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When we encounter suffering we often ask, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” Our sense is that it is unfair for us to have to suffer.
However, when “good” things happen, we seldom ask, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” Perhaps we should. But let’s look at this issue of “fairness” in a little more depth.
Scripture speaks much about God’s grace, the unmerited favor he bestows on us. Would we want to receive only what we deserve and never receive God’s grace, his unmerited favor? Would we want to deny ourselves the “exceeding riches of His [God’s] grace” (Ephesians 2:7) by insisting that we receive only what we deserve? Scripture says,
Would we want to miss the grace of God by insisting on a principle that we receive only what we deserve?
If we received only what we deserved, none of us could be saved! We are saved by grace, by God’s unmerited favor (Ephesians 2:8). Whatever may happen to us in this life is minor compared to the suffering of spending eternity in hell separated from God.
If we complain about suffering here on earth, are we not a little bit in the position of someone who receives an unmerited gift of $1,000 and complains because it is in $20 bills rather than $100 bills? So long as we have the unmerited gift of eternal salvation, should we complain to God because our life on this earth is relatively more or less difficult? This idea of asking God only to let us have what we deserve cuts two ways, and I suggest we should not want to have him establish such a principle.
“God… does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10 NIV). So let us not complain that sometimes we may have to undergo suffering that we think we do not deserve.
People also say, “Why is this happening to me and not to this other person?” Would we want to have God make things “fair” by making the other person suffer as much as we suffer?
Jesus predicted to Peter how Peter would die. When Peter saw John he asked, “Lord, what about him?” And Jesus answered,
It is none of our concern how God treats somebody else. We need to focus on our relationship with him.
Jesus told a parable about workers in a vineyard. Some came to work in the beginning of the day, and agreed to receive one denarius as a wage. Others started work at the third, the sixth, the ninth and the eleventh hour. The owner of the vineyard paid each of them the same wage. Those who had worked the longest complained that this was not fair, and the master (God) replied,
Scripture tells us not to compare ourselves with others (Galatians 6:4). One reason this principle is applicable here is that we cannot know fully what the other person may be going through.
Often others, who seem outwardly to be doing well, may be struggling with difficulties we know nothing of. Or they may have come through periods of severe pain in the past.
How are we to measure pain? How do we compare the pain of arthritis or cancer with the pain of a marriage that is breaking up, or a rebellious child? It is better to stay with Jesus’ “What is that to you?” (John 21:22).
Examples of Dealing
Scripture gives a number of examples of those who dealt with suffering. Above all, there is Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).
Whenever we feel overwhelmed by the pain we have to endure, we can consider the agony that Jesus voluntarily suffered for us. Whenever we complain about what we consider the unfairness of our suffering, we can consider the injustice that Jesus suffered.
There is also Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, unjustly accused by his master’s wife and thrown into jail, and forgotten by those who promised to help him. So far as Scripture records, he never complained. Eventually he became one of the rulers of Egypt and was able to save his family from starvation. He told his brothers,
There is David, who for years was running for his life, just a step away from death. His Psalms are full of words of pain and agony, physical and spiritual. (See, for example, Psalms 6:1-3, 13:1-3, 38:68, 55:4-5, 69:1-3.) Yet David always sensed that God was with him. David said,
One of the noteworthy things about the psalms is that, while they often start in despair, they usually end in affirmation, as David turns his eyes from his own suffering to the greatness of God.
But I want to talk about Paul. When Paul accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, God said, “I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). Paul later said,
And suffer he did. Read this recital and think what each phrase of it must have meant:
Even this list may not be complete, for elsewhere he speaks of fighting wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32), and of encountering such hardships in the province of Asia (part of modern Turkey) that he despaired of his life (2 Corinthians 1:8).
What would five whippings, three beatings with rods, and a stoning do to a man’s back? I expect that Paul was in almost constant pain. This may be why he said, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27 KJV). (The Greek word translated “keep under” can mean to “subdue.”) Yet Paul, writing from a Roman jail, could say,
He could say,
How did Paul achieve this? I think we can see some keys.
I want also to mention one fairly contemporary example, from among a great many. The terrible suffering of the Nazi Holocaust has been hard for many to accept and understand. Yet there are those who overcame it. One such was Corrie ten Boom. During the Nazi occupation of Holland, her family hid a number of Jews in their home and enabled many of them to get out of Holland, knowing the great risks of doing so.
They were betrayed, and imprisoned by the Nazis. Corrie’s father died in prison. Corrie and her sister Betsy were sent to one of the Nazi death camps, Ravensbruck. Betsy died there.
Corrie, by what may have been a clerical error, was released just before she was scheduled to be gassed. She spent the rest of her life ministering to others, telling them of God’s greatness, his love, his tender mercy, his goodness. She was even able to forgive one of the Nazi guards who had mistreated her and her sister, and to bring to Christ the man who had betrayed her family. She lived a life of joy and gave great joy to many.
Despite the terrible things she endured, Corrie was an overcomer. She kept her eyes on the greatness of God, rather than the terrible circumstances in which she had found herself.