The reality of suffering measured against God’s goodness is one of the foundational problems that unbeliever’s use to disprove the existence of God. The line of thinking usually follows this pattern: There is, without question, a great amount of suffering in the world. If God is all-powerful and he is all loving, then why does he allow such suffering and death to take place? In order to reconcile this problem, it is argued, a logical person must take one of only four positions: (1) that God is not all-powerful and therefore cannot stop our suffering, (2) that God is not all-loving and therefore does not care about our suffering, or (3) that God is neither all-powerful nor all-loving and therefore cannot stop our suffering nor does he care to, or (4) that there is no God at all. The most likely of these four, says the atheist, is choice number four.
Of course, the Christian does not allow that option. So, he is left to choose between the remaining three. Sadly, the popular default Christian view takes option (1): God is not all-powerful. I would in fact say that Christians “unconsciously” default into that option. What I mean to say is, they take that option without knowing that they take it. On paper, for sure, most Christians would affirm, without pause, that God is all-powerful. We write it on almost all of our statements of faith – God is omnipotent, God is sovereign. Yet, as our theology is functionally unpacked, most of us insert the caveat: “but God has limited himself”. In other words, God has tied His own hands. He has given his power away – most commonly to satan, to dark powers, and to man.
So, functionally, we would not see God as all-powerful at all. In regard to suffering, we would say that there is pain in the world because Satan causes it, or dark powers cause it, or because man causes it. Now, let’s take a moment to be clear here. It is proper to say that God does not cause sin, for God is not the author of sin. Though he allows it, he does not cause disobedience and sinful acts of rebellion. However, it is not proper to say that God does not cause suffering. God does indeed cause suffering. If you go back to the garden, all the way back to the original act of sin and rebellion, you will see that, as I have said, God does not cause sin, but he does cause suffering. If you look carefully, you will see that, after sin is accomplished in the garden, it is most decisively God who brings the curse. Man and Satan authored sin, but God authored the suffering that followed. It is God who ordains pain in child-birth. It is God who ordains suffering in work. It is God who ordains difficulty in relationships. It is God who causes pain. On that point let’s be clear.
Now, without getting too bogged down here, let’s restate the case. It would be proper to say that God is not the author of sin, but that he is the author of suffering. Yet, it would also be right to say that the suffering that God ordains comes out of one of two distinct divine compulsions:
1 – God brings suffering to the life of the reprobate as a foretaste of his Wrath. In other words, the suffering, in this life, that God ordains in a person who will not bow the knee to Christ, is only a foreshadowing of a much more horrible suffering that is to come. In fact, God is holding back. Horrifically, there will come a day when the Perfect Wrath of God will be poured out in wave upon wave upon all the unjust and ungodly, and upon satan and all his angels. So then, the suffering of the eternally rebellious, in this life, will actually seem as blessing in comparison to the suffering that is to come. Not a pleasant thought, yet it is the proper Biblical view.
2 – God brings suffering to the life of the believer as a blessing of discipline and as way of identifying with Christ. In other words, God uses suffering in the life of the believer as means of growth. It is through suffering that a believer matures, becomes more like Christ, and increases in his knowledge and enjoyment of Christ. Christian Suffering teaches us to love, eradicates selfishness, mortifies idolatry, and opens the soul. And the suffering that believers endure is not an eternal suffering, as it is in the case of the ungodly. Suffering for the believer is temporary, fleeting, and passing away. Suffering will not overcome us. We will overcome suffering! This is the beauty of the Cross – it ends in joy. There will come a day when Christ will say of our suffering the same thing he said of his, “It is finished.”
This perspective then creates a whole new category for the Christian. Remember the three categories that we thought we were left with: (1) God is not all-powerful, (2) God is not all-loving, or (3) God is neither all-powerful or all-loving. Yet, with a proper Biblical understanding, a new category is formed: God is all-powerful. God is all-loving. God is justified in causing pain in the life of the ungodly as a precursor to the expression of His Holy Wrath. God is justified in causing pain in the life of the believer as tool to produce maturity. Pain hardens the heart of the ungodly, but it ultimately softens the heart of the elect.
Furthermore, with this new category, the Christian is freed from glorifying satan as the author of suffering. Spiritual warfare is given a new shape and meaning. For the believer, life is not a war against personal suffering. It is a war against sin. It is a war against lies. We must understand, Satan’s ultimate aim is not to cause suffering in our lives; it is to cause unbelief. He wants to foster hatred of God, not suffering. In fact, suffering is regularly satan’s greatest enemy. For God, so often, uses suffering to arouse numb and apathetic Christians. God also uses pain to wake up the soul of unbelievers to their need of God. So often, suffering leads us to prayer. Suffering leads us to worship. Suffering leads us to humility. And suffering leads us to repentance.
Our war against the enemy then, should ultimately be against the lies that he perpetuates not a war that is geared toward maintaining our ease and comfort. If satan could make us comfortable, make life easy, and fill our life with so called “blessing”, and by so doing, keep our hearts cold and hateful toward God, without hesitation, that would be the path he would take.
So, as I sit here on my couch this early Sunday morning, with the pain of a kidney stone stabbing into my back, I can rest in knowing that this suffering is not ultimately an attack of the evil one. This suffering is designed by God to teach me and to mature me. And I can rest in the knowledge that this “test of my faith will produce endurance, that I might let endurance have it’s perfect result, that I may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:3-4).” My most heartfelt prayer in this regard, is that my love for Christ will grow more and more as a result of my present trial and that I will be equipped to glorify Christ in the trials that most certainly are to come. Finally, as Paul says, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of these things.”
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things (Philippians 3:10-15).