Suffering is a difficult topic but preachers can’t ignore it. For suffering, whether it’s ours or the suffering of the world, very much tests our faith. Many people say, “How can I believe in a God who allows the suffering we see in the world?” Or when we are suffering from some affliction in body, mind and spirit we wonder why God allows it. You might be praying for relief, yet nothing seems to change. It may cause you to question the love and the goodness of God.
I’ve known people who in the midst of difficult personal circumstances have turned away from God instead of turning to him. Now I can understand why it happens, though I think that God may be helping them in ways they don’t even realize. On the other hand, sometimes the greatest sufferers are the people of greatest faith.
But in general, suffering does test and challenge our faith in the living God. Now there are different kinds of suffering. We who are fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have been suffering for 52 years, and it seems like the suffering isn’t going to end anytime soon. And we’ve lost faith in the management to do anything about it. But most suffering is far more serious.
Thankfully, there is one who helps us when our faith is being tested by suffering. Hebrews 2:18 – “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Jesus Christ helps us when our faith is being tested.
Now let me say that suffering is not God’s will. Suffering wasn’t there in beginning. Suffering entered the world at the fall and has continued throughout history. Some suffering can be traced to individual or corporate acts of wrong-doing. We may bring suffering to ourselves and others because of greed or foolishness or wrong human relationships. But suffering can also happen randomly in this jumbled world.
A young Christian woman was driving her car down the highway on a bright summer’s day. She had the stereo turned up and the windows down; it was a great day to be alive. As she rounded a curve, another car came towards her in the wrong lane. She tried to avoid it, but her car spun out of control and hurtled over the bank. She woke up in a hospital, strapped to a bed. The doctor probed her feet and legs and to her horror, she didn’t feel a thing until he got up to her shoulders. She knew she was paralyzed. The nurses flipped her bed over every two hours, to prevent bedsores. First she stared at the ceiling; then she stared at the floor. The doctors said they couldn’t do anything for her. At the age of twenty, she was condemned to a life of immobility and pain. She wondered why this happened to her and why she couldn’t have died out there on the highway that day.
Suffering often comes out of the blue, inexplicably, randomly and not because someone is a worse sinner than others. Ultimately all human suffering comes from the evil one. The evil one rejoices when suffering causes us to turn away from God, lose faith, and even curse God.
The power of evil even got God’s own Son. He was not exempt. He was tested by the evil one in the wilderness. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He was the suffering servant. The creed says, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Was there ever a more cruel and unjust death than the one Jesus endured on the old rugged cross? And it was more than just terrible physical pain he suffered there, but a spiritual burden beyond human comprehension. As he suffered his faith was stretched almost to the breaking point, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Oh yes, if any one knew suffering it was Jesus. But we know that finally his faith held. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” he cried as he gave up the ghost. Then on Easter morning his sinless life, his faith, his suffering and his atoning death were all vindicated by his Father. Jesus Christ is the Risen Saviour, the ever-living Lord, the victor over the power of sin and evil and death. As Hebrews tells us, because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help us when we are tested. How does he help us when our faith is tested by suffering?
First, by suffering with us.
This is one of the deepest meanings of the incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus. God did not stay aloof, far above the human condition. In his flesh and blood Son, God came all the way down into the pit of history and human suffering. And throughout his ministry Jesus entered into the sufferings of people, the lowly, the poor, widows, the deaf and the blind, the paralyzed, lepers, and outcasts. He not only had compassion on them but also acted to relieve their sufferings. And Jesus Christ is the ever–living One, who even now enters into our suffering, sharing it with us. The Lord may leave some suffering with us for now, because suffering can teach us lessons we may not learn otherwise. Hebrews tells us that Jesus himself learned obedience through suffering. And think of Paul who begged Christ three times to take away the painful thorn in his flesh. But the Lord didn’t take it away; instead he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” meaning that Paul could bear the suffering through the Lord’s presence and strength. Paul even came to accept his thorn as a blessing. When and how the Lord takes away suffering is up to him but we can be sure of this. In every place of suffering in this world, and in every personal experience of suffering the living Christ is right here, sharing it with us, and even bringing good even out of tragic situations.
Think of the woman paralyzed in the accident. One day a friend visited her and listened to her cries. “The pain is unbearable, do you know what it is to have such pain and not being able to move to relieve it?” The visitor wisely said, “I don’t know but there is one who does. Jesus himself was paralyzed when they nailed Him to the Cross. The pain was racking His Body, just as does, and He was helpless to relieve it. Believe me, He knows exactly how you feel!” Suddenly, the woman was comforted by knowing that Jesus knew her pain and heard her cry. She knew that he was with her in it. It was the start of her physical and spiritual rehabilitation, to the point where she was able to get around in a wheelchair and to share her Christian faith in books and speeches.
Here’s a story shared by a United Church minister. A freight train, with its headlight burned out went hurtling through the prairie night. Two boys, two girls, high school sweethearts, didn’t see that speeding hulk as they came to that Alberta railroad crossing. Four lives snuffed out in a hideous crash. Can you imagine the shock and grief of the parents as a policeman came to the door that night bringing them the news? Months later the minister sat with Audrey and Nelson at their kitchen table over coffee, talking about Alan and his friends. The minister remembered Audrey speaking of those first dreadful days and nights, “It was as though someone was standing right beside me, so real was the presence of Christ.”
There are no easy answers to the problem of suffering. But when our faith is tested by suffering we are helped by knowing that Christ suffers with us.
Here’s a second way Christ helps us. He opens our eyes to see suffering as an opportunity.
The clearest sign that suffering is not God’s will is that Jesus acted throughout his life, and even as he died on the cross, to overcome suffering. The Bible tells us that Jesus went about doing good. One time his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned – this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus didn’t philosophize or speculate about suffering. Instead, he considered the man’s blindness as an opportunity. He took action to open the blind man’s eyes.
We can spend much time speaking about suffering and its causes, but we might be better off using that time doing something about it. As Jesus did, we can see suffering as an opportunity for compassionate service. So we comfort those who are hurting, visit the lonely, share bread with the hungry, and offer the bread of life to those whose souls are empty. Right now God is doing something about the suffering of the world and he is doing it through us, who are compassionate followers of the compassionate Lord. To a large degree we, the church, are the hands of Christ in the world today, empowered by him to do good and to relieve suffering as he did. We are blessed to be a blessing, and that’s why our own congregation runs a food pantry and supports various Christian outreach ministries.
Recently I read the history of Toronto’s Scott Mission and their amazing work over decades in meeting peoples’ physical and spiritual needs. At one point the book mentions Gordon Sinclair, who you might remember as a feisty Toronto broadcaster from decades ago. Sinclair claimed he lost all faith in God because of the suffering of the world, and especially because of the suffering he saw on a trip to India. Sinclair became quite wealthy over the years and was proud of that. That’s Ok. But I wonder if he ever saw himself as being blessed in order to be a blessing to those who suffer? If he had, he may not have been quite so convinced in his atheism.
And certainly, God may use our own personal suffering and weakness as the means whereby we can comfort and strengthen others. It has been well said, “Only those who are wounded can truly heal.” It was true for Jesus and it’s true for us. “By his stripes we are healed.”
Jesus opens our eyes to see suffering not as an intellectual problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to serve and to share.
Here’s the third way Jesus helps us when our faith is tested by suffering. Jesus lifts our eyes to see beyond this world.
Yes, I’m speaking of God’s coming Kingdom. I’m speaking of the new heaven and new earth God is creating, where God will wipe every tear from our eyes, death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. We catch a glimpse of that coming time in Revelation and in Jesus’ whole life and ministry, and especially in his resurrection victory.
I am not ashamed to speak of heaven. Jesus wasn’t. He said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms…” For if this world is all there is, then we could only despair. If it’s all up to us to fix things, we would have no real hope. Oh, we can and do make a difference. But only God can finally fix all that is broken in this world and in our lives. And he will when Christ comes again.
A while ago a woman was speaking to me about her father who died at age 90. The last couple of years before his death had been difficult. She said, with her voice breaking, “I just don’t know why he had to suffer so much.” And God gave me words to say. I quoted Paul’s words from Romans 8, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The sufferings of this world are real, but they are relatively brief compared to the coming glory. She said she felt much comforted by that promise.
“Because Christ himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Yes, Christ does help us when our faith is being tested by suffering. Christ is our helper in this world and forevermore. And one day we will meet him in glory.