One of the most common criticism of Christianity is the question “If God exists, then why is there suffering in the world?” Scripture teaches that God is loving and benevolent, such as Psalm 86:15, which says: “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Yet there is still an abundance of suffering and hardship in the world, and to many people there is no way to reconcile a loving God with a world full of pain and despair. Many times, for the Christian at least, the difficulty in understanding God in light of suffering is due to a lack of comprehension when it comes to what it really means that God is love. I see three factors that contribute to this, a misunderstanding of God’s love, a misunderstanding of timing, and a misunderstanding of the Christian life.
It is very commonly stated that “God is love,” but many times people actually mean, “Love is God.” They define God by their subjective understanding of love, and then fit God into that box. The result is a weak and timid God who punishes no one, criticizes no one, a God who would never bring about pain and suffering, and who would never intentionally put us through hardships. This pseudo-God stands in stark contrast to the God of the Bible, not because the God of the Bible is un-loving, but because mankind’s definition of love has been corrupted by her selfishness and flesh.
An accurate picture of God’s love is shown in his dealing with the Israelites during the time of the Assyrian invasion and captivity, the prophet Isaiah gives us a view into the working of God’s love in this situation:
“20 In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. 21 A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. 22 For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. 23 For the Lord God of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in the midst of all the earth. 24 Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: “O my people, who dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrians when they strike with the rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. 25 For in a very little while my fury will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction.”
God used the Assyrians to carry out his judgment against the nation of Israel as a result of their constant turning away and rejection of God. However, while God acted out of his righteousness and punished Israel for their sin, he still held to his promise and said that a remnant would return to the Promised Land, and that he would be their God. Furthermore, he told them not to fear the coming tribulation for he would soon relent and free them from their enemies. This is God displaying his love by disciplining and restoring his children, Hebrews says “5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” The Christian must understand that God’s love is not just a pouring out of blessings, but it also comes with trials and testing.
Second is a misunderstanding of timing, and a failure to recognize that God does not operate according to man’s schedule. In people’s impatience they subject themselves to more suffering than necessary, or as a result of only living in their present circumstances they lose hope in God’s promise of peace and rest. John Piper puts it like this:
“Impatient people are weak, and therefore dependent on external supports — like schedules that go just right and circumstances that support their fragile hearts. Their outbursts of oaths and threats and harsh criticisms of the culprits who crossed their plans do not sound weak. But that noise is all a camouflage of weakness. Patience demands tremendous inner strength.”
If people only look at the trouble and pain of their current situation, and never takes the time to reflect on how God has previously seen them through trials in their life, as well as looking ahead to God’s promise of a peace that surpasses all understanding, then they will either lose hope, become frustrated, or both. The loss of hope results from believing that God will never, with regard to time, come to the rescue and alleviate their suffering; whereas frustration arises out of feeling that God is not working fast enough to pull them out of their troubles. Both of these stem from impatience, and not being willing to submit to God’s timetable.
Noted Puritan preacher John Bunyan was arrested and thrown in prison for twelve years for preaching the gospel without a license from the Church of England; he had this to say regarding patience in light of his imprisonment:
“Before I came to prison, I saw what was a–coming, and had especially two considerations warm upon my heart; the first was how to be able to endure, should my imprisonment be long and tedious; the second was how to be able to encounter death, should that be here my portion; for the first of these, that scripture, Col. 1:11, was great information to me, namely, to pray to God to be ‘strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and long–suffering with joyfulness.’ I could seldom go to prayer before I was imprisoned, but not for so little as a year together, this sentence, or sweet petition, would, as it were, thrust itself into my mind, and persuade me, that if ever I would go through long–suffering, I must have all patience, especially if I would endure it joyfully.”
It is with patience and reliance on God to act according to his timing that the Christian must endure suffering in this life, while keeping his heart and mind set on the end of all suffering in the next life.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, the Christian must have a proper understanding of the Christian life in relation to suffering. My favorite verse is John 16:33 “33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus said these words to the disciples as he foretold his ascension into Heaven, and the troubles they would face after his departure.
The prosperity or health and wealth gospel has spread far and wide in America, and promises money, no sickness, joy, power, and pleasure in this life. This false gospel stands in stark contrast to the words of Christ and the Apostles who all warned of the suffering Christians have to endure in this life. Paul states in Colossians:
“3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”
The Christian must understand that to live a life for Christ is to also endure suffering, but that suffering is only for a time, and can be faced through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. If a person believes that following Christ means living with constant health, wealth, and pleasure, then he or she will be rocked to the core when trials, troubles, and tribulations come upon them.
Ultimately the key to enduring suffering is a right understanding of and reliance on God. We must understand that God loves us unconditionally and completely, but that this means he will subject us to tests and trials in order to refine and strengthen our faith. We must also recognize that God works according to his own timing, but that all things work together for the good of those who serve Christ. Above all we must realize that to live for Christ means that we will suffer.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Psalm 86:15.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Isaiah 10:20-25.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Hebrews 12:5-6.
 Piper, John, Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2012).
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Philippians 4:4-7.
 Bunyan, John, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1995).
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), John 16:33.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Colossians 1:3-5.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Romans 8:28.