The Bible warns us that “evil” days will come (Ecclesiastes 12:1; Matthew 6:34; Ephesians 5:16). Job observed, “Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1; cf. Psalm 73:14, 21). At times, there will be events, situations, diagnoses, tragedies, and conditions in our lives that will not make sense. The Psalmist wondered aloud, “Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).
There are mysteries in the New Testament that are not explained:
- James, the brother of John was martyred for Christ, but on the same occasion, Peter was delivered from prison and spared from the same ruler (Acts 12:1ff). Why? Surely the Jerusalem Christians puzzled over this matter.
- Four companions in the gospel—Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke—arrived in the city of Philippi to do mission work. Two of them—Paul and Silas—are whipped and thrown into prison. The other two were untouched. Why?
- Epaphroditus, Paul’s helper in Rome, became desperately ill but recovered (Philippians 2:25-27). Paul, however, was afflicted with a grievous “thorn in the flesh” that was chronic (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Why?
At such times, our faith will be tested. And, in such storms, there are foundation stones that cannot be moved.
We can trust God in the dark.
Corrie Ten Boom, a popular author and Holocaust survivor, wrote, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.” So it is in life. We can trust God farther than we can “see.” Solomon wrote, “Trust in the LORD with all thineheart and lean not unto thine own understanding; in all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will make thy paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
When we hurt, we really have only two choices:
- We can hurt with God
- We can hurt without Him
We need God more in suffering than ever before. Losing faith will not remove our pain. It rather adds a second problem, and of the two, Jackson notes, “infidelity is of far greater consequence.” Job trusted in spite of unheard of suffering. When all of his children died, his possessions were lost, and his means of livelihood removed, he said simply, “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). When he soon also lost his health and suffered months of agony, he remained unfazed: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15).
Wayne Jackson advised that a period of suffering is a time to “immerse ourselves in the evidences that builds faith in the integrity of the Word of God” (Psalm 19; Romans 10:17). It is absolutely paramount that we establish confidence in the testimony of the Scriptures. Unless we are convinced that the Bible is true, and we can trust its message, there is nowhere to go for any meaningful resolution; we will fall into the devil’s trap of doubt.
Faith must be tested to be genuine.
Do you remember those public service announcements than began, “This is a test”? When going through trials, we can say to ourselves, “This is a test.” Times of crisis prove our friendship with God and declare the authenticity of our faith. Do we love God because He provides gifts? Do we love those gifts more than we love the Giver? This was the accusation Satan made against Job (Job 1:8-12; cf. 1 Peter 1:6-9). All the things we cling to in this world will eventually disappear. The One who gives them is all that will ultimately remain.
Simple answers sometimes are enough.
R. C. Sproul offers an interesting insight in his book, Not a Chance. He notes that when a child asks a complicated question, or one that he is not yet ready to understand, a parent’s simple reply is, “Because.” “Because” implies that there is an answer but does not give all of it. As God’s children, sometimes it must suffice to accept “because” when we ask “why?” In Job’s trial, as well as in ours, part of the test is not knowing the reason for the suffering. Jesus neither gave long explanations of evil nor ignored it (Luke 4:18-19).
Vance Havner remarked, “God marks across some of our days, “Will explain later.’” He continued, “One day of green pastures and still waters is followed by dark valleys and miry swamps, and a thousand ‘whys’ lie unanswered, tabled for future reference.” Warren Wiersbe wrote, “God’s people live by promises, not be explanations.” What promises do we have when life does not make sense?
We have the assurance of God’s presence.While God never promised life would be problem-free, He did promise to be with His people (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5; Psalm 46:5-7). God was with David in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). He was with the three Hebrew men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) and with Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6).God sent an angel to the garden to strengthen Jesus (Luke 22:43). God is not a disinterested spectator in our lives. He is neither distant nor disengaged. He does care (1 Peter 5:7). Even when we are afraid, through faith we can sing, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine, safe and secure from all alarms.”
We have the assurance of God’s peace (John 14:27; 16:33; 20:19-21; Ephesians 2:12-14; 1 Peter 5:14).
We have the assurance of God’s providence (Romans 8:28). Rather than asking “Where is God?” or “Why me?” let us ask, “What can I learn from this?” and “Who can I help because of this?” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). College classes are not easy, but they prepare us to be of service after graduation. Life’s problems are not easy, but they qualify us to serve in ways we never could otherwise.
Jesus understands and is touched with the feelings of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 Peter 5:7).
Jesus understands because He chose to get involved in humanity’s pains. He came to make our lives better (John 1:14).
Someone wrote, God Leads a Pretty Sheltered Life. It goes:
Billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Some of the groups near the front talked heatedly—not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
“How can God judge us?” one asked.
“What does He know about suffering?” snapped one woman. She jerked back a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror, beatings, torture, and death!”
In another group, a black man lowered his collar, “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched for no crime but being black! My people have been wrenched from loved ones, have suffocated in slave ships, and have been worked like animals till death gave release.”
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He permitted in His world. How lucky God was to live in Heaven where there was no weeping, no fear, no hunger, no hatred!
Indeed, what did God know about what man had been forced to endure in this world? “After all, God leads a pretty sheltered life.”
So each group sent out a spokesperson, chosen because he or she had suffered the most. There was a Jew, a black man, an untouchable from India, an illegitimate, a radiation casualty from the Hiroshima bombing, a prisoner from a Siberian gulag, and many others.
What did God know about what man had been forced to endure in this world? After all, God leads a pretty sheltered life.
In the center of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was simple: Before God would be qualified to be their judge He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man. But because He was God, they set certain safeguards to be sure He could not use His divine powers to help Himself:
Let Him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of His birth be doubted, so that none would know who His Father was. Let Him champion a cause so just but so radical that it would bring down upon Him hate and condemnation and cause the leaders of every major religion to seek to eliminate Him. Let Him try to describe what no man has ever seen, felt, tasted, heard, or smelled. Let Him try to communicate God to men. Let Him be betrayed by one of His dearest friends. Let Him be indicted on false charges, tried before a prejudiced jury, and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let Him see what it is like to be terribly alone and completely abandoned by every living thing. Let Him be tortured, and let Him die the most humiliating death, with common criminals.
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the great throngs of people assembled before God’s throne.
But when the last had finished, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew . . . God had already experienced it all. (Author unknown)
Christ was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). He experienced many of mankind’s common sufferings while on His visit to our planet.
- He wept (John 11:35).
- He was weary (John 4:6).
- He was hungry and thirsty (Luke 4:2; John 19:28).
- He was poor (2 Corinthians 8:9).
- He became homeless (Matthew 8:20).
- His friend Lazarus died (John 11:14).
- He had family issues (John 7:5).
- His closest friends betrayed and forsook Him in His hour of greatest need (Matthew 26:25; Mark 14:50).
- He was misunderstood (Mark 9:32; John 8:27).
- He was hounded, badgered, and watched (Matthew 27:36; Mark 3:2; Luke 6:7; 14:1; 20:20).
- He was despised and rejected (Isaiah 53:3; Matthew 26:67; 27:39-44, 63).
- He was arrested and spent time in jail (John 18:12-14).
- He was lied about and wrongfully condemned (Matthew 26:60; Luke 23:13-24)
- He was physically assaulted (Matthew 26:67; John 19:3)
- He died (Hebrews 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:10).
Peter once wondered, “Master, carest thou not?” (Mark 4:38). Many have wondered that in their hour of trial.
In Philadelphia, Frank E. Graeff preached around the turn of the previous century (1900). The Graeffs had a beautiful daughter. The custom at the time was for girls to wear floor-length layered lace dresses. Homes were heated with fireplaces or wood-burning stoves. One day she got too close to the fireplace, and her long skirt caught on fire. They frantically tried to put it out, but the fire consumed her so rapidly, nothing could be done. She burned to death.
Her father was so overcome with grief that he began to question if Jesus really cared. One night he wrote,
Does Jesus care, when I’ve said goodbye
To the dearest on earth to me?
And my sad heart aches till it nearly breaks-
Is it aught to Him? Does He see?’
Graeff related that he could almost hear the Lord answer:
Oh, Yes, He cares! I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary;
I know my Saviour cares.
Things become clearer with time. In 1911 W. B. Stevens wrote a hymn that has survived a century because its message resonates with so many people:
Farther along we’ll know all about it
Farther along we’ll understand why
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine
We’ll understand it, all by and by.
Paul noted that at times “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but things often become clearer later. Helen Keller said, “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.” The Spirit urges us to look “unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1–2).
Military strategists, firefighters, and football coaches have learned the value of an aerial view. From ground level it can be difficult to decide where to place troops, cut fire lanes, or which play has been called by the opposing team. But from a helicopter or press box, one can quickly get the lay of the land and make more sense of what action is required. What was a mystery close-up makes sense from above.
So it is with suffering. It is not possible for us to get an “aerial view” of our lives, but if we patiently wait for some time to pass, we may be able to look back on that time with a better perspective. In the moment—at ground level—it can be hard to gain an overall perspective. We cannot see the forest for the trees, the puzzle for the pieces.
God lives outside of a time continuum, so He sees the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10; Acts 15:18). We, however, live in sequence. As Albert Einstein observed, the “reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” Like driving an automobile on a dark night, we can only see events as they happen. Since the duration of our life on earth is short at most (James 4:14), we must be patient and trust that God’s hand will soon guide us to a good end.
Even Stephen Hawking said, “The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.” If a thoroughly secular card-carrying evolutionist can see that there is order in the world, surely believers can trust that God has a plan.
Jesus explained, “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19). A part of patience is the ability to wait for more information without throwing away all we hold valuable. During the Great Depression a good man lost his job, exhausted his savings, and had to forfeit his home. His grief became nearly unbearable with the sudden death of his wife. The only thing he had left was his faith, and it was weakening. One day as he looked for work, he stopped to watch men doing stonework on a church building. One was skillfully chiseling a triangular piece of rock. Not seeing a spot for it, he asked, “Where are you going to put that?”
The man pointed toward the top of the building and said. “See that little opening up there near the spire? That’s where it goes. I’m shaping it down here so it will fit up there.” Tears filled the good man’s eyes as he walked away. “Shaping it down here so it will fit up there” was what God was doing for him.
If you take the pieces of a large ship and drop them in the ocean one by one, most of them will sink, but put them together and they will float. Pieces of life—youth, old age, death, loss of a job, a bad medical report—might cause our faith to sink, but put them together and God can make them “float.” Paul wrote, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Prayer works, so we must not lose faith in it when it doesn’t. God hears our prayers (John 15:7; cf. James 5:16–18; 1 Peter 3:12; 1 John 5:14), but this does not mean that we always get an immediate resolution to our problems.
All of us have at times felt what Lincoln felt when he confessed, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” The songwriter felt: “I must tell Jesus all of my trials; I cannot bear these burdens alone.”
But what if prayer seems to make no difference? Popular author Nicholas Sparks said, “I don’t pray because it doesn’t work. Prayer doesn’t fix anything. Bad things happen anyway.” The psalmist knew what this was like. He wrote “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent” (Psalm 22:1–2). Jesus depended upon prayer in the midst of His agonies, and He quoted this text, but God choose not to let the cup pass from Him (cf. Luke 22:44).
Part of the solution to this riddle lies in John’s teaching: “This is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 John 5:14). We only want— and God will only do—what is “according to his will.” We may ask for something that is not in our long term best interest or the best interest of His kingdom or other members of it. We might pray that a dating relationship will turn into a marriage, but not know that if we marry that person we will eventually forsake God. We may ask for a job interview to result in a high-paying job in another city, not knowing that it would not be good for our children to grow up in that city. What faithful Christian would ever die if we could keep praying to be healthy and to live?
God does sometimes intervene providentially (behind the scenes, through means) in answer to prayer, but when He chooses not to, we must not lose faith in Him or the power of prayer. God answers prayer with “Yes,” or “No,” or “Wait.”
Tolstoy tells the story of a man who was being chased by a pack of fierce wolves. He ran and ran, but they kept coming closer. He finally chanced upon an old abandoned well. He grabbed hold of a small tree growing out of the inside wall of the well. He lowered himself down the well until he was beyond the reach of the wolves.
He thought he was safe. Suddenly he looked down at the bottom of the well. There, just waiting for him, was a fire-breathing dragon. Then to his horror he noticed two large rats gnawing on the trunk of the small tree on to which we was holding.
There he dangled. Wolves above him, the dragon below him, and rats gnawing away at his only hope.
As he looked around, he noticed some drops of golden honey on the leaves of the little tree. He leaned over and began to lick the honey.
What is the moral of the story? We have no guarantee against problems, pain, and death. Even so, that doesn’t mean life has to be bitter. Surrounded by life’s problems, we can look for the honey.
Compared to eternity, any suffering here is but a drop in the ocean. But even a drop of bad-tasting medicine can be hard to swallow. What should we focus on in times of consternation?
Don’t pay the tuition and fail to get the diploma.
A woman who had endured much suffering once asked a preacher, “When am I going to get out of these troubles?”
He wisely responded, “You should ask, ‘What am I going to get out of these troubles?’”
There is value in adversity.
Suffering may draw us closer to God.
The psalmist said, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learnthy statutes” (Psalm 119:71). James wrote, “Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (James 5:10–11).
Malcolm Muggeridge was once invited to speak in London. Local atheists showed up to interrupt the proceedings. After the service, Muggeridge answered questions. The last one came from a boy in a wheelchair, who spoke with great difficulty. As the boy struggled to get the words out, Muggeridge said, “Take your time. I want to hear what you have to say, and I’ll not leave till I hear it.”
Finally the boy blurted, “You say there is a God who loves us.”
Muggeridge nodded. The boy said with a grunt and a gasp, “Then . . . why . . . me?” The room was suddenly silent as everyone waited to see how Muggeridge would answer. Finally the preacher stooped down and looked tenderly into the boy’s face. “If you were fit,” he asked, “would you have come to hear me tonight?”
The boy shook his head. Muggeridge was silent for a long moment and then said, “God asked something even harder of Jesus Christ. He died for you. Maybe this was His way of making sure you’d hear of His love and come to put your faith in Him.”
“Could be,” the boy replied. “Could be.”
Suffering develops character.
Bruce Lee said, “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” Paul wrote, “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;and patience, experience; and experience, hope” (Romans 5:3–4). James said, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience” (James 1:2–3). Our infirmities can help keep us humble (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
There is an old story about a teacup that could speak. The teacup said,
I have not always been a teacup. There was a time when I was nothing but red clay. My master took me, rolled me, and patted me.
I yelled, “Leave me alone!” But he only smiled and said, “Not yet.” Then he put me in the oven, and it was terribly hot. I thought he would burn me to a crisp. I yelled and screamed. He only said, “Not yet.”
Finally, the door opened and I began to cool. Then suddenly he painted me all over, and the fumes were horrible. I cried, “Stop it!” He nodded and said, “Not yet.” He put me back in the oven and it was twice as hot. Then at the last minute, just when I knew I would never make it, he opened the door and placed me on a shelf.
An hour later he handed me a mirror. I looked and saw that I was really beautiful. As I gazed at my beauty the master said, “I know it hurt to be rolled, and I know it hurt to be spun around. I know it hurt to be in the oven, and I know it hurt to be painted. But now you are a finished product. You are what I had in mind when I first began to mold you.”
Suffering qualifies us to comfort others who suffer (2 Corinthians 1:3–6).
Robert Ozment’s But God Can tells of a woman who was in the midst of dealing with a terrible tragedy. In bitter desperation, she said, “I wish I’d never been made.” A discerning friend said, “My dear, you are not fully made yet. You are only being made, and this is the Maker’s process.”
Someone asked a small boy who had just come from Sunday school, “Son, can you tell me who made you?” Digging a toe in the ground and squinting an eye, he courteously replied, “To tell the truth, mister, I ain’t done yet.”