Suffering: A Proper Understanding and Response: Part I
Introduction: The ten-part series: Suffering: A Proper Understanding and Response offers biblical insight and hope for every believer. The subject of suffering usually gets people’s attention. They run to it or run from it. Most want to hear something about it. However the term suffering is rarely defined. Yet there is an assumption that everybody knows what suffering is in part because everybody suffers or people observe others experience what is generally considered suffering. Generally, most people consider suffering as the presence of unwanted situations or conditions that produce distress in a person. Suffering interrupts the person’s life so that the “normal” ebb and flow of life is disrupted. Suffering is generally considered that which comes upon a person or that which happens to a person which in and of itself produces ill effects. The person may be the recipient of it or may be involved in producing it. These facts led to the series: suffering: a proper understanding and response.
The terms to suffer and suffering are often equated. However one is a verb, an action word, and the other is a noun which is a word that identifies a person, place, thing, or experience. The verb indicates something experienced or subjected to which is unpleasant or “bad.”
Suffering and to suffer have a personal aspect. Only the person knows although others may have an idea of what is happening to him. Moreover, what one person calls suffering another person may not give the experience the same name, the same unpleasantness, and or the same feeling. Since suffering (however defined!) is a common occurrence, everyone thinks they know what another person means by the term. On the other hand, many will say something to the effect that “no one knows what I am going through.”
Most would agree that the term suffering is an experience that is laced with what people feel. This is called the emotional aspect of suffering. The reference is to the feeling aspect of the person. You may hear such terms as physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual suffering. It is important to ask what those terms mean and how do they help us discover God’s view of suffering and how to suffer God’s way. That latter statement is the key for the believer no matter age or occupation. Don’t miss the main thrust of the last sentences. Sadly, suffering God’s way is not a high priority for most people including believers. As believers it is proper and mandatory to seek the basics: what and how of God’s way of suffering.
According to any number of standards – practically, biblically, and via the dictionary – the term suffering points to a common and personal experience. But as believers we must go to God’s own testimony. The Bible gives us a piece of “God’s mind” – His thoughts which are the final authority for the believer. The Bible teaches the universality of suffering for mankind (Romans 5:12-14; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Before the fall, there was no pain, tears, misery, or crying. When Adam sinned, God the righteous Judge cursed him and those that followed him born of ordinary generation. As a result, pain and misery became realities in God’s world which was now a sin-cursed world. It was inhabited by sinners with sin-cursed bodies and surrounded by sinners. Sadly, sinning and being sinned against was part of life in the “new” world.
How are Christians to understand the concept of suffering? Should we define it or go with the flow? Should we exalt suffering? Should we seek it out and take it as our own? Should we run from it or ignore it? How much suffering does one “need” to be sanctified? Should we focus on the sufferer (however defined) or the sinner or both? Should we focus on the suffering however defined? What will that focus look like? All of these questions motivated this series: suffering: a proper understanding and response. and their answers have practical and theological implications for now (life on this earth as believer or unbeliever). They will help us develop a proper view of the past and of the future.
Too often terms are not defined. When that happens the true meaning of the word and its implications will be missed. Since suffering is personal, we run the risk of importing an individual’s meaning of the term and experience. Some may think a word and experience such as suffering does not need to be defined. Practically, it is a common even universal occurrence. In a culture that is focused on the subjective-feeling aspect of man that approach often takes center stage. When that happens the focus is on the sufferer (again however defined) and relief.
God may be mentioned and involved but often He is sought out and even used for what He can give – relief. The thought of responding to God’s providence in a Christlike manner for God’s glory is often not considered. Sometimes it is out of ignorance and sometimes it is out of arrogance. The situation is not approached with idea of redeeming the time and situation (Ephesians 5:15-18). God’s redemptive purposes are not foremost in the person’s thoughts. The approach described seems to fit our culture and is a common approach to the problem of suffering.
Certain epochs of history have had a greater emphasis on the personal, feelings, and happiness than others. But all cultures have some emphasis on them. A greater emphasis on feelings entered the common vernacular of mankind beginning with the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, and the advent of Freud. Man as man took center-stage as he attempted to disabuse himself from outside authority and restraints (this was a return to Genesis 3 and the fall). Cultures and mankind became more overtly philosophized, psychologized, and medicalized. True and correct theology took a backseat to the so-called wisdom of men.
In the area of suffering, we must ask and answer the question whether these entrenched mindsets, presuppositions, and approaches to people in their situation help or hinder the believer view things from God’s perspective. In answering the question, we must seek God’s answer in His personal, powerful self-revelation – Jesus Christ and the Bible (John 14:6; 17:17). Beginning with the Word and moving toward the person in his situation guarantees help and even victory for those in the midst of hard times. But God’s truth must be that which is most relevant and most appropriate for any person in his situation given his degree of willingness and spiritual maturity. People hear and obey in varying degrees and in varying ways. The truth sets the believer free (John 8:31-32). Truth includes knowledge (what is known) and wisdom (how truth is applied). Both of these facts start and end with Christ and the Word.
1. How do you define suffering?
2. What are you think of the whole person (thoughts, desires, and actions) and how does your view fit the biblical view of man and God’s providence?
3. How does something outside of you influence thoughts, desires, actions, and feelings?
4. How does something inside of you influence thoughts, desires, actions, and feelings?
Suffering: A Proper Understanding and Response: Part II
What is a Believer to Think, Desire, and Do?
In our discussion of suffering: a proper understanding and response, our first task is to define the standard for helping us to unravel answers to some of the questions given in the first blog. The standard for the believer is the Bible. At the same time, God has given us other resources including books, tapes, sermons, conferences, and blogs such as this one to help us think through various subjects. One other resource available to us is the dictionary.
Several dictionaries define suffering as a state of undergoing pain, distress, misery, agony, or hardship. These words indicate some degree of experiencing trouble, great or small. The words generally include what is outside the person such as an external event and or what is in the person and his associated response. Suffering may result from something in the body. I make a distinction between in the body and with the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease of the joints specifically the lining of the joints called the synovium. People report that they are suffering from RA. When the synovium becomes inflamed (synovitis is the term) symptoms (subjective complaints such as pain and fatigue) and signs (red, swollen joints) are the result. In this case, there is something wrong with the body and not simply something wrong in the body. The person often labels himself as a RA-sufferer.
Consider another example. A person may complain of shortness of breath and fatigue. These complaints are symptoms. The symptom is subjective and may or may not be accompanied by a sign. The symptoms of shortness of breath and fatigue may be related to simply being out of shape or hard labor all day without a good night’s rest prior. Here the problem is in the body but not with the body. The person complaints of shortness of breath and fatigue are not due to a faulty body per say. In each case, both persons may speak of suffering.
A third example concerns the patient with heart trouble. This person has had a series of heart attacks and heart failure because of his damaged heart. He may complain of pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Moreover he may lament that he is not able to do what he wants when he wants the way he used to. Here is a person with problems in the body and with the body. A person may actually worsen his condition – his suffering, experience, and feelings. How a person thinks about himself, others, his condition, and the God of that condition influences his complaints and feelings of suffering.
As given above, it follows that it is important to consider the person’s response to his situation and to others when considering the subject of suffering. The person’s response to that which is outside of him (such as people or events) or that which is inside of him (such as heart trouble or RA) is often couched in feeling terms. At this juncture the person uses the term suffering to indicate several things. One, the term is used to indicate something which the person is responding whether on the outside of him (a person or event that may or may directly affect the person). Or it may refer to something inside the body such as some disease such as RA. What is inside may be disease of and with the body. As noted earlier, a person’s response is influenced by his feelings and by his thoughts about himself and his condition – his suffering. The reverse is also true: thoughts and wants drive feelings.
Second, the term suffering is related to how one feels irrespective of physical problems. At this conjuncture the term stress often pops us. The term stress is used in two ways: it is used to indicate that which is outside of a person –another person or event – that never physically touched him and that which is inside a person. The term stress is used physiologically. You may read that the stress in your causes problem. The idea expressed to patients is a cascade of molecules and chemicals have gone haywire.
However, people speak of being stressed out. This description is not of something going on inside of a person although it may feel like it. When someone says that they have stress or are stressed out they are referring to feelings. These feelings may have a physiological underpinning. When a person perceives danger or something unpleasant (however defined), various chemicals may be released in the body that produce physiological responses. These include a sense of a rapid heart rate or an actual increase in heart rate, complaints of pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue. This response is known as a stress response. Cortisone and adrenaline are commonly known chemicals that are released in the body. These and other chemicals can directly affect the body and give rise to symptoms and even signs. These chemicals are under the control of the person’s own thinking and wanting.
Third, stress as is suffering is also defined as a response by the person to something outside of the person. I hear people say that they are suffering from a cold, a spouse, a bad boss, or some other person or event. At this point please ask a very logical question: how does some-thing outside of you and even removed from you physically and geographically “produce” feelings that you are calling stress and suffering? The answer is via a person’s thinking and wanting at the moment as he is faced with the person or a situation which is outside of him. The event or person may be a past experience and not a present reality. Or the person or situation may be something the person is experiencing now. In all these situations, it is vital for the person to acknowledge that his thoughts and desires influence his perception and interpretation of his experience whether he terms it stress or suffering. .
In the final analysis, it is vitally important to learn what a person means by the term suffering. Only then will suffering: a proper understanding and response be achieved. This should become manifest as we consider suffering, however defined, from a biblical perspective.
1. Review your definition of suffering and stress and record your standard for your definition.
2. Write out your understanding of something in the body and something with the body.
3. Write out the difference between symptoms and signs and record how thoughts and desires are influential in their production.
Importance of A Proper Definition: Part III
Our next step in our study of suffering: a proper understanding and response is to highlight definitions. The first blogs emphasized, among other things, the necessity of defining terms and one’s standard. However, the universality of suffering and its personal nature tends to mitigate a proper definition. So often, the person is caught up in feelings. I think this is a mistake as I hope to show. If we use the dictionary as a source, you will find that most include the idea that suffering implies a conscious endurance. The concept implies that thinking and wanting should be included in one’s definition. These facts are critical as we look at the Bible’s use of the term.
Let’s stay with the dictionary and its definition. According to Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 the term to suffer is a verb from the Latin suffer – sub, under – and fero – to bear, to undergo, or to bear up under. Therefore according to Webster, to suffer means to undergo and or to feel or bear what is painful, disagreeable or distressing, either to the body or mind. The idea of an experience is often missed in discussions of suffering.
Various dictionaries include the term misery which tends to focus on unhappiness associated with the experience. This implies feelings but includes thoughts and desires concerning a number of factors. Another word, agony, is used for more intense suffering. The intensity of the suffering is again personal and includes thoughts and desires. It is voiced by the person. In that sense, only the person knows. The various dictionary definitions highlight the fact that suffering is a state or an experience. It has a subjective component, a cognitive component that can mitigate or exacerbate distress, and it involves an affective state. Please remember these points.
The dictionary definition of suffering is close to the definition of emotion as given in physiological textbooks. Most texts agree that an emotion is not easy to define. But most agree that an emotion is said to have a rational, emotive, subjective, and objective or action component. In other words, it is a whole-person response. This term will become clearer as we move on. According to Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 the term emotion originates from “the Latin word emotio/emoveo. Literally an emotion is a moving of the mind or soul; hence it is any agitation of the mind or excitement of sensibility.” Mind and soul are synonyms and refer to the person’s inner man.
A proper anthropology, the study of man, is critical here so let me briefly explain. The Bible, not science or pseudo-science (psychology and psychiatry), teaches that man is a duplex being. He is not to be divided. God created man a unit with a material-physical aspect (the body) and an inner-man aspect (heart, mind, soul, and spirit are various Biblical terms regarding the inner man). Man has a body but he is not only body. He has a spirit but he is not only spiritual. The two function together so that they influence the other. The person thinks, desires, and acts in both his inner and outer man. There is a connection between the two but it is not anatomical. When evaluating man as man, the whole person must be considered as a theological unit. Man can’t be parceled out to this person or that person. We must bring biblical truth to bear on the whole person no matter the situation.
Wittingly or unwittingly, at least one dictionary has defined suffering as a whole-person response that includes thoughts, desires, and actions to something either in the body or outside the body or both. This, I believe, is a critical point. It points to good anthropology and biblical truth although it does not credit God and His creational design! Man, the image of God, is a rational, relational, religious, and morally responsible being who is to reflect God as a dependent being in covenant with Him whether acknowledged or not.
Moreover, man is faith-based and an affective, emotive being. Man thinks, desires, and acts as a whole person in the inner and outer man. Feelings follow thoughts and desires, both “good” and “bad” ones. But man is not his feelings. However in the discussion of suffering, especially in the so-called scientific world, it is typical for science and the scientist to exclude the truth of God’s ordained creative activity. I will return to this fact.
The standard for truth is the Bible. The Bible is replete with references to trouble and suffering and addresses the sufferer and the suffering. It refers to the definition of suffering, its origin, God’s purpose for it, and man’s proper use of it. This should be of little surprise because the Bible teaches that the believer is to grieve in a godly way, to be fearful God’s way, to be angry God’s way, and to love God’s way. The believer should suffer God’s way. There is no way to worry God’s way or have depression God’s way. The Bible’s teaching on suffering is counterintuitive, countercultural, and is often considered to be irrational. In fact, a major theme of the Bible is the twin pillars of suffering and victory – both of which point to Christ and the cross (1Corinthians 1:18-31; 2:1-5). This point is also vital for determining suffering: a proper understanding and response.
The Bible uses several terms to indicate that trouble and suffering have at least three components: an event that is the result of God’s providence in a fallen world; the person’s response to it; and God, the Author and Controller of His world and creatures. These three elements – an event or person, God and His providence, and the sufferer – are intertwined and must not be separated. The term suffering has subjective and objective aspects and its origin and the person’s response is not neutral. Suffering is not simply life in a fallen world. It is not simply life of just is. Rather suffering must be studied from God’s standpoint and the believer’s response to Him in the situation. All that comes to anyone, especially the believer, is from the hand of God and a response to it is a response to God. God does not forsake His people. The Bible gives all a believer needs to honor God in all circumstances thereby getting victory in this life as a foretaste for heaven. Truly resurrection life and eternal life begins on this earth (Romans 6:9-10; John 17:3).
1. Non-biblical sources define suffering as an experience, something or someone that one endures. Read Hebrews 12:1-3 and write out how the dictionary matches with God’s word.
2. The concept of the whole person is misunderstood. Man is a whole, duplex being – inner and outer man – who thinks, desires, and acts in his inner and outer person. Experiencing hard times however defined involves the whole person. Write out your agreement or disagreement and your reasons for your answers.
3. According to Romans 12:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 5:9 what is a major purpose of the believer? Then read Romans 8:28-29 and write out when, where, and how that purpose is to be done.
Definitions: New Testament Use of Pascho: Part IV
In our discussion: suffering: a proper understanding and response, we must focus on God and His control. A wrong view of God and His providence leads to defective understanding of God and self which leads to wrong responses to God and His providence. This truth is a key to suffering God’s way. The Bible addresses the origin of suffering. Paul, in Romans 5:12-14, wrote that with Adam’s first sin and God’s judgement, sin, misery, and death entered into the world. Therefore, trouble, unpleasantness, misery, and death are universal. They are part and parcel of life in a sin-cursed world, as sinners, with failing bodies, and being surrounded by fellow sinners. All of God’s providences serve one purpose: to display the character and glory of God as the believer responds to and in them in God-honoring way.
It is important to remember that hard, even evil times are not a discriminator between “good” and “bad” guys,” between believer and unbeliever, and between believers. Jesus and Job are perfect examples of this easily misunderstood fact.
The Bible teaches that God does not leave His people in the midst of sinful rebellion, trouble, and misery, both from being sinned against and sinning. The Bible addresses the origin of suffering in such passages as Ephesians 1:4 and 11. These teach wonderful and important truths. God chose people for Himself to be Christ-like before the foundation of the world (1:4). In verse 11, Paul wrote that believers were chosen in Christ according to the Triune God’s eternal plan who is energetically working ALL things according to His ordained will. God is not asleep.
Paul knew God as pictured in Genesis 1:1-2 and in John 5:17. Paul picks up this theme is Romans 8:28-29. Paul writes that we know – he includes himself – that God is energetic (the word can be translated as dynamite or dynamo) as He works all things for His glory and the good of the believer. In verse 29, Paul defines the good: to be like Christ. The more one acknowledges this life-defining and life-changing truth the more one will move from defeat to victory, from burden to blessing, and from darkness or dimness to true light.
The Bible is not silent on the topic of suffering and trouble. How can it be when Christ, the Godman came to earth to live and die? He was the perfect man in His life via perfect lawkeeping and while on the cross dying the perfect death.
The Bible uses several words translated as suffering. One word the Bible uses is pascho. It is used some 41 times and is generally translated to suffer. It carries the idea of being affected by something, to be acted upon, and to undergo or to have an experience. It is something that occurs to a person. From the Bible’s standpoint suffering should be seen as an experience – something that one experiences as a whole person. Rarely is it used of a good experience (Galatians 3:5). It is generally refers to a bad experience however defined. Peter used the word frequently and in the context of encouragement and hope. Peter’s first letter is a treatise on suffering. Specifically it is a treatise on how to respond to and in unjust suffering. Peter introduces the concept of just and unjust suffering. A major theme of the book is light, life, trust, and obedience in the context of rough times. His congregation was about to undergo hard times. They would be used for lion food or to be used as combustible material.
Peter’s congregation was experiencing persecution – unjust suffering (1 Peter 2:18-24; 3:14-18; 4:1, 12-19). Peter names the circumstances and the people in those circumstances. In chapter 2, Peter wrote that one finds favor with God when he bears up under unjust suffering (v.19: For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God). Peter does not focus on the event or the one who is sinning against his people. Rather he focused on his people and their privilege as well as duty. This is heavy theology for people especially in difficult times! I
n these verses, Peter did not deny or try to sidestep the reality of God’s providence. He motivates his people by teaching them the necessity and the how of biblical endurance (See my book: Endurance: What It is and How It Looks in the Believer’s Life). The key was proper thinking and wanting which would lead to proper action. “Conscious of God” refers to rightly focusing on the God of circumstances and what He intends rather than the circumstances. This was Jesus’ way throughout His life. God’s purpose and its accomplishment was always Jesus’ desire. So, too, should it be for believers.
In verse 21 (To this you were called because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps), Peter recalls Ephesians 1:4 and 11. These Christians were called – appointed by God – for this. Wow! He then pointed to the person and example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Believers are to imitate Christ in every circumstance (v.23: When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly). Peter is not simply saying that we should suffer – experience tough times – as Jesus did. Jesus had a redemptive purpose which could be only realized if He was the perfect Godman. Our response to and in God’s providence has no redemptive value. But it reflects our view of God, Jesus, the cross, and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the believer has the privilege to honor God in any of God’s providence as a testimony to His power, wisdom, love, and grace.
At this point, some people may complain how uncaring for Peter to burden his people with theology! How Christ responded: what does that have to do with me? What Christ did redemptively, the believer is to do and can do non-redemptively! Christ, the Godman, entrusted Himself to His Father. The word entrust is a powerful word. It means to make a deposit as one would to the bank for safekeeping. Jesus’ goal was to please God. Responding to being sinned against in a Godly manner was one way that Christ pleased His Father. Pleasing His Father motivated and consumed Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond (see the gospel of John and the refrain: I came to please My Father and do His will). Peter calls on believers to do the same.
In chapter 3 (v.13-17) Peter addressed unjust suffering that was in the form of abuse. The receiver was sinned against. Peter was speaking of being mistreated and sinned against for simply being a Christian and living as one (v.17: It is better if it is God’s will to suffer for doing good than for doing evil). Peter, and the Holy Spirit, considered two pillars of knowledge as hope-engendering: one, God is the origin of and behind every circumstance in a person’s life; two, evil, sinful men are unwitting instruments in God’s hand and by God’s plan (Isiah 44:28-45:3; Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10; Acts 2:22-23; 4:27-28).
Although in Peter 4:12, the word pascho is not use, the concept is not new. Peter told the people not to be surprised at being sinned against. God has a purpose so be glad and entrust yourself to God when you are tempted to be sad (1 Peter 1:6-7; 4:12, 19 (So, then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.). Peter never denied the reality of hard times. He himself experienced them in part from his own sin! Neither did he deny the reality of God’s good control and purpose.
Hard times don’t trump the cross, union with Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and saving and sanctifying grace. God’s purpose for believers in any and every situation is for their growth which demonstrates the greatness of God. Former enemies of God – which all believers are – are being molded into the likeness of Christ in preparation for eternity. However, eternity starts now so that pleasing God becomes a pleasure, a blessing, and a joy. These facts are counterintuitive, countercultural, and frankly are rejected by many including believers.
The term pascho is also used of Christ’s sufferings and experiences as He lived and died as the Godman and was rejected and considered a loser (Matthew 16:21; 17:12; Mark 9:12; Luke 17:25; 22:15; 24:26, 46). The word appears twice in relation to the consequences of physical problems (Matthew 17:15; Mark 5:26). Matthew 27:19 records the use of the word in regard to Pilate’s wife. She told Pilate that Jesus was innocent and she had suffered all day because of her constant thoughts about Him. We are not told those thoughts. The word pascho referred to her inner-man angst as she contemplated the innocent Jesus who stood before her husband. She could not (she did not have the Holy Spirit) and did not go deeper into the true meaning of her thoughts.
Paul uses the term as well. In 1 Corinthians 12:26 he refers to the common experience of the body of Christ and its members. If one suffers – experiences hardships – the whole body does as well. The Corinthian Church was a mess. Factions, strife, and envy were the rule (1:10-17). God’s name was profaned as the individual members were sinning against one another. The members were both sinners and sufferers. Wrongs were ongoing.
Paul reminded the congregation at Philippi of the unity of the saints as a motivation to humble themselves by loving the brethren. In Philippians 1:29, Paul reminded the congregation of the privilege that individual believers had: they were to suffer with Christ as a body. The Philippian Church had been a blessing to Paul. He was thankful and reminded the people how to respond to unjust suffering – suffering from without via persecution. Certainly there were sinners in the Church (see 4:1-3) but early in the letter Paul was exhorted the people. He was in prison and false teachers were stirring up trouble (1:12-19).
Paul brought a strong motivation in verse 29: saving faith was a gift and suffering – undergoing the same experiences that Christ did, responding in the same way He did and with the same motivation (pleasing the Father) – was their privilege. The believers in the churches of Corinth and Philippi were experiencing both just and unjust suffering. From within, congregation members were sinning and being sinned against and there was persecution from without. Paul taught them how to suffer but also exhorted them to stop sinning against one another.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:14 and 2 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul referred to the Thessalonian believers as being persecuted by their fellow countrymen (unjust suffering). As Peter did, Paul encouraged the congregation to imitate Christ do they could be counted worthy of the name Christian. Paul was imprisoned in Rome and wrote his second letter to Timothy. Death was near and he knew it. In 2 Timothy 1:12: Paul spoke of himself as an agent of God for the gospel. His imprisonment and suffering experiences were proof that he was an apostle and minister of the gospel who was faithfully fulfilling his ministry. He had run the race well and looked forward to being in the presence of God.
1. One term translated as suffering is pascho. It indicates an experience usually unpleasant. What do you learn about suffering as you study the word?
2. How do you relate to the concept of just and unjust suffering?
3. What do you think of 1 Peter as a treatise on the proper response to unjust suffering? Write out your definition of unjust suffering, the proper response, and why.
Definitions: New Testament Use of Thlipsis/Thlibo: Part V
In our study of suffering: a proper understanding and response, I continue the theme from the previous blog. A second word translated as suffering is thlipsis. It is used some 45 times and is used of trouble in general. It carries the idea of being crushed or squeezed which comes from its root thlibo. Paul used this word in a figurative manner indicating pressure from evil, affliction, and distress. The word indicates that which is outside of a person but also the inner-man response.
Paul used the word several times. In Romans 5:3, he wrote that he rejoiced in his sufferings – his troubles, all that he experienced. How can that be, you exclaim. One key is the word in. The word in indicates that Paul directed himself to the God of circumstances and God’s purpose. Paul did not rejoice because of his trouble but he rejoiced in them. Paul did not exalt trouble which is a result of sin and he did not exalt suffering, His joy was not because of his trouble but because he knew God, His ways, and His purposes. He knew that circumstances rightly used brought great gain – here and now and eternally.
Paul had a proper view of the now and not yet in regard to himself and God’s providence. He knew God’s providence included suffering and non-suffering and pleasant and unpleasant circumstances. He knew that God was the Promise-maker and Promise-keeper and therefore purposeful and trustworthy. His providence always had good purposes. Paul described some of those purposes and goals in verses 3-5: endurance, character, hope, and the testimony of God’s love. The good purpose would come only if the trouble was rightly used through a proper response. As I have said, neither he nor Christ exalted suffering or self as a sufferer. The term sufferer was never their identity. Rather, suffering was correctly defined as an experience of being sinned against with a right response; it was intended to push God’s redemptive program along. Paul exalted his God who was the trustworthy Creator, Controller, and Sustainer.
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul praised the great Comforter God. Paul had been comforted – strengthened – in his situations and circumstances so that he could grow by comforting -strengthening others. And he did! The word translated comfort is parakaleo, to call to one’s side, which is a common term for Paul. Paul is reminding and urging the Corinthians and all believers to find strength in God and His truth. Throughout the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul documented trouble – hardships, suffering – for himself and his companions (1:8-10; 4:8-10; 6:3-10; 11:21-29). One way for him and all believers to give evidence of growth in Christlikeness was to strengthen others.
He reasoned that the more trouble, the more opportunity he had to grow and be able to strengthen and comfort others. Like John explained in his first epistle, Paul envisioned the cycle of love and comfort as having begun with God, the Source, terminating on the believer by the Holy Spirit, and then away from self to fellow believers (1 John 4:7-12). Soon the whole church would be using trouble for one of God purposes. God would be honored and individual believers would be growing.
In 2 Corinthians 2:4 (For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears not grieve you, but to let you know the depth of my love for you), Paul, as God’s man for the church at Corinth, was greatly grieved by sinners and unrepentant sin. His words indicate an inner-turmoil that originated from a proper vertical reference (Paul to God) out of a real concern for the Corinthians. They were missing the beauty and joy of a vital relationship with God and thus with each other. In Philippians 1:16-17, Paul spoke of a group of people who were stirring up trouble (hard times – bad experience) for him but ultimately for the Church by preaching a false gospel. Among other things, Paul was being sinned against but he looked beyond himself to the God of trouble.
These passages indicate that suffering involves the person who is experiencing an outside event or actions or inactions from other person, and one’s response to God’s providence. Suffering is relational – first to God and to self and others. A wrong view of God, self, and His providence leads to more inner-man problems. Paul used the term in 2 Corinthians 6:4 in his catalogue of his hardships as he did in Romans 8:35. John used the term to indicate a woman’s travail (often translated as anguish) in childbirth and to indicate the trouble that all believers will have as children of God who rightly and properly represent Christ (John 16:21, 33).
One other term, pathema, is worth mentioning. It is used some 16 times. It is a strong word because it indicates that the sufferings/experiences of a believer are to be used and responded to as Christ did and for Christ’s sake. See Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:24; and 2 Timothy 3:11.These passages convey a tremendous theological truth: resurrection life begins at the moment of regeneration and continues until consummation. Armed with this understanding, Paul was again countercultural and counterintuitive.
He considered and reckoned his present and unpleasant experiences/suffering whatever they were as lightweight when compared to the glory (a heavy weight!) that comes by and through responding to God’s providence in a way that honors God and extols His good name. Paul did not exalt suffering or the sufferer but his God. He looked forward to heaven which trouble properly interpreted and responded to brought into a clear light. It reminds me of the hymn It is Well With My Soul. One line especially drew my attention: you have taught me to say it is well with my soul. The circumstances were the context for Spafford to reflect on God and His mercies. Many of his children drowned while he stayed in America. As he passed close to the spot where the accident mostly likely had occurred, he penned this hymn which has blessed many. God takes care of His children!
1. Consider your definition of suffering. How does it fit with God’s overall redemptive purpose for mankind?
2. Suffering is best considered as occurring in the context of God’s providence. How does that definition help you interpret Scripture and the culture’s “wisdom?”
3. How does the non-negotiable truth that God is sovereign in all things help you consider how to respond to God when unpleasantness seems to be a constant companion?
Suffering: A Proper Understanding and Response: God’s Providence: Part VI
In our study of suffering: a proper understanding and response we need to look at the issue of God’s providence. Experiences/sufferings of the believer, and the unbeliever, are important issues. They are important because they are God’s classroom for teaching theological truths. Sinning and being sinned against is part of the curse and no one, not even perfect Jesus, escapes being sinned against. Both sinning and being sinned against are one demonstration of God’s providence. That is a heavy, profound, mind-boggling (pick your adjective) theological truth.
One must be careful when considering God’s providence. Many have taken the fact of God’s providence and have attempted to use it against God and even to deny His existence. If God was good and powerful then bad things would not happen at least to me and my family. If bad things happen then God is either not good or not powerful or both. That was the approach that Rabbi Kushner took when a son was born with progeria (premature aging). People have used that approach to resist and suppress the truth that God is and they are not God (Romans 1:18-23). In those passages, Paul described the unbelievers’ reaction to God’s control regarding creation. The above sentences summarize a person’s attack on God’s control. Sinful and rebellious man is resisting truth by exchanging it for a lie in order to worship self. Paul calls this idolatry (Romans 1:18-23).
Ultimately, no one knows why things happen to people – both good and bad – depending on your definition of good and bad (Deuteronomy 29:29). Based on Job’s counselors, Job and Jesus were in the same boat – both experienced big trouble and suffering. If getting back into God’s graces was the desired goal, then repentance was God’s means. Sin and sinning were seen as the way out of God’s graces and repentance was the answer for getting back into God’s graces and favor. This was/is an interesting theological concept. Based on this God-dishonoring philosophy, entering into God’s favor is pictured as a revolving door. As Job’s counselors emphasized, God is a tit-for-tat kind of God. You step out of line and God saps you. They failed to acknowledge that because their experiences were not like Job’s and thus, they did not need to humble themselves and repent before God. Such it was for Rabbi Kushner. He believed that God, his kind of God, should not treat him the way He did. He believed that the Bible did not provide him answers that he deserved. He denied the fact that the Bible was not sufficient for life and godliness, either explicitly or implicitly (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:3-4).
If suffering, or non-suffering, were a measure of holiness then one could take an inventory of his holiness by the number of unpleasant or pleasant experiences. You will find no such directive in the Bible. Some take Matthew 8:17 quoting Isaiah 53:4 (He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases) to indicate that Christ’s crucifixion (perhaps they would include His active obedience as well!) guaranteed a life without physical problems on this earth. They use that passage to claim healing and if it does not come they assume the problem is their lack of faith.
I always ask the person to explain how that works. If faith is a gift and God gives good gifts, how is the gift defective? They often don’t know how to answer or they may say it is not the Giver but me the recipient. They will say they are not faithful enough. I ask them: faithful in what, what will that look like, and how much is enough? If we are still conversing, I ask them if the object of their faith is healing or is it to trust and obey God. I remained them that the Triune God has brought them to Himself bad bodies and all. The answers are interesting to say the least!
Luke 13:1-5 addresses this same theme. Two events involving Galileans, a hideous massacre by Pilate of temple worshippers and a crushing of some by a tower that fell, were presented to Jesus. The people presented the events as examples of God’s displeasure with the people who died but Gnot with those who did not have the same experience. It was assumed that “bad” things happen only to “bad” people. Jesus undermined this false theology by calling on all sinners to repent. The group’s approach was much like the one that the three friends of Job took to Job in regard to his problems. Both groups wrongly and sinfully read from the experience back to God. Job’s friends at least told him to repent. The crowd apparently demanded that Jesus explain God’s ways. The idea that personal disaster (suffering) is a result of personal sin was deeply rooted in the Jewish psyche and religion (see Job and John 9:1-2).
In Luke 13, Jesus emphasized a theme found throughout the gospel of Luke: repentance. You might think He agreed with Job’s friends. Whoa yourself! Jesus told the crowd that salvation is the key because death and destiny awaits every person (Hebrews 9:27). All perish in hell if there is no salvation. The key was twofold: the fact of death not the how of death and the call and need of was repentance (13:34-35; 19:41-44; 23:28-30). All sinners must repent if there is salvation! Jesus called the crowd and all Israel to repent. They failed to follow the divine command!
Jesus taught the crowd that the current situation must not dictate their theology. That was one of Asaph’s problems (Psalm 73 especially verses 1-5, 13-14). He interpreted God’s truth through circumstances rather than interpreting the circumstances through truth. It is not the suffering or non-suffering that is important. It is the believer’s response to God and His providence that is crucial. Unless one correctly acknowledged God as the one true God, the faithful, Creator and Controller, no person will respond in a way that brings glory to God and good to self and others. One essential ingredient for godly living is to humble self before God (Plasm 46:10).
The author of Proverbs 30 prayed that God would not give to him riches or poverty (God’s “good” and “bad” providence!) because both carry their own temptations and problems (30:7-9)! Using God’s providence to grow in Christlikeness completes God’s original design for His people and pleases the Father. It imitates Christ who came to please His Father by doing His Father’s will (John 4:31-34).
There is a tendency to focus on the person and their feelings in hard times. How he responds to good or easy times is rarely discussed. The key for properly responding to God in any situation is having a proper vertical reference. This enables a person to biblically use God’s providence to please and honor God and King. In that way it is possible to enjoy God. Again this is a countercultural, seemingly irrational statement. Train yourself to enjoy God is taught in such passages as Psalm 34:8 and Philippians 3:7-11. Jesus did enjoy the cross but He did enjoy being in sync with the Godhead and accomplishing His will. You enjoy God because He is God. Jesus was not a masochist. But He knew covenantal faithfulness and the cross were necessary to accomplish redemption.
The Triune God created and recreated you believer to enjoy Him. From eternity past, the Triune God had planned and is fulfilling that plan as He brings His people to Him at a point in history that only He knows. He employs hard and easy providences as His tool.
In that regard we must rightly guard this term – suffer with Christ (Philippians 1:29-30; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 2:19-23; 4:12, 19). Paul calls it a privilege and Peter writes that it is our calling. Just what does the term, suffer with Christ mean? Is every hard time to be “suffering with Christ”? We will look at this topic on our next blog.
1. Write out hard times and easy times and define how they were hard and easy.
2. How do you apply Psalm 34:8 and Philippians 3:7-11 in your life no matter the times?
3. How many hard times is enough and how many easy times are enough? How will you decide?
God’s Providence Continued: Part VII
We are continuing our study: suffering: a proper understanding and response. I have labored to set a proper milieu for a discussion on suffering. Many books have been written on the subject but the most trusted book is the Bible. I have sought to define suffering as the Bible has – a person’s experience of and in God’s providence. Some may say that every experience is God’s providence. That would be true as well. God’s providence is His most holy, wise, powerful, and personal ordaining, governing, and sustaining all of His creatures for His glory and for advancement of His Kingdom (Proverbs 19:21; 21:1, 31; Psalms.115:3; 135:6; Isaiah 45:5-7; Ephesians 1: 11-13; Hebrews 1:3). The definition is all encompassing and leaves nothing to chance or “it just is,” or out of God’s control.
The fact that God is and is working settles the question as to the origin of all things. Sometimes that reality and theological truth is a “hard pill to swallow.” People tend to resist that truth when their circumstances are very difficult and seem so” unfair.” They resist the truth of God and His control in any number of ways. Anger at God is quite common. The person may say he is not angry at God but only at the person or situation that God has providentially brought into his life. Theologically anger at what God brings is anger at God. The only true and saving recourse is for the person to be on his knees before God and repent. Only then will God be magnified. Only then will God will lift up the person and perhaps out of the situation. But remember that God the Holy Spirit does not work for a person or against a person. He works in and with the person. The person humbles himself as God humbles him through the work of the Spirit (Galatians 2:20; Philippians 2:12-13). Situations don’t humble a person. They are the context for the person to humble himself. Humiliation and humility are not synonymous.
Experiences are not who a person is. It is not their identity even though many people try to make them so. Rather they are the context in which a person comes face to face with who he thinks he is and who he thinks God is. God uses man’s free moral agency to accomplish His goals. God ordains the beginning – A – and the end – D – but also the steps in between: B and C. He ordains the end and the means. One of the means of accomplishing His plan is via man’s free choices in the context of His providence – the happenings of the world. The cross is a perfect example (Acts 2:22-24; 4:27-28).
Part of living as a sinner, even a saved one, in a sin-cursed world is sinning and being sinned against. Both of those are realities until Jesus returns. Knowledge of those facts should help the believer to rightly process life and suffer – experience God’s providence – God’s way. A reminder: life is God’s providence. Knowing and being in right relationship with the sovereign, all-encompassing God helps the believer to rightly evaluate, interpret, and respond to everything that the believer experiences. The believer is called to grow, is saved to grow, is equipped to grow, and is motivated to grow. Therefore, a believer will seek to experience or to suffer God’s way.
You might ask if it is proper to speak of Christian suffering. Certainly the Christian is called to respond to God and His providence in a total and radically different way than the unbeliever. The unbeliever cannot suffer God’s way. He does not have the indwelling Holy Spirit. However, the indwelling Holy Spirit and union with Christ do not guarantee that the believer will respond in a God-honoring manner. It is sad when the unbeliever seems to respond in a “better” way than the believer when hard times come. As a physician I see this fact played daily in the office. Sadly, I see it played daily in my own home as I observe myself.
Peter in his first letter speaks of just and unjust suffering (1:6-7; 2:19-23; 3:14-17; 4:12, 19). There are two aspects to consider: suffering, experiencing God’s providence is one aspect and the second is the person in the midst of any situation. Peter makes the distinction between just and unjust suffering. What is the difference? Peter’s first letter seemed to be a general letter written to the churches of Jewish-Christians to encourage them not to forget who they were and who God was in times of trouble (5:10-12: And the God of grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen).
Peter the denier, the man who chose to forget (actually ignore Jesus’ straight teaching: Luke 22:31-34, 54-62) was now writing to fellow believers exhorting them to “suffer with Christ.” Peter had been restored and he was honoring God and obeying Jesus’ command (John 21:15-17; Luke 22:33).
In one sense, all suffering is just. Every person, even the baby in the womb, is guilty before God as part of the fall and God’s curse (Psalm 51:1-5). Every person born of ordinary birth was counted guilty in Adam. Therefore, everyone has broken God’s law unless they have been saved (Romans 5:12-14). In another sense there is unjust suffering. There are people who have been sinned against and as a result they lose things: their life, material things, parts of their body, or some family member. Abortion is an example of unjust suffering as defined above. The baby is a sinner but he has not broken any man-made law. Peter’s people had to contend with Jews, their own people, and from persecution by Rome. The assumption is that the people while not sinless were being persecuted simply because they were Christians. Peter exhorted them to stay the course and run the race, not like he had done, but as victors (1:6-7).
Peter tackled the topic head-on: suffering: a proper understanding and response. Then and now, he called for believers to imitate Christ which is part of Christian suffering. Verses 13 and 17 of 1 Peter 3 defines Christian suffering as suffering for what is right and good. He even asks: who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good (v.13). A key is the definition of good and bad. The suffering – experience of mistreatment – is to have occurred because the believer is honoring God in the proper way for the glory of God. Verse 14 speaks of two different kinds of fear: fear of the Lord and fear of man. He calls his people to fear the Lord. Verse 15 spells out what fear of the Lord would look like: the believer is settled within his inner man and sets aside Christ as the one to fear and honor not self or others. He stands ready to give an explanation as to his hope to everyone who asks. Peter taught that quietness of mouth may be the wise and God-honoring activity of the believer. But the believer is to be ready to verbally profess Christ and give the reason for his hope. Circumstances and others don’t determine hope. Only a vital relationship with Christ does.
Peter gives a similar message in 1 Peter 2:19-23 (as Christ entrusted Himself, actively, cognitively, and purposefully to His Father, so, too are believers to do). In 1 Peter 4:12-19, Peter again defined Christian suffering: rejoicing in the midst of suffering, not because of them but as a testimony that they were true disciples of Christ (Acts 5:41: the disciples were rejoicing because they were considered worthy to suffer disgrace for the cause of Christ).
In verse 13 Peter writes that the people that participate in the sufferings of Christ may rejoice that they participate in them (2 Corinthians 1:5; Philippians 1:29; Colossians 1:24). Peter is speaking non-redemptively. The big picture is this: the world hates Christ and all He represents (John 1:4-11; 3:17-21; John 15:18-21). If it hates Christ it will hate the believer and the true Church because they are related to Christ. Union with Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit is a monumental truth to grasp for godly suffering.
If the Church and individual believers are not experiencing trouble (not of their own doing and sinfulness) then perhaps the individual and the Church are missing the mark in terms of Christian suffering and growth in Christ. In verse 15-16 (If you suffer it should not be as a murderer, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian , do not be ashamed but praise God that you bear his name), Peter again spells out Christian suffering when he writes that Christians experience maltreatment not due to their own sin but from the reproach of others. That reproach can result in mistreatment and being sinned against (Acts 5:41). Rather Christian suffering occurs when the person is being attacked overtly or covertly because of his godliness. People see Christ in the believer and attack the Triune God via the believer.
1. How does Peter define just and unjust suffering? See Psalms 34-37 and 38-41 as examples of innocent sufferer and the guilty sufferer.
2. How does he define Christian suffering? (See 1 Peter 1:6-7; 2:19-24; 4;12-19)
3. Do you agree with his definitions? Write out your reasons.
4. When is the last time that suffered for and with Christ?
5. Hard times come simply because God has ordained them. How do you respond and how is Romans 8:28-29 a blessing?
Suffering: A Proper Understanding and Response: Part VIII
How much is Enough?
In our study: suffering: a proper understanding and response we come to the issue: how much is enough? In the last blog we examined Peter’s first letter and his emphasis on just and unjust suffering. You might add the adjectives godly and ungodly to the suffering. You might ask how much suffering does a Christian need. If you don’t have suffering, should you seek I or ask for it? Those are not inane questions. Many older people have lived in America for decades; they have grown up in a culture that has always had a semblance of morality and even Christianity until recently. These people have gone to work, provided for the family, and were law-abiding citizens. One such lady asked me if she needed more suffering. She wanted to know if she should seek out maltreatment by haters of Christ. That is an interesting question that demands a profound answer.
On the other side of the coin is the person who has been ill or injured for varying periods of time even decades. People are living longer given medical advancements. These experiences and the on-going consequences would qualify as suffering. Many of these people were not suffering for the cause of Christ. At the time of their illness or injury, they were not involved in Christian ministry and they were not being persecuted. The question for these people is what now? Some “resign themselves” to it, some “accept it” however those terms are defined, and others just go about their business. How are we to think about these groups of people?
By far and away the terms found in the Bible for the Christian who is suffering indicate trouble in general as part of life in a fallen world (Romans 5:12-14). Sin, sinners, suffering, and sufferers are part of living in a sin-cursed world with sin-cursed bodies. Attacks on God’s people including persecution are attacks on Christ because of hatred of Him (John 15:18-21; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 P 4:12-19).
Much of what we hear about as suffering is hard times in any shape or form. It may be being sinned against for any reason and or sinning in return and facing the consequences. Sometimes hard times come such as so-called natural disasters seemingly without any reason. John Murray called all of these hard times God’s frowning providence. When faced with hard times, it is easy to focus on the person and his response rather than the God of circumstances including hard times. The emphasis is often on the person’s response in terms of inner-man angst, distress, and even agony. Yet every person continues to live and breathe and have his existence on this earth (Acts 17:24-28).
In America, the term suffering (it might change if the culture continues its truth suppression and truth-exchanging activity) often focuses on those with chronic conditions without resolution. People are likely to label themselves and center the discussion on that label. As noted previously, an affective and subjective aspect is often emphasized especially in this group of people. God may be brought into the picture but only as an enabler.
It seems quite amazing the situations that a sovereign God places His people. The nation of Israel is a prime example. She was Yahweh’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22-24), the apple of His eye (Deuteronomy 32:10), and a holy nation and His treasured possession (Exodus 19:5-6). However, Israel rejected Yahweh, her husband, and sought out lovers for her pleasure and enjoyment. She was an unrepentant adulterer, spiritually and physically. As a result, Yahweh disciplined her and scattered her into other nations. He then gathered His people (one theme of the book of Hosea; see Deuteronomy 4:27; 28:64; 30:3-4; Isaiah 29:3; 37:33; Jeremiah 13:19; 20:4; 22:12; 27:20; 29:4, 7, 14; Ezekiel 4:1-3; 12:1-15; 20:23-27, 34, 41; 28:25). Yahweh used other nations as His agent to discipline Israel. Hard times were God’s discipling tool. Not only did He restore Israel, He restored some of the nations who he used to spank her (Jeremiah 46:26; 48:47; 49:6, 39). Truly God’s ways and thoughts are not ours but we are to become like Him in our thinking and wanting.
God brings rain and sunshine on His enemies and scatters and gathers His people (Matthew 5:43-48; Acts 14:17). Actually every person, believer and unbeliever, deserves the full force of God’s wrath. Man was born in sin (Psalm 51:5). In that sense there is no true unjust sufferer. Yet hard times even death are part of the curse. Yet hard times do not seem to come to some (Psalm 73). To others such as Job, it seems as if God was doing His own thing without any rhyme or reason. If you don’t think that God is bringing hard times on you don’t panic or wonder if God loves His people and you. Never doubt that God is good – the cross and the resurrection confirm that He is.
I would say the same thing for the believer who is having tough times. Think through the truths reviewed in this series: suffering: a proper understanding and response. Don’t be fearfully sinful; don’t wonder if God is worth running the race for as the victor that you are in Christ; don’t wonder if the cross and the resurrection – Christ’s and yours with Him – are worth it. We will look at some truths and their application in the next blog in order to help believers suffer God’s way for His glory and the benefit of the body and you.
1. How will you decide if you have enough or too much suffering?
2. What is your standard for making such a determination?
3. What is your response to God’s providence?
4. In response to His providence, how have used the providence to change your view of God and self?
5. If have not changed, give reasons why not.
Reconsideration of God’s Providence: Part IX
A logical question to ask as we study suffering: a proper understanding and response is: Why are the bad guys winning. It is a common question when considering the topic of suffering. The Bible is replete with examples of people who have asked this question. The question asker is never in a position of joy. He is vexed. The person may be concerned about his own situation or Israel’s situation in light of God’s treatment in contrast to that of foreign nations (for instance Psalms 42-43; 73 and the How Long O Lord refrain found throughout the Psalter in including Psalms 6 and 13; the book of Lamentations; and the book of Habakkuk).
Often what God brought into the life of Israel and her people was in stark contrast to the prosperity of the “bad guys.” The foreign nations experienced what the prophets thought Israel deserved. It seemed to have made little difference that Israel as a nation defied the living God. Often the prophets lamented – cried out and even complained – to God because it seemed that the bad guys had good fortune while Israel only had trouble. The foreign nations had what Israel expected was hers on the basis of her position as a child of God.
Jeremiah was a man who experienced hard times as an individual and a prophet of God. He was faced with suffering: a proper understanding and response. In the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah recorded his call from Yahweh in chapter 1. It was revealed to him that Israel had failed to be Yahweh’s kind of nation and child. Hard times were coming. He begins chapter 12 (v.1-2) by declaring Yahweh’s righteousness. He is Judge and Jury and His judgments are correct (Jeremiah 11:20; Genesis 18:25). Jeremiah had to know suffering: a proper understanding and response. He knew that every person knows God as Judge as well as Creator.
Everyone has a relationship with and a belief about God. The nation of Israel had a personal relationship with Him because God made it happened. They knew God but not as He is. Jeremiah was lamenting the imminent defeat and desolation of Israel. He knew Israel was guilty and unrepentant. He knew that God had a right, a privilege, and an obligation to judge them. In the same breathe he laments that the bad guys are prospering. Jeremiah was vexed and grieved. He was trying to understand God and His ways.
Habakkuk was a man who was faced with suffering: a proper understanding and response. He made the same assessment. He set out the case against Israel in the opening verses (Habakkuk 1:1-4). He did not like the answer God gave him (1:5-11). God would use the dreaded Babylonians to spank Israel. Habakkuk voiced his concern in verse 12-17. How could use such a wicked people since your eyes are too pure to look on evil (1:13). Here was the issue: how could God tolerate and even “allow” (actually ordain!) His chosen people to sin and evil go unpunished?
Moreover and a corollary: how could God “allow” evil people seemingly to flourish and continue seemingly unchecked especially at the expense of Israel? Wicked Israel, God’s people, was to be spanked by wicked Babylonia. The prophet would say the Babylonians were much worse. How could it be? What kind of God was he working for? The prophet stopped talking and said he would “wait on the Lord” (2:1). As a guard at his post, Habakkuk would stand guard with his eye fixed on God and His activity. This was a most wise action on his part (Psalm 46:10)! God then spoke to and revealed Himself more clearly to the prophet.
God performed a similar action as recorded in the book of Job (38-42). In both instances, the prophet and Job had a similar response: both men had a different view of God and self (Habakkuk 3:2; Job 42:2-6). Both Jeremiah and Habakkuk knew that Israel was God’s chosen people. Israel knew and experienced God’s faithfulness through the centuries. The prophets also knew that Israel was a despicable nation and deserved chastisement. But they attempted to turn God’s face toward the bad guys – to other nations. They had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that God would bring to nothing the temple, the city of Jerusalem, and the nation.
What they did not know was the end and God’s purpose. The scattering and chastisement of Israel was part of God’s redemptive plan. The prophets had glimpses of the not yet but the fuller revelation awaited the coming of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12). God is both the Scatterer and Gatherer (Deuteronomy 4:25-27; 28:64-68; 30:1-10; Jeremiah 29:14; 30:3, 18; 31:23; 32:44; 33:6-7, 11, 26; Ezekiel 12:1-15). The scattering and gathering so common in the book of Jeremiah was a prophecy of the new exodus ushered in by Jesus Christ. He came to His own but they did not receive Him (John 1:4-5, 9-11). Yet Jesus was/is the true restored Son Israel, the greater David, the real Temple, and the new Zion.
Malachi, a post-exilic prophet, was faced with suffering: a proper understanding and response. He knew God and his own people. They had been returned from exile as God had promised. But the nation was a spiritual zombie misinterpreting what God had done and why. Israel still did not get it. In verse 15 of chapter 3 of the book of Malachi, he accused Israel of using the supposed prosperity of the wicked as an excuse for their own rebellion against God. As a nation, Israel had not changed. Malachi was saddened and angered.
Asaph another believer was faced with suffering: a proper understanding and response as recorded in Psalm 73. He is a classic example of misinterpreting the already (God’s providence played on this earth) and the not yet (resurrection life has begun for the believer and the church but there is still much growth until Christ’s second coming). He praised God for His goodness to Israel in verse 1. In verse 2, he confesses sin – my feet had almost slipped and I nearly lost my foothold. In verse 3, he explained the dynamics: For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. In verses 4-12, he gave his description of the wicked: in a summary statement, they had it made. As he was coming to his senses or perhaps after he did, he reflected on himself and gave his testimony in verses 13-14: he had made a wrong choice by being a Christian. He viewed himself and Israel as the victim and the wicked as the victors.
In verses 15-19, he described his coming-out party if you will. He came to his senses when he put God in the picture properly. God was already in the picture! Asaph interpreted God’s presence as an absence. He and Job had the same response to God’s frowning providences. Asaph had been living the lie. God was always there but not the way Asaph wanted Him. Asaph explained his new understanding in terms of destiny (v.17-19). Asaph came to the reality that this is God’s world and not his or the wicked. If one lives only for the now, there will be hell to pay. This same view of the now is expressed in Psalm 10:1-11 and Psalm 37:12-14.
A correct view of God leads to a proper view of His providence which leads to a proper view of suffering: a proper understanding and response. When all are present the believer is motivated to use what he does not like for good – to respond to and in God’s providence by suffering God’s way. Growth in Christlikeness occurs as he does. God is glorified and the believer matures. It is a win-win situation.
1. In the examples above, what is going on?
2. Each man acted based on their view of God, self, others, and sin. They had a view of right and wrong. However, they were faced with the God’s incomprehensibility. They knew God but they did not know or understand His ways. How was the situation resolved in man’s case?
3. How does Deuteronomy 29:29 help you when you consider the subject of suffering?
Suffering: A Proper Understanding and Response: Part X
In conclusion of our study: suffering: a proper understanding and response, you might ask: what does my situation have to do with Israel’s history? You might even say that you have not done all that Israel did. You want to know why and you want to know the concept of “Christian suffering.” Good for you! I would say, it is more correct to speak of the Christian suffering well rather than Christian suffering. I believe that answers the question: suffering: a proper understanding and response. In that sense, living in God’s tough providence in Christlikeness follows the same principles that any believer must employ no matter the circumstances.
In one sense, man is a sufferer. He was not created as a sufferer. Such is the result of the fall and God’s judgment. This fact must be understood for suffering: a proper understanding and response. In the Garden pre-fall and in heaven there was and there will be no tears. John closes his letter with an extraordinary statement: He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of thing has passed away (Revelation 21:4). John covered all of redemptive history in that statement! Until then, believers are to live on the earth as more-than-conquerors (Romans 8:35-37). The question: how is that possible with so much suffering? That questions forces us to the life and death of Christ and forces us to consider suffering: a proper understanding and response.
In one sense the answer is simple: the Triune God is your God and you are His child. Unfortunately, too often that doesn’t satisfy or seems as only a skimpy bandage .There are non-negotiable truths that are foundational for the believer to suffer – experience God’s providence – God’s way. You could term this Christian suffering – the Christian who understands life from God’s perspective. Therefore he grieves God’s way, fears God’s way, comforts God’s way, loves God’s way, and experiences God’s providence – trouble – God’s way. As we close our discussion: suffering: a proper understanding and response, consider these truths:
First, if God is for you, who can be against you? (Romans 8:31). You might think this statement is concerned only with salvation. If that is true then Romans 8:28-29 and 8:35-37 would apply only to salvation. Rather, Paul is teaching his people that there is life after salvation. He is teaching them how to live as believers and giving motivation for living as such.
Second, God’s providence must be properly understood to live as victors that they are. That is one function for the often-quoted Romans 8:28-29 passage. God is for His people and at work in them by the Holy Spirit. He is in the problem, up to something, and that something is good for the now and eternally. God rightly expects the believer to be in the likeness of His Son which is the finished product of progressive sanctification.
Third, the process for becoming like Christ is carried out in the classroom of the fallen world. God brings those people and situations that He deems necessary for His people to become like Christ. Thus, hard times will come and sometimes as a tsunami. But good times come as well. The amount and type of “times” is not to be a measure of the person’s “badness” or goodness.”
Fourth, a proper definition of suffering is a must. Suffering is best summarized as an experience most often hard and even harsh. It always has a purpose but God does not always reveal the purpose. Consider Genesis 37-50 and Joseph. A quarter of the book of Genesis covers the life of Joseph. Chapter 50 closes the book and verses 19-21 offer the same truth as Romans 8:28-29: you meant it for evil but God was superintending it for His purpose which is for good. Joseph was in the dark for years as to what God was doing. It was not important for Joseph to know. Job thought it a must to know what God was doing and for God to give an account to him. God said no and gave Job Himself (Job 38-42), Job was satisfied and never asked the why. Job was a type of Christ but he was not Him. Until he came face to face with God and did not die, he did not and would not understand the cross.
Fifth, you believer are a child of the King, bought with a price. You are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. The Triune God has invested Himself in you. Don’t settle for some identity that a person gives that focuses on you and your problems. The only cause you need to pursue is God’s in Christ by the Holy Spirit. You might think that is pie in the sky talk. You may agree that complaining is against God and not just your body or the people or the situation. You may even repent. Then you may add that you know all will be well in heaven – no problems, no bad body, and no bad people. But you stop short. You are troubled and dissatisfied. You ask and even scream: how will I go from here (with all my problems) to there (heaven)? That is high grade theological question that I have labored to answer. Don’t let the simple answers dissuade you from learning and practicing how to suffer God’s way.
As you think through suffering: a proper understanding and response, consider this metaphor. In the older days, people would speak of going to grandma’s house as a wonderful treat. You can substitute any other destination. But for now you knew her house was some distance away. There was much preparation and effort involved before you could leave. There was much anticipation and even longing as you prepared for the trip. So why did you go? Simply because the pain was worth the gain! That is the same reason women have babies and more babies and why some athletes and students push themselves. You hear terms like excellence as a driving goal. For the Christian, there is no higher goal than becoming like Christ in order to please the Father.
You, believer, must take stock of yourself and your situation AND your God. What does that relationship mean and how has it influenced your response to suffering: a proper understanding and response> you are addressing God in His providence in your life.
1. Summarize the main points of the series.
a. What have you learned new?
b. How are you applying it?
c. What are your results?
2. Be sure and define suffering from a biblical perspective. What help does that give you?
3. How have your changed your identity from a sufferer to a child of God and of the King?
4. How are you on your way to grandma’s house?