Editor’s Note: Pastor Roger Barrier’s “Ask Roger” column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at email@example.com.
Tonight our Bible study group began a study on the subject of suffering. The curriculum for our study is still on order. I would appreciate it if you would share some thoughts on the subject to help us get started until it arrives. I’ve never forgotten the quote by Alexander Maclaren that you shared in church: “Please be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone is fighting a battle.”
Intense suffering has a myriad of effects, but two predominate. Some rise above it. Their lives are literally deepened and “made” by the experience. Others wallow in it and never get over it.
Medical research has determined that the two most painful things that we can experience are giving birth and passing a kidney stone.
However, the two are so different. The pain of passing a kidney stone is simply pointless. On the other hand, the pain of childbirth has meaning.
That is why the person who passes a kidney stone will usually say, “I’d give anything not to go through that again.” But the woman who has given birth can transcend her pain and eventually say, “Honey, I think I am ready to have another one.”
We don’t want to suffer for nothing. If we are going to suffer we want to suffer for something.
For example, persecution for sharing the gospel is worth it. Suffering that enhances God’s glory is worth it. Suffering designed to develop our spiritual life is worth it. Suffering which enhances our spiritual growth as spiritual mothers or fathers is worth it at any price. Sufferings that grow our faith, character, and God dependence are totally worth it.
The Bible gives a checklist of the possible reasons for suffering.
My checklist has grown over the years. When our daughter Jessie died I only had three things on my list. First, is this punishment for a sin that I’ve committed? Second, will this suffering bring God glory? Finally, is it time to die? In Jessie’s case, I felt God telling me that this heartbreaking experience was designed to bring God glory by how Julie and I handled it.
Over the years I’ve updated my biblical checklist. It gives me a head start on understanding what God is doing in my life when times get tough.
1. Am I paying a price for following Christ? (Acts 5:41; Philippians 1:29)
2. Am I suffering for doing good? (1 Peter 3:17; 4:12-19)
3. Is this discipline (punishment) from God because of a sin that I’ve committed? (Joshua 7:10-12; John 5:14; 1 Corinthians 11:31-32; James 5:13-16)?
4. Is this intended to keep me from future sin? (2 Corinthians 12:7)?
5. Is God using this so that his glory may be on display in my life? (John 9:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:7-12)?
6. Is this an instructive experience (discipline) designed for my personal growth and/or spiritual maturity? (Job 23:10; Romans 5:3-5; Hebrews 12:4-11)?
7. Is this designed to increase my faith and God dependence? (Matthew 8:23-27)?
8. Is God using this to mold me into the image of Christ? (Romans 8:28-29)?
9. Is it time to die (Psalm 90:10; John 11:4)?
Chronologically, the book of Job was the first Bible book written. Even in this early document the idea that suffering can be profitable is paramount.
“But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
The theology of suffering is understood in the context of a biblical worldview.
God created a perfect world but it’s no longer perfect. It is filled with many good things—after all, God made it. But, it is broken. It is bent. The Fall of some of the Angels and the Fall of Adam and Eve has left our world full of suffering, evil, and pain. In fact, because of sin Jesus says that our whole world is in the hands of Satan and it is his world until the Second Coming (Matthew 4:8-9).
Genesis begins with the fact that mankind has produced his own problems. The rest of the Bible is the record of how God handles the problems until he returns and makes everything right and just.
There are some things that we will have to live with—we are not entitled to know all the answers now. We will learn the answers later
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Some things we want to know; but, we have to live with mystery.
However we answer the “why” question, there comes the time to move on by asking the question:
“Now that this has happened to me, how am I going to respond?”
1. Turn to Jesus for grace, strength and guidance.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. He leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
A 9-year-old girl walked to the front of the church to quote Psalm 23. She began like this “The Lord is my shepherd, he’s all I want.” It doesn’t get any better than that.
“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart” (Psalm 91:4).
2. The answer to the “why” question is best lived out in the context of relationships.
God never intended for us to handle our sufferings alone.
In order to get well down the road of healing, we need people to whom we can pour out our hearts. Jesus says, “Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Mourning and comforting involve at least two people: one to mourn and one to comfort.
I go to Pete’s house for mourning and comforting. I had to teach him how to comfort, but he’s good at it! We take turns because we both hurt: “I’m so sorry that happened to you… It breaks my heart that you were betrayed… You must’ve felt awful when he said that in front of the others.”
Everyone needs a Pete or two. All I had to do was ask him. After all, Pete needed mourning and comforting, too.
It may sound difficult to find some friends like Pete. Look carefully at your work or church, “because everyone is fighting a battle.”
After a good dose of comforting, it may be time for encouragement, advice, lessons, logic, reasons, understanding, dealing with guilt—and then, time for more comfort.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
3. Praying from the inside out helps us mature in Christ as we transition from the temporal to the eternal.
God is much more concerned that we are praying for our spirit which is eternal than for our body which is decaying and will soon perish (Ephesians 1:15-19; 3:14-19; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-12).
God will answer prayers for the maturity of our inner-human spirit 1,000 times out of 1,000. He will sacrifice the body every time if that is what is needed to mature our inner, eternal spirit.
4. Working through all six stages of grief brings healing and relief.
The stages of grief are:
Shock: “This hasn’t really happened!”
Denial: “This must be a dream. I’ll wake up in the morning and none of this has really happened.”
Grief: “The pain is incredible; the loss is unmentionable; I’ll never get over this.”
Anger: “If God had been there, this would not have happened. Where was he? I’m so angry!”
Depression: “Life is no longer worth living. I can hardly get out of bed. There’s just no hope.”
Resolution: “I think I’m getting well. The sting is dissipating. I’m getting back to my normal life.”
These stages often occur in this order, but they don’t have to. Sometimes we are suffering a mixture of two or more at the same time.
Many people work through all of the stages and get healed as they pick up the pieces of their lives and move on.
Some, unfortunately, never get to step six and thus short circuit the healing process.
5. God’s grace provides strength and wisdom to handle every difficulty we may face.
The Lord God allowed Satan to put a tormenting “stake” in Paul’s side in order to keep him from becoming proud because of the heavenly visions he was privileged to see.
Three times Paul prayed for God to remove it; however, three times God said, “No. My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
No one knows the nature of his thorn. It’s possible to make a biblical case for a number of things: malaria, Malta fever, epilepsy, convulsions, eye trouble, and depression. Perhaps he was just flat-out ugly: one time he said, “My bodily appearance is weak.” After all, he was whipped three times with leather straps embedded with bone. Five times the Romans beat him with steel rods. He was stoned and left for dead at Lystra.
Paul never tells us the nature of his thorn. Had he, we might say, “Well that was Paul’s problem but mine’s worse than that!”
Paul expanded on the meaning of grace when he wrote to the Philippians: “Not that I’m in need, because I’ve learned in every circumstance to be content. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Experience tells us that God gives us grace when we need it—often not a minute earlier. This makes for a great faith builder!
Charles Spurgeon was asked, “If you were told you would be executed tomorrow at noon for following Christ are you ready?”
Spurgeon replied, “No. But tomorrow at noon I’d be ready”.
6. “And it came to pass…” Genesis 4:3; Exodus 2:11; Numbers 10:11).
I love this phrase. It reminds me that most things come and go and then cycle around again and again. So, when I’m going through a difficult time I often recall the words, “and it came to pass.” And it usually does.
I hope this helps and I hope your materials arrive shortly.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.
Photo courtesy: ©Unsplash/Frank-Mckenna