Why do we suffer?
The Bible doesn’t shy away from discussing suffering and evil.
Here are five types of suffering and evil found in the Bible:
Punishment for sin
In the book of Romans we’re told that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). So when Adam sinned death entered into the world as a punishment. Every human shares this fate. Our only hope is the second Adam through whom the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19).
However, sometimes a society becomes so wicked that some localised judgement is in order. For instance, God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin (Genesis 19). And even in our own individual lives it is possible to suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler (1Peter 4:15).
So we all suffer as result of sin, and sometimes we suffer uniquely because of a particular sin.
Discipline and growth
Nevertheless, punishment is not the only reason that suffering and evil occur in our lives. Sometimes we are disciplined that we might grow and mature. In Proverbs 3:11-12 we’re told that we should not despise the Lord's discipline because the Lord disciplines those whom he loves. Commenting on this passage the Author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us in chapter 12 that:
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Vindication of true faith and commitment
At other times God calls his people to endure evil and to suffer for doing good in order to prove their faith and commitment. During these times it is important to remember that words of the apostle Peter, who said that ‘even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed’ (1Peter 3:14). When suffering we should be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us, yet always with gentleness and respect, so that those who mock us may be put to shame (1Peter 3:15-16).
However, the premier example of suffering to vindicate true faith and commitment is Job. In Job 1:9 Satan questioned Job’s allegiance to God. He asked, ‘does Job fear God for no reason?’ In response, and totally unbeknown to Job, God allowed Satan to test Job. His suffering was immense yet throughout his ordeal he stayed true to God. Even after he had lost all his children he worshipped God and said, ‘Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21).
Nonetheless, Satan was not convinced, and so God allowed Satan to attack his health. But Job held fast to his integrity and refused to turn on God and curse him. At that time he even remarked, ‘shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ (Job 2:10). Moreover, when his friends (who didn’t believe that innocent people could suffer) began to harass him he still maintained his commitment to God. Job is a great reminder to all of us that sometimes people suffer so that the tested genuineness of their faith which is more precious than gold, may be proven and then result in praise, glory and honour to God at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1Peter 1:7).
The truly remarkable aspect of suffering is not that we suffer, because we all deserve to suffer and die for rebelling against God, but that God sent his Son into the world to suffer and die in the place of sinners. In Acts 2 we’re told that God delivered up Jesus according to his definite plan and foreknowledge to be crucified and killed by evil and lawless men. And then in 1Peter we learn that Jesus entrusted himself to him who judges justly and then suffered and died on the cross, in order to reconcile us to God. On the cross Jesus bore our sins in his body, and died, so that by his wounds we might be healed. We all deserve to suffer for our sin. However, Jesus suffered although he had committed no sin. And he suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God (1Peter 3:18). Jesus suffered as a sinner for sinners, though he himself was not a sinner.
Proclamation of the gospel
The last kind of suffering and evil that we will consider is that which the apostles encountered in Acts 5 where they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for Jesus’ name. The apostles were called to preach the gospel and suffer for it. The gospel itself is complete, we’ve already seen that Jesus suffered once for sins, however, there is still something lacking; the gospel needs to be preached.
Paul refers to this kind of suffering in Colossians 1:24. There he says that he rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of the Colossians, and that he is filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Now we’ve just seen that Christ’s sufferings were effective and complete. Jesus offered himself once for all time as a single sacrifice and then sat down having completed his work of salvation. In one sacrifice he perfected for all time those whom God has chosen. However, this wonderful gospel still needs to be preached to the world. And whenever the gospel is preached there will be suffering. And, of course, Paul and the rest of the apostles were willing to suffer for the gospel because they counted it to be of inestimable worth.
When we suffer we almost always ask ‘Why?’ This is a healthy question to ask, and there may well be an answer that we can find. We may need to repent of a particular sin. However, the answer may also be enshrouded in the secret will of God. But wherever the answer lies, we must always remember that we are not alone in our suffering. God has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us, and we can find comfort in the thought that Jesus suffered both with us and for us when he entered our world.