Suffering: Why?

By Richard Abanes

No one enjoys suffering. But it is a fact of life. And no amount of denial, excuses, spiritual fantasies, or Bible twisting is going to eradicate the sad truth that everyone will suffer at some point in their life—and some people will suffer not only more often than others, but also more intensely than others. Ultimately, of course, we will all suffer death, which is an unavoidable consequence of simply being human.

This is why Christianity, contrary to some assertions we hear these days, does not teach that it is possible to “end” suffering. Such an idea is nowhere to be found in Christ’s sermons, or anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the very opposite is taught in scripture—i.e., followers of Jesus will experience all kinds of suffering for myriad reasons. History has repeatedly born out the accuracy of this teaching with frightening clarity.

Christian suffering began almost immediately after Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 1:10–12). But believers in Christ recalled two very crucial statements that their Lord had previously made. First, he had given them a warning, coupled with a word of encouragement: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Second, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promised: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

The Christian’s hope, in other words, is not to escape suffering, but to endure it with the strength, guidance, and comfort of God that is made available to us through the Holy Spirit, who is variously called the Counselor, Helper, or Comforter (John 14:16).The answer for Christians who live in a world rife with suffering is to look to, and lean on, God, “who comforts the downcast” (2 Cor. 7:6). It is through God’s comfort that Paul, who suffered unceasingly, was able to remain at peace. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” he revealed. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11–13). Paul endured many difficult trials, yet he rejoiced:

I have worked much harder [than the false teachers], been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (2 Cor. 11:23–27).

Was Paul happy about such experiences? Hardly. Did he enjoy the pain of it all? Certainly not. But he did find peace and contentment, going so far as to say he found “delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties,” concluding that he was at his strongest when he was feeling his weakest (2 Cor. 12:10). How was that possible? Because it is through weakness of body, mind, and spirit that the power of God works most effectively in, with, and through Christians (2 Cor. 13:3–4).

When it comes to suffering, Christianity does not offer an escape route from it but rather a pathway through it—with God as the source of all that is necessary to bear the anguish of whatever comes. Some people are eventually delivered from their suffering (see Job 42:10–16). On other occasions, however, the suffering lasts for extended periods of time, even to the point of death (Heb. 11:35–39). But regardless of the outcome, what Christians cling to is the promise of an ultimate deliverance from suffering that will last for eternity. Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Peter also pointed to our heavenly hope: “Though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).