One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over my years of ministry is, ‘Why do people suffer?’ For a lot of people, including Christians, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then it would seem to make sense that God would not want people to suffer and would get rid of evil in the world.
I am not aware of any place in the Bible which gives a philosophical explanation for why God allows suffering in the world. It just assumes that there is suffering because of the existence of sin. However, the Bible does talk about the reality of suffering and God’s relationship with people in our suffering.
For example, in Hebrews 5:8,9, we read that Jesus learned obedience and was made perfect through suffering so that he could be ‘the source of eternal salvation’ for all who obey him. There are some key words in here that really deserve a message in themselves to understand what is being said because each of them can be understood in a few different ways. However, one way we can interpret what’s being said is that, as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he was learning to trust in his Father in heaven. This is what Paul calls ‘the obedience of faith’ in Romans 1:5 and 16:26 – that ultimately God wants us to love and trust him more than anything else, and that trust will show itself in the way we live our lives. When Jesus went to the cross, all he could do was trust that his heavenly Father would hear his ‘prayers and pleadings’ as he asked his Father to save him from death (Hebrews 5:7). Even as he died, he was still trusting that his heavenly Father would keep his promises and raise him to life as he promised in the Old Testament (see Psalm 16:9,10).
This ‘obedience of faith’ then ‘qualified’ Jesus ‘as a perfect High Priest’ because it completed the task that God had sent him to accomplish. The Greek word used for ‘perfect’ is not so much being morally flawless, which is how we can sometimes think about perfection, but instead more about being brought to completion or reaching a goal. Jesus was made perfect through his suffering because God completed him as our saviour and high priest as Jesus trusted his heavenly Father fully in the middle of what he was suffering. Jesus reached his goal by experiencing the full weight of suffering in our world so that, when we are suffering, we can go to him as the one who has suffered more than we could imagine but has also trusted our heavenly Father in ways that we can’t.
To obey Jesus, then, means to trust him like he trusted our heavenly Father. We all suffer in some way in our lives, to one degree or another. However, our society sees suffering as something that should be avoided at any cost, so we spend much of our time, effort and money trying to avoid suffering and pursue happiness. We do that in lots of different ways – relationships, material possessions, life experiences, entertainment and social media, even involvement in church can be a way of avoiding suffering and pursuing happiness.
When we look at the suffering of Jesus, however, especially through this text, we get a different perspective on suffering. When we suffer, Jesus suffers with us, which means that God suffers with us in him. God’s answer to human suffering isn’t to rid the world of suffering, but to become part of human suffering and share in our suffering with us. Whenever we suffer in any way, Jesus, the Immanuel – God with us – suffers with us as well. So we are never alone in our suffering, not matter how alone we might feel.
In the same way that Jesus learned the obedience of faith in suffering, we can also learn this same obedience in our suffering through faith in him. When we are experiencing pain or suffering of any kind, it can feel like it’s all out of our control. To learn the obedience of faith in our suffering means to trust God with those things that are out of our control and causing our suffering, just like Jesus did when he suffered. This is where we find an important aspect of faith: trusting God in all circumstances, even when it seems like he is a long way away.
This is also how God shapes us and perfects us as his holy people. When we find the grace to trust God in the middle of our suffering, he moulds us into people who are able to be his presence in the world. When we suffer, we can find God with us in our suffering through Jesus, and then we can become the presence of God in the lives of others in their suffering. God can use the hurts and pain we experience to bring us closer to him in a relationships of faith so that we, in turn, can bring hope and comfort to others who are suffering as well. In the same way that God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust him and complete him as our saviour, so God can and will use our suffering to teach us to trust him in all the circumstances of life, to grow our faith in him, to equip and then send us to bring his good news of peace and salvation into a suffering world.
None of this means that God inflicts suffering on people. Suffering is part of living in a fallen and broken world, and because we fail to love each other in the way God wants us to. Suffering isn’t God’s fault, but he doesn’t stand by doing nothing while we suffer either. The life and death of Jesus shows us that God is intimately involved in our suffering, as he suffers with and for us. In his creative power, God used Jesus’ suffering to teach him to trust his heavenly Father and to perfect him as our great High Priest and saviour. When we suffer, then, we are never alone. God uses suffering to teach us to trust him as the one who is with us in our suffering, to grow our faith in him, and to equip us as his agents of peace and hope in a suffering world.