In the Book of Job we are told that man who is “born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). All of us have experienced that life seems short, and most of us have had plenty of troubles. This world is filled with heartaches and sufferings of all kinds. No one is immune from troubles. The rich suffer as well as the poor. The proud suffer and so do the humble. The sinner suffers and so does the saint. Wherever one turns, he finds suffering and sorrow and heartaches. There is suffering from sickness, suffering from infirmities of advancing age, suffering from disease, suffering from poverty, suffering from mental anguish—and on and on one could go.
There is the suffering of the young wife lost in despair because of the cruelty of a drunken husband. There is the mother suffering mental anguish because her only daughter is living an immoral life. There is the suffering that comes when we must part because someone we loved dearly is called from earth by the angel of death. There is the suffering of the teenage boy who is a victim of a crippling disease. All these are experiences of suffering that we may need to face.
We don’t have much trouble understanding why wicked people suffer. We know that “the way of transgressors is hard,” and that “whatever a man sows, that shall be also reap.” But we find a different problem when we see God’s saints passing through trials and troubles. Why do some of the most noble people of God have to experience heavy hearts almost continually? This is the big question. There are some things we will never understand until we are safe in the arms of Jesus, but the Bible does give some light on this vexing question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” Note the four Scriptural reasons why a righteous person may be called upon to suffer.
l. Suffering Gives Jesus Christ a Chance to Get Glory
The Gospel according to John, chapter 9, tells about a man who was born blind, and how Jesus had opened his eyes. The disciples said to Jesus, “Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Like many of us, they thought the affliction was brought on because of his own sins, or perhaps because of the sins of his forebears. But Jesus answered the question: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). The Lord did not mean that this man never committed any sin, nor that his parents were perfect, but He clearly stated that this particular suffering was not a punishment for his own sin, but rather that the affliction came upon him to give Jesus a chance to reveal His power and glory.
It was for the same reason that Lazarus was permitted to die. Jesus said in John 11:4 (when He had first heard that Lazarus was sick), “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” When Lazarus was sick, his sisters called for Jesus, but Jesus did a strange thing. Instead of coming immediately, He waited until Lazarus was dead and had been buried four days. When Jesus finally arrived, He merely spoke the word and Lazarus came back from death. As a result of the miracle, many of the Jews were convinced that Jesus was really the Son of God and many believed in Him. Of course the death of Lazarus meant some heartaches for Mary and Martha—and the fact that Jesus didn’t come immediately must have been even more disturbing—but think of the glory Jesus got out of it. People were saved through it.
Many of us have never experienced prolonged and terrible suffering. Yet one of the grandest opportunities you will ever get to glorify God will be in the hour of distress and suffering. When everything is rosy and the pastures are green—and you look up and say, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”—the world won’t be especially impressed. They will say, “Why shouldn’t he be thankful, everything is going his way?” But when the shadows deepen and the clouds begin to gather and the sorrows pour in—if, in such a time, you can look up through your tears, and like Job, say, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord”—the world will be convinced. They will say, “There must be something to this Christianity after all.” Jesus will get glory.
2. Suffering Is Chastening Intended to Make Us Holy
The nature of divine chastening is described in Hebrews 12. We are told that God chastens (punishes) because He loves us, and He does it for our good. Hebrews 12:10 says that He chastens that “we might be partakers of his holiness.” The Scriptures make it clear that God’s purpose for us is that we should be holy. See Ephesians 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, 1 Peter 1:15. And God accomplishes His purpose in one of two ways. His first plan is that we should willingly make a complete surrender, eager to do His will from an obedient heart. But if we become rebellious, sometimes God has to lay us on our backs in order to get us to say, “Not my will but thine be done.”
When we punish our children, we do it not because we hate them and want to punish them, but because we love them and want the best for them in life. And just so God chastens us—not because He hates us and takes pleasure in punishing us, but because He loves us too much to let us go on and make shipwreck of our lives.
Sometimes we suffer in order that God might teach us some lesson in prayer. All of us call upon God much more earnestly and much more frequently when His chastening rod is on us than we do in the day of prosperity. The 107th Psalm repeatedly says, “They cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them out of their distresses.” We know that many times we don’t really pray. But when trouble comes, then we call on God from the bottom of our hearts.
Sometimes we suffer in order that God might teach us lessons in humility. Most of us tend to think that we are a little bit better than certain other people, and we secretly flatter ourselves that we are not “as other men.” Suffering cuts the props from under us and gives us a sense of need and dependence upon God, and we see that we are only poor worms of the dust. These things are good for us.
3. Suffering Fits Us for the Ministry of Sympathy
God gives special comfort to His own children in the hour of suffering, and Paul says that we receive this strength and help from the hand of God so that we can extend sympathy to others. 2 Corinthians 1:4 says that the comfort we receive from God is designed to enable us to impart comfort to others.
This world is filled with suffering and heartaches, and one of the greatest needs that suffering people have, is for someone who can sympathize with them in their troubles. And the only way we can really learn to comfort others and to sympathize with them, is to suffer ourselves. We cannot truly sympathize with those in sorrow unless we have suffered sorrow too. We cannot understand the loneliness of others unless we have been lonely ourselves. We cannot weep with those that weep unless we have been bereaved ourselves. There are some things in life that cannot be learned in the schools, and this is one of them. We have to learn how to sympathize with others by actual experience. Many of us have already learned that the person who can help us most in the hour of trial, is the one who has already passed through an experience somewhat like ours. This is another reason God permits righteous people to suffer. The fires of affliction make us tenderhearted and sympathetic toward others—and this results in greater compassion for other people.
4. Suffering Turns Our Attention Toward Heaven
One of the besetting sins of the saints is earthliness. Most people live as though they were never going to die. Many follow business and pleasure and politics and science as if this earth were their eternal home. They plan and scheme for the future like the rich fool in the parable Jesus told. And Christians have a tendency to do the same thing. Thank God that He sends affliction and sickness. This takes our eyes away from money and pleasure and position, and makes us think seriously of God. The Lord often permits suffering so that we don’t become too much in love with this world and the things of this world.
Sometimes it takes sickness and sorrow and disaster and vanished hopes and shattered dreams to bring us to the end of ourselves and turn us to God. The suffering and sadness that we experience often gives us a desire to leave this world and to enter our rest in Heaven. Even the loss of a loved one in the hour of death—while it brings heartaches to us—often turns our attention toward Heaven. Most of us have had this experience. We know that Heaven is a place, and that it is being prepared for those who love God. But we only come to really appreciate Heaven when one of our own dear loved ones crosses the border into the eternal world. God permits sorrow and suffering to turn our attention toward the heavenly City.
In Hebrews 12, we learn that there are three different attitudes one can take toward trials and afflictions:
1) We can despise them (Hebrews 12:5). Many people despise their troubles and lash out violently against suffering. They blame others and even blame God. This is dangerous for it will make us cynical and hard. It will poison our souls.
2) We can merely endure them (Hebrews 12:7). A great many people just grit their teeth and make up their minds they are going to bear suffering the best they can. They say, “We’ve all got our troubles; other people bear theirs, and I’m going to take mine like a man.” This may be better than despising suffering, but it is not the best way.
3) We can be exercised by them (Hebrews 12:11). We can profit from our sufferings. Instead of accusing God, we can search our hearts, and as a result, we will grow in faith and patience and we will manifest the fruits of righteousness in our lives. No matter how severe the trial is, we should accept it with thanksgiving, and submit to it without a murmur because we know that God has a good purpose.
Those who continue to maintain faith in God will some day look into His face and thank Him for every sorrow that drove its sharp edge through their souls. You will thank Him for every stroke of affliction, for every night of loneliness, for every day of pain—because, like Jesus, you will have learned obedience through suffering.
Some day the tests and sufferings of life will be over, and the Bible says that God himself will wipe away our tears, and take us to a place where there is no more suffering. Children of God are headed for a world in which pain and suffering will be gone forever! If you are yet unsaved, it could be that suffering and trouble are God’s ways of calling you to salvation. Take Jesus as your Saviour today. If you pray “Lord be merciful to me a sinner”—He will answer your cry.