It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake. (Philippians 1:29)
There has been a lot of buzz the last couple of weeks about the nature of God, suffering, and free-will, mostly due to the recent release of the film, The Shack (based on William P. Young’s book of the same name). Anyone who has watched the film or even read the reviews knows that the purpose of the story is to help us understand the problem of suffering. Here is a quote taken from the book, where God talks with the grieving father:
Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.
Based on this reasoning, God doesn’t cause suffering, but He does respond to it with goodness. Young also finds a solution to the problem of suffering using free-will. “There was no way to create freedom without a cost, ” said Papa (who represents God the Father). In other words, because God gave us free-will, some people will do evil things which will cause pain in our lives. That’s the cost. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the quote, the root of this argument is the belief that God cannot prevent evil and suffering, otherwise, it wouldn’t be genuine free-will.
The Shack does not present a new argument, but one which many Christians embrace. And although these honest solutions seem appealing, there are a few major problems.
First, these are not sufficient answers. To say God cannot intervene, and so He cannot end or prevent suffering is unsatisfactory. If my son makes the choice to run out in the middle of a highway toward traffic, I have the ability to grab him and override his “free-will.” And if I have that ability, so does God. Besides, if God cannot intervene or prevent suffering because “love” demands free-will, then why even pray for God to do anything? Although prayer is not always about asking for things, do we not often ask God to sovereignly intervene in this world? To save someone? To give us wisdom? To help us to fight our sins? If God cannot intervene or prevent our free-wills, why ask?
Second, to say God doesn’t intervene against our free-will is unbiblical. Consider the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (c.f. Exodus 4:21; 7:2-5; 9:16; Proverbs 21:1), or consider Jonah, when Jonah clearly didn’t want to go to Nineveh and so God orchestrated numerous events, including a storm and a fish, to override Jonah’s will (John 1:4; 1:17; 1:10, etc.).
Third, this whole argument fails to grasp the complex nature of God’s character in Scripture. We would like to say God doesn’t cause suffering, but the reality is that the Bible records many times where God cause suffering. Consider the following passages.
See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive. I wound and I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:23)
Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (Exodus 4:11)
I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
Consider Genesis 3:16, when God told Eve after she had eaten the fruit, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing.” Or consider that after David sinned and slept with Bathsheba, “the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick… and on the seventh day the child died” (2 Samuel 12:15,18).
We can look at the New Testament when Jesus told Ananias after He saved Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). And finally, when Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross and bore our sins upon His body, Isaiah 53:10 tells us that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him.”
Clearly, God causes suffering and can prevent it if He so chooses. The question is why, and how is God good for doing so?
I will not assume for a second that people ought to take suffering lightly, so please don’t take this article as a heartless argument. Suffering does and should cause us to ask deeper questions about life and the nature of God. The thought of losing a child is one of my worst nightmares, and makes me immediately want to say, “but a good God wouldn’t cause that.”
However, I know that suffering is not the end for those in Christ, but only momentary. Revelation 21:4 tells us that at the consummation of Heaven and Earth, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” One day, we will live in a glorified world in glorified bodies where suffering no longer exists.
This is why Paul says in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” So when we try to wrestle with the problem of suffering, we must first remember that suffering in this life is not the worst thing that can happen to us, because, as Christians, we have infinitely greater joy awaits us.
Our Glorification Depends on Our Suffering
But that still begs the question, why must we suffer in this life and why does God cause it? I would suggest that the answer lies precisely in our glorification. In Romans 8:17, Paul reveals this wonderful promise that we are children of God, “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.”
Notice that Paul says “provided we suffer…” In other words, our glorification depends on our suffering. So often we try to address the problem of suffering only with the immediate pain associated with it. We say, “God wouldn’t cause such a terrible thing.” But we say that because we are focused merely on the temporary pains and the loss of temporary comforts, rather than the eternal joys that our suffering produces. As terrible as suffering is now, we must keep an eternal perspective in mind. Paul understood this when he said that we should rejoice in our sufferings because it produces endurance, character, and ultimately hope (Romans 5:3-5).
We Must Suffer With Christ
Finally, notice when Paul said we must suffer in Romans 8:17, he says that we must “suffer with Christ…” When we suffer, we don’t suffer alone, but for Jesus and with Jesus (c.f. Philippians 1:29; 2 Corinthians 1:5). And it’s because of this truth that we not only accept that God causes suffering, or rest assured that one day we will experience the glory it produces, but we can embrace our suffering with joy even in the midst of it.
We must remember that there is not a single ounce of suffering that you or I have endured that Christ has not also endured. Throughout his life, Jesus experienced sorrow, rejection, and pain (c.f. Isaiah 53:3; Mark 13:34). On the cross, He who knew no sin became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). He became the guilty and the victimized; the murderer and the murdered; the adulterer and the abused; the wicked and the preyed upon.
Therefore, in our suffering, whether it’s physical pain, emotional pain, or the guilt and shame of our own sins, we are suffering with Christ and identify with Him at the deepest level. It is in the very moments suffering, that we not only grow closer to Christ, but we become more like Him. This is why Paul said, I want to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:10-11).
Further, when we suffer with Christ, we better understand His deep, self-sacrificial love for us. After all, the most vivid way God showed his love for us was by suffering and dying on a cross (John 3:16). And as we experience His love, we grow one step closer to love Him more intimately as well as better understand how to love our neighbors and enemies as He does.
When we wrestle with the problem of suffering, we should know that as Christians, suffering is not the end, and it certainly is not pointless. We must look to Jesus and realize that He causes our suffering and works it for our good (Romans 8:18) so that we may know Him and be more like Him in both his death and resurrected glory. I am confident that one day we will look back and see that it was all worth it.