Suffering is normal in a fallen world. The apostle Paul says, “The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22). The world is broken. And we can see the effects of that brokenness all around us.
Sadly, many people—including Christians—are surprised by suffering. This can lead people to adopt a distorted view of God, faith, and suffering. This highlights why we need to have an accurate theology of suffering.
Last week, I recounted how my friend was chastised for not having enough faith to receive God’s healing. He was told that the problem isn’t in God’s giving healing; the problem is in our receiving healing. After all, why would a good God permit suffering for those He loves?
The Bible tells us God permits suffering because God has a purpose for suffering. We all understand this at a basic, human level. For example, I’ve taken each of my girls to get their two-year vaccinations. But when they are that young, they don’t understand that these needles are meant to help them, not hurt them. They only see the affliction. They can’t see the purpose in the affliction.
The Bible doesn’t give us the specific micro reasons for our sufferings. Why doesn’t He heal in my current situation? Why didn’t He intervene? Why has my suffering lasted so long? Why him and not me? Why this disease? Why now?
Unfortunately, we’re not given this information. However, the Bible does give us some broad macro reasons for our sufferings.
Here are four of those reasons.
1) God wants us to become more like Christ.
In his letter to the Church in Rome, Paul writes,
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28–29)
In other words, the good that God is working all things together for is the conforming of you and me to the image of His Son. And if Jesus was made our perfect high priest by His continued obedience through suffering (Heb. 5:8–9), shouldn’t we expect to also suffer?
In the midst of suffering, we cry out for God to deliver us, when what He may want to do is transform us. He doesn’t merely want to move us out of our suffering; He wants to change us through it. This is a hard truth.
God, in His infinite wisdom, works all things—painful things, difficult things, heart-breaking things, terminal things, and excruciating things—together for good, so that we will be more Christlike.
If the goal is your immediate comfort and your temporary happiness, then God has failed. But that’s not the goal. God is more concerned about your holiness than your happiness. His goal is your eternal character, not your immediate comfort.
2) God wants us to fully rely on Him.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
When we are prospering, healthy, and everything is going well, it is easy to think we don’t need God. New cars, nice houses, and money in the bank feed this lie. It’s when we receive a “sentence of death,” as Paul calls it, that we see our need for God. Suffering shows us we need God in a way that prosperity never could.
3) God wants us to repent.
God permits suffering in the world to warn the world of the impending judgment. He uses it to call people to repentance.
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:4–5)
In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Suffering is God’s megaphone to get this world to wake up, listen, and repent.
4) God wants us to see His glory on display.
This is a bold claim. But I think it’s backed up by Scripture.
As He [Jesus] passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1–3)
When Jesus’ disciples encounter a man who has been blind from birth, they ask explicitly about the purpose of his blindness. Why was this man born blind? Jesus tells us: It was so that God could put His works on display for the world to see.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it He said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:1–4)
When Lazarus falls ill, Jesus doesn’t immediately come to his rescue (John 11:6). In fact, He allows Lazarus to suffer and die from his sickness. But the suffering doesn’t end there. Lazarus’ family, including Mary and Martha, are heartbroken over their loss. So, why does Jesus allow—even orchestrate—all of this suffering? He tells us, “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
God can even allow suffering to bring Himself glory.
There are certainly other macro reasons, but this should be enough to demonstrate that God can use suffering to bring about a good purpose, even if He never tells us what that purpose is.