Why Do We Suffer?
“If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it.”
“God never gives us more than we can handle.”
Many of us have probably said something along these lines to a friend who is struggling. Our intentions were good. But it’s likely that the person on the receiving end didn’t walk away feeling comfort from the exchange.
Not only can these types of platitudes communicate a lack of sympathy, the message they convey is misleading. The second example above is a common misquoting of Scripture, and Christians sometimes directly quote Scripture to make similar points.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a familiar and well-loved verse: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” This beautiful and comforting portion of God’s Word speaks to God’s love, wisdom, and the eternal joy in heaven that awaits all believers. But it can be tempting to take its message and communicate something different: “God will give me everything I desire in this world.” Or: “God will work every earthly circumstance out in a way that’s pleasing to me.”
While Jesus walked this earth, he shared a very different message. He told his followers that they would be hated and persecuted (John 15:18) and that they would need to “take up their cross” of suffering as they followed him (Matthew 16:24). God inspired Peter to write that believers should “not be surprised” at their suffering, “as though something strange were happening” (1 Peter 4:12). Trials, tests, and tears are an inevitable part of the Christian life.
Why do we suffer? Why does God allow such suffering? In the book of Job, God answers the suffering man’s cries not with answers, but with reminders of his power and love. We can’t fully comprehend God’s ways. However, he does provide some small glimpses into how he loves us in the midst of our struggles.
Our earthly sorrows point us to God. It’s all too easy to become focused on worldly goals and rewards. Our Lord gives us plentiful blessings here, but doesn’t want us to forget him or our eternal home. In becoming obsessed with the temporal, we risk forgetting about the far richer, sweeter joy that is ours in Christ. Consider this quote from St. Augustine: “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.”
It is in suffering that the believer can often feel the loving tap on the shoulder from the Father, reminding us to focus on the unseen and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18). Earthly difficulties often show us our lack of power and control. This can be terrifying or disheartening, until we are prompted to look to God’s unlimited power and strength. When we are weak, then he is strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
God also uses hardships to develop the faith and virtues of the Christian (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4). St. Paul, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. are all examples of imperfect Christians who became witnesses to others through their qualities, refined by suffering. Our loving Shepherd draws us nearer to him through suffering as well (Psalm 34:15). The comfort given to us by our heavenly Father is far greater and more complete than that provided by the most tender earthly parent.
Another powerful way God works through our suffering is in the witness we can provide. The believer who remains kind, trusting, and hopeful while experiencing despair is a light to the unbelieving world, demonstrating power and comfort that can only come from Christ. The greatest witness I’ve seen in the last year is from a dear friend who has experienced great loss. Her joy and faith in the midst of sadness have been used by God to encourage and inspire many others. This friend has been clear that she maintains this attitude so that people will look at her situation and not see her, but the strength provided by her Savior.
This may seem a strange topic for a counseling blog—isn’t the point of counseling to help people decrease their suffering? Is this goal in conflict with God’s reminder that all Christians will suffer, and that he will provide blessings through the suffering? If we refer again to God’s Word, we find that this is not the case: “Praise be to the God…of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
The Holy Spirit urges believers to reach out to others with the comfort we have received from God. Doing so is a major goal of Christian counseling, and of Christian relationships in general. Additionally, helping people alleviate their distress due to depression, anxiety, or relational issues can leave them better able to serve God and witness to others.
However, our primary goal isn’t to remove all pain for ourselves and others and create a type of heaven here. The goal is to lovingly—through our relationships, our acts of service, and through our words—point others toward Jesus. He is the one who suffered the ultimate pain (crucifixion and separation from God) so that we wouldn’t have to. His pain means that our pain is fleeting and temporary, and a perfect eternity awaits us. Until then, it is our comfort to rest in his arms, and it is our joy to encourage others to do the same.
If you are struggling due to difficult circumstances in your life and feel you would benefit from speaking with one of our Christian counselors, please visit our Request Appointment page, or call us at 800.438.1772 to schedule an appointment.