On Suffering

Before I came to training, I was reading through Job. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to it, but I just felt one of those undeniable urges to read one of the more obscure Old Testament books of wisdom on suffering. Maybe it doesn’t bode well for my time on the field. If I needed preparation for suffering that early before my deployment, maybe there’s some insurmountable obstacle awaiting me. I don’t know. And, frankly, I’d prefer to worry about it later, when it’s actually here.

It occurred to me in one of my less-self-centered moments to think that maybe my suffering preparation and study was not for me, but for people I’ll work with. That’s probably true, considering they’ll be kids and girls who endure suffering beyond what I could even imagine: slavery, abandonment, physical abuse, abject poverty, and sexual abuse. They, of all people, understand the depths of suffering. They, of all people, wonder why a God who is supposed to love them let these terrible things happen. And they, of all people, deserve an answer from us. But oftentimes, instead of an answer, we come preaching past them, patting their heads, and telling them “go in peace; keep warm and well fed” (James 2:15-17). I am just as guilty as the next person, and do not hear me saying there are none who care for the least of these. Many do, and do it well. But all the same, many of us, myself included, are much more comfortable to look past suffering rather than engage the sufferer and share with them a God who bears their burdens.

As I read Job, I recalled the story and began to empathize with a man who experienced a pain disproportionate to his righteous walk of life. His well-educated friends, who assumed they understood the prestigious theologies and doctrines of their day, sat with him in stunned silence for a while. Perhaps they were stunned that a man so great had incurred the wrath of God. Perhaps they found their theologies inadequate and had to concoct some new answer to this unexpected situation. Perhaps they genuinely grieved with their friend. But when they opened their mouths, everything hit the fan. Your suffering is God’s punishment for wrongdoers, they said. God will hear prayers of repentance, they said. God will listen to the voice of a man humbled in heart and broken in spirit, they said. Repent and your life will be easy. A lot of what they said is actually a truth in itself, just misapplied in Job’s situation. Not everything though. Not everything by a long shot. But they brewed up their solutions and delivered them to a man who would have genuinely preferred for someone to instead scrape the sores on his skin with a broken clay pot.

They paid no heed to the suffering body in front of them and spoke instead to a soul they considered trapped in it. They misapplied theology and doctrines to corroborate their poor understanding of God. Perhaps they meant well. So do we. So did Machiaveli. So did Hitler. So did lots of people. But meaning well isn’t enough.

If our theology prompts us to talk at sufferers instead of getting down in the dirt and scraping their sores for them, it is severely broken.

Job’s friends didn’t comfort their friend. They didn’t tell him of the God who binds up the broken-hearted. They didn’t speak of a God who fills the empty with good things. They didn’t share with Job about a God who makes the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. But we should. We should share with the suffering people around us about just who exactly our God is and what he is capable of. But we can’t stop there. Yes, God filled Job again with blessings. And he taught Job that he delights in righteousness—that he is blessed by it. But he never told Job the reason for his suffering. And yes, God didn’t leave Hannah barren. Elijah saw the Lord bring rain after drought. Paul did arrive in Rome with the message of the gospel. But Moses didn’t get to enter the Promised Land. Abraham was over a hundred years old when he had a son, and he didn’t see the nation that came from his boy. Not a one of David’s sons was the promised messiah, the king of kings. If we teach that God heals, but he instead chooses to delay the keeping of his promise, what then? Have we lied to those we taught about a healer God?

It took me until this week to see the New Testament’s answer to Job’s questions.

A dear friend encouraged me before I left for training with Hebrews 13:5b. I started rooting around and discovered a nugget of truth I had never seen before. I hope you’ve hung on with me this long and can read the punchline. I read through and pondered Hebrews 12:4-17. It’s always been a hard book for me, and I feel like I rarely understand the connections the author makes. But this time I got it. I saw the answer to Job’s question. I saw the answers to my own. And I saw the answers we should offer to those suffering all around us.

The Hebrews author first speaks of all suffering as a punishment, or discipline from God (12:7). This confused me, because Job’s suffering was definitely not punishment. That was the point of the whole book. You take that away and you lose not only Job’s integrity, but the whole reason God invited Satan to test Job. If you call Job’s suffering punishment, his friends were right and you call God’s judgment of Job a mistake. So, naturally, I kept fishing around in the text. I realize that the difficulty hinged on my definition of punishment. See, I thought punishment was intentional infliction of harm by the punisher on the punishee for the purpose of discouraging further instances of the offence. I looked up the Greek word for ‘punish’ there, expecting it to be softer. Nope. The Greek word translated ‘punishes’ in verse 6 means ‘to whip.’ So all of our suffering, we are to consider a whipping from God. That’s what those verses literally mean.

It took me some prayer to realize the meaning isn’t in the literal details. ‘Punish’ and ‘discipline’ are the correct translations. Why? Because when a loving father punishes his son, he gives a gift. He takes a moment of pain, shame, or inconvenience—a moment when the son is visited by the consequences of his actions—and brings about a good thing. He seizes a teaching moment in the midst of suffering so that the son can learn something important. Something redeeming. Something healing and guiding. That definition isn’t one you can learn from a Greek dictionary. It comes from experience, and people, like my dad, who’s always been good at taking any opportunity to teach us about everything from retaining walls to fossils to the circulatory system to God-honoring people skills.

And God’s discipline, at least the kind delivered to righteous sufferers (the believers, the young children, etc.) is all aimed at teaching one thing. Here’s the point—the main idea it took me this long to make. The purpose of Job’s suffering, of our suffering, of the suffering of precious little children and girls enslaved before they’re old enough to get rid of their teddy bears? The purpose of that suffering is to teach us that only God can satisfy. In our pain, we look for a cure. In our emptiness, we look for the one who fills us with good things. C. S. Lewis says, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity). Our ever-hungering desires teach us that something perfect exists to completely satisfy them. No friend, significant other, or spouse can fulfill our needs for unconditional love, companionship, or being valued. No medicine can ever fully heal our bodies, cure our pain, and stop us from slowly dying. No amount of hopping between cultures, reading about them, or drooling over then can satisfy our craving for perfect, multifaceted culture of Heaven. No dream job will ever make us feel completely useful, talented, valued, and capable.

No. Our hunger, desires, grief, and loss point us to the One thing who can satisfy them. We realize our body is broken, and only One can make it whole. We realize that even if our yearnings for people lost to us are satisfied, only One person can satisfy all our needs for relationship. God’s discipline shakes us up, turns our desires on their heads, and makes a difficult situation into a gift of teaching, endurance, and faith. Through our grief we realize that we are offered a gift much greater than that which we lost. Through our suffering we realize that we are offered a satisfaction much better than that which we are deprived of.

Our God offers us a satisfaction of greater magnitude than the loss of our suffering.

I’ve always loved Hebrews 12:12-13: “Therefore strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” But with this new understanding of the previous verses, it has an even richer meaning. It harks back to verses like Isaiah 35:3 and Proverbs 4:26, both of which speak of a healing and redemption much more holistic than physical cure. Verse 13 says to make level paths—to be careful and make sure your way is a righteous one—so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. A man may be lame yet spiritually healed. A man may also be lame and spiritually disabled. But if he follows the straight path with his life, or the narrow way, as Jesus calls it, his lameness does not disable him. In his soul he is healed and whole, and he merely waits for Christ’s return for his body to follow. But a lame man who walks the uneven way, or the wide road leading to destruction, he disables himself. He spends his days in bitterness and when Christ returns, he faces eternal destruction. He will be forever lame. So verses 12 and 13 present two choices in the face of suffering: letting suffering disable us, or letting suffering heal us.

I think it is also our duty to respond correctly to our suffering. Verses 14-17 explain this in-depth. We can either respond to the gift of suffering by looking to the God who satisfies our desires, or we can turn away from him and try to satisfy ourselves in other ways. This is the practical application of the message we must take to the suffering. Our suffering is wasted and useless if we do not let it point us to our Savior. But if we allow God to have his way in his discipline, we choose to cultivate holiness (v. 14a). And if we choose holiness—to be healed and look to the one who satisfies our desires better than any of his creation ever could—God truly does turn our suffering into a gift. It is a gift not only to us, but also to those around us. As believers, our suffering is often incarnational ministry. Jesus sent us out and promised we would suffer just as he had (Jn 20:20-21). That kind of holy suffering, the kind which plays out in the life of someone who chooses to be teachable, glorifies the Lord. It lets others see God in our lives (v.14b).

If we choose to wallow in our suffering, or if we simply do not know who to look to for our needs and fulfillment, we miss God’s grace in suffering, which is a terrible thing. We choose the wrong response, and we do not benefit from the gift God offers us out of our suffering. Not only that, but we become bitter (v. 15). People ask why they suffer and turn on a God whom they see as impassive and uncaring only because, in their suffering, they look for healing and regrowth and redemption in the wrong places. They look to the wrong things, people, and relationships to put them back together again. They feel cheated by God because they do not realize the gift he gives and think that he has taken away only to let them fill the gaping hole with something less than fitting. When instead, if they could only see his grace, he would fill them to overflowing with abundant life. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and define many (v. 15).

The next comment the author of Hebrews makes has always thrown me for a loop. I never had the slightest idea how Esau came into this topic, or how his story even applied. I knew sale of his birthright for a bowl of stew was a great lapse in judgment, but an act of godlessness? That’s a stretch. But when we understand the passage in light of context and in light of the understanding of suffering as God’s discipline, as God’s gift, Esau makes perfect sense. I just told you about the two choices we have in suffering: to become bitter by searching for lesser things to fill us, or to cultivate holyiness by allowing God to use our suffering for his glory and to let others see Him in us. Using Esau’s story here to elaborate on the point is brilliant. You can see the hand of a great storyteller. You see, Esau, too, had those options.

In the small suffering of his hunger, he could choose to change out the gift of his father (his birthright) for some paltry, momentary satisfaction, or he could hold out and accept his father’s gift and receive all that his father intended to give him: land he did not amass, fields he did not plant, blessings he did not deserve; the place of Jacob, the honored son who went on to become the father of the Israelite nation; eternal membership in the kingdom of God’s people. Esau had two options laid before him. He chose in his suffering to take the easier, wider, unlevel road. It led him only to pain, sin, ignominy, and, ultimately, the place of an obscure, hated nation of Edomites. He exchanged his glory for shame (Hos 4:7). He let his suffering rule him and instead chose the route of lesser satisfaction and fulfillment. He became a bitter root that poisoned a whole nation of people. He turned against God because he thought God had disappointed him, rather than looking to his own impatience, self-reliance, and greed as the source of the problem. And his bitterness, as it says in verse 15, grew up as a root to trouble and defile many.

So what do we do with all of this? How should it change how we live, teach, and care? God turns our suffering into discipline. He takes a difficult situation and turns it into a gift by teaching us, and by revealing that only He can perfectly satisfy our longings. We can choose to accept his gift of discipline and thereby cultivate holiness and glorify God to others. Or, we can choose to ignore his discipline and our suffering becomes only a device to grow bitterness in us. Like a root. Picture what roots do to concrete, asphalt, and ancient cities. They slowly crush and destroy, strangling out all life. Who would choose to receive that out of their suffering?

People who know of no other option.

The only answer to “what do we do with this?” is clear. We let our suffering glorify God. And we tenderly approach the other sufferers around us with a better option. God created them to be his sons and daughters, and he calls them to him. It is their birthright—their promised privilege—to become a member of God’s people.             If.             If they only choose to know the One who opens his hand and satisfies the desires of every living thing (Ps. 145:16). It’s a beautiful promise. And it is our blessing and honor, brothers and sisters, to carry it to the suffering around us.