Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable and the pinnacle is reached through treading the path of sacrifice, struggle and even intense suffering not only due to physical efforts but also of isolation in waging a solitary battle. The darkness is that can be felt, terrible and has to be borne in loneliness where words become meaningless since what is heard and perceived by others is different from what is felt and intended to be conveyed. The famous philosopher Rumi declared “The wound is the place where the Light enters you”. Only faith and the felt presence of God helps in such loneliness and Apostle Paul could thus exclaim “For me to live is Christ; and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
What is suffering? – Suffering is to be subjected to something unpleasant or evil and allow or tolerate someone to do something bad. It is thus a voluntary decision to suffer an evil being inflicted on us and apparently it is within the power of the sufferer to put an end to his suffering. Greek word ‘pathema’ has been translated as suffering in the Scripture and translated to mean hardship, pain, to be so emotionally overcome by the problem to feel defenseless and crushed or overwhelmed. Suffering is, firstly, external to the body and affects the surroundings adversely like a calamity, misfortune, affliction or an evil influence. On the other hand internal suffering is more personal and intense and could be a separation from someone, passion, sickness – both physical and of the heart. In either case it is the fear of impending suffering that is more painful than the actual pain of the event. Suffering has another aspect of the lack of or improper support of others during our periods of agony. Job had suffered intense trauma of not only losing his children, property and health while being unable to find any logic or reasons for his trials but also the loneliness of being accused by his very friends. It is such isolation that is more painful than the actual pain that one is undergoing and who has not been affected by intended sympathetic words causing grievous hurt with long lasting wounds.
Reasons for suffering – There are multifarious reasons for suffering by individuals while some can be controlled and others must be accepted and tolerated.
- Curse on nature – The disobedience of Adam and Eve brought a curse on them and the serpent but also on the earth and with it on nature itself. “Cursed is the ground for your sake….. it will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Genesis 3:17-18) and anything that does not give peace and pleasure on the earth is the harvest of ‘thorns and thistles’. Apostle Paul further clarifies this “Creation was subjected to futility not willingly……. The creation itself will also be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:20-22).
- Suffering due to sin – Sin opens the door for Satan to exercise control and cause sufferings. Sin of Eve brought on her the pains of child birth and toil for the man to earn his livelihood. Repentance and confession of sins releases us from this curse and the sacrificial death of Lord Jesus blesses us with forgiveness of confessed sins.
- Collective sufferings of people – When sin surpasses all limits of tolerance, God’s judgement is passed on the people as a group and all suffer as a result. The warning to Ninveh through Jonah, to repent, saved them from destruction while fire was rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah. In like manner the prevalent sinful nature of humanity forced God to destroy everything through the flood and only eight persons of Noah’s household were saved.
- Intergenerational curses – God has repeatedly declared “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26) and He has warned humanity about refraining from sinful living. God loves His creation “Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). We as believers are forgiven our confessed sins but one will have to suffer the consequences of sinful living in the form of poverty, heavy debts and disease due to sinful living.
- Individual sufferings – Psalm 1:1-4 defines a righteous person and blessings coming his way and the wretched life of a sinner. Our suffering may not be because of our sins only but may be due to “our testimony, godly living and resultant envy of the wicked and for standing for truth and Word of God” (2 Timothy 2:8-9).
- Trial for perfection – God created everything perfect and complete in every way but sin caused imperfection to come in. The way to perfection for man is through three stages – prayer, meditation on Word of God to learn to live righteously and thirdly trials and temptations. Book of Job is a great example of testing of faith of an individual. It is however, also clear that God does not tempt a person through evil or disease, these are caused by Satan but “God turns everything to the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28).
- Satan and demonic forces – Satan has been defeated by Lord Jesus and all powers that he had over us due to our sins have been cancelled but he is still active till the second coming of our Lord. He is moving like a roaring lion – to scare and cause fear and submission but when we resist him in the name of our Savior, he and his evil forces flee from us (1 Peter 5:8-9). Whoever succumbs to the evil forces is overpowered and led into sinful lives and suffering.
- Chastising and correction – Jonah was directed by God to go to Ninveh but he boarded a ship to go in the opposite direction. This resulted in his being thrown into the sea but God still intervened for him and he was inside a large fish for three days. God answered his prayer from inside the fish and he was finally brought to the place where he was directed to go initially. God allows our being placed in difficult situations to bring us on to the correct path.
- To prevent future sufferings of others – Joseph was sold as a slave by his own brothers and eventually he became the most important person after Pharaoh himself. His correct interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream saved innumerable lives during the seven years of famine in the land. Joseph rightly told his brothers later “you sold me here but God did send me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).
- To reveal God to others – Sufferings are allowed by God in the life of some persons to help them love Him more and also to reveal the love of God to others. The Apostle suffered all along their lives as believers and except John all were subjected to brutal death. Saul was chosen by Lord Jesus while on his way to Damascus with the express purpose “to bear My name before Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
- To test one’s faith – God told Satan about Job “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). To prove this Job had to undergo tremendous suffering for a while and this tested his faith under extreme situations in his life.
What about sufferings for our crimes? – The book of Leviticus expressly lays down a code of conduct for man for righteous living, punishment for some unpardonable crimes and the remedial measures through offering of sacrifices. Lord Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross takes away our sins but not the consequences of sins or crimes committed by us. Infidelity may cause pregnancy and disease and the act may be forgiven on repentance but the consequence will have to be endured by the individuals involved. ‘Murder, theft, evildoing, meddling in other people’s affairs’ are some such crimes that deserve punishment (1 Peter 4:15). A similar list of crimes was revealed to Apostle John during his visit to heavens from Patmos Island which includes “cowards, unbelievers, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and liars” (Revelation 21:8). Neither are sufferings from such crimes a trial for perfection nor forgivable without due repentance and change of heart.
Sufferings due to righteousness, like Job’s, “reviling and slander for our witness of the Gospel (Matthew 5:10-11); rejection by men, scourging, false accusations, hatred by the world and our relatives, martyrdom (Matthew 10:14-28)”, lead to perfection and closeness to God. Likewise Satanic attacks to topple us from our faith (Ephesians 4:27); temptations and trials (Luke 8:13) and being subjected to shame for Lord Jesus’ name, imprisonments, tribulations, stoning, beatings, misunderstandings, reproaches, trials and evil reports (Acts 5:41) also test our faith.
How to escape from sufferings? – It is important to understand that life has peaks and valleys and nothing is permanent in this defiled nature except the love of God for us, His children. The trick is not to panic especially when everyone looks to have turned away from us and we feel totally isolated. First and foremost is to remain steadfast in faith knowing that what we are undergoing has been experienced in the past by innumerable other believers. God’s love will prevail and He “has called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little while, perfect, establish, strengthen and settle you” (1 Peter 5:9-10). The important points that Apostle Pater made in this are – sufferings are for a short period, others have successfully endured and overcome such situations, we are called to God’s eternal glory and sufferings will lead to other three blessings of getting strengthened, getting established in faith and in our lives and perfection through these fiery trials before we are finally settled. God will step in at the right time to intervene and provide relief.
Secondly, we must search our hearts through prayers and help of the Holy Spirit to identify our shortcomings and with God’s help overcome them. Repentance for our wrongs must lead to a change of heart anfd attitude. Thirdly, pray earnestly for God’s intervention and grace to overcome the situation. Apostle Paul did continue to pray three times to overcome the perpetual ‘thorn in the flesh’ from Satan (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Fourthly, Apostle Paul adopted the best tactic to defeat his enemies, ignore them and rather press on towards the goal. He could rejoice after scourging and in shackles to start singing praises of God at midnight to get immediate Divine intervention through an earthquake and shaming of those who had inflicted the wounds. And the jailer and his family was able to be saved in the process (Acts 16:23-39). Fifthly, persevere in faith despite all opposition and God will rescue us from our sufferings. We learn to avoid strife and every encounter brings us closer to God (2 Timothy 2:23). When surrounded all around by hostile evil forces, it is important to remember God’s reaching out to us under such circumstances in the past and be assured that He is faithful and will come forward at the right time (2 Timothy 4:17-18). God’s promise to never leave us nor forsake us is definite and His indwelling Holy Spirit promises to give us the right words to speak and power to bear and become victorious. Eighthly, all believers are there to help each other in times of trial and we can call upon their help in times of need. “The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise him up” (James 4:14-15). Finally it is always necessary to remember that the Savior is seated on His throne at the right hand of God in power and authority and He is interceding for us always and every time. He has brought us into the Holiest presence of God to become victorious not losers.
How to rejoice in sufferings? – Assurance of God’s presence with us and His love are the two basic elements of faith for His love is revealed in the coming and sufferings of His Son. We need to remember that there are four blessings in sufferings – perfection, establishment in faith, spiritual growth and strength and settlement in faith which provides a good foundation for our lives (1 Peter 5:10). Further sufferings help us to persevere which leads to building up of character and finally to hope. In hope there never is disappointment (Romans 5:3-5). It is this hope that could make Apostle Paul exclaim “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Lord Jesus came down from heaven so that we could go in, He gave up His glory to clothe us with it and accepted to be bound and nailed to the cross to set us free. He was abandoned by God to be alone in His sufferings so that we are never alone and get utterly lost and be destroyed by sin. Christ’s sufferings point us to eternal glory and our sufferings in Him are to turn us from waste into glorious and valuable diamonds revealing His work in us.
Sufferings are for a little while and then eternal peace and rejoicing in His Divine presence!!