Why we suffer, and what to do about it
II Kings chapter five tells the story of Naaman, the commander of King Aram’s army who had leprosy. Some biblical scholars espouse that if this Syrian warrior did not have leprosy, he would never have turned to God.
This may—or may not—be true. I cannot speak for Naaman. I can, however, speak of him. I believe he experienced what I have experienced firsthand, which is this: God gives countless opportunities to find Him.
Naaman did find God as a result of his suffering. The same can be true for us.
It is challenging to think God intentionally creates hardships and heartbreaks as a means to get us to turn to Him. God does not ban or block our pains because suffering is a consequence for our having freewill (and a result of our freewill is sin in the world). So, here’s a question. While God does not stop our suffering, does God actually or purposely send it?
Let’s look further into scripture for an answer. King Nebuchadnezzar didn’t fear God until God humbled him by making him spend seven years on his hands and knees like an animal (Daniel 4:30-37). Earlier in the Bible, God allowed the earth to flood and plagues crippled Egypt. Knowing God sent Himself to us as His Son, it is difficult to believe a loving God would zap humankind with deep pangs and great pains to get our attention. When something is wrong, we turn to God, but God does not send us harm.
What, then, are we to do with suffering? I invite us to consider that God uses our suffering to help us understand our need for Him? And, speaking of suffering, didn’t God send Himself to die on a cross for our sins?
When we understand that suffering is a consequence of sin, then we understand that suffering is a part of this world. Sometimes we bring suffering onto ourselves by our choices. Sometimes suffering just happens to innocent people as a result of our being in a sinful world.
King David, who, like all of us, was far from perfect, speaks to his wrong choices, his sin. He also shares what he has done in his dark and disparaging places. In so doing, he indirectly coaches us on what we can do when so much seems so wrong in our lives and/or in the lives of those around us. In Psalm 119:71 he writes, “My suffering was good for me; it taught me to pay attention to [God’s] decrees.”
That suffering can be good for us seems impossible to believe. We want to repel suffering as we wonder, “What value or worth can such hurt have?” If as Christians we follow Christ, however, then we, too, share in his suffering (Romans 8:17). Rather than running from pain, or packaging it as something handed to us by a distant god, we can ask what we can learn from it.
God never leaves or forsakes us (Deuteronomy 31:6,8, Joshua 1:9). This means God, who is among us, does know the pain we are experiencing.
Consider this. In our suffering (or in the fact that something is wrong in the world), God may be trying to tell us or show us something we once couldn’t see or understand. God is not the punisher above us; God is the advocate beside us. Just like with Naaman whom I mentioned at the top of this column, God helps us see we are not alone, that we can be more Christlike to others who are suffering, and our own suffering helps us see and respond to others who need what we can offer, and that’s the presence of God in our hearts and in our actions.
On Good Friday, which we commemorate on April 19th this year, Jesus died for us. We can die to ourselves so that His love—and His endless life—can live in us and in those we meet.