It’s a question that is often asked: why does God allow suffering? It’s a loaded question, to be sure. It’s a question that appeals to a one’s personal plight in calling into question the goodness of God. In other words what does our suffering say about God?
At the heart of the assumption is that if God is good, we would not suffer. But we do well to turn that question around. What if, in a fallen world, we didn’t suffer? What might that say about us?
In II Corinthians 4:8-5:21, Paul seems to embrace an attitude about suffering that is contrary to most assumptions. He not only doesn’t scorn it, but he embraces it. And he does so for at least three reasons.
First, God uses suffering to refine us. “For we are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifest in our mortal flesh” (4:11). Paul writes about being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down (4:8-9); we might say, none of which he deserved. But Paul saw how God used this suffering to help him more fully live the life of Christ.
We can embrace the same work of affliction in our faith. This truth is echoed throughout the New Testament. In Romans 5:3-5 Paul says we are even to “exult in our tribulations.” Why? Because of what they produce in our faith. “Knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.”
James says it this way, “Consider it all joy my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 2:2-4).
Second, suffering reminds us this world is not our home. “For we know that if our earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven” (5:1-2).
Suffering serves to remind us that we are not long for this world, we don’t belong here. And lest we would grow comfortable in this world, God allows us to suffer affliction to remind us we belong to another kingdom (5:6-9). One that is ruled by a different Lord (5:10) and governed by different values (5:17). We are not home yet, but with each day we draw that much closer.
Third, in our suffering we experience identification with Christ, who suffered to identify Himself with us. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (5:21).
Our suffering wasn’t just something God observed from a distance. But He personally entered into it in order to redeem us from sin’s curse. I Peter 2:22-24 says that Jesus suffered many things, even bearing our sin, so that He could give us new life.
And this new life we have in Christ is so different from this world’s order, things just don’t work so well for us here anymore. We look different. We think different. We talk different. And the sorrows of this life only serve to remind that us a great redemption yet awaits. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory…” (Philippians 2:20-21)
Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant that my suffering would enable me to see you more clearly and open my heart to your gracious work.