If God loves us, why do we suffer? Christian or not, it's a question that comes up repeatedly during times of grief and tragedy. In times of distress, we want to know that our suffering matters to God and that He cares about our pain.
"Sometimes a fresh word may, in fact, be a very old one," write Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes in When God Weeps—Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty.
Pastor Tim Hager, an associate minister in the Washington D.C. area, asserts that we suffer because we live in a fallen world.
"When sin entered the world, death entered," he says. "Chronic pain, illness, and disease are a form of death."
Despite this harsh reality, Richard C. Leonard, a minister with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, urges the chronically ill to take their questions to God rather than allow them to become a wedge in their relationship with Him.
"Follow the example of the Psalmists," he says, "who sometimes cry out to God as though taking Him to task for their problems, but who persist in their conversation with Him; eventually [they received] an answer, reinforcing His faithfulness to His servants."
Suffering, in many ways, remains a mystery, one that we will never fully understand this side of eternity. We can, however, glean these truths from God's Word:
Suffering produces intimacy with God (Job 42:5).
Job, who endured unspeakable suffering, said, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you."
Intimacy with God is often borne in the furnace of affliction.
"There's an opening of the soul that happens during times of stress or duress," says Dr. Hager. "During times of suffering, we experience God at a deep, profound level."
Suffering equips us to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Suffering gives us compassion for others who are hurting, enabling us to minister more effectively.
"Sufferers want to be ministered to by people who have suffered," writes Stephen F. Saint in his essay, "Sovereignty, Suffering, and the Work of Missions."
Those who have suffered make the most effective comforters.
Suffering refines us.
We can read in Isaiah 48:10 that "…I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction."
The meaning of this verse makes it clear that pain and suffering have a way of bringing our strengths and weaknesses to the surface. When the dross floats to the surface, God skims it off; he purifies and refines us to be the radiant bride of Christ.
Suffering produces growth and maturity (James 1:2-4).
If we turn toward God in our pain, He can use our suffering to mature our faith. We see this biblical truth illustrated through the persecuted church. After hearing their testimonies, few would deny that suffering produces beauty and maturity of spirit.
Suffering conforms us into God's image (Romans 8:28-29).
We may be tempted to read these verses to say that God will bring good out of everything. While He can and does redeem pain in our lives, these verses speak of being conformed to God's image through our suffering.
"If we are willing to sit still and let God work, we will find ourselves being transformed into the image of Jesus," says Pastor Paul Daniel Jackson, a pastor at a church in Tucson.
And Jackson speaks from experience.
His wife, Jodee, suffered with breast cancer before passing away in 2002.
"Though this horrendous experience, God did incredible things. Her mother accepted Jesus Christ as Savior…God also changed those who cared for her. Our lives were enriched by suffering [Emphasis mine]."
Simply put, when we seek God through His Word and prayer, we find Jesus. Remember, Jesus understands our pain because he, too, suffered.
We read the words of Psalm 22:1: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?"
Did God abandon His Son in His hour of need? We find the answer three days later—God raised Him from the dead! Because of this promise, we have hope for our future.
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).