Why Grief and Suffering?

I was once asked, “Is it wrong to have the flu?” to which I answered, “of course not!”, then I was asked, “Is it right to have the flu?”, to which I said, “of course not.” So which is it? Is it right or wrong? I was stumped. It was neither right nor wrong; it’s different than that. I have always hated the idea that suffering may be God’s plan for us, and I think it’s because to me suffering is wrong or bad, the opposite of good and it’s hard to understand why God would allow something bad. It has been an eye opening experience to see suffering as not exactly bad – though it doesn’t feel good, but also not necessarily good. Rather, it’s different, and I think it’s very important that we have a solid biblical view of it, rather than the one we have adopted through our culture. I believe it is only through God’s perspective that we can handle what suffering brings and make sense of.

“To this (suffering) you were called…For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him” (Phil 1:21-29). The Bible tells us that suffering is a normal part of life, not just a part of the Christian life, but it does tell us that Christians will endure more simply because of Him. So, why are we so surprised at our grief and suffering? Why do we think we shouldn’t suffer?  This article takes a closer look at the different aspects of suffering, a biblical view, as well as a few of my personal experiences and what God taught me through my personal suffering.

Myths of Suffering

Christians Will Not Suffer
A few years back, I was going through a divorce and my husband (now my ex) was doing things I thought that he should not have, and it was causing my children to hurt and me to fear. Having to wipe their tears and make everything okay day-in and day-out was really hard to do. I cried and I was afraid for them often. I went to lunch with a friend who wanted to talk to me. She told me that my anger was unrighteous and my pain meant I had little faith. She was concerned for me and worried that I was wavering from what God would want for me. I was very hurt by her words and confused because I really was trying to do the right thing and she thought I was sinning by it. Why is it that so many people think that if we hurt, we do not have faith or may have done something wrong? The myth that if Christians have faith they will not suffer, or that despite our suffering our faith will keep us from hurting, is prevalent. They say things like, “When we live by His will, we will have less pain.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I think it is important to note the difference between consequences of sin and natural suffering. Yes, it is true we can suffer as a result of our sin, but that doesn’t mean that the reason we suffer is always because we have sinned. The Bible says we live in a fallen world and therefore we will experience that loss. (Gen 2:16-17; 3:2-9; Ex 15:26; Deut 30:15-20; Prov 1-31; Judges 1-21; Rom 1:28) All creation “groans” under the consequences of sin, (Rom 8:22) and each person deals with things from within themselves and out of themselves.

This list gives an elementary example of this:

Inward Influences:
Physical
DNA
Mental Illness
Imbalances
Health

Spiritual
Habitual sin
Faith in God
Salvation
Sanctification

Outward Influences:
Physical
Experiences
Family
Childhood
Education

Spiritual
Demonic Forces
God, Jesus & Spirit
God’s Word

In fact, not only will we experience suffering because we are in a fallen world, but Jesus told us we would suffer. (Phil 1:29; 1 Pet 2:20-21) One of the best verses I read, in the midst of my suffering was, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” (1 Pet 4:12) It reminded me that the expectation “I should not suffer” was misguided. People who love the Lord will feel pain when they suffer (Mark 14:33-34, 2 Cor 2:4) and it is a normal part of life (2 Tim 3:12) Furthermore, we must go through suffering to enter the kingdom of God; and we were destined for trials. (Acts 14:22; 1 Thess 3:3) Not that suffering is a prerequisite for going to heaven, but that there is something to suffering that prepares us for it. Therefore, count it a blessing to suffer. (1 Pet 4:14-16; James 1:2; Matt 5:10; Acts 5:41)

If God Loves Me, He’ll Save Me
When I younger, I remember believing that if God loves me He won’t let me suffer, He’ll save me. His love means that He will cover me, like the wings of a mother-bird cover her babies in the nest, to keep me from hurting. In 2003 I went into preterm labor at 20 weeks with my twin boys and spent 24 hours in the hospital trying to stop it. The doctors pumped me full of meds, hung me upside down and I prayed. It was more like holding my breath, being still and waiting for God to save them, but I knew He would because God saves those He loves. I fell asleep and when I woke Timothy was being born and 30 minutes later, Daniel came. Neither ever took a breath. I was in shock and numb. I remember lying still, looking at the ugly tile ceiling and staring at the specks. My only thought was, “At least they’ll never feel this kind of pain.” God didn’t save me from my pain that day. The Bible tells us that He didn’t save His son from suffering (Rom 8.32) and He didn’t save John the Baptist (Matt 14:10), Paul (2 Tim 4:6-8), or Peter (John 21:18-19) from suffering either, and I know He loved them very much. Therefore, just because He didn’t save me, didn’t mean He didn’t love me. It got me asking God a lot of questions and searching for understanding to things I hadn’t really put much energy into prior to that.

Suffering Has No Meaning
Following the death of my twins, one of the questions I was considering was, “Is God mad at me?” Was He punishing me? I never thought He was vindictive, but I knew many who did think this and the thought crossed my mind. They believe that He wants us to hurt when He is angry with us. I felt more comfortable with believing that suffering has no meaning, rather than believing that God was inflicting it on me. Instead of simply saying that I didn’t know why it was happening, I decided that there is no reason for why. For me, it was too painful to consider that this was a part of His divine will.

Each time this thought came to me, I reminded myself that if it is so, then I am the one who is suffering, not them. They went from my womb directly into the presence of God and how sweet they must be, never tainted by this world. I know the great things that have come following this time in my life, but I still can’t bring myself to consider that there was no other way to accomplish His plan and until I am reunited with them, I never will. Pain doesn’t always make sense to us and I think that is okay. I also do not believe that pain is meaningless. If I believe that God is all that He is: Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omnibenevolent, etc, then it is not feasible to say He allows things for no reason. He is the master designer of reason, order and logic (1 Cor 14:33; Is 45:18). In fact, the Bible says that God uses suffering for our good, to conform us to the likeness of His Son. (Rom 8:28-29)

Suffering Steals My Joy
Many also believe that suffering steals our choice for joy, as if we’ve been robbed of our free will. I have a little plaque that sits on my window ledge, above the kitchen sink that says, “Happiness is a choice.” I learned that if I want to be happy I have to choose it. This doesn’t mean that I always feel happy or that my life circumstances are always enjoyable, but if I can’t chose happiness, then I have lost everything. I’m a fighter and I do not want to give Satan more than he has already taken, and he has taken plenty. The one thing he can’t take is my will and I refuse to hand that over.

Countercultural is the understanding that we can have joy when we are suffering, and the Bible tells us that we have a choice to rejoice in our suffering. Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Mt. 10.28) Did you know that the word “heart”, in some form, is used 858 times in the Bible[1]? It is where our emotions and desires are; what motivates man to act and it is there that the spiritual life begins with God, who also has a heart (Acts 13:22) that desires us to have relationship with Him. 1 Timothy 2:4 says, “(He) desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:20) When things do not make sense to our hearts, and in grief and suffering there is much that does not, “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”(Prov 3:5) Sometimes this is all that we can do.

We cannot control our circumstances and often the turmoil in our lives cannot be planned for, but how we respond to it is within our control. “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance.” (Rom 5.3) 2 Corinthians 8:2 says, “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”(James 1:2-4)

The Purpose of Suffering

God tells us that there is purpose to suffering, and He clarifies that we do not suffer in vain, especially when we suffer for His sake. Peter said, “These (trials) have come so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” (1 Pet 1:7-8)

I think it is very important to note that when someone is suffering, one of the worst things we can do is to tell him or her why God is putting them through it, even if we are right. When a person is grieving, the only thing they need is compassion and kindness. It is during our grief and suffering that we tend to see things more focused. We look through the fog searching for light, and we must enter into the light to see what was hidden. In order to get people to desire what He desires, God must “remove the heart of stone” and replace it with “a heart of flesh.” (Ezek 36:26) Sadly, this often required hardship and grief.

Mostly, I believe suffering is our avenue to finally asking the really hard questions[2] and it brings us to point where we know we can’t answer those questions alone. “The Bible is full of commands to “think”, “ponder”, “consider”, “weigh” and “judge”… and what we think about God influences our friendship with Him. It affects how much glory we give Him and the Bible is the only safe source of knowledge about God – and it requires thinking.[3]” When we have no answers, we go to the one who does. We begin to ask about the things that matter and the sheer vulnerability of it causes in us “Christ-likeness”.  I am reminded of a quote from Dr. Who, season 9, where Claire asks her boyfriend how he got so smart. He replies with, “Same as everybody else, I had a really bad day!” Our bad days give us insight and understanding like none other, because it is in those days that we ask the really good questions.

Other purposes of suffering include:

  1. It increases our understanding of God’s power. (Ps 68:19)
  2. Suffering refines, perfects, strengthens, and prepares us. (Ps 66:8-9; Heb 2:10)
  3. Suffering allows the life of Christ to grow in us. (2 Cor 4:7-11)
  4. Suffering makes us dependent on God. (2 Cor 12:9)
  5. It teaches humility. (2 Cor 12:7)
  6. Suffering gives us the mind of Christ. (Phil 2:1-11)
  7. It teaches that God is more concerned with character than comfort. (Rom 5:3-4; Heb 12:10-11)
  8. It teaches that the Christian life is not absence of pain, but Christlikeness. (2 Cor 4:8-10; Rom 8:28-29)
  9. At times, suffering is a correction from God for sin and rebellion. (Ps 107:17)
  10. Obedience and self-control are gained from suffering. (Heb 5:8; Ps 119:67; Rom 5:1-5; James 1:2-8; Phil 3:10)
  11. Voluntary suffering demonstrate the love of God. (2 Cor 8:1-2, 9)
  12. It is part of the battle:
    1. Against sin (Heb 12:4-13)
    2. Against evil men (Ps 27:12; 37:14-15)
    3. For the kingdom of God (2 Thess 1:5)
    4. For the Gospel (2 Tim 2:8-9)
    5. Against injustice (1 Pet 2:19)
    6. For the name of Christ (Acts 5:41; 1 Pet 4:14).
  13. How the righteous share in Christ’s suffering. (2 Cor 1:5; 1 Pet 4:12-13)
  14. Endurance of suffering is promised reward. (2 Cor 4:17; 2 Tim 2:12)
  15. Suffering creates community and allows use of spiritual gifts. (Phil 4:12-15)
  16. It binds Christians together for a common purpose. (Rev 1:9)
  17. Suffering produces discernment, wisdom, knowledge, and teaches us God’s statutes. (Ps 119:66-67, 71)
  18. Through suffering God gathers our broken and contrite spirits. (Ps 51:16-17)
  19. Suffering disciplines our minds to focus our hope on Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:6, 13)
  20. Suffering humbles us so He can raise us up. (1 Pet 5:6-7)
  21. Suffering causes us to use our time wisely with a heart of wisdom. (Ps 90:7-12)
  22. It is sometimes necessary to win the los. (2 Tim 2:8-10; 4:5-6)
  23. It creates endurance so we can comfort others when they hurt. (2 Cor 1:3-11)
  24. Suffering is small in comparison to the value of knowing Jesus. (Phil 3:8)
  25. Suffering builds truth in our innermost being. (Ps 51:6; 119:17)
  26. It builds a treasure up for us in the next life. (Ps 58:10-11)
  27. Suffering always comes with an amazing source of grace. (2 Tim 1:7-8; 4:16-18)
  28. It teaches us to give thanks always. (1 Thess 5:17; 2 Cor 1:11)
  29. Suffering increases faith. (Jer 29:11)
  30. Suffering allows manifestation of His care. (Ps 56:8)
  31. Suffering grows hope. (Job 13:14-15)[4]

I mentioned before that I can see what God has done through my pain, but it doesn’t make the pain any less painful.  It was through the love and compassion of people I knew, who loved the Lord, that caused me to turn to Him and I surrendered my life to Him. Had they not been there, I believed the outcome would have been different. A verse that comes to mind, and while I know it is specifically about Israel, it encourages me just the same. Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” My life was sifted like wheat and now, while I wouldn’t wish my journey on anyone, I would not undo it if it meant going back to who I was. It’s funny because at the time I remember lamenting the loss of my innocence, the loss of my blissful unawareness. I hated that my ex-husband had robbed me of who I was and I felt like my identity had been ripped from me.

I am not the same person I was back then and while I hate the pain I have endured, some caused by me and others by things outside my control, I treasure what it created in me for today: I have a relationship with God, I am no longer lonely and hollow inside, I love people like I never thought I could, I have a ministry and purpose in life and I have an endurance to withstand not just my pain, but also the pain of others. I understand things I never used to and I am very slow to judge. I understand that we live in a messy world and there is much I will not understand. It is not my job to understand and know it all, it is my job to “love the Lord with all my heart and to love my neighbor as myself”(Mark 12:30-31). Lastly, it created an ever-thankfulness for times of happiness and rest. My life is not in upheaval right now and I rejoice in the Lord for this time in my life, even if it can’t last.

Biblical Examples of Suffering

“Everyone who takes the Bible seriously, and many who don’t, agree that God hates suffering…but it simply isn’t reasonable to assume that God’s only relationship to suffering is to relieve it. He specifically says that all who follow Him can expect hardship[5]”, and those who don’t can as well. “Human suffering in this life is merely splash-over from hell…God’s plan for us (all of us) in this life is to give us the benefits of heaven only gradually. By letting us struggle with the remnants of sinful nature (fallen world), and by letting us know pain, He reminds us of the hell we are being saved from.[6]

I think it’s interesting to note that almost every person talked about in the Bible experienced some kind of suffering! Therefore, what happened, how they responded, and how God ministered to them must be important for us know?

1.Jesus is an obvious example. “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps.” (1 Pet. 2.21) He submitted to the Father’s plan for us (1 Pet. 2.21-23), He endured (Heb. 12.2) and “God permitted what He hates to accomplish what He loves…the core of His plan was to rescue us from our sin[7].” As Jesus knew this. “The sorrow we taste will one day prove to be the best possible thing that could have happened.[8]” (Isaiah 53:3-11; 1 Peter 4:1-13; 3:18; 5:1)

2.Paul is another example of suffering. To name a few, I love this because it shows us that it is natural to respond honestly, unhindered. “Venting disappointment, expressing hurt, and even questioning the goodness of the Almighty…He hasn’t given up, abandoned His faith, nor is He inciting rebellion with His friends against God… He’s angry enough to engage God head-on and this makes it a good rage.[9]” So long as the movement is toward God, even when it doesn’t look cookie-cutter perfect, it is still progress and often it is the kind of change God stirs in us.

3.Job is another obvious example of suffering[10]. I love this one because Job did nothing wrong and some of his suffering was the result of natural disasters and illness, things that today we would explain medically or with the weather channel. I like this example because God allowed it. This particular story doesn’t match the image we typically prefer when considering God. “He’s yours, “ God answered Satan, “only don’t lay a finger on his person.” Soon came Job’s blackest day.[11]” Who caused Job’s trials? It was Satan, but at a deeper level God permitted it. “He gives the green-light – not because He’s helpless or has set himself restrictions against meddling with his creation – but because he’s decisive.[12]

I believe that God gives us free will and does not meddle with this, but He does send things our way to test that free will. I prefer the idea that He has His hand in my trials because if He didn’t, my suffering would be evil unrestrained. We cannot begin to fathom why God does what He does, only that we can know our suffering is not meaningless. The entire book of Job is a story line of his movement closer to God, asking hard questions, responding vulnerably, and feeling every emotion. The book of Job ends with Job’s praising God and submitting to His will in his life.

4.David also comes to mind when I ponder suffering. The book of Psalms is filled with praise and lament. Some of what he suffered was not his fault and he could not be prevented, while other things he suffered were a consequence of his sin. For example, after proving his worth by sleighing the giant, David spent years fleeing Saul who was trying to kill him out of jealousy. [13]

5.The prophets also suffered. “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:10)

  • For example, Moses suffered as he led the Israelites to the Promised Land, and when you consider all he suffered leading up to the point where God sent him back to Israel, the 80 year stretch is unbelievable!
  • Jeremiah suffered. God warned him saying, “Behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” (Jer 1:17-19). Jeremiah’s message was one many did not like, and as such, he was in danger. They spoke against him and refused to listen (Jer 18:18), they ridiculed him (Jer 20:7), put him in stocks (Jer 20:2), chained (Jer 40:1), and left to die, though rescued (Jer 38:6-13). In this case Jeremiah suffered because of the message God gave him to present. “Blessed are those who suffer for my sake.” (Matt 5:10)
  • A third example of as prophet who suffered was Ezekiel. His wife was going to die and God told him to not mourn her death. He said, “Do not cry, make no mourning for the dead” (Ezekiel 24:17a) “Put on your shoes” (Ezek 24:17c) when mourners customarily went barefoot (2 Sam 15:30), “and cover not your lips” (Ezek 24:17d) though the covering of the lips was a sign of mourning and astonishment (Micah 3:7).  Ezekiel was not to take comfort offered by his community and was to go to work like normal. God explains in verse 24, that this will be a sign to the Jewish people of how they would react when Jerusalem is destroyed by Babylon. (Ezek 24:21)  Ezekiel would suffer and the entire point of his suffering is so that he would be an example, to be watched and understood in a real tangible way.

The Results of Suffering

While the Bible is clear that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,” (Ecc 3:4) we are also told to Praise God, which isn’t easy in times of grief. “Probably our greatest question respecting praise is how to manage when life is rough and God seems far away.[14]” How is it possible that we can praise Him, or that this would be a natural thing to do in times of pain? The book of Psalms is one of my favorite books because it centers on not just lament, but also the praise of God[15] generated from the turmoil of lament. I believe these two are intricately entwined. If only I could be one of those people that does not need to learn things the hard way, but I am. We don’t just need a Savior, in the sense of how we casually discuss salvation in Sunday school, but we need a Savior in the sense of a rescuer. We need to be saved from our pain, from this world and from ourselves. While the “tunes are lost to us, the lyrics are preserved[16] and it shows how out of pain the kind of relationship God desires with us is born. He is whom we need, and the natural response of that salvation is a desire to please Him. This “pleasing” is the kind of praise God desires from us.

I do not know why God allowed my pain specifically and I would never in a million years try to tell someone why God is allowing their pain, but in my pain I centered in on who God is, as it is Him I was depending on to save me. I think God used my situation to develop in me a dependency on His presence. Now, not only do I delight in the only one who gives me hope when life hurts the most, but now also when it’s at it’s greatest. “By life of praise I respond to an always faithful God.” [17] Therefore, praise is to know God, knowing what He has done for us and living in a way that pleases Him. We do it in everything we are, moving boldly forward[18]; for the praise of God is the purpose of man[19]. I believe that the purpose of suffering is the journey, making us Christ-like, trusting that God knows what is best. When it is all said and done, what mattered most? “Love the lord your God will all your heart” (Matt 22:36-40), “love you neighbor as yourself” and “lean not on your own understanding”. (Prov 3:5-6) God desires us to have a vulnerable, authentic, real, dependence on Him, and often the only way there, is by getting through to the parts of ourselves we struggle to access without suffering.

By: Vanessa Jackson, MABC, LPC-intern
Lake Travis Counseling Connection
http://www.talk2vanessajackson.com
Supervised by Jan Shope, LPC=S



WORKS SITED:
[1] Robert  A. Erickson, The Language of the Heart, 1600-1750 (New Cultural Studies), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Pg 26
[2]Why Suffering by Ravi Zacharias, http://rzim.org/just-thinking/why-suffering-the-question, (Jan 2015)
[3] Joni Eareckson Tada, When God Weeps, Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Inc., 1997. pg 67
[4] Paul Tautges, Brian Croft, Comfort the Grieving: Ministering God’s Grace in Time of Loss (Practical Shepherd Series) Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Inc., 2014.
[5] Joni Eareckson Tada, When God Weeps, Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Inc., 1997. pg.57
[6] Ibid., pg.197
[7] Ibid., pg. 56
[8] Ibid., pg. 57
[9] Ibid., pg. 152
[10] Larry J. Waters, BC-BE547OL Class Notes, Dallas Theological Seminary, Nov 2015.
[11] Joni Eareckson Tada, When God Weeps, Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Inc., 1997. pg. 77
[12] Ibid., pg. 82
[13] Ibid., pg. 240
[14] Ronald B. Allen. And I Will Praise Him, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1992) 150
[15] Ibid., 57
[16] Ibid., 23
[17] Ibid., 224
[18] Ibid., 60
[19] Ibid., 26


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  1. Allen, Ronald B. And I Will Praise Him, a Guide to Worship in the Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1992.
  2. Erickson, Robert A. The Language of the Heart, 1600-1750 (New Cultural Studies) . Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
  3. Precept Ministries. The International Inductive Study Bible. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1992,1993.
  4. Ravi, Zacharias. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Jan 26, 2015. http://rzim.org/just-thinking/why-suffering-the-question.
  5. Tada, Joni Eareckson. When God Weeps, Why Out Sufferings Matter to the Almighty. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1997.
  6. Tautges, Paul, and Brian Croft. Comfort the Grieving: Ministering God’s Grace in Times of Loss (Practical Shepherding Series). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014.
  7. Water, Larry J. “BC-BE 547OL, A Biblical Theology of Suffering, Disability and the Church Class Notes.” Dallas Theological Seminary. (Nov 29, 2015).
  8. Waters, Larry J., and Roy B. Zuck. Why O God?, Suffering and Disability in the Bible and Church. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s