The Reason for Suffering
Of all the mysteries that have perplexed the people of God throughout the ages none has been more disconcerting than that of suffering. The question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” has at some time baffled the mind of every saint, until the depths of the enigma have hung like a shadow over the brightness of their joy in the Lord. Why, so often, do the wicked prosper, flourishing “like a green bay tree,” and apparently free from trouble, while the righteous perish, “and no man layeth it to heart” (Ps. 37:35; Isa. 57:1)?
How often have we heard Christians testify through blinding tears that all went well with them, and care was but a feather, while they lived for the trivial things of this swiftly passing world. But after they were converted to Christ and began their heavenward journey, trial and affliction did beset them! Tribulation and anguish like ravenous beasts crowded their pathway, making their lot hard and their way difficult and treacherous.
A Cause of the Ignorance. The failure to understand the mystery of suffering must in great part be laid at the door of those blind leaders of the blind who have glibly taught the people that, after a sinner comes to Christ, all will be glory from that day forward. Henceforth he will always wear a happy smile and live in the wonderful assurance that all is well with his soul, and the knowledge that, should he die at any moment, he will go straight through the pearly gates into Heaven. While this, in a manner of speaking, may be true after he learns to understand God’s ways, be warned that anyone who imagines he can be a victorious Christian without ever fighting fierce battles is certainly an armchair philosopher, to say the least of it.
All over the land today—alas, alas! we hear the radio and television preachers telling the ignorant and gullible people that the saints of God should have the best of everything. They should have perfect health for their bodies, instant healing in case sickness occurs. They should have the best of salaries, live in the finest homes, drive the most expensive cars. Why, they will even bless your purse for five dollars and assure you that, if you give them ten dollars, you will get a hundred in return! Then, glory be!, after these flower-bed “Christians” have spent their lives in luxury, they will be taken to Heaven to spend eternity doing nothing. If tribulation should come while they are still on earth, they will be immediately “raptured” to escape it.
Let those who will teach these absurdities and imbecilic inconsistencies, and let those who will believe them. But we hear the voice of the blessed Galilean ringing clear above them. “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). We hear Him warn His beloved saints in these words: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). To the rich man, He commanded, “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow Me” (Mk. 10:21). Never once did Jesus or His Apostles dangle glittering earthly prizes before the eyes of the people. Always prominent in their statements was the cross, casting its ominous shadow across the way of the saints.
Facing Up to the Problem. Concerning this subject, it is in order to propound a few questions. Why has the whole world, from the beginning of time, been filled with the groans of the suffering? Why must people suffer tribulation, anguish, misunderstanding, malignity, sickness, pain, bereavements, death—tragedies too numerous to mention—until “the whole creation” is groaning in pain and anguish, “waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body,” and the “manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19, 23)?
We may not find it difficult to understand why the wicked suffer. Their own wickedness chastises them and is a judgment to them. But, mystery of mysteries, tribulation is also the lot of the people of God. To this Peter soberly attests when he writes: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the Devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (I Pet. 5:8-9).
The shallow understanding and preaching of the modern church system, as we have said, are the basic causes of the bedarkenment concerning suffering for the saints. As long as people are kept ignorant of the eternal purpose of God for His people they will remain ignorant of the blessing of their suffering with Christ. The common idea seems to be that folk are saved to be taken to heaven where they will spend eternity playing harps and shouting “Hallelujah!” in the bliss of a dreamy “isle of somewhere.” If this were the case, then indeed there would be little purpose in suffering in this present world; for even if the saints were no worse for their suffering, they would be no better.
The End Purposed by God. But when God more fully makes known to His saints what He purposes for them in Christ, “the sufferings of this present time” become pregnant with both meaning and consolation (Rom. 8:18). That purpose is that His perfected children shall judge both the world and angels (I Cor. 6:2-3), and with Christ shall rule the eternal world to come (Heb. 2:5-9); cf. II Tim. 2:11-12; Rev. 22:5). This function will be carried out in the perfection of wisdom, the fullness of understanding, the beauty of justice, and the omnipotence of power, with every glorified son of God having the Divine Mind. There will be no carnality among these perfected saints, all of them having been wholly transformed into the Image of Christ. The present sufferings and discipline are designed by a loving Father to ready His children for this glorious and everlasting destiny to which He has appointed them in Christ. When this is perceived, one can begin to “glory in tribulations,” as did Paul and the other Apostles (Rom. 5:3).
It seems reasonable to suppose that it will not be the earth alone that will be so subjected to the reign of the glorified saints. All of the universe, much of which now is a chaotic rockstrewn mass of waste, will conceivably be included. So may we anticipate that these void vastnesses, as well as the earth upon which we dwell, shall partake of the universal restoration “in the dispensation of the fulness of times” (Eph. 1:10). So great evidently will be the rehabilitation, that eternity will not be too long for execution of the mighty and far-ranging plans of God for His people. All this appears to be distinctly implied in Paul’s application” of Ps. 8:3-6: “Thou has put everything in subjection under his feet. For this subjecting of the universe to man implies the leaving of nothing not subject to him” (Heb. 2:7-8, Weymouth).
The Obscurity Clarified. Now, since such glories are in store for the saints, can anyone longer question why the Father should be at such pains to bring His children to perfection? Is it not proper that He should choose any method He deems necessary to transform them from corrupt and carnal creatures of dust and clay into beings of heavenly light and understanding? Thus, when we lift up our eyes to God and comprehend His purpose for us in Christ, we begin to understand the reason for suffering, trial, tribulation, and all the testings of this life.
If our hope of Heaven is indistinct, it is little wonder that suffering is a conundrum, or mystery, and a wretched vexation to us now. But if we can grasp the cardinal truth first declared by God Himself: “Let Us make man in Our Image . . . and let them have dominion” (Gen. 1:26), then we will understand why He takes such infinite care to bring His sons to perfection. That declaration of purpose in the beginning charted the Divine course for the long centuries and millenniums of the outworkings of God’s design in Christ. And it may be counted upon that He will not be discouraged or fail in its complete achievement, but will fully do what He has thus appointed Himself.
Necessity of the Process. Do you think for one moment that in those coming ages of blessedness the kingdom will be “left to other people” (Dan. 2:44)? We trow not! “The kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him” (Dan. 7:27). These “heirs of the kingdom” shall have been perfected through the suffering and discipline of their earthly sojourn and their constitution as the full sons of God by the resurrection—matured through trial—and far beyond the reach of corruption, far above the realm of greed, or any such thing (Jas. 2:5). If this perfection should be lacking in a single saint, then in some future age a wicked one might arise, as one did in the past saying, “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God” (Isa. 14:13 14).
But, brethren, this occurrence shall never be repeated. This is because our heavenly Father is perfecting through suffering a race of twice-born men who ultimately will be transformed into the full Image of Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord. Concerning the sufferings of the Master, by which He Himself was perfected for His role of Savior and High Priest, it is written: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God; but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and, being found in fashion as a man. He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore, God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a Name which is above every name; that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:6-11). “Though He were a Son, yet [thus] learned He obedience by the things which He suffered,” and was perfected thereby (Heb. 5:8-9).
The Alleviation of the Darkness. Through the valley of suffering and death into the realms of life and joy is God’s way to sonship, and the secret of glorying in tribulations is to understand His purpose for the trial of His saints. “The trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 1:7). He who has his eye on the glorious result of his suffering and sees the perfection toward which God is moving him, and the grand and glorious end, will not kick against God’s method of accomplishing that perfection in him.
Even the children of this world patiently endure the severest trials, if by them they are assured that they will attain some lofty position of power or wealth. Paul appealed to this principle when he wrote: “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible” (I Cor. 9:25). Do not athletes in their various fields seek to master their own bodies and bring them into subjection? Do boxers striving to obtain world titles allow themselves to become fat, lazy gluttons? No, indeed, they do not! Do long-distance runners attain world renown by spending their days in idleness and ease? No, they do not! They spend hours and days in agonizing preparation. Yet the reward of all these, at best, is only a corruptible crown which in time will fade as a leaf and be forgotten.
If, then, these persons strive so hard to gain a few pounds of hard muscle in their efforts to obtain a temporal crown, what shall we say of us whom God is preparing to be the lords and rulers of the universe in the ages to come! Shall not we be led through trials, sufferings, tribulations, and death—or any other circumstance which God might choose for our perfection? Should it seem unthinkable that we, realizing the glorious end of our trials, should begin to glory in tribulations?
Clearly, Paul reached this state of blessedness, as did the other Apostles. “Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong,” he wrote (II Cor. 12:10). Of the others, it is written: “And they departed from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name” (Acts 5:41). Such attitudes are to be accounted for only in awareness of the fact that those who manifested them had apprehended the “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” which their sufferings were working for them (II Cor. 4:17-18). When we today lay hold of that reality, it will likewise sanctify our trial of faith, and cause us to be both patient and joyful in the sufferings which that trial imposes (Rom. 12:12). —Excerpted and substantially revised by THE BANNER OF TRUTH from “The Mystery of Suffering,” The Page, June 1978