(return to list of contents)
None of us could avoid the problem of why the righteous suffer! Sooner or later, each of us finds himself playing one of the roles in the story of Job, whether as a victim of tragedy, as a member of the family, or as a friend-comforter. Sooner or later, the sharp blade of suffering will cut into our lives. The questions never change; the search for a satisfying answer continues!
The question of the reasons for the suffering of the righteous has tormented man’s mind for thousands of years, since the fall of man from his innocent state in the Garden of Eden. In his original glorified state in the Garden of Eden, man had not suffered from disease, hunger, grief, pain and death. All these had begun after man’s fall! Although some calamities are the direct result of sin in man’s life, many others are not so related, as the discussion herein shows! When the disciples of Christ wondered about the cause of the affliction of the man born blind: was it his sinfulness or his parents’, Jesus was emphatic about the fact that, in that case, sin had not caused his affliction (John 9: 3). The Divine favor or disfavor is not necessarily indicated by a man’s material prosperity or adversity. Goodness and wickedness are not always rewarded in this present life.
Many a God fearing innocent person—a person who did not commit a major act of transgression—does suffer the anguish and pain of calamities in his/her life. On the other hand, others who do not heed God in their lives and go after other gods such as money, career, fame, ...etc. seem to flourish, prosper and succeed by earthly standards! This seemingly rewarding punishment for good and blessing for evil is a stumbling block for many! The problem is the apparent unfairness of the suffering of the righteous and the prospering of the wicked. Why does the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent all-holy God of this universe allow this apparent injustice to happen on earth? Why would a loving and caring God permit suffering, pain, adversities and calamities to befall the righteous person that fears Him and tries his/her best to do His will and please Him?
Before we begin our analysis, it is important to keep in mind the fact that no man (the righteous included) since the fall to the present day, except the Son of man “Jesus Christ”, is sinless (Job 15: 14-16; Psalm.14: 3; 143: 2). The definition of “the righteous person” in this article is the God fearing and God loving person that makes a good faith effort to walk with the Lord and please Him (Psalm 14: 2-3; 51: 5; 53: 3; Hebrews 4: 14-15).
There is always a benevolent high Divine purpose running through the sufferings of the godly. Although the explanation for the causes of suffering may be withheld from the suffering righteous, an explanation does exist! Causes divinely revealed during and/or after the adversity may not be the final solution and may leave quite a number of questions unanswered! Questions that mainly pertain to root causes for the Sovereign One’s permitting the path of suffering for a particular person, and for the choices the Sovereign One has made in allowing various modes of suffering are oftentimes not answered This area of mystery is beyond both the ability and capacity of man’s limited mind to probe into and comprehend! Man, a limited creature, cannot possibly understand the unlimited wisdom of his Creator’s mind (Psalm 146: 5), and His supreme universal plan for the ages (Isaiah 55: 8-9). God could not be contained in the limited human wisdom, reason, logic, laws or language! After all, man is nothing but a leaf driven by the wind to and fro and dry stubble (Job 13: 25); a dead dog or a flea (1 Samuel 24: 14); a vapor and a shadow (Psalm 39: 5-6; 144: 4; James 4: 14); etc. This is God’s universe, not man’s (Psalm 24: 1; 50: 12; 89: 11-12). Man, the crown of God’s creation, merely lives in it. The Divine explanations provide an interim solution, in which the godly heart may find rest until the full and final solutions may be given in a day yet to be, if the Divine mind chooses to do so for holy purpose!
II. Purposes of Suffering
(return to list of contents)
The principal objective of suffering is the spiritual development, growth and refinement of the righteous. A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner. However, since the Lord operates very efficiently, additional objectives are accomplished by the suffering of the righteous. We would discover some of those in our brief journey in this essay. As we learn from numerous biblical examples that the revealed purposes of the suffering of the righteous fall into various categories enumerated hereinafter. Some of these are situationist and dependent upon the particular situation at hand.
1. Test the true faith in, loyalty and obedience to, God in adversity [Job (Job 1-2), Abraham (Genesis 22), Joseph (Genesis 37, 39)]. Trials serve to separate the true believer from the mere pretender (1 Peter 1: 6-7).
2. Develop and mature the faith, wisdom and character of the believer (Isaiah 48: 10). God wanted to bring Job to the end of himself—to the end of his own self-righteousness, self-vindication and self-wisdom—so that he may find his all in God (Job 40: 1-5). Through the trials of Joseph, God, the sovereign Potter, molded the boy Joseph who was pampered by his old father, into a man of faith, compassion, wisdom and responsibility (Jeremiah 18: 1-6).
3. Yield the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5: 22-24; Proverbs 15: 13; 20: 30): perseverance, patience, longsuffering, peace, self-control, etc.
4. Bring the righteous closer to God through:
4.1. Experiencing Him in a more direct way (Job 42: 5), learning to trust Him in adversity, apart from any explanation (Job 13: 15), and making him dependent on God (2 Corinthians 12: 9); and
4.2. Removing an idol (e.g. a family member, a career, wealth, etc.) from the life of the righteous that he does not realize how strongly he became attached to!? It is quite possible that Job developed a growing attachment to, trust in, and dependence upon his children, wealth and health. It is certain that Abraham and Jacob were strongly devoted to their sons Isaac and Joseph respectively (Genesis 22: 2; 37: 3, 34-35). These growing earthly attachments and devotions are potential idols in the life of the righteous person, that, if left unchecked, would compete with and crowd out his commitment to God, thereby becoming the true gods that rule his life! God does not accept the second place in the righteous person’s life. He must be the first and supreme commitment and devotion in the life of the righteous. He must occupy the center of the righteous’ mind and being. Everything in the life of the righteous must be subordinated to God’s will (Exodus 20: 3-5; Deuteronomy 5: 7-9; Luke 14: 26; Matthew 10: 37).
4.3. Correcting the path of the righteous. "Before I was afflicted I went astray. But now I keep Your (God’s) word" (Psalm 119: 67). "Whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives" (Hebrews 12: 6).
5. Prevent sin, such as in the case of the afflictions of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20: 1-21; 21: 1) and the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9).
6.1. Achieve a variety of important major objectives in the history of mankind, such as preventing wide-spread starvation, death and despair, and preserve the lives of a large multitude of people as Joseph discerned the cause of his afflictions (Genesis 45: 5, 7-8; 50: 20).
6.2. Preserve and strengthen His witness (the Israelites, who suffered from bondage and oppression for centuries in the land of Egypt) from the destructive influence of sinful pagan practices (the Canaanite worship) for a long time (over four centuries). This was part of God’s work toward His ultimate goal of redeeming mankind through the sacrificial death of His Son on the cross more than eighteen centuries later.
7. Strengthen and propagate the faith in Christ, and thereby save more souls. This is clearly demonstrated in his miracles of providing sight to the man born blind (John 9) who suffered from blindness since his birth, and raising Lazarus four days after his death (John 11: 45) whose sisters grieved his loss.
8. Strengthen the unity of the church members. Facing the struggles of life together draws the members of the church closer to each other. “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12: 26-27; 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4).
All the above plays within the shell and against the backdrop of the glorification of the Almighty, which is the purpose and song of all the creation (Job 38-41; Psalm 8: 1-3; 19: 1-6, 29; 92: 5, 148; Isaiah 43: 7; John 11: 4; 9: 3).
The righteous may be given an explanation of the causes of their afflictions, as in the cases of Joseph, Abraham, the man born blind, Lazarus’ sisters and the apostle Paul; or they may be denied any explanation, as in the cases of Job and King Hezekiah.
III. God and Human Suffering
(return to list of contents)
God cares about, and provides for, His creation (Job 38: 39-41). God, the omnipotent, is in full control of His creation (Job 40: 15, 19; 41: 11; Psalm 24: 1; 93: 1-2; Isaiah 43: 13; 48: 13). The trials of the righteous Job were under the full control of God. Satan was restricted in what he could do (Job 1: 12; 2: 6). His actions did not preclude the principle that God was in control. God does not intervene constantly to prevent tragedies, but He rules and overrules them so that they end up accomplishing His ultimate divine purposes.
Man is not neglected and abandoned during his suffering experience. The Holy Spirit of the living God empowers him to persevere, endure and triumph. God is present in a mode of absence by supporting the sufferer compassionately. He is powerfully sympathetic toward the sufferer in his pain. The Author of life is silently keeping vigil to bring about saving the sufferer, and his resurrection. Ultimately, He gifts him with eternal life. God is omniscient. He is the maker of experience. He does not have to personally experience, or participate in, suffering in order to be able to understand it, and relate to it. The Maker of knowledge does not have to acquire it experientially, the way humans learn.
God is also fully informed of human pain and suffering through Jesus Christ, our high priest, who loves us with a human heart that we can relate to; who feels our pain; and grieves for our suffering, as we are united with Him—we are members of His body. Love makes the suffering of others its own. This is true of human love and much truer of divine love, as God is not indifferent to the sorrows of this fallen world. It has been truly said that there was a cross in the heart of God before there was one planted outside Jerusalem; and though the cross of wood had been taken down, the cross in God’s heart still remains. It is the cross of pain and triumph of the victorious suffering of the righteous.
God fully supports the sufferer. Therefore, the sufferer is never abandoned in his time of trial and agony despite his feeling of loneliness. At the end, after all is said and done, God gives him eternal life, as He had resurrected Jesus from the dead. The suffering of the cross became the victory of the resurrection. God is love. God is the author of life. God is life-giving love. Divine love is often a painful fiery love, because the disease of sin it is acting to heal can only be conquered through pain and death. God will never let down those that put their trust in his beloved Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who had proclaimed that the loving power of God is stronger even than death. God had raised Jesus to life after his death on the cross. The resurrection is the strongest sign that God could be trusted to grant the final word of life. The end of the suffering righteous will certainly be eternal life, because God is faithful to His beloved--those He calls his own.
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that beyond the suffering of the righteous person, who stays the course and does not rebel against the Lord, is an “afterwards” of glorious enrichment (Isaiah 3: 10-11; Psalm 92: 12-14; Romans 28: 18). The words of Romans 8: 28 illustrate that concept very clearly, “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Although some of the rewards may be material, the righteous would not pray for this type of reward, for God neither appreciates nor wants mercenaries, as we learn from the book of Job. The ultimate reward the righteous would desire is growth in knowing the Lord, and a closer fellowship with Him.
God commended Job’s piety and evinced a special regard for him by calling him “my servant” (Job 1: 8; 2: 3). God was proud of Job. Twice He fought with Job against the serious challenge of Satan, twice He won, and twice He was glorified (Job 2: 10). God is proud of His righteous servants when they pass the test of suffering. In fact, He boasts of them and their spiritual success in adversity (Job 2: 3). Undoubtedly, the heavenly host rejoices at their success.
Most wonderful of all, God the Son has shown us how He Himself suffers with us in the human nature of Jesus. He exacts nothing from us that he did not experience himself. He was born to suffer and die to redeem humanity; born for the eternal glories of heaven. As the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ has shown and proven the extent of the Son’s commitment and obedience to the Father; the cross of the righteous shows the extent of his commitment, obedience and love to the Lord. A righteous person would commit his/her life to serve the Lord. Still, the test of true loyalty and true faith is the test of pain in trials and adversities. The Lord has never promised the righteous believer an easy road lined up with roses in this dispensation. On the contrary, He has reminded him/her of the tribulations and hard times that await him/her on this earth. Christ said: “…In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16: 33). “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10: 38).
However, the suffering of the righteous person will not disturb his/her inner peace and tranquility as he/she rests in the Lord trusting in his Divine will: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13: 15); “In the Lord I put my trust…” (Psalm 11: 1); “He is a shield to all who trust in Him” (Psalm 18: 30); “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34: 19); “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10: 30-31; Psalm 66: 10-12; 37: 3-7; 118: 18; 119: 75; Isaiah 12: 2; 66: 13).
IV. Human Response to Suffering
(return to list of contents)
The test of suffering and pain is the ultimate test of faith. All of us must pass that test, as Christ has taught us saying: “whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14: 27). The place of suffering is a very lonely place. The student does not get help while taking his test. We remember the agony and loneliness that Abraham felt as he was offering his son Isaac, the son of the promise, a sacrifice as the Lord had commanded him. We remember the torment that Joseph felt for 13 years of slavery and prison for no wrong he had done in a foreign land away from his family and friends. We remember the torturous loneliness that Jesus felt on the cross according to his humanity as he cried out representing us: “…My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46). However, according to his divinity, he is never deserted or forsaken. On the cross, Jesus did not succumb to the temptation to despair because of his human feelings of abandonment and loneliness. He continued to pray to God the Father till the last moment of his earthly life, “And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, he said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit my spirit.’" Having said this, he breathed His last” (Luke 23: 46).
Is suffering of the righteous fair? If the human experience is confined to this existence in the mortal body in this age only, it is not fair. However, if we include eternity in the equation, yes, it is fair, because the sufferer will obtain rewards proportionate with his suffering (Luke 16: 25; 1 Corinthians 15: 19-23). God promises a safe landing, not a calm passage. The righteous is born to suffer; born to die; born for the eternal glories of heaven. Although there are many differences between the suffering of earth and the hell of eternity, one important difference stands out. It is the prevalence of hope in the suffering of the righteous on earth, and its absence in the eternal hell where desperation persists. The righteous hope and expectation are the eternal glory and bliss with Christ in his heavenly kingdom. The suffering of the fallen in eternity is a dead end. It is darkness without a light at the end of the tunnel.
The immediate answer of faith to the test of suffering and pain is “Trust the Lord.” “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13: 15a; Psalm 4: 5; 37: 3, 5; 40: 3; 62: 8; Isaiah 26: 4; 1 Peter 5: 7; etc.). In the midst of his prolonged suffering, it is important that man always remembers these three essential concepts that keep him close to Christ our Lord: Trust his infinite unconditional love that took him to the cross of pain and shame for our sake; Trust his infinite wisdom; And trust his infinite power. “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8: 28). It is not so much the events of suffering, but how we view them, through what lens and with what disposition, that makes the difference. The believer will feel pain and grief in his suffering experience, but never despair. Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm. The answer of faith to the experience of suffering is: “We trust our heavenly Father no matter what, as a child trusts his earthly father in all situations. We will walk with Christ even to the cross if necessary.” We have the assurance that Christ accompanies and supports us in our earthly journey.
In closing, we pray as the son of man “Jesus” prayed on the eve of His crucifixion in the garden of Gethsemane, in the spirit of total humility, obedience and submission to the Father’s will, saying: “…O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). This prayer was not answered as Jesus wished. Jesus was crucified. Yet, enormous power has been flowing from His cross ever since. This cross has changed the face of the earth and the face of eternity irreversibly, and has glorified the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven and on earth forever. After His painful humiliating death on the cross, and out of apparent defeat, disgrace, and tragedy, the Lord is glorified through His resurrection, ascension, and changing the lives and saving the souls of multitudes of humans from eternal darkness and torment across the centuries—humans that never had, and never will have any hope in salvation, enlightenment and true fulfillment apart from Him. Christ’s death has connected earth with heaven, healed the fallen human nature, opened the eternal gates of paradise, and sent the Holy Spirit to sanctify the believers. Only life lived in the shadow of the cross enables the believer to see God’s love and goodness in this present evil age. “If indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:17-18).