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(Part 10)


Why is there suffering in the world?

There is suffering because there is evil. When people sin, there will be consequences, not just on themselves, but on others whose lives they affect. When a child becomes a drug addict, the parents suffer anguish. When a thief steals, the victim suffers deprivation. When terrorists strike, innocents suffer loss of life or limb.

In these cases, we see that the innocent, just like Job, may suffer.

The real question then might be: why does the all-loving God allow the innocent, or even the just and righteous, to suffer? Here we come to the reality of redemptive suffering. God does allow suffering, because suffering is redemptive. As such, allowing His loved ones to experience suffering is a great manifestation of God’s love.

How is suffering redemptive?

First, for those who are guilty of sin, suffering through affliction is a way of God’s discipline. God does not want us to persist in our sin, but we do. Unless something drastic happens, we will go on our merry way to perdition and ruin. When something drastic does happen (such as a life-threatening accident or illness, or bankruptcy, or the death of a loved one), when we are brought to the depths of pain or helplessness and hopelessness, that is the time we rethink our lives. And when everything seems to be collapsing around us, when we are in despair, when we have nowhere else to turn, we turn to God.

So God afflicts us, as befits the loving Father that He is. “God treats you as sons. For what ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards.” (Heb 12:7b-8).

What then should our proper posture be with regard to such suffering? “Endure your trials as ‘discipline’” (Heb 12:7a). But we should not only endure, we should be grateful for such discipline, because God “does so for our benefit, in order that we may share in his holiness” (Heb 12:10b). If such is the case, then we not only are grateful, but we must rejoice in such affliction. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” (Heb 12:11).

Thus is suffering that reflects God’s discipline redemptive for us.

But how about those who are not great sinners? Why do they suffer?

A second reason has to do with God’s purposes, that is, He desires our holiness. Thus Peter instructs us: “as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy because I am holy.’” (1 Pet 1:15-16). Further, Jesus himself tells us to “be perfect, just as (our) heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48).

Now if we are to attain to the holiness and perfection of the Father,[1] then we need to be purified. As gold is purified through fire, we are purified through the fire of affliction. It is only when we are cut down that we truly learn humility. It is only when we suffer great material loss that we learn true detachment. It is only when we are stripped of power and position that we become true servants.

Affliction is the great fire that burns out the impurities in us. Just as we saw with discipline, God afflicts us with suffering in order that we may reap “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” and that “we may share in his holiness.”

But how about those who are basically good and upright people, like Job? Job was “blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil (Job 1:8). God even boasted about him before the accuser Satan (Job 1:8, 2:3). But God allowed terrible suffering to be inflicted on him, where he lost everything except his wretched life.[2]

Job was not sinful, he did not need to be purified further, he was a person whom we would consider holy, but his affliction was even greater than that of most great sinners! Why? Here we encounter the profound mystery of suffering.

Job could not figure it out. He even went to the point of challenging God! “Let God weigh me in the scales of justice; thus will he know my innocence!” (Job 31:6). But Job was missing the point (as we with our human understanding often do). This is perhaps the reason why God did not answer him directly, why God did not justify why He was allowing him to suffer.

What did God say? God simply pointed to His awesome majesty. In the end, Job surrendered, and he finally “understood.” Job then made his wonderful profession of faith: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6).

What are the lessons of Job’s suffering?

It is that we come to God not on our own terms but His. We do not define holiness but only God does. In our relationship with Him, we do not set our priorities, define our parameters, pride ourselves in our human wisdom; rather we humble ourselves, knowing that compared to Him we are nothing, that even our good deeds are like dirty rags before Him. We do not expect to be blessed because we have done good, as if we have earned it and are being repaid for our acts.

Further, it is that we are called to total surrender to Him and to His will for our lives. Many times we will not understand, many times we may have human cause to complain, many times we may even be tempted to just abandon our Christian lives, but God calls us to endure and persevere, with full hope and trust in Him.

When we become such, then we will be pure instruments in the hands of God, that He can use any which way. Remember that God is about a mighty work in the world today, and He uses human instruments to achieve His divine purposes. How can a holy God do what He wills for the world, given that He has already decided to use human instruments? In this we see God’s desire to purify, to make holy, to have instruments that are totally surrendered to His will. Instruments that have experienced severe suffering are those who are humbled, and such humbling is necessary preparation for glory, without falling into pride.

Thus is suffering such as Job’s redemptive. Suffering that forms God’s holy and “perfect” instruments is indeed redemptive -- for self, for others, for the whole world.

Do we wonder then that this is the way God chose for the redemption of the world, in sending His very own Son Jesus to the cross? Jesus was perfect, but God anyway allowed him to be afflicted terribly. God was showing us the way. The way of redemption is the way of the cross. It is the way of affliction and suffering.

But if we have difficulty appreciating the design of God regarding our salvation through Jesus, how about the design of God in something that the world experiences from day-to-day? I am talking about the mystery of human birth, as we look at how “a woman about to give birth writhes and cries out in her pains” (Is 26:17a). What was her sin?[3] Is she in fact not about to bring life into the world according to God’s design?

Such then is the way of God. Such is the experience of God’s people Israel. “O Lord, oppressed by your punishment, we cried out in anguish under your chastising. As a women about to give birth writhes and cries out in her pains, so were we in your presence, O Lord.” (Is 26:16-17). This was not a cry of despair; rather, it was a cry of hope. It was looking forward to the redemption that suffering would bring.

What then is our proper response to affliction and suffering? In this, we also consider what the wrong responses would be.

It would be wrong to dislike such suffering. If affliction is discipline, if suffering purifies and makes holy, then we must desire it and even rejoice in it. Such is so different from the normal human responses. We avoid pain, we dislike suffering, we pray that we might not be afflicted.[4] In fact, the world has gone further, looking to comfort, convenience, pleasures. Is it any wonder that the world is in such a sorry mess?!

Further, it would be wrong to lose heart when we suffer. It would be easy enough, especially in times of great affliction. Job cursed his day and wished that he had just died at childbirth (Job 3:11). But we must not lose heart because God is just allowing us to undergo a process. We must understand, as we have already seen, that pain is just a necessary element of the process of purification. God is testing our faithfulness. Are we there for Him only because we receive good things? How about when we are afflicted; can we still trust? We must believe that our suffering is redemptive, and simply continue to run the race.

As such, the proper response is to embrace the cross and rejoice in our suffering for the sake of righteousness.

Suffering, just like the God we serve, is a great mystery. This is why we need to know that God is just and righteous. This helps us to accept God for who He is and for whatever He does. We need no longer ask Him to explain or to justify His actions. We simply remain in awe of His omnipotence and great power. He indeed is the Almighty!

Further, seeing His great majesty and our nothingness, tempered by suffering, humbles us. With affliction we are laid low. When we know our rightful place before God, then that is when He lifts us up, and raises us even to the heights.

Still further, we trust that in the end, just like Job, we will be blessed tremendously. Not necessarily in this life, but certainly in the afterlife. This hope enables us to enter into unquestioning acceptance of God as God, which is precisely the right posture of awe. Such trust in God is deepened and strengthened by our suffering.

Elihu had it right when he talked about redemptive suffering and getting to know who God is and how He works. He affirmed that God “saves the unfortunate through their affliction, and instructs them through distress.” (Job 36:15).

In the end, Job was properly instructed by God. In the end, after his terrible suffering, Job was restored by God and blessed twofold. Job now fully appreciated the mystery of redemptive suffering.

* * *

[1] We of course could never be perfectly holy as the Father, for we are not God.
[2] His suffering was such that Job wanted God to take his life.
[3] One might say it is original sin, the sin of Adam and Eve that we inherit. This is what God said to the woman: “I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children.” (Gen 3:16a).
[4] It is of course OK to pray for God’s protection, and even, as in the case of Jesus, that the cup would pass us by. What is not OK is a posture that looks to suffering and pain as undesirable or unhelpful or to be avoided at all costs.


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