In my last post, I left off with the second shade of suffering. I also realized that we still haven’t gotten around to the big question I posed in the first article, “Can God be both sovereign and loving at the same time?” Or, to put it differently, “Why would God allow bad things to happen to good people?” That second way is closer to how I’ve heard it phrased more often. As we jump back into the shades of suffering and look at numbers three, four, and five, I want you to consider for a moment how other cultures and time periods have considered suffering.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to address. Still, it’s powerful to think about how normal it was just 50-70 years ago to lose multiple children during your lifetime. Or think about before modern medicine when disease ran rampant throughout the world and mortality rates were incredibly high. In those days, suffering wasn’t a topic that got discussed a lot. People suffered, sure, but it was a given. It’s only in our modern western cultural milieu that serious discussions about suffering have been given a foothold. Hopefully, that’s got your mind working a bit as we jump into the third shade.
The Third Shade of Suffering: Temptation
Everyone experiences temptation. That’s probably not news to you, but honestly, doesn’t it kind of feel like it is? 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” There’s so much incredible truth packed into this one tiny verse that you could probably write an entire book on it. But for this article, I want to highlight a few important things that jump out to me.
First is that Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” I wish I could tell you I live that truth out because I know I really don’t. Essentially Paul is telling us that the temptation we are facing right now isn’t new. Satan and the voices in your head of self-doubt and guilt want you to believe that you are alone. That you are the only person feeling the weight of your temptation. That your specific and particular proclivity to sin is unique to you and that no one can understand. But God says that isn’t true. Temptation isn’t new. Other people have faced every temptation you face throughout all of history and mankind.
Temptation is meant to drive us to God. He only ever allows temptation that we can handle (with His help, of course). But notice the last half of this verse “the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Maybe temptation feels like an odd inclusion to this list about suffering, but in my experience, temptation often feels just like suffering. In the latter half o this verse, I think Paul might agree with me on that sentiment. Calling is something to endure, and something that you need to escape from that feels like the language of suffering.
In a larger context of the Bible, we know that even facing temptation at all is a part of suffering because it comes as a direct result of our sinful nature. We have these bodies of flesh that are cursed by sin. No matter how godly we are, or how much we surrender to the Holy Spirit, or how righteously we behave, the temptation will NEVER go away. It is a constant enemy that the Bible warns us about over and over again.
Paul laments that suffering as well in Romans 7:19 when he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Whether it is the pain of feeling that same old temptation hanging over you or the stress of having to continue to fight the battle, the temptation is suffering.
But there is one promise I cling to when I’m feeling the frustration and pain of temptation. It’s Jesus’ call to all weary souls in Matthew 11:29, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” That is such a powerful promise. If we let Jesus take our temptation upon Himself and rest in with His yoke, we can find REST. I take this to meant that I could only experience rest in my fight with temptation when I let Jesus do the fighting. I’ve seen it time and again in my life. I feel the strain only when I am trying to fight this battle alone when I try to win again sin and temptation rather than letting Jesus (who has already won) fight that battle for my day today.
Escape and endurance in the fight against temptation come from resting in Jesus.
The Fourth Shade of Suffering: Chastening
Of all the forms that suffering can take, chastening is both the hardest to bear and probably the most important. We see a clear picture of what this form of suffering looks like in Hebrews 12:7 “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?”
Chastening is an old word that means to correct by punishment or to prune. It’s a picture of pain that has to happen for growth to take place. This definition gives us two pictures. One of a plant that needs its dead branches cut away, and the other of a child that needs physical punishment (spanking) to learn. Both pictures are saying the same thing. Sometimes, it’s necessary to go through pain so that something good will come from it.
In Hebrews, the author is saying the same thing. Does chastening hurt? Yeah, it definitely does. It’s a form of suffering for sure. In verse 11, he says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” This is a form of suffering that brings two results.
First, it’s God’s way of pruning those things in our lives that we need to get rid of. He uses suffering to help us grow, and the author encourages us to look at it from a positive perspective even though it really hurts. Because that leads us to the second, God is our loving Father. The author’s entire case is that we can find hope in chastening because it proves sonship.
If God weren’t our father, if we had no place in the family, He wouldn’t be chastening us. If He weren’t the loving father he is, He wouldn’t bother working to change us and help us grow. You can see it there in verse 11, “it produces a harvest of…peace.”
I think this one hurts the most because it comes because of my own mistakes and problems. It’s directly because I am flawed and need changing that I experience this form of suffering. It hurts, and I have no one to blame but myself. BUT, God isn’t done with me yet.
Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” That is another promise to take to the bank. God will see His work to completion even if it takes some pain on my part.
However, as we move into the final shade of suffering, there’s an important distinction that I want to make here. Chastening is not the same as punishment. In Part 1, I talked about how all I heard about suffering was that it was punishment. Romans 8:1 is crystal clear, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Chastening isn’t punishment. A better picture is that God uses suffering to chastening us, rather than picturing God bringing suffering into our lives to chasten us. That’s an important distinction as we move into the final shade of suffering.
The Fifth Shade of Suffering: Consequences for Sin
When we sin, there are consequences. These consequences take two different forms. The first is judgment or punishment. Romans 6:23 says, “the wages of sin is death.” That is the judgment that takes place if we have never placed our faith in Jesus and allowed Him to pay that judgment in our place. It is the eternal punishment of facing hell separated from God. It is the ultimate condemnation for our sin, and that is what Romans 8:1 is speaking against. Any condemnation then that falls in line with punishment for our sin doesn’t apply to Christians.
Just let that sink in…No condemnation. No punishment, no judgment. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “He made Him who knew no sin, to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” When I placed my faith in Jesus and accepted His gift of Salvation, two things happened.
I lost my sin, and God placed it on Jesus, and I received His perfection placed on me. I now stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ, perfect before God as if I had never sinned in my life. That is why there is no condemnation for me because the finished work of Christ has taken that away.
Yet, there is a mother form of consequence that comes from sin. I call it the “practical consequences of sin.” Even though I have forgiveness from eternal punishment, God can’t take away the practical consequences of sin. When I sin against someone, the effects of that sin still linger even though the eternal consequences have been satisfied.
If I decide to drive drunk and get into an accident, God may use that situation to grow me as His son, but I will still face jail time, pain, and suffering as a consequence of that choice. Those consequences can’t be removed. If a child breaks his mom’s lamp while jumping from couch to couch playing, the floor is lava (true story). It doesn’t matter that he gets forgiveness from mom; the lamp is still broken. The practical consequences of living in a fallen world can’t be undone.
Sometimes this is the form our suffering takes. Feeling the effects of our own bad decisions. However, I believe these always coincide with the chastening of God. If you aren’t a believer and you’re currently suffering comes from your own choices, God is trying to use that to get to you. He wants that pain to bring you back to Him. If you are a Christian, He wants to use that suffering as chastening to help you grow.
The Question of Suffering
With all of that said, I want to start to answer the question we’ve been posing this entire time. Why does God even allow suffering? Why doesn’t He stop it altogether? I think there are two answers to this question, and I’ve been hinting at one in the last section. Part of suffering comes from the consequences of sin. If God were to take those away, He wouldn’t be a just and Holy God anymore.
Imagine an offender stands before the judge, and he is set free without consequence. We would say that judge is corrupt! The lamp is broken; it can’t be unbroken without violating the laws of nature and the nature of God. There is only one way that God could have stopped all suffering from happening, and that is to make us into machines with no free will that always did what is right.
Free will is the real reason that God cannot just banish all suffering for all time. Because of free will, we have the choice to sin. If we choose to sin, then there will be consequences because God must punish that sin. It’s why Jesus had to die in the first place. So that God could be both just and loving so that as a Judge, He could free us from the consequence of sin. But rather than just letting us free, He chose to punish His Son rather than us. The punishment is still meted out, and we still get to walk away without judgment upon us.
To me, the real question is why do we have free will. That’s a question I’m not sure the Bible truly answers. But if I had to guess, I would say it’s because God wanted to have a relationship with us. A true relationship involves two parties choosing each other. So to me, if we didn’t have the free will to choose God, then it wouldn’t be a real relationship. Essentially it’s the same as a lonely guy building a robot girlfriend. No one would call that a real relationship. Instead, God wanted us to choose Him because of Who He is. To make a choice, He had to give us free will, which meant we had the choice to sin and disobey as well.
My Prayer for You
My prayer is that as you’ve read through the five shades of suffering, you can see your suffering in a new light.
All suffering comes with a promise from God.
A promise that He uses suffering for our good, to draw us to Himself. He uses it to purify us and make us Holy. We live in a sinful, broken world, so we should always expect to suffer and not shy away from it. And it’s why James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Pure joy is not how I think about suffering, but that shows how far I am from seeing all that God wants to do in me through the suffering that will inevitably come my way.