”: Why am I here? What’s on the other side? It resulted in the reawakening of his faith.
Noonan asked him, “What was going on with you 12 years ago that made you ask all your Hamlet questions and then renew your faith?”
“We usually come to these things in times of trial and pain. I might look like I’m living the high life, making movies and jetting around the world. But true happiness resides within. I was spiritually bankrupt, and when that happens, it’s like a spiritual cancer afflicts you. It starts to eat its way through, and if you don’t do something, it’s going to take you. So I simply had to draw a line in the sand. But it wasn’t so much about me making a decision as being backed into a wall.”
Pain is a great attention getter. And I know lots of people, like Mel Gibson, who found God in the midst of their pain and suffering. I’m not saying that God afflicted them (although He can)—but I’m saying that God uses pain to get our attention and draw us to Himself.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(Go back to the first slide, please.) God used pain to get Paul’s attention. I love this passage because Paul whines. “Take it away.” Doesn’t it make you feel better about yourself? Even the great apostle Paul whined once in awhile. We don’t know what his “thorn in the flesh” was, but he was tormented. He was in pain. He was suffering. And he prayed three times, “Take it away.” What was God’s answer?
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God was saying, “I’m all you need Paul. Lean into Me. Depend on Me. Trust Me. I’m here for you.” I believe that God used Paul’s suffering to draw him closer, to teach Him trust and dependence. God wanted to give Paul His divine strength, so first He gave Him weakness and pain.
ILL: I have a close friend who was diagnosed with cancer a couple years ago. He’s in his early thirties. I’m happy to tell you that his cancer is gone—God answered prayer and he’s well. We were talking about the whole experience and he said something I’ll never forget.
“I thank God that I got cancer. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. God used it to bring me into new relationship with Him, and has changed me forever.” He went on to describe in detail those changes. But I was stunned: “I thank God I got cancer. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Sometimes the worst thing can be the best thing, if it draws you to God.
God is at work in the darkness of our suffering. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him. God is working: to achieve His purposes, to make you more like Jesus, to draw you closer to Himself. But I can’t finish without telling you one last thing about suffering.
2. God suffered. He feels our suffering and suffers with us.
Ultimately, the answer to the problem of suffering is not philosophical. It’s not an abstract idea, because it’s not an abstract problem. It’s very personal. And so the answer is personal too. The answer is a person: Jesus. “Where is God? Where is God when I suffer?” That’s the question we ask, and God’s answer is Jesus.
Isaiah 53:3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Jesus was despised and rejected by men. Jesus knows all about sorrow and suffering. He suffered for us.
Where is God when we suffer? He is there, suffering with us. Are we broken? He was broken for us. Are we despised? He was despised and rejected for us? Do we cry out that we can’t take any more? He was a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. “Where is God?” we cry when we suffer. And God gives us more than an answer, more than an explanation. He gives us Himself.
ILL: Peter Kreeft said, “Jesus is what we really need. If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He’s afraid of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone…and for that, I love Him.”
I don’t have all the answers. Lots of the suffering and pain of life seem unfair to me. I can’t explain why God allows some things to happen. I don’t have all the answers. But I do have a God who has willingly entered into my sufferings, a God who suffered for me on the Cross, and now suffers with me when I suffer. He is my answer and my hope.
ILL: John Stott wrote,
I could never believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through his hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorns, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of his.
There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes God’s suffering.”
That is the God for me! That is the God I love! And that is the God I offer to you.
Hebrews 2:18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
This is a God who has suffered, and so He knows what it feels like. He can help you.
1 Peter 5:7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
This is a God who cares, so you can cast all your cares on Him. This God who suffered for you, cares for you when you suffer. He understands.