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There are no easy answers, no formulas. Everyone has to work it out for themselves. Dealing with suffering can be extremely difficult, but with God’s help, it is possible.
We need to be wary of the pat answers that are sometimes given. They usually do not work. Job’s “comforters” gave him pat answers, and God said of them, “You have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:8).
One pat answer is that suffering is always the result of sin, so the way to deal with it is to discover and get rid of the sin. It is well to examine ourselves and see if there is sin that needs to be dealt with. But suffering is not always caused by sin.
Jesus was sinless; yet he suffered terribly. Paul suffered much. Can we say that this was because of sin he had not dealt with?
Christians have been persecuted and martyred from the First Century until today. Would anyone suggest that this is because of sin?
Another pat answer is that, if our prayer to be relieved of suffering is not answered, it must be because of lack of faith. We do need to pray, believing (James 1:6). There have been times in my present illness when I realized that I lacked faith, and was able to do something about it. But lack of faith is not the only reason why men endure suffering.
The prophets who suffered in terrible ways were commended for their faith (Hebrews 11:32-40). When God refused to heal Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” he said nothing about a lack of faith. Rather, he said,
God did not answer Jesus’ prayer that he not have to endure the Crucifixion (Matthew 26:36-42). Would anyone suggest that it was because of a lack of faith?
Let me suggest a few Scriptural principles that may be helpful.
Have the Right Attitude
Underlying everything else is the attitude with which we deal with pain, suffering and difficulties when they come, as they will to most of us. I can identify three general kinds of attitudes.
First, when suffering, difficulties, or hardships come, we say, “Why me?” We dwell on the seeming injustice and unfairness of it. This easily leads to self-pity, to feeling sorry for ourselves, which is one of the devil’s most effective schemes for making a Christian ineffective. From there it can go on to blaming God for allowing the suffering, and to anger and bitterness at God. Ultimately, this can in some cases lead to a total turning away from God, a total rejection of God.
This approach can be very damaging, very destructive. It does nothing to relieve the suffering or make it easier to bear.
Many of us go through the early stages of this approach for a while when suffering or difficulties come. But if we stay there, and do not move on, the result can be very destructive to us.
Second, we can decide to take a constructive attitude. We can say, “God, this suffering, this difficulty, is here. I don’t like it but I need to accept it. What are you trying to teach me by it? How can I use it to grow? How can I bring good out of it?”
With this approach, we can turn the suffering, the difficulty, to our good. We can use it to increase in maturity and strength. We get our mind off our suffering and onto God and what he is doing in our lives. If we can see some good purpose in the suffering, it becomes easier to handle.
There is a third approach which builds on the second and is even better. Paul asked that he might “know Him [Jesus] and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).
What does this mean? I am not sure. I am not there and have not experienced what Paul is talking about. But I suggest that Paul is saying that, when suffering comes, we can see it as a means of drawing closer to Jesus.
As we suffer, we can begin to understand better what Jesus voluntarily suffered for us, and appreciate more fully what he did for us. As we are unjustly treated, we can begin to understand more fully the rejection, injustice and false accusations that Jesus continually suffered. We can become more like Jesus, which is the goal of our transformation.
A related concept is found in 2 Corinthians 1:4-5, where Paul says that God “comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.”
Those who have lost a spouse can understand what others are going through who have lost a spouse; they can speak to them in a way that others cannot. Those who have been physically or sexually abused can understand what others are going through who have suffered abuse. Those who have endured physical pain can understand what others are going through who have to deal with physical pain. And so on.
Our own suffering enables us to minister more effectively to others who are suffering. Thus our suffering helps to bring us together more closely as the body of Christ and it helps us “…encourage one another and build each other up…” (1 Thessalonians 5:11 NIV).
Once we have taken care of our attitude, there are some other specific things we can do.
Pain and hardship occur. They are part of this world. No one is immune or exempt from them. There is no guarantee that they will not occur. When they come in our life, we need to be able to accept them. As Peter wrote,
This is not easy, but it is essential.
Scripture tells us to go further, and to consider it pure joy when trials come. I confess that I am not yet at this point! But if we can see pain and suffering as experiences from which we can learn and grow, then perhaps we can begin to see them as things that God is using for our good, and be able to rejoice in them.
Decide to Overcome
Scripture says that, in God’s power, we can be overcomers. We need to come to a decision to believe those Scriptures. We need to make a conscious decision that, with God’s help, we can and will overcome the pain and suffering. We need to decide that we will not allow it to undermine our faith in God, our joy, our peace, or our ability to function.
Do What You Can
Paul wrote, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the evil day comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13 NIV). He was talking about facing the devil, but I think the principle applies to every kind of adversity. God wants us to do everything we can.
In the case of pain and suffering, this means to get all the help you can. Medical science knows quite a lot about pain management. What they have to offer does not always work, does not always work fully, and sometimes has side effects we prefer to avoid, but we might as well use it when we can.
Having a prayer partner, or a close friend in whom you can confide, can be very helpful. Prayer is always helpful. So is reading, studying, and reflecting on Scripture.
My point is, avail yourself of anything that will be genuinely helpful in relieving your pain. There is no virtue in unnecessary suffering.
There are, however, some techniques of pain relief that Christians should avoid. Two examples are hypnosis (which involves allowing someone else to manipulate your mind while you are not aware of what he is doing) and New Age forms of meditation (which originate in pagan religions). Anything that derives from, or involves, a pagan religion should be avoided by Christians. There is little sense in relieving physical pain at the cost of spiritual harm to yourself!
One of the things we can always do, and one of the first things we should do, is to pray.
Prayer brings us in touch with the almighty power of God. God does not always take us out of difficult circumstances. But he is with us in them. He is “a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
Prayer also takes our mind off of our circumstances and puts it on God.
Focus on God and Not
Paul, who went through a remarkable amount of suffering, wrote that in all circumstances we should give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Our thanks do not depend on the circumstances. Our thanks depend on who God is, on the salvation he has so freely given us, and on the relationship we have with him. As Paul wrote,
To Paul, five whippings, three beatings with rods, stoning, and many other hardships were a “light affliction,” which was just for a moment! This seems amazing. But when we compare all that Paul suffered during some 60 years on earth to the joy of spending eternity in heaven with God, it becomes quite minor.
Because our thanksgiving does not depend on the circumstances, we are not at the mercy of the circumstances. I think this is what Paul was talking about when he said that he had learned how to be content in every situation (Philippians 4:12). You don’t look at the situation—you look at God. It is by this, also, that we can achieve “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
Our faith and hope also need to rise above our circumstances. Abraham “in hope believed” (Romans 4:18). All the circumstances gave Abraham reason to believe that he and Sarah could not have a child. But against that expectation based on the circumstances, Abraham set his hope, his confident expectation, based on God’s promise to him. He went past all the natural circumstances to believe God’s promise.
Whatever the circumstances, we need to believe that God is bigger than the circumstances, he will enable us to bear them, and he will bring us through them. Whatever the circumstances, we need to believe that God will strengthen us with all power according to his glorious might, so that we may have great endurance and patience (Colossians 1:11).
In painful situations, many have found that it helps to focus on God. Jesus endured the Cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He looked at God’s power and his promise rather than looking at his own physical agony.
Stephen, while being stoned, had a vision of heaven with Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). After Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and put in stocks in the inner prison, they prayed and sang hymns to God, and God moved mightily (Acts 16:25).
The Christian martyrs in the Roman arena sang hymns as they faced the wild beasts who were about to eat them. Since then, many other martyrs have faced their martyrdom with praise to God.
Let God Bring Good
There is a further reason to focus on God rather than the circumstances. God works for good in all things, even in the most unlikely situations (Romans 8:28). Use praise, prayer, Scripture reading, reflecting on Scripture—whatever works for you—to draw closer to God and see things more from his perspective. Turn your situation over to him in prayer. Ask him to deal with you and to show you anything he wants to show you about it.
Be honest with God. He can handle anger, frustration, and even discouragement and despair. Job complained and got angry at God. And God spoke to him at length, revealed himself to him, and said that Job had “spoken of Me what is right” (Job 42:8).
David often complained and poured out his heart to God. And God called him “a man after my heart.” God does not mind hearing the distress and even anger of one who is genuinely seeking after him.
Remain Faithful to God
Job asked the question that many of us ask when suffering comes. He said,
Do we love God for what he gives us, or for who he is? Can we love him and serve him even in suffering? Even if he seems to have deserted us? Even if he seems not to answer our prayers?
In his great end-time prophecy, Jesus told the disciples that they would be persecuted and put to death. He said that many people would turn away from the faith, and the love of many would grow cold. (See Matthew 24:3-14.) Jesus ended by saying,
In each of the letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation, there is a promise of blessings to the one who overcomes. God has promised that we can be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4)
God has made it possible to overcome pain and suffering, no matter how severe and prolonged.
May God bless us all as we seek to live according to His Word!