The Theology of Suffering

Suffering is a part of this life. It is not easy. It is not fun, but it is a normal experience. The wicked suffer. The righteous suffer. The young suffer and the old suffer. Suffering is hard to understand in light of a good and gracious God. In fact, it can be an incredible challenge to our faith. More than one person’s walk away from God was predicated on suffering.

              Let’s be real here. No one fully understands why God will allow one thing and not another. Why does a baby have cancer and Hitler have the ability to take his own life?  Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? These are age old questions. I think much of this comes down to the Church’s lack of theology on suffering.

              Some close friends of mine commented on this very fact after I preached a sermon on lament. By the way, God dedicated an entire book to suffering-check out Lamentations. They have walked through a season of suffering. While we find great solace in the Psalms, my favorite are the Psalms of Ascent (120- 134). We also find hope in the words of Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25-27). As wonderful as this is, and we are certainly thankful for the Word of God, how great would it be if His Church had a deep theology of suffering.

              I believe this is an unintended consequence of the prosperity gospel. I do not like that term as there is only one Gospel. You get where I am going. Many famous preachers solely preach on the topic of blessing and victory. While, I certainly believe God blesses me and gives me victory, I also understand that God in His infinite wisdom allows suffering. In my own life, I have grown to trust God much more in seasons of suffering than I have in seasons of victory. Don’t get me wrong, I do not enjoy pain, but God shows Himself faithful. My heart cries, “All my life you have been faithful. All my life you have been so, so good. With every breath that I am able, I will sing of the goodness of God.” (Goodness of God – Bethel Music)

              The Psalms are full of the theology of suffering. Job lived this theology. Jesus said, “if they hate Me they will hate you” (John 15:18). I wonder if our faith is strong enough to allow for a theology of suffering. I will be the first to admit other denominations or faith traditions seem to have this down more than we Sprit-filled believers. I think of the Anglican Way. I have so much respect for their traditions.

              The bottom line is this; we the Church have not taught enough on the theology of suffering if any believer loses their faith in light of suffering. Jesus suffered and brought about our victory. Often, we also suffer and we see our victory come. I think of Isaiah, my favorite Prophet, as he writes in chapter 53 concerning Christ, the suffering servant:

53 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?

2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. KJV

              Now one might say, this is all well and good, but why does God allow us to suffer? That is the age old question. One which I believe I can bring at least a little understanding to. I will do so by bullet points to help you if you are taking notes…not that I am trying to add more suffering to your life.

  1. We do not understand God’s purposes. We are only consumed with the “now”.
  2. Satan has a level of dominion of this world. Thank God, we have authority through Christ.
  3. Sin entered the world and death by sin (Rom 5:12). As such, suffering also entered the world.
  4. Suffering requires us to be FULLY dependent on God.
  5. We are reminded of our own frailty and God’s ultimate victory.

In each of these, we see that God is sovereign. I cannot understand what He is doing. My mind is too weak. Plus, I can barely see what I am doing in an hour much less what God is doing twenty years from now.  Let me put this another way. Often the suffering we walk through today is God’s gracious provision for the future. We do not see all, know all, or perceive all but God does.

You will walk through seasons of suffering. That does not deny that you are blessed and victorious through Christ Jesus. It simply means you live in a fallen world and are in infinite need of Christ. I encourage my fellow pastors, teach a theology of suffering. The next time you walk through a season of suffering, live in the Psalms.

“I will lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Psalm 121:1-2 NIV A Psalm of Ascent

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