Our Suffering is Not Pointless
By Dan Stump
I was given the name Daniel not because of a famous person like Dan Marino, Daniel Boone, or the biblical prophet Daniel. I was named after my uncle, Daniel Milliken. He was the type of man that was easy to like. I cannot even imagine someone not liking Uncle Dan. He was always smiling, having fun, and encouraging others. He battled a neurological disorder for a decade. As his disease worsened it tried to rob him of his joy, but it failed.
How could someone stay positive when their ability to speak was lost? When their body no longer functioned the way it was supposed to? When they were faced with dying so much sooner than the average life expectancy?
I remember my grandpa lamenting the thought of a son dying before his father. He didn’t want that to happen. I know there were many hard moments that Uncle Dan went through, but not because I saw them. I only assume there were because he was human. When he had every reason to be depressed, instead he came around to family functions with a pad to write on so he could interact with others. And he always had that smile on his face.
Uncle Dan was a man of great faith. He trusted God to the end. But some will ask, “How could God do this to him? If God loved Dan as much as Dan loved Him, why would He make him suffer and take his life so early? If I loved Dan, and was in control of this like God supposedly is, I would never let this happen to him!”
These kinds of questions about suffering are as old as humanity, and while there are no perfect answers, the Bible gives us a lot to think about on this topic. In fact, I would argue that the Christian worldview provides the best answers when it comes to suffering. While the answers are not always as neat and tidy as we might prefer, the Bible doesn’t avoid or minimize suffering. And let’s be honest, these hard questions are good to ask. If God is all loving and all powerful, why is there so much evil and suffering?
First, let’s be clear… you will suffer. In Acts 14:22 we are told that the apostle Paul was strengthening disciples and “encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.” The life of the Christian, or any person for that matter, will be marked by suffering. There is no getting around this. Life is hard. Loved ones die. People lose jobs. There is relational strife. We set ourselves up for disappointment when we expect life to be smooth sailing. We should not get surprised that hardship comes our way. Of course life brings many amazing moments also. But seasons of suffering are the standard, not an anomaly.
It’s important to know that the suffering we face isn’t out of God’s control. God allows it, and even ordains it in our lives. Philippians 1:29 tells us that God has granted not only our faith, but also our suffering. Why would he do this? Romans 5:1–5 gives us at least one aspect of the answer:
1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Notice verse three: “We rejoice in our sufferings.” Some of us may have been desensitized to language like this, but ponder it for a moment and you notice how radical and counter-cultural it is. It is not normal to rejoice in our sufferings. But the reason we should is because it produces endurance in us. And what is this endurance? It’s the endurance of our faith. Every trial and hardship presents you with the opportunity either to weaken your faith, or to strengthen it, to trust God less, or to rely on Him more.
When I was in my early thirties, there was a mass discovered in my wife’s neck. I vividly remember being in my classroom during my lunch break, and checking my phone. I had a text from Ang telling me to call her ASAP. She had gone in that day to have this lump checked out. When I called her, she gave me the news that the scan they did showed that the mass was likely cancerous. I sat at my desk, by myself and wept. I did not know what the future held for my wife, myself, or our 2 young sons. By the grace of God, my faith and resolve were strengthened in that moment. I spent the rest of my lunch praying and reading Scripture through tears. We navigated the next few months trusting in God’s sovereign care. The tumor’s placement made for a complicated surgery, but the skillful surgeons successfully removed it. It turned out to be non-malignant, but exceedingly rare. My wife has had to deal with neck pain and nerve damage in the many years since, and will have to for the rest of her life.
Why would we rejoice in this? Because our faith was proved genuine (1Pet 1:6–7). Suffering is when God yanks out the things we are leaning on and calls us to fall on Him. And when we do fall on Him, rather than finding new things to lean on, our faith endures and is fortified, our character grows, and we are filled with hope.
Many people are able to look back at the hard things they have faced in life and see how those things have shaped them. Many are even grateful to have gone through them, knowing how they have matured as a result. Billy Graham once said something that has stuck with me. He said, “Mountaintops are for views and inspiration, but fruit is grown in the valleys.” I love time on the beach in Maui, but I know that God has used hard things in my life to grow who I am as a person much more than a nice vacation. Sufferings are our valleys, and that’s where God does some of his best work.
God doesn’t will our suffering to be vindictive, but because he has a purpose in it. We also need to keep in mind that our suffering is short when viewed in light of eternity. Consider the following passages:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18)
For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Cor 4:17)
In the moment, our suffering can be an incredibly heavy burden to bear. I have no desire to make light of the afflictions that people face. But if we are able to see all of our hardships in comparison to an eternity in glory with the God of the universe, it brings some perspective. Perhaps we would even be able to say with Paul that our suffering is “light” and “momentary.”
I was watching a football game recently where a player suffered a dislocated ankle while being tackled. It was gruesome to see his foot facing the wrong direction, but what was more shocking was seeing him repeatedly bang it against the ground! He understood that the pain he was feeling could only be relieved by getting his ankle popped back in. He was willing to suffer even more short-term pain to relieve pain in the long run. Present suffering would mean less future suffering. For the Christian, present suffering isn’t just compared to less future suffering, but to no future suffering.
Seeing our trials in light of eternity is one of the ways God fulfills His purposes in our trials. This eternal perspective is one of the ways he develops in us a faith that lasts, and how he grows in us a hope for what is to come.
Finally, never forget that the God who ordains your suffering has himself faced the ultimate suffering, and he walks with you through yours. Whenever we doubt God’s love for us because of the suffering we are facing, Jesus is there with his nail-scarred feet, and reaching out his nail-scarred hands to grab hold of you. He was worthy of all praise and worship, but willingly, “for the joy set before him,” (Heb 12:2) endured shame, torture, and death. He did that so that he might reconcile sinners to God. The hope and the future glory I’ve talked about are only for those who turn to Jesus in faith and follow him. To all who will listen, he offers this hope. How can we doubt the love of God when he sent his Son to suffer in our place?
We will suffer. We will weep. But if you are in Christ, you will not weep as those who have no hope. (1 Thess 4:13) We might not be able to understand all of our circumstances, all of the evil out there, all of our hardships, but we entrust ourselves to One who will make all things right in the end. He will enact perfect justice. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. In this life there will be sorrow, but an eternity without sorrow awaits all who follow Jesus. This is why I know I will see my Uncle Dan again, and when I do, I imagine he’ll greet me with that infectious smile on his face.