A Theology of Suffering

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Romans 5:3-4)

Why, God? Why do you allow such suffering? Why did Emmy get leukemia? Why did my aunt drink and drug herself to death? Why do hot tears of pain run down our faces? God, I watch the news every once in a while and this world is just so broken. So many of us are hurting, Lord. I know you know this, Lord. But why do we have to suffer?

We want a reason for every suffering, because suffering feels wrong. It hurts and the pain feels unfair. We want to know why.

Suffering is indifferent, it seems. We suffer not according to a formula or an obvious cause-and-effect equation. We are blindsided by it. Suffering does not choose based upon social standing, race, or faith. Like Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, suffering simply runs through victims. This randomness makes suffering harder because we don’t see it coming.

I think we’ve got suffering all wrong. I think many of us in the family of Christ have ignored the Word on the subject. The Bible is full of suffering, of plagues and judgment and persecution. God is not silent about suffering. When Christians are shocked by suffering it means their theology of suffering is weak. Walk with me, friend. Let’s reorient ourselves and reset our mindset on suffering. I want to point out three things to triangulate our thinking:

  • Suffering is not random. When Jesus endured the cross, it was not the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was ordained, foreknown. Jesus suffered on the cross in a specific way and if anyone else had suffered the way he did, it would not have had the same power. Similarly, you and I suffer with specificity. God does not hand out suffering like scorpion sandwiches to his hungry children, but there is no doubt our sovereign God allows each of us to go through hard times. He knows the number of hairs on our heads (literally), so he surely knows when our parents will die or when our friend will betray us or whatever other ills will befall us. He knows. You are not hurting for no reason.
  • Suffering has purpose. Ah, the good news. God uses suffering as a paintbrush. Suffering is not random and it is not for nothing. When we suffer, we see life in HD. Our priorities become clear and what truly matters is laid bare. Try to talk stock market fluctuations with the father of a sick child. He’ll look past you and barely hear your nonsense because he knows what matters: his daughter and her life and joy and making the best use of our time. Suffering clarifies, intensifies, refines, and tests. It makes strong bonds at broken parts. Paul explains the following equation:

Suffering > endurance > character > hope

Thus, ultimately, suffering produces hope. Wait, what? We are used to suffering bringing hopelessness, right? This is why we must reframe our thinking on the subject. Suffering brings hope.

  • Suffering brings us home. In the end, suffering brings us home. Not only does suffering ultimately bring us home to God in death, our suffering brings us home to God in life. We cling to him when we have nothing else. And this is a beautiful thing. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve gone through hard times God is so tender with me. The prayers of loved ones are like a symphony. Sunrises are personally commissioned and explode with orange and red and pink and a soft breeze. Scripture deposits into the marrow of my bones. During peachy times, I don’t see as clearly. God brings us home to him when we suffer.

Jesus suffered so that our suffering would not only matter, but that it would bring us home to him. His suffering paved a way for us to come with clean hands and a ticket to the throne. So when we hurt, we can limp to the feet of Jesus and let our tears run freely because we know that joy will come in the morning.

Suffer well, my friend. You are headed home.