Special thanks and credit to my friend and mentor, Paul, for the insights on Job, the umbrella, and Isaiah 30. If trouble were raindrops, we'd live in a stormy world. Flick the channel to the news station and it doesn’t take but a minute to see that the world is steeped in suffering. Of course, you don’t need a newspaper or a television to convince you – simply living your life out will suffice.
All this begs the question: if God is good, why does suffering exist? There is a plethora of material on this subject, with varying levels of eloquence and insight. Though different stances exist, I identify well with C.S. Lewis:
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can't. If a thing is free to be good it's also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” (C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity)
So then, God does not cause evil – but He does permit it from morally culpable beings.
Second question: why does suffering occur to me?
Is it a direct consequence of something I’ve done wrong?
Well, maybe. If I rob a convenience store at gunpoint and now I’m serving a sentence in jail, the correlation is self-evident. However, this is not always the case. Take the book of Job:
"Then the Lord asked Satan, 'Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.'
Satan replied to the Lord, 'Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property…But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!'
'All right, you may test him,' the Lord said to Satan." (Job 1:8-12 NLT)
Two key things here. One, God is actually the force holding back Satan’s attacks – an umbrella against the rain drops of evil, if you will. Two, even though Job is “blameless”, God removes the protection anyway – and Satan unleashes a plethora of torment and suffering.
It is true that sometimes we step out from under the umbrella and bring rain upon ourselves (i.e. rob the convenience store). It is the proliferation of wickedness and the rebellious rejection of God that prompts His allowance for Assyria (followed by Babylon), to exact punishment on the wayward Israelites and bring them into exile in the Old Testament (although he did send prophet after prophet to warn them).
Other times, though, we seem to do nothing wrong, yet God collapses the umbrella and we find ourselves drenched. As it says:
“For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” (Matthew 5:45 NLT)
I’d like to share my understanding of three ways that God moves amidst suffering, hopefully providing a level of encouragement along the way, and perhaps whetting your appetite in prayerfully pursuing further understanding.
1. Teaching Opportunities
"Though the Lord gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, he will still be with you to teach you. You will see your teacher with your own eyes. Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say. “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left. Then you will destroy all your silver idols and your precious gold images. You will throw them out like filthy rags, saying to them, “Good riddance!” Then the Lord will bless you with rain at planting time. There will be wonderful harvests and plenty of pastureland for your livestock." (Isaiah 30:20-23 NLT)
As I mentioned earlier, the Israelites brought about suffering upon themselves in this case with their idolatrous wandering away from God. Nevertheless, we see a good example here of God using the “adversity of food” and the “drink of suffering” to expose their idols for what they truly were – fake substitutes for a loving relationship with the one true God. When we elevate things of the world (money, fame, success, etc) above God in our lives, they become idols. We may not even be aware of it until it all comes crashing down. I have had an idol or two smashed in my life in such a manner.
Job was taught a lesson himself – one that brought down barriers towards having a greater understanding and a more intimate relationship with God. John Piper describes it this way:
“I picture Job as a beaker of water. Job had been so worked upon by the grace of God that his life was pure. You could see right through the water. People looked at him and they saw a pure man. But there was a sediment of self-reliance and pride at the bottom. It wasn't huge and it wasn't damning, but it was there.
When God shook Job, the sediment colored the water, and you find Job saying some terrible things about God in this book. God knew that it was there, and he knew that in shaking this godly, blameless man there would arise some imperfection into his life, and that it would need to be purged. So the last thing [he says], therefore, [is] ‘I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’”
2. Kingdom Advancement
"And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them." (Romans 8:28 NLT)
In the second chapter of the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples at Pentecost, empowering them to miraculously speak the gospel to “devout men, from every nation under heaven” in many different languages. Out of this, the Church is birthed. Newly converted Christians decide to stay in Jerusalem, their numbers increasing every day. The growth seems like a great, wonderful thing…until the stoning of Stephen – of which, Paul is at the forefront.
“Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 8:1 NLT)
It’s easy to miss at first glance, but as an outcome of the persecution, there are now multi-national gospel speaking believers scattered in all different directions. It’s absolutely amazing how God used Paul to spread the gospel – both as an enemy before his conversion, and then as an advocate afterwards. God continues to work amongst persecution today.
On January 23, 1999, Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, were burnt to death by a gang of Hindu fundamentalists while sleeping in his station wagon outside a small village in Odisha, India, where he had been working among lepers and the poor. In response to the murderous tragedy, Graham’s wife Gladys stated in her affidavit, “It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband Graham and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed."
Her shocking reaction, broadcasted to the nation, combined with her relentless resolve to stay in India and continue to work amongst leprosy patients until 2004, led to countless responses to the gospel. For her impact, Gladys was awarded the fourth highest civilian honor in India – the Padma Shree – in addition to the Mother Teresa Memorial International Award for Social Justice.
There is simply no limit to the redeeming nature of God in creating beauty from ashes. Joseph understood this when he declared to the brothers that had sold him into slavery:
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” Genesis 50:20
3. Strengthening Souls
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:2-4 NLT)
The concept is intuitive. We liberally apply clichés like “no pain, no gain” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – usually when pumping iron at the gym. However, trusting that our faith will somehow emerge stronger in the wake of tragedy is far more difficult – possibly impossible – without the supernatural strength of God to walk us through it.
There is another caveat to this, however. That is, our walking through suffering strengths the faith of others.
I’m currently watching a friend walk through a terminal cancer diagnosis with a level of grace and steadfast faith that drops my jaw to the floor. Wow, I think. If God can walk him through that, how much more can I rely on Him to help me through my petty “struggles”? I could not be more grateful for the encouragement that his walking testimony emanates.
I do not believe that God delights in suffering, nor do I hold Him accountable for its existence. Neither can I say, however, that like the apostle Paul, I have “learned in whatever state I am, to be content” I get angry, I get frustrated, I get upset at God for hands that I am dealt. I am a work in progress, riding the rollercoaster of life, with my hopes set upon a future of perfection. In fact, I think I wrote this post as a reminder for myself more than for anyone else that may be reading it. Nevertheless, I hope you are encouraged that no matter what you may be going through, God is working – even if we don’t see it this side of heaven.
- Nicolas C. Day
 Acts 2:6
 Philippians 4:11
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.