Three Truths to Treasure When Suffering
It’s often said there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. I’d suggest we could add a third to the list: suffering. Suffering is an unavoidable fact of human existence. It doesn’t discriminate and it cannot be stopped. This fact has felt especially true these last few months. The suffering endured by so many recently, both near and far, is almost incomprehensible. A global food crisis. The ongoing war in Ukraine. A young Dad passing away suddenly and unexpectedly. An unforeseen cancer diagnosis. The ravages of dementia. And of course, more recently, the devastation of an earthquake in Turkey and Syria, which has, at time of writing, claimed upwards of 35,000 lives. It makes the mind boggle and the heart ache. “Suffering,” as author and counsellor Michael Emlet writes, “invades every nook and cranny of our lives.”
The question is: How should we make sense of suffering? How should we understand it? And perhaps more importantly, how should we respond to it?
Of course, we can’t say everything in a simple blog post. There are good books that will help you dig deeper into this perplexing topic (see the end of this post for some recommendations). But I wanted to briefly share, following the lead of Michael Emlet in his book, Saints, Sufferers and Sinners: Loving Others as God Loves Us, three truths from God’s word that can speak to us and help us in the midst of our suffering.
- God cares about our suffering
Tears can make us feel awkward. When we witness pain up close it can make us want to, like the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), move to the other side of the road and avoid the mess. But this is not how God acts or feels towards us. Psalm 22:24 summarises a consistent pattern we see in Scripture: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”. God does not hide his face. He listens. He cares. He moves towards sufferers with compassion, even entering into our suffering in the person of Jesus.
- God will relieve our suffering
The life and ministry of Jesus shows us that God has a plan to relieve our suffering. Consider how Mark 1 describes the activities of Jesus: teaching (v.14-15), casting out impure spirits (v.21-27), healing the sick (v.29-34), solitary prayer (v.35-39) and cleansing a leper (v.40-45). Clearly, the arrival of God’s kingdom means the relief of suffering. Jesus’ ministry of pain relief serves as a pointer to the day when pain will be relieved for good and forever. Indeed, this is where history is headed; in the new heavens and the new earth there will be “…no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). We are not promised relief from suffering in this life, but we are assured that there is a day coming when the only tears we cry will be tears of joy in the presence of our Redeemer.
- God is at work in our suffering
This doesn’t mean that God is doing nothing in the midst of our present pain. On the contrary. It’s actually through our suffering that God is shaping us, conforming us to the image of Christ, the One whose suffering ultimately led to resurrection and glory. This is such a dominant thread in the New Testament it’s hard to overstate (e.g., Rom. 8:16-17; 2 Cor. 12:9-10; Php. 3:10-11; Col. 1:24; 1 Pet. 4:12-13). Yet at the same time we must avoid trite oversimplifications, especially for those who are walking through the dark valley of suffering. To say unthinkingly to someone suffering, “All things work together for good”, is often not helpful and usually painful. Far better to heed the instruction of Romans 12 to “…weep with those who weep” (v.15), and later, when time and opportunity allow, point that person to Jesus; the same Jesus who has suffered like us, suffered for us, and in whose presence we will one day suffer no more.
This means, as Michael Emlet writes, “This gives us hope. God sees and knows our suffering. His Word shows that suffering is not the end of the story. He intends to overrule and transform suffering in our lives, just as he used the Cross as an instrument to usher in resurrection life for Jesus. Our suffering elder brother Jesus Christ has gone before us; we are not alone in our hardships.”
With you on the journey,
A few recommended books on suffering:
- Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense by Paul David Tripp
- Suffering Wisely and Well: The Grief of Job and the Grace of God by Eric Ortlund
- Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God by Tim Challies
- Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller