Why Do Christians Suffer?

by Ted Kyle

Editor's Note: We received several comments of concern after running two articles dealing with the Christian response to suffering; "Don't Waste Your Cancer" by John Piper (July 2006) and "Hope Nevertheless" by R.C. Sproul, Jr. (August 2007). This article is intended to elaborate on those and respond to those who have expressed concern at our publishing them.

It's a question many, many people ask, when suffering strikes themselves or loved ones close to them: WHY?

I. The Question of "Blame"

Does suffering just happen? Is it our fault? Is it Satan's fault? Is it-dare we ask the question-God's fault?

Let me hasten to note that we should never ever blame God. To do so casts the situation in a totally wrong light. That word "blame" implies that whoever is blameworthy is in the wrong and has done a bad thing. It also implies that whatever caused the suffering should not have happened-particularly to someone who is a child of God.

But if we throw "blame" out and substitute "responsibility," it becomes a legitimate question: Does God cause cancer [for instance], or any health problem, or money woes, or relationship difficulties?

The answer, I believe, is a conditional "no." The Bible says in James 1:13: "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man."). He does, however, permit the devil to do so, up to limits which He sets-notice Job 2:6, for example.

Let us press on:

II. Bad Things Do Happen

Obviously, things we consider bad DO happen to people-to all kinds of people: good Christians, backslidden Christians, unbelievers...in fact, everyone. But let's restrict our present inquiry to good Christians, who love God and who desire to serve Him faithfully: Why do bad things happen even to them?

Some think that God "has it in for them," to pay them back for some sin committed-but Jesus answered that fallacy-(see Luke 13:4). Christians know that God is our heavenly Father, who loves His children. Others have attempted to solve the paradox of bad things happening to God's children by proposing that He simply can't prevent their happening. But Christians know that our God is all-powerful [omnipotent], as well as being all-knowing [omniscient], and present everywhere [omnipresent].

III. The Sovereignty of God

It comes as a shock, even to many Christians, to realize that our God is truly in charge of all things concerning the universe He created, through His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Godhead-in whom all things "consist" (Col. 1:17). He made our world and keeps it humming on course-all in subservience to God the Father.

But there is so much more to God's sovereignty: "He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). "The Lord killeth and maketh alive; he bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up; the Lord maketh poor and maketh rich; he bringeth low and lifteth up." (1 Sam. 2:6-8). "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father." (Matt. 10:29). "A man's heart deviseth his way; but the Lord directeth his steps" (Prov. 16:9). "for God put in their hearts to fulfill his will." (Rev. 17:17. In sum, our God has oversight of both the big and the small details of our lives. (Then why does He let us sin? That's a whole other branch of theology! The answer, I believe, is tied up with His love, and His desire to be loved in turn.)

So, if God is truly in charge of all things; if He loves us but still lets painful, even awful, things happen to us; there must be a very good reason. Let us search for that reason:

IV. God's Expectations of Us

"But like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy...because it is written, Ye shall be holy, for I am holy (1 Pet. 1:15). "Follow peace with all men and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1).

Obviously, God is not content to leave us in the condition in which He found us. We were blackened inwardly by our sinful nature, inherited from our first parents. Then, when we came to Jesus Christ, we were cleansed in His blood. Unfortunately, while its power over us is broken, our old natures refuse to pass away peacefully. They trouble us; they cause us to fall into sin; they remain a blot on our souls. God's mercy is great, but the Bible tells us He cannot abide sin in His presence (Hab. 1:13; cf. Ps. 66:18). His desire and His plan is to move us along toward perfect holiness. It is most unlikely that we shall reach this goal before we pass into His presence, but we must at least be moving in that direction.

V. The Problem

However, there is a problem: We are slothful by nature, and love to be comfortable where we are. Therefore our heavenly Father supplies the means to keep us progressing. Persecution is one such goad. "All that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12).

But what about the present multitude in our culture which knows nothing of biblical persecution? Shall we somehow escape trouble, and be allowed to remain stationary on the path to holiness? Not so! "Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word" (Ps. 119:67). And again: "We are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world" (1 Cor. 11:32). And this: "Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, you are in heaviness through manifold temptations [trials]: that the trial of your faith being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praiseat the appearing of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Aflictions, chastenings, trials: They will come to each of us.

What is the nature of these trials? Their variety may be as limitless as the mind of Him who is our Maker and Master. They will be uniquely tailored to each child of God; fitted by the Master Tailor to our exact individual needs. But certainly our bodies, our health, will be affected.

VI. Conclusion

Here is the conclusion of all this-and I'm going to make this very personal: God loves me, He plans for me to be with Him in glory; but He does not want me to "settle on my lees" (Jer. 48:11), [a wine-maker's term for resting at ease, with our old sinful nature yet remaining in us]. So in His loving understanding of all of me, He brings certain things into my life. He gives me cancer. He gives me heart problems. He reminds me as I grow long in the tooth that my body and mind are wearing out.

Do I enjoy the aches, the miseries, the heart-aches, the imponderables about the future that come along? Of course not! But I know from Whom they come, and knowing what I have learned of His nature, I accept them as gifts from my loving Father, meant to bring me along on my spiritual journey.

My job is not to stew and fret and fight, but to accept everything that comes from His hands, as a little child, trusting my Father in all things. And that is your job also.

"For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17).

Ted Kyle is managing editor of Pulpit Helps.

2011 Disciple 155x50 2011 AMG 155x50
Disciple Banner Ad