John 14:20, John 16:33 and Romans 8:28
No matter where or when I teach, I am almost always asked this one question: “Why does a good God allow suffering?” It has no easy answer; and before I say anything on the matter, I want you to know that I am not speaking to you from an abstract point of view, but rather as one who has suffered in various ways myself.
I grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family in Africa. I was abused at the age of nine but kept that secret to myself for over 30 years because of the terrible shame I felt. My husband and I met and married; and after accepting Christ as our Savior together as newlyweds, we tried to start a family. We struggled with infertility for 9 years before that dream became a reality, but I was very ill throughout my first pregnancy and our son was born prematurely. Although I was told not to have more children, we miraculously had a daughter the very next year. We moved several times within Africa before finally coming to America – leaving most of what we’d worked so hard for behind in order to start again in a land I’d never seen before.
Over the years I have been critically ill twice, only to be saved from almost certain death. I have lost a job that I loved, survived my own battle with cancer, and, in the past few years, nursed my husband through his own illness, only to lose him to cancer just days after our 35th wedding anniversary. So as I answer this question, please understand that I’m not coming to you from some sort of theoretical point of view. It is deeply personal to me and I hope that what I have learned can in some way help you with this question too.
I think many followers of Christ wonder if we shouldn’t actually get a pass or be spared when it comes to suffering. After all, as God’s children, shouldn’t we be protected from bad things? But that’s not really what the Bible teaches. Jesus Himself lived a life filled with suffering; and He told us in John 14:20 that ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If Christ suffered, we can expect to as well.
However, as Christ-followers, we do have something that sets our suffering apart: we have peace in Him. His exact words in John 16:33 were: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Trouble will find us all, but in Christ, we have hope and assurance because He has won the victory. He takes all of our circumstances and weaves them into something meaningful and purposeful.
Romans 8:28 puts it this way: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Now does that mean all things are good? No, not at all! But, all together God will use them for His glory and our ultimate benefit.
Let me try to clarify that. Once, when I was a teenager, I was rushing out of the house and didn’t have time to make coffee. I knew I had to have some caffeine, and so I very foolishly swallowed a spoonful of dry coffee grounds instead. It was so awful I’ve never attempted anything like that again! But I did learn a valuable lesson: it’s the mix of things that matter, not just the one. One single element, taken by itself, can be truly dreadful! But put in its proper context, mixed with the proper accompaniments, it can be really good. And so it is with our trials. Taken singly, they can seem horrible. But in God’s loving and purposeful hands, they all work together for good.
Suffering is truly something that unites us – it is common to mankind – and though its causes may be different, God can use it for our good. If we let Him, He can use even the thing He hates most – sin and the suffering it brings - to accomplish something that He loves in the end – our salvation! We will look at that next time.
May God bless you!