Suffering will come to us all eventually. Some of us have to wait longer than others before we face really hard life altering painful situations. For some of us what is happening right now in the Coronavirus world-wide crisis is the hardest thing we have ever had to face. Perhaps you are not able to work. Maybe you are experiencing financial difficulties. Maybe a loved one is really sick or has died and you are grieving. But perhaps for you so far this is just an opportunity to stay home and watch Netflix (other streaming platforms are also available). The older we get the more likely we are to face trials and difficulties. Ultimately none of us escape. Tim Keller puts it this way:
“No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.” (Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering)
Suffering is a reason many reject God. In your pain God can feel a thousand miles away. “Why me?” is the cry when perhaps the real question should be “Why not me?” or “Why have I had it so good until now?” or “Why have others got it so much worse?” Nonetheless, significant suffering poses a genuine challenge to our faith and we ask
“How can a God of love allow such suffering to exist?”
Suffering is also a season in which many find God. In your pain God desires to draw near to you. His presence can be a real comfort. Perhaps you feel that you don’t deserve to come to God now when you ignored him for years. He is eagerly looking for you like the father of the prodigal son and will come running towards you. Even when he feels distant from you, if you take steps back to him, it may take time and the journey may be hard but he is calling you “Come home to me”. He understands your pain. He truly is the God of compassion.
“Troubled times awaken [people] out of their haunted sleep of spiritual self-sufficiency into a serious search for the divine . . . It is an exaggeration to say that no one finds God unless suffering comes into their lives—but it is not a big one.” (Tim Keller)
Suffering shows us be are weaker than we thought. It shows “not only that we are not in control of our lives but that we never were” (Tim Keller). Sometimes only a time of real hardship and pain teaches us that God is God and we are not. We cannot trust in ourselves for rescue when we are overwhelmed. We cannot heal sickness. We cannot raise the dead. We cannot solve every problem. But God can.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” (C.S. Lewis)
“You don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” (Tim Keller)
Suffering is not always a detour on life’s great journey. God is not the direct author of suffering and pain and takes no pleasure in it. In fact Jesus weeps with us in our pain. And yet in the greatest mystery of the universe again and again God turns trials around to accomplish good things for us, for our good.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, ESV)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2-4, ESV)
“God brings fullness of joy not just despite but through suffering . . . Things put into the furnace properly can be shaped, refined, purified, and even beautified. This is a remarkable view of suffering, that if faced and endured with faith, it can in the end only make us better, stronger, and more filled with greatness and joy. Suffering, then, actually can use evil against itself. It can thwart the destructive purposes of evil and bring light and life out of darkness and death . . . Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us because God himself walks with us in the fire. But how do we actually walk with God in such times? How do we orient ourselves toward him so that suffering changes us for the better rather than for the worse?” (Tim Keller)
None of this gives any easy answers to us when we are facing difficulties that seem overwhelming. And these truths are not meant to diminish the pain you are facing. But I offer them as five things to think about at this time. There is much to be inspired by in the Scriptures during hard times, and I leave you with one such passage that echoes some of the things we have been saying today:
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior . . .
4 Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you . . .
5 Fear not, for I am with you . . .
11 I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior . . .
18 “Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
19 Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert . . .
25 “I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
These five truths about suffering were inspired by my reading of Tim Keller’s book “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” and all quotes labelled “Tim Keller” come from there. I have also written about other lessons I have learnt from this very helpful book here: