by Lee J. Smith
Dorothy Love was a godly woman, utterly sold-out to her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. God had gifted her with a marvelous ability to communicate His Word. She and her husband, Bob, served the Lord for ten years in Spain with the Greater Europe Mission. Then, when health reasons demanded staying in the States, she dedicated herself to a busy schedule of teaching ladies' Bible studies and being involved in children's work. She also spoke to many groups in the Chicago area. Those who crossed her path were spiritually uplifted. However, about three years ago, Dorothy died, after suffering intensely from multiple myeloma cancer of the bone marrow, for five and one-half years.
We chasten ourselves for doing so, but we still find ourselves asking, Why? Why did such a godly, gifted woman have to suffer so much?
The problem of human suffering has vexed many children of God. Theologians and philosophers have written complex and learned volumes wrestling with it. At the heart of the problem is a question that takes us back to examine the very essence of God's nature: If God is absolutely good, infinitely loving and all-powerful (omnipotent), why do we, the products of His creative power and the focus of His infinite love, suffer?
Some have suggested that God is indeed good; He has good intentions. wants to prevent our suffering, but He can't. He is good, but He is not omnipotent. Others might suggest that He is indeed omnipotent but not good. He could stop suffering, but He doesn't want to. He is fiendish and capricious. However, if God should be as these suggestions imply, He would not be God at all. The biblical self-revelation of God is that He is both omnipotent and infinitely good. The Bible affirms that He is absolutely good: "God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all" (John 1:5, NASB). He is also all-powerful: "Thou hast made the heavens and the earth by Thy great power and out-stretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for Thee" (Jer. 32:17). He is able to prevent suffering, and He finds no pleasure in suffering.
Yet human suffering is real; we all experience it. When it touches us or those we love, it is no longer an abstract idea to leave to the theologians but a grim and perplexing reality: How can we explain human suffering in a universe created by a good and omnipotent God?
We would be vain and naïve to think that we could understand and explain what the most knowledgeable and godly have found perplexing. Yet the Scriptures do make several helpful affirmations, which must be accepted even if not totally understood.
God Permits Suffering
First, the Bible affirms that God has chosen to permit suffering. God is the designer of a plan that allowed for sin and suffering. Though God does not approve of sin and its consequences (suffering), nor is He responsible for it, it is here by His permission. In His omniscience (His full knowledge of everything), He knew that the plan He chose, even though it allowed for sin and suffering, ultimately would bring about the greatest good and glory. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that God was overcome by the power of sin; that suffering was forced into His universe against His will. No. He is the sovereign who "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11).
Result of Fall
Yet, at the same time, the Bible makes it very clear that all human suffering is the result of the Fall. Our suffering is directly related to the curse that came upon the earth as the result of sin. With sin came corruption, suffering and death (see Gen. 2:17; 3:17; Rom. 5:12; 8:20-22). This is not to say that every occurrence of suffering in our lives is direct punishment for our personal sins. This misconception causes much undue self-castigation. It was the mentality of Job's friends who did their best to convince Job that his suffering was a result of some unadmitted wickedness. It was also the popular conclusion among the Jews at the time of Christ--a view He clearly refuted (see Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3).
Third, we come to the reality that we often find the most troubling. God has not chosen to spare even His children from the consequences of living in a fallen world. Living godly lives does enable the believer to avoid some of the unnecessary suffering that others bring upon themselves by ignoring God's moral and spiritual laws. Yes Christians do get sick and die. Christians are robbed and raped. They have accidents. They lose loved ones in fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. And it seems at times that believers suffer more than the wicked. (See the testimony of Asaph in Psalm 73.)
In addition to the natural calamities of life, believers suffer persecution because of Jesus Christ. The New Testament does not proclaim the health and wealth "gospel" that is so popular in 20th-century evangelicalism. The sooner we accept the reality that we are living in a fallen world with its suffering, the sooner we will be able to get on with living effectively for the Lord.
Perhaps at this point you are asking, Well, it sounds like the Bible teaches fatalism--whatever will be will be. So why fight it?
This is not a proper biblical perspective either. We are not expected just to take it on the chin without a whimper. The Bible urges us to do what we can to relieve suffering. We are to "visit orphans and widows" (James 1:27), "use a little wine for the sake of your stomach" (1 Tim. 5:23), " to be generous and ready to share" (6:18). We have a social responsibility when it comes to suffering.
We are also urged to cry out to God, to petition Him who loves us. We have a God "who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think " (Eph. 3:20). He is the God of the miraculous. He is able either to prevent or remove the cause of our suffering if it is His will to do so. We are also called to live wisely. Some of our problems could be avoided if we would live consistently by the principles of wisdom in the Word of God. Sometimes we are only reaping what we have sown.
Eternal Good in View
The fourth biblical affirmation laid out for us in the Bible is this: whatever calamity befalls us, God has our eternal good in view. God may not have a specific lesson to teach us every time we suffer, but He does have a good purpose in view. In Romans 8:28 we read: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." We quote this verse in times of suffering and rightly so. However, we must be careful not to remove the good spoken of from the purpose spelled out in verses 29-39. God has designed all of life (including suffering) to conform us to the image of His Son. Nothing that we suffer in this life can prevent this process from reaching its divinely purposed outcome.
So, how can we come to grips with our suffering? How can we endure it? Here's a plan of action:
Expect suffering. Realize that in a fallen world suffering is the abnormal normality (see 1 Pet. 2:12-14).
Realize that God in control; nothing can happen unless He allows it. We should be humble before Him (see Ex. 4:11; Job 40:2; Provide. 6:4; Isa. 45:7; Jer. 49:19; Amos 3:6; Rom. 9:20-23).
Understand that though God is sovereign and man is responsible for his actions, suffering is a product of the Fall (see II Sam. 12:11; 16:21,22; Acts 4:27,28; Rev. 13:2,7,8).
Accept the reality that God allows suffering for good and necessary reasons: to prepare us to comfort others (see II Cor. 1:4-6); to teach us to trust in Him and not in ourselves (see 1:9; 4:7,16, 18; 12:1-10); to turn our hearts toward heaven (see 5:1-4); to develop maturity (see James 1:1-12); to discipline us for sinful behavior (see I Cor. 11:30); and to judge wickedness (see Ps. 37:12,13).
Remember that God has entered into our suffering to redeem us from it. He did this through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Rom. 8:18-23).
Remember that we do not yet see clearly. We must trust God until answers to suffering are made clear (see Job 13:15; I Cor. 13:12).
Remember that this life is nothing when compared with eternity. What is a lifetime of suffering in comparison with an eternity of heaven? (see Rom. 8:18).
When this biblical understanding of suffering grips us, it will bring trusting obedience and confident hope in the faithfulness of God. As Dorothy Love once put it, "Our trust is completely in our blessed Lord." "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38,39).