Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Purpose of Suffering

Our world is full of pain and suffering.  Just today I was given the news that a family we know has lost their second child to death.  My heart broke.  I can only imagine the pain they must be enduring, even though their faith is strong and they have a wonderful support system around them.  I know how much my heart broke when my brother died.  I cannot imagine having to go through that a second time.
There have been many times in my life where I have questioned suffering.  In fact, I have discussed such things on this blog before, be it in passing or more in-depth.  Today, however, I want to revisit the subject of suffering.

The question of suffering is often a taboo subject in the church.  We don’t like the idea of suffering, and we don’t like the idea of God allowing us to endure trials.  So we avoid dealing with the topic and thus, inadvertently, we create a church full of individuals who question God because they don’t understand suffering.  We have, in essence, created for many Christians a “hell on earth”, if you pardon the expression.  What do I mean by this?  Quite simply, I believe one of the reasons (not the only reason, mind you, but one of them) why hell is so hellish is because it is torment devoid of refinement.  It doesn’t better the person or produce anything positive.  It is unadulterated torture.  Tragically, the church has left thousands coping miserably under the crush of senseless suffering.

So, let’s dive into this topic and try to shed some light on it.
The sufferings we see all around us tells us that, quite simply, there is something wrong with our world.  The answer to that question is one every Sunday school child should be able to answer.  Sin.   Sin entered our world through the initial sin of Adam and Eve (Rom. 5:17), thus subjecting mankind to death and suffering, two things which are explicably linked to sin (James 1:15).  Sin produces death, and death produces suffering.  In fact, most forms of pain and suffering are expressions of incipient death; that is, taken to their ultimate potential, most forms of pain culminate in death.

So when we ask the question, “Why does God allow suffering in the world?” we must first acknowledge that sin and suffering is our fault, not God’s (due to the fall of mankind). We brought this upon ourselves. Now, the Good News is that Jesus, moved by man’s plight, came to change that.  Because our God is a God of love and mercy He chose to save us from this fate.  Now, when we submit our wretched woes to Christ, He infuses us with divine purpose and extends to us the promise of His redeeming power.
Which then begs the question, “How could a God of love allow us to bring such horror upon ourselves?”
The answer, actually, is found in His great love for us. God wanted to give His Son a bride who would love Him with extravagant abandonment. For her love to be authentic, however, it had to be voluntary, and for her decision to be voluntary, she had to have the power to choose between God and sin, life and death. 
I like to think of The Bride of Christ (the church) as a pearl.  A pearl fashioned unlike any pearl ever seen by man.  See, a valuable pearl is the product of an oyster’s distress; similarly, God is using the pain of the world to produce a pearl of great price—a glorious bride who is lovesick for Jesus Christ.  A pearl which is being fashioned through the war zone of cosmic struggle against the forces of darkness.
And you know what?  Something we as humans forget is that we weren’t the only ones that suffered, due to the choices we made.  In Revelation 13:8 Jesus is called “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” According to this verse, from the very beginning God knew that if He created man, He Himself would endure unimaginable suffering. And yet, knowing the cost that creating man would entail, God still chose us.  He concluded that the final glory was worth the price of suffering. The destination would be glorious, but the journey would be fraught with pain and suffering. 
See, here is what we must remember.  All the anguish of our world would be utterly futile if not for the cross—the one momentous event in history that revolutionized how we view suffering.
The cross changed everything.
The cross gives significance to the sufferings of the world. When we gaze at the cross, we don’t see a detached Creator who watches us writhe from afar; we see a God who has stepped into our struggle.  A God who sent His son, His perfect, spotless Lamb, to die in our stead, that we might have everlasting life.  Remember, humans, that no one has suffered more that God Himself.  That is part of what makes our Heavenly Father so accessible.  He empathizes with our sufferings from firsthand experience.
The cross demonstrated that it is not sinful to be in pain.  That is something I want to make very clear.  So often Christians get very judgey when it comes to pain and suffering.  When we should be the most sensitive we are often the most hurtful.  But Christ Himself underwent pain and suffering.  Christ sweat blood for us.  He wept passionately on our behalf.   He mourns for us.  He proved that we are not afflicted with pain and suffering because we are doing something wrong or we are in direct sin.  Pain and suffering is a product of the fall (though pain and suffering can also be a repercussion of a person’s personal sin—for example, if a person participates in promiscuous activities, the likelihood that they will contract AIDS or other STDs is very high). 
It’s the cross that makes the gospel so relevant. You can take it anywhere in the world. Take the gospel to the worst place on earth and you have a message to lift the lowest life. Find the most destitute, sin-scarred, addiction-bound, demon-possessed, filthy human being you can possibly find, and you’ll find someone whom the gospel can take up in its arms.
And it is the cross that demonstrates so powerfully not only Christ’s love for us, but also His power, because Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was much more than just a slap in the face of our mortal enemy.  God used the very suffering Satan has masterminded to defeat him on his own turf.
Something else we need to remember is that Christ redeems our suffering.  The book of Job is the story of a man who sought desperately to find divine purpose in catastrophic suffering.  The book of Job demonstrates how God redeems suffering to vanquish the very perpetrator of suffering.
But if the book of Job left any room for controversy, the cross unequivocally confirms Job’s message: God redeems suffering in order to produce champions who perform exploits against the kingdom of darkness.
Jesus was one such champion. Referring to the cross, God said, “By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many” (Is. 53:11).
Jesus was able to endure the cross because He knew something. What did He know? Divine purpose.
God’s purpose in the cross was that Jesus prevail. As the apostle John wrote, “But one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals’” (Rev. 5:5).
Jesus came to earth with a divine mandate to overcome sin, to overcome temptation, to overcome the flesh, to overcome Satan, to overcome the world, and to overcome suffering.
The cross carries the same promise for us today, a promise which is rich and beautiful.  ‘To him who OVERCOMES I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” (Rev. 3:21).
We do not suffer without purpose.  We suffer with a cause.  While we brought this suffering upon ourselves, the Lord in His mercy, grace, and love chose to redeem that suffering. 
In Genesis 3:15, God had Moses record these words.  “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He [Jesus] shall bruise your [Satan’s] head, and you [Satan] shall bruise His [Jesus’] heel.”
God was contrasting what the cross would do to Jesus versus what it would do to Satan. True, the cross wounded Christ’s heel; but it absolutely crushed Satan’s head. By the time the warfare of the cross was over, Jesus came away with scars but Satan was completely destroyed (see Heb. 2:14). For as bloody a spectacle as the cross was, Satan was more bloodied by the cross than Christ.
It is with this thought that I want to leave you.  When you are facing trials and suffering, keep this perspective in mind:  Through your sufferings, God will raise you up with a testimony that will empower multiple generations. Your cross thus becomes something that will do more damage to the kingdom of darkness than if your life were tranquil and comfortable.
Fight the good fight! Rise up to God’s purposes!  If you endure, one day you’ll look back on your suffering and say, “My heel was bruised, but my adversary’s head was crushed!”
Praise God for redeeming our sufferings.  Praise God for redeeming fallen man.



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