It’s amazing where your mind goes in the midst of suffering. When bad things happen, most of us will look for someone to blame. It’s my fault. It’s your fault. It’s God’s fault. We shake our fists at the sky and cry out, like Job, “I’m innocent! This shouldn’t be happening to me!” Or when everyone turns against us, we complain like Jeremiah, “I know that you’re righteous, God, but your justice leaves a lot to be desired!” Why is this happening to me? I’m one of the good guys! I’m on your side! Like David, we lament our own condition and look with envy upon the “wicked,” for whom nothing ever seems to go wrong.
My wife and I have certainly run the gamut when it comes to this kind of thinking. For a while, I thought that Zeke’s disease was God’s punishment for my sin. In my more self-righteous moments I would scream at him, “Why are you doing this to me?! What have I done to deserve this?!” We also went through a period where we thought that his disease was a result of spiritual attack. At this point, we’ve accepted that his disease is simply the result of living in a world that is broken.
I’ve discovered just how important it is to maintain a healthy perspective of my suffering and trials while in the midst of them. If my mind is not right, my emotions quickly follow. Believing “holy lies” like God is in control, God causes all things, or God will never give you more than you can handle is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually destructive. When suffering strikes, it’s easy to believe these lies because we are desperate to believe that someone (God, for instance) is controlling or sending all the chaos, evil, and pain. It may be comforting, but it’s not true because God is not the author of evil. I can’t stress this point enough. God is not the author of evil.
In order to find a healthy perspective in the midst of overwhelming hardship, I’ve had to understand that there are four primary reasons for suffering: discipleship, discipline, disengagement, and disaster. The four disses. (See what I did there?) While I typically hate alliteration, this scheme seemed to work pretty well, so against my better judgment I’m sticking with it!
The New Testament promises suffering. The verses are too numerous to recount here, but the authors of the New Testament seemed to assume that suffering and discipleship go hand-in-hand. The question for us is how to discern which suffering is intended for discipleship.
I believe that all suffering, appropriately understood and faithfully persevered through, will make us more like Jesus. In that sense, all suffering creates the opportunity for discipleship. But there is a certain kind of suffering that is specifically intended as an act of discipleship. This is the suffering that comes from persecution on account of our faith in Jesus.
This is the paradigm of suffering found in the early church. Sure, people suffered then like we do today (in disease, loss of loved ones, etc.), but the defining trial of their faith was the persecution they would have experienced on account of following Jesus. This type of suffering would force them to choose between Jesus and the world, and stories abound of the faithfulness of the early Christians who chose Jesus despite all kinds of torture. The Church is built upon the blood of the early martyrs. Persecution is pretty straightforward, and the appropriate response is obvious, so I won’t spend any more time on this.
There is another kind of suffering that can enter a believer’s life, but this is not to prove the genuineness of his faith. Rather, it refines him by way of discipline. Hebrews 12:6 reminds us that God disciplines those he loves, and the verse that follows exhorts us to “endure hardship as discipline.”
But there is a more punitive form of suffering that can happen in a believer’s life, and that is when we suffer for committing sin. Discipline of this kind could look like the loss of a position of leadership in the church, or even expulsion from the congregation itself. This sort of suffering is the direct result of our sin, and it’s redemptive purpose is to lead us to repentance, which can then result in restoration.
Unless we are blinded by our own self-righteousness or sense of victimization, we will know when we are being disciplined by God because we will have lost our place in the faith community. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul commands the church to “expel the immoral brother.” In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the disciples to treat an unrepentant member of the church as though they did not belong to the church. The point of this is restoration, but that must be preceded by repentance. If you are under God’s discipline, pray that you would have the humility to see past your self-righteousness or sense of victimization so that you can repent of your sin.
While all suffering can function to make us more like Jesus (discipleship), not all suffering is the result of punitive discipline. This is important to grasp, because as I said above, in the midst of a difficult trial we often search for someone to blame, and that often means blaming ourselves. Like Job’s so-called friends, we convince ourselves that our sin has brought about this suffering. But this is not true. If you have not lost your place in the faith community, then your suffering is not a result of God’s punitive discipline.
Zeke’s disease is not God’s punishment for my or Breena’s sin. The punishment for our sin has already been paid. 9/11 was not God’s punishment on America for the sin of the people. The punishment for their sin has already been paid. God does not discipline us by killing others or inflicting our loved ones with diseases. Zeke is not dying for my sins; Jesus already did that. To call this form of suffering “discipline” or “punishment for sin” is to say that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was insufficient to pay for the sins of humanity.
Suffering may also befall us when we stubbornly pursue our own path and God has finally had enough, sighing sadly, “Fine then. Have it your way.” It is divine disengagement. Romans 1 tells of how God gives people over to the desires of their hearts, thereby removing any divine protection they might otherwise enjoy. This is what happens when we demand life on our terms, refusing to accept any of God’s attempts at discipline or calls for repentance.
Think of all the suffering in this world caused by our collective stubborn refusal to, for example, rein in our sexual desires. The physical damage caused by STDs can be devastating. The emotional (and sometimes physical) trauma of abortion is criminally underreported in our media. Divorce caused by adultery has devastated millions of adults and their children.
Sadly, this type of suffering is largely avoidable. Adultery is not inevitable; it is a choice. The same is true of drug abuse and other types of addiction. You could even look at the recent economic troubles in the US as suffering because of divine disengagement. We stubbornly pursued what our greedy hearts desired, and the bubble burst with catastrophic results for many.
This last kind of suffering is probably the most common, and doesn’t really have an explanation. Horrible things just happen in this world. Tsunamis. Wars. Cancer. Batten disease. This is just the crap of life, and any attempt to make God responsible (whether through a faithful appeal to God’s sovereignty or a skeptical appeal to God’s weakness/wickedness) rings hollow. We may not like it, but more often than not, there’s no one that we can hold accountable for the suffering of our lives. Disaster happens.
When disaster strikes, our first instinct is to ask, “Who is at fault?” But we need to train ourselves to ask two different questions first: “How is God redeeming (or going to redeem) this?”, and “How am I going to respond to this?”
God loves to work in the midst of disaster, redeeming it in ways that we could have never imagined. This redemption, however, is often contingent on the softness of our own hearts and our willingness to come alongside his redemptive work in the midst of our suffering. Knowing that God is present in your suffering, working to redeem it, will help you to keep a soft heart and a humble attitude toward him. Rather than sinking into playing the blame game, train your eyes to see God at work and throw yourself into that.
Our little Zekey is probably going to die at a very young age, but I’m not going to blame God for this. He didn’t create Batten disease. But he is redeeming it, and in ways that I could have never imagined. I have resolved to be a vehicle for God’s redemption of Zeke’s disease. Not only is that what’s best for me and God’s kingdom, it’s what’s best for Zeke. Imagine what his life would be like if his father was relentlessly bitter of this lot in life. Bitterness undermines God’s incredible work of redeeming disaster. I will never see the work of God in my life or in Zeke’s if I live angrily and embittered; but the stories of God’s faithfulness belong to those who persevere through suffering and come alongside God’s redemptive activity.
My hope is that having these categories for suffering will help you to keep a healthy perspective in the midst of your own trials and hardships. I’d like to add one final thought: Suffering is not something to be avoided, but rather an overwhelming opportunity to get close to God.