The Role of Suffering in the Christian Life

Suffering in the Christian Life

Death, famine, genocide, war, disease, physical ailments, emotional issues, and spiritual decay permeate the fallen world.  Pain and suffering, at least on some level, is an inescapable reality of the human experience.  It seems that every human will experience some of the various forms of suffering at some point throughout their lifetime, many more frequently or substantially than others.  So if this is the case, what is the point of suffering?  Is it some seemingly random coincidence that is left to chance?  Could it be that everything humans experience is simply an accidental effect of natural causes?  Or is there some deeper, higher purpose behind suffering in the lives of humans?  If there is some higher purpose, are Christians exempt from suffering?  Could God be working in a way to prevent the temporal suffering of all of his saints (and apparently failing miserably at every turn)?  Or must Christians suffer on earth too?  The goal of this paper will be to demonstrate that suffering is not random, nor is it without purpose:  the role of suffering in the Christian life is to demonstrate the power and supremacy of God through the redemption accomplished in Jesus’ death by sharing in the afflictions of the Christ in order to display God’s power and supremacy to the world.

What Is Suffering?

A paper about the realities of suffering in the Christian life would not be complete if it did not first define parameters around which it will be discussing suffering.  Therefore, the question “What is suffering?” will be discussed here.  For the purposes of this paper, suffering will be defined as any type of physical, emotional, or spiritual pain, hardship, or distress.  This definition allows for a very broad interpretation of what suffering is or what it can be, which helps in the analysis of the purpose of suffering.  It is necessary to keep such a broad definition in order to show that all humans experience suffering on some level.

Before beginning the examination of different types of suffering, one important note must be made.  Reality cannot be divorced from any type of study of suffering.  Every human on earth has suffered, is currently suffering, or will suffer in the future (plus any combination of those three).  Therefore suffering must be handled delicately.  It is one thing to write about the grotesque practices that occur in the world from behind the relative safety of a computer; it is another thing entirely to experience these practices first-hand.  So it is with a spirit of humility that the author and reader alike must proceed.

Types of Suffering

An exhaustive survey of the plethora of types of suffering reaches far beyond the scope of this paper.  However, three main types frequently show themselves to be prevalent in the Gospels.  The first type, physical, shows up in various forms throughout the Gospel narratives.  For example, in Luke 17:11-19, Jesus heals ten lepers; in Luke 9:10-17, Jesus feeds the five thousand; and in Matthew 12:9-14, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  Note Jesus’ power over disease, hunger, and physical deformity in these particular passages.

The second type of suffering that routinely appears in the Gospels is emotional.  This kind is distinct but closely related to physical suffering.  Bailey remarks brilliantly, “Where there is physical suffering, there is also emotional suffering.”[1]  The lepers in Luke 17:11-19 would have been considered ritually unclean and therefore social outcasts.  What kind of emotional strain might this have placed on their lives?  The one who returns to praise God is a Samaritan, meaning he was already considered an outcast.  How much more emotional damage might he have undergone considering his foreign and ritually unclean statuses pronounced him to be an outcast twice over.

The third type of suffering relevant to this study that appears in the Gospels is that of spiritual suffering.  Alienation from God is the manifestation of spiritual suffering, although it is slightly different in form than the first two types.  Due to humankind’s depraved nature, alienation from God might not even be considered suffering at all to the natural man.  Consider Paul’s words in Romans 8:7-8:  “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”  Note that the natural, fallen person is hostile to God.  To them, submission to God might be closer to suffering than the blatant hostility they harbor towards God by nature.  Nevertheless, if hell is on the other side of death for the unrepentant, unbelieving natural man, it is clear that alienation and even hostility towards God are temporal forms of spiritual suffering that will only increase with the cessation of this life.

What Is the Role of Suffering in the Christian Life?

Having now defined what suffering is and exploring three particular types of suffering, an examination of the role of suffering in the Christian life can commence.  As stated above, the role of suffering in the Christian life is to demonstrate the power and supremacy of God through the redemption accomplished in Jesus’ death by sharing in the afflictions of the Christ in order to display God’s power and supremacy to the world.  A detailed examination of this thesis follows, beginning with a look at suffering in the life of Jesus, followed by suffering in the lives of Christians today.

Suffering in the Life of Jesus: The Accomplishment of Redemption

Because “no discussion on suffering in the Christian life and thought…would be complete without attention to the experience and praxis of Jesus,”[2]      it is vital to begin the survey of suffering in the Gospels with Jesus’ own experience of suffering.  Throughout his life, Jesus suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Physically, he was hungry after fasting forty days (Matthew 4:2), tired from a long journey (John 4:6), thirsty after hanging on the cross with no access to water (John 19:28), and scourged and crucified for claiming to be the Messiah (Matthew 27:26).  Emotionally, he was betrayed by one of his friends (Matthew 26:16), abandoned by all of his disciples (Matthew 26:56), and denied by one of his closest allies (Matthew 26:75).  Spiritually, he was forsaken by the Father when the sins of the world were laid upon him (Matthew 27:46; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21).  With a tremendous amount of evidence of the suffering of Christ, one pertinent question looms:  What did the suffering of Christ accomplish?

Perhaps Christ’s suffering is only meant as a model for Christian suffering.  Under this theory, the suffering that Christ endured in his lifetime is seen solely as a model to what a typical Christian should expect during their lifetime.  Thus, suffering functions only to show a Christian how to “take up [their] cross” (Mark 8:34).  This view is popular within traditions that see no value in the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.  For example, Calef argues, “for many, a tradition that glorifies the death of a son whose father wills his suffering or silently stands by while it occurs appears to be a form of divine child abuse.”[3]  It is no surprise then, that she concludes her study with, “Mark’s Gospel offers no explanation of human suffering.”[4]

But is this all that Christ’s suffering and even his death accomplished?  Certainly Christ’s life provides Christians with a great pattern for their own lives.  But did Christ suffer only to provide Christians with a model for how to suffer throughout their own lives?  Or did his suffering and death accomplish something further?  Dever argues over against Calef when he says that “bloody images of sacrifice and religious ritual…remind us that Christ accomplished something with his physical death.”[5]  Under the doctrine of penal substitution, Christ’s death on the cross functions as a “perfect sacrifice for our sins…necessary to satisfy God’s righteousness.”[6]  With these two views in mind, which more closely subscribes to the Scriptures?  Perhaps one of the most pressing texts from Scripture regarding the suffering of Jesus is found in Luke 23:26-49.

The narrative of this section opens by mentioning Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry the cross.  After being beaten and scourged, Jesus is too weak to carry his own cross and needs help from another person.  Clearly this demonstrates the physical suffering that Jesus underwent during his crucifixion.  His body was so broken that he could not carry his own cross.  This evidence might point toward a model of Jesus’ suffering over against penal substitution, but the rest of the text will shed more light on the topic.  Verses 27-31 then shift to Jesus interacting with a group of women who were mourning his coming death.  What is striking here is that Jesus actually tells them “do not weep for me,” in verse 28.  Bock points out, “Painful as his death will be, he knows that he will be taken care of, since his vindication in his resurrection is only hours away.  The real issue moves beyond what Jesus will suffer to what his death means for those who reject him.”[7]

Verse 32 then marks a shift to another group of characters in the narrative: the criminals crucified beside Jesus.  This can actually be seen as a fulfillment of Luke 22:37, “For I tell you that this Scripture (Isaiah 53:12) must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’  For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”[8]  Jesus was placed in the middle of two actual sinners, a fulfillment that he would be numbered among them.  Hanging in between these two criminals would certainly constitute both physical and emotional suffering.  The physically excruciating pain of the nails bearing into one’s hands and feet combined with the emotional pain of being mocked and belittled (as in verse 36) would be utterly devastating.  The mocking crowd also “cast lots to divide his garments,” showing that Jesus was naked.  Surely this was an epic amount of emotional shame:  hanging naked on the world’s most brutal killing device ever created.

But what is the purpose of all of this suffering endured by the Christ?  Is willingly receiving the cruelest death sentence ever imposed solely meant to point Christians in the way of suffering like Jesus?  Or did this extraordinary amount of suffering accomplish something further for the Christian?  Verse 38 will give readers a massive insight into Luke’s mind as he describes the narrative of Jesus’ death: “There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews’.”  This particular comment crushes any notion that the sufferings of Christ can be seen only as a model for how Christians should suffer in this life.  Bock knows this to be true when he states, “[Luke] consistently shows how it is Jesus as the Christ who goes to the cross.”[9]  Jesus, willingly laying down his life (John 10:18) in order to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29; cf. John 18:11), is named as the King of the Jews, the Messiah.  Obviously this pattern of laying down one’s life is a model for Christians, but it does not function solely as a model!  Jesus’ suffering in his death is actually propitiation for the sins of all of God’s people everywhere (cf. John 11:50-53).

Luke’s narrative continues in chapter 23 with the two criminals divided over the true identity of Jesus.  The first criminal mocks him, joking, “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us” (verse 39).  More emotional suffering is surely present for Jesus here, as the criminal continually ridicules him over his status.  If only he knew.  Apparently, however, the second criminal did receive some insight into the identity of Jesus, because he rebukes the first criminal by saying, “Do you not fear God…?” in verse 40.  Then verse 42 marks a striking comment by the second criminal: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  This criminal knows that Jesus really is the Messiah!  He sees Jesus for who he truly is, the Savior of the world (John 4:42).  Jesus grants this request and replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” in verse 43.

The narrative then concludes with two interesting points.  First, darkness and the tearing of the veil signify the true significance of Jesus’ suffering and death.  Nolland comments, “Darkness as a cosmic phenomenon in connection with the coming of the “Day of the Lord” occurs in Joel 2:10; 3:3-4; 4:15; Zeph. 1:15.”[10]  The darkness then is almost certainly a reference to God’s judgment.  This points to Jesus’ suffering being the accomplishment of redemption for his people.  God has judged sin on the Son, and his people are now free from condemnation.  The tearing of the veil points to “an opening of the way to God.  The curtain shielded access to God.  By ripping it open, restricted access no longer exists.  Later, the author of Hebrews mentions that the need for sacrifice has ended because of Jesus’ death (Heb. 8-10).”[11]

Secondly, the reactions of the centurion and the crowds display a deeper meaning to the suffering and death of Christ.  The centurion “praised God” (Luke 23:47), and it appears that he realized the heinousness of Jesus’ death.  The crowds also evidently recognize the seriousness of what had just taken place, for they “returned home beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).  Acknowledging their grave mistake, they retreat to the safety of their homes in obvious dismay.  Certainly these two differing reactions to the death of Christ show that he has not simply put forth a model of suffering for Christians to endure:  Jesus has actually accomplished the redemption of the elect through his suffering on the cross.

At this point, it is necessary to synthesize some of the data that has been explored so far.  After examining Luke 23:26-49, it becomes clear that Jesus suffered in order to accomplish the redemption of his people.  So the role of suffering in the Christian life is to display the power and supremacy of God through the redemption accomplished in Jesus’ death by sharing in the afflictions of the Christ in order to display God’s power and supremacy to the world.  The power and supremacy of God is on display in Jesus’ death in Luke 23.  His righteousness and judgment against sin at this stage leads Paul to say in Romans 3:23-25 “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”  Yet God’s grace is also supremely manifest in this moment: “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7).  So God’s power and supremacy are both on display in the death of Christ.  How then can suffering be considered in the life of the Christian?  If God’s power and supremacy are the main items on display in the sufferings of Christ, can the same be true for the Christian life?

Suffering in the Lives of Saints: The Display of God’s Supreme Power

So far in this paper, the argument has been this:  the role of suffering in the Christian life is to demonstrate the power and supremacy of God through the redemption accomplished in Jesus’ death by sharing in the afflictions of the Christ in order to display God’s power and supremacy to the world.  The power and supremacy of God have already been shown in the death of Christ through exegesis of Luke 23:26-49.  Now the examination can turn to the ground-level purpose of suffering in the Christian life, namely, sharing in the afflictions of Christ in order to display God’s power and supremacy to the world.  If Jesus himself suffered in order to display God’s power and supremacy, Christians today should not think they could venture through life without enduring some of the same kinds of pain for the same kinds of reasons.

One important note should be made before examining the relevant texts.  Saying that the purpose of suffering is to display God’s power and supremacy might initially sound as if God is cruelly dishing out pain and distress for His good pleasure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Affirming the sovereignty of God means, at least on some level, that He is in control of everything that comes to pass, including suffering, sickness, disease, famine, war, depression, and all other kinds of pain.  Yet simultaneously, God does not happily dish out suffering for no good reason.  So God, in one way, wills suffering to happen (in that He is sovereignly in control of everything that comes to pass), and in another way, He does not will that humans suffer pain and hardship caused by the fall.  Traditionally, these two wills of God have been described as the sovereign will and the moral will.  The former expresses what God actually brings to pass, while the latter describes what God would like to see happen. A further examination of how these two ways in which God wills and how they impact the Christian view of suffering occurs below.

One of the clearest texts in the Gospels that points to the purpose of suffering being the display of God’s power and supremacy is Mark 2:1-12.  Here, Jesus has just cleansed a leper and has returned to Capernaum.  A crowd gathered together to hear all that he had to say, and it was so large that “there was no more room, not even at the door” (Mark 2:2).  Barclay points out, “Life in Palestine was very public.  In the morning the door of the house was opened and anyone who wished might come out and in….So, in no time, a crowd had filled the house to capacity and jammed the pavement round the door; and they were all eagerly listening to what Jesus had to say.”[12]  Jesus has already healed many people according to Mark’s Gospel, and the crowd was excited to hear his teaching.  Note, “he was preaching the word to them” (Mark 2:2).  This is important because it frames the forgiveness that is about to take place.  Beck accurately affirms, “the power of Christ’s message of salvation heals recipients spiritually and psychologically.”[13]  Christ’s declaration of the word to the crowd evidently had an enormous amount of power.

The narrative then describes four men carrying a paralytic to Jesus.  Because the house was full and they could not enter, they devised a plan for him to see Jesus.  Barclay remarks, “They could not get through the crowd at all, but they were men of resource.  The roof of a Palestinian house was flat.  It was regularly used as a place of rest and quiet, and so usually there was an outside stair which ascended to it.  The construction of the roof consisted of flat beams laid across from wall to wall, perhaps three feet apart.”[14]  Barclay then claims, “it was the easiest thing in the world to dig out the filling between the two beams….So the four men dug out the filling between two of the beams and let their friend down directly at Jesus’ feet.”[15]  Evidently this is some kind of desperation on the part of the four men and the paralytic.  This kind of physical suffering, which surely would have led to all sorts of emotional trauma as well, is obviously on display in this narrative.  What Jesus does next is incredible.  “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5).  In forgiving this man’s sins, Jesus displays his supreme power and authority over sin.  He has seen the man’s faith and has forgiven his sins.  This is utterly astonishing.

What makes it even more astounding is the fact that “The Jews integrally connected sin and suffering.  They argued that if people were suffering they must have sinned….To the Jews, a sick person was someone with whom God was angry….We do not make the close connection that the Jews did, but any Jew would have agreed that forgiveness of sins was a prior condition of cure.”[16]  This shows that this paralytic probably viewed his own condition as being a result of his sin.  He may have thought that his paralysis was due to his sin being more abundant than anyone else around him.  Might this idea have brought a tremendous amount of spiritual suffering?  It is easy to see that his paralysis would cause him both physical and emotional trauma.  But add to the mix that he may have viewed his condition as a result of his sins and spiritual suffering is now present too.  This is what makes Jesus’ forgiveness here so incredible.  He is alleviating the man’s spiritual suffering.  In effect, he is saying, “Child, God is not angry with you.  It’s all right.”[17]  This statement profoundly shows Jesus’ power and supremacy over spiritual suffering.

Then a group of scribes begins to question “in their hearts” (Mark 2:6) how Jesus could have done such a thing.  Notice that the group did not say anything, they were only questioning within themselves.  Jesus, in yet another display of his supreme power, turns to them and says, “Why do you question these things in your hearts?” (Mark 2:8).  Do not miss the significance of Jesus’ omniscience here.  The scribes said nothing verbally, yet Jesus knows they are questioning him within their own hearts.  To them, “when they heard Jesus say to the man that his sins were forgiven, it came as a shattering shock.  It was an essential of Judaism that only God could forgive sins.”[18]  This is why the scribes questioned within themselves; they figured that Jesus must have been blaspheming.  Yet Jesus knows this and his omniscience here is another display of his power and supremacy.

Then Jesus makes the climactic point in the narrative, “‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (Mark 2:10-11).  The whole point of this section in Mark can be summed up by saying that Jesus demonstrated his power and supremacy over physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering by healing the man from all of his ailments for the purpose of displaying God’s power and supremacy.  Jesus used his power and supremacy in order to show that he was powerful and supreme.  He did it by relieving the man of his spiritual burden (forgiveness of sin) as well as healing his physical paralysis and emotional trauma that came along with it.  Why did Jesus do this?  So “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”  He did it in order to demonstrate his power and supremacy.

One more interesting note can be made about this narrative.  Notice how everyone in the crowd was “amazed and glorified God” (Mark 2:12).  This sums up the narrative before a shift in verse 13, and it adequately summarizes the purpose behind Jesus’ actions here, namely, that God might be glorified.  When God’s power and supremacy are on display for all to see, He receives the glory that is due to His name.  That was the purpose of suffering in this text.  Jesus took the suffering man, healed all aspects of him, and he did so for the purpose of glorifying God by displaying God’s power and supremacy.  To make sure that other Gospel accounts accord with this purpose, the examination now turns to the Gospel of John.

Probably the most prominent text regarding the purpose of suffering in the Christian life is John 11:1-45, the death and reanimation of Lazarus.  John opens the narrative by declaring that “a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany” (John 11:1).  This illness is a little different than the paralysis seen in Mark 2, but this serves only to broaden the scope of suffering that Jesus has power over.  In Mark’s Gospel, the narrative ends with the purpose behind Jesus’ actions.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus states clearly at the beginning what the purpose of this suffering and illness is: “This illness does not lead to death.  It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).  This statement is absolutely profound.  Before Jesus has even seen Lazarus, he declares that the suffering of his friend is for the glory of God.  In a day and age where the prosperity gospel abounds in Western Christianity, particularly, that God wants every person to be personally happy, healthy, and wealthy, this text confounds readers.  How can sickness and suffering be for the glory of God if God does not wish that it comes to pass?  Is He powerless to control it, despite the fact that He does not want his children to suffer?  Or is He working in such a way to glorify himself through suffering?  The latter question is surely more on track with biblical truth.  Again, it might be necessary to note here that God is not simply sitting on His throne, arbitrarily inducing people with cancer because He thinks it is funny.  According to this text in John, God is working the sickness of Lazarus in a way that will ultimately glorify Himself.

The text notes that Jesus “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5-6).  This seemingly innocuous addition to the text, that “he stayed two days longer” before going to meet Lazarus, serves to demonstrate Jesus’ power over death.  If he had gone immediately, the miracle he would have performed would not have been as great.  So he intentionally stayed so that Lazarus would die in order that Jesus could then raise him from the dead.  The point is to show that Jesus is not some temporal hero who always arrives to rescue people from suffering and death.[19]  Jesus could have kept Lazarus from dying, but he allowed it to occur anyway so that his death might serve a greater purpose.

After staying for the two days, he and his disciples go back to Judea.  A brief discourse follows where the disciples apparently do not understand Jesus when he claims that Lazarus has fallen asleep.  The disciples take this to mean that he has literally fallen asleep (John 11:12-13).  Jesus, however, knows what is going to happen and tells his disciples, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (John 11:14-15).  Again, Jesus points to the purpose of suffering in the Christian life: that God may be glorified through the display of his power and supremacy.

John 11:17 then describes that Lazarus had been dead for four days.  According to Burge, “This note is significant.  There was a well-known Jewish belief (attested from about A.D. 200) that the soul of a dead person remained in the vicinity of the body “hoping to reenter it” for three days, but once decomposition set in, the soul departed.”[20]  Thus, in Jewish culture Lazarus’ soul would have been considered departed by this point in the narrative.  This makes the miracle even more impressive in Jewish eyes.  Jesus has the power and supremacy to raise dead bodies whose souls have evidently departed from their bodies!

The narrative then moves on to describe the pain and suffering of Martha and Mary followed by Jesus’ claim to be “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  In the context, this is an interesting statement from Christ.  Lazarus has died, and Martha and Mary are understandably grieved by the loss.  Then Jesus comes along and claims that he is the resurrection and the life, despite the death that has just taken place.  Jesus declares that he has the power and the supremacy of God over life and death.  John then describes a scene by the tomb.  Mary comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).  This shows the grief that had overcome Mary.  Verse 33 tells the reader that Jesus saw her weeping, which Burge comments, “The verb klaio describes loud wailing and crying, which is echoed by the people standing around Mary.  Such loud public displays of grief…were common in this culture.”[21]  The public nature of the mourning probably implies that Lazarus was a man of some “honor and esteem.”[22]  The suffering was not only personal; it was also public.

Interestingly, John portrays Jesus as being “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33).  Jesus himself suffered here.  In verse 35, John mentions that Jesus weeps over his friend’s death.  He was suffering emotionally from the passing of Lazarus.  He was visually so discomforted that even others took notice: “See how he loved him!” some of the Jews cried (John 11:37).  This picture demonstrates Christ’s sufferings again.  In verse 38, John mentions that Jesus was “deeply moved again” as he went to the tomb.  Jesus asks to have the stone taken away when Martha retorts, “there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39).  Yet again, Jesus declares the point of this entire narrative: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40, added emphasis).  There is a tremendous amount of suffering going on here.  Lazarus was sick and is now dead.  Martha and Mary are grieving the loss of their brother.  Some other Jews have joined in the mourning process.  Even Jesus is deeply moved by the whole scene.  And he declares the purpose of it all: so that they might see the power and supremacy of God.

In order to demonstrate this, Jesus prays first so that the surrounding crowd might know the Father sent him (John 11:41-42).  Then Jesus demands, “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43) and “the man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth” (John 11:44).  Jesus displays the power and supremacy of God through this most incredible of all miracles.  A dead man is now literally walking and alive again, all by the power of God.  Verse 45 provides an accurate description of the effect of Jesus’ miracle working in this story: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him (added emphasis).  The purpose of the death of Lazarus and the consequent suffering of those close to him was to demonstrate the power and supremacy of God.

Formulating a Theology of Suffering

At the beginning of this paper, the question of the purpose of suffering was brought to the forefront.  It has been argued that the role of suffering in the Christian life is to demonstrate the power and supremacy of God through the redemption accomplished in Jesus’ death by sharing in the afflictions of the Christ in order to display God’s power and supremacy to the world.  Initially, the sufferings and death of Jesus were explored in order to show how meaningful they actually were.  Jesus suffered in order to bring about the redemption of God’s people according to Luke 23:26-49.  This means that his suffering displayed the power and supremacy of God to the whole world.  Forgiveness in Jesus is the manifestation of God’s grace to sinful humanity available only through the suffering and death of Jesus.  Next, Mark 2:1-12 and John 11:1-45 demonstrated how suffering in the lives of Christians also serves to magnify the power and supremacy of God.  The paralytic’s sins are forgiven and his ailments cured and Lazarus is raised to life.  Both of these miracles work to glorify the great power and supremacy of God.  These miraculous dealings with suffering people occurred to show other people how glorious God is, illustrated by the reactions of the crowds after each of the events.  Therefore, according to the Gospels, the role of suffering in the Christian life is to demonstrate the power and supremacy of God through the redemption accomplished in Jesus’ death by sharing in the afflictions of the Christ in order to display God’s power and supremacy to the world.

Application: Suffering and the Two Wills of God

A note on contemporary application is now appropriate.  As shown, the role of suffering is to display the power and supremacy of God to the world.  But what does this mean for the average Christian?  What happens to the typical Christian when they are not healed of their paralysis, or when a loved one is not raised from the grave?  What happens when a Christian loses their job, wrecks their car, forecloses on their home, has relational strife with loved ones, or is diagnosed with terminal cancer?  Can all of these things really happen to show and magnify the glory of God?  Absolutely.

At this point, it would be beneficial to reintroduce a topic that was only briefly mentioned earlier:  the two wills of God.  In this section, it will be utterly crucial to see that God wills in two different ways.  God’s sovereign will is what He actually ordains to happen.  This will cannot be violated or reverted in any form or fashion.  The Scriptures talk about this clearly throughout, but some of the most prominent verses regarding God’s sovereignty will be explored here.[23]  Isaiah 46:9-10 states, “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times and things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (added emphasis).  After suffering extensively and for seemingly no purpose, Job declares in Job 42:2, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”  Lamentations 3:37-38 is probably the toughest for modern Christians to grasp: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?  Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (added emphasis).

Piper claims, “The clearest example that even moral evil fits into the designs of God is the crucifixion of Christ.”[24]  The false arrest, false trial, and false execution all violate God’s will.  Yet Acts 4:28 claims that it was God’s predestined plan all along. The Scriptures are clear when it comes to the sovereignty of God: in one way or another, God is in control of everything that happens.  Ephesians 1:11 states that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will.”  Probably the clearest text of all is Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (added emphasis).  This text explicitly states that all things work together for the good of Christians.  In the context, the “good” referred to here is the conforming to the image of the Son from the next verse, so even pain and suffering serve to accomplish this goal.  God’s sovereign will ensures that all things, including suffering, are under his good governance and serving his ultimate purpose of glorifying himself.

On the other hand, however, the Scriptures also point to God’s moral will, or what He desires to happen.  This will, contrary to God’s sovereign will, can be violated.  For example, God does not will that humans divorce: “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).  Yet how frequently does divorce occur, even in Christian circles?  And no one would argue that divorce comes along without suffering.  Human relationships are utterly broken, and families are totally destroyed.  So in this sense, God does not will that humans suffer because of sin.

Another simple example of God’s moral will can be seen in Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him with a spirit of gentleness.”  So it is God’s will that Christians who fall into sin be restored in a spirit of gentleness.  Yet how often are Christians not restored with this type of spirit?  Or how often are they not restored at all?  Clearly this type of God’s will can be violated frequently.  Therefore, God does not will, in the moral sense, that suffering come about because of a failure to behave in a manner that He has prescribed.  God does not will that Christians violently confront each other over sin issues, and He does not will that suffering occur because of this.

So, as complicated as it is, the Bible is clear that God wills in two different ways.  And in an application of a theology of suffering, it is crucial that Christians can clearly see and affirm this to be true.  For example, a Christian businessman finds himself in a moral dilemma at work and is terminated because he refuses to cooperate.  He is willing to stand on biblical truth and not waiver in his convictions, and he is fired for his beliefs.  This Christian businessman crucially needs to see the two wills of God.  On one hand, God does not will that he suffer because of this injustice.  God does not will that suffering come upon him or his family because someone sinned against him.  The businessman needs to be able to affirm that Jesus really can “sympathize with [his] weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).  Yet he must also affirm that God is sovereignly in control of what has happened.  He must know that God is not powerless or surprised by this action; otherwise he could have no hope.  If God was not in control of this situation, the man could not possibly have any hope that God has any power to help him get through the circumstances.  He must affirm that God can and will work all things for his good.

In my particular major and spiritual formation, this knowledge will help tremendously.  As a MA in Leadership candidate, I need to know that God does not will that I fail because of sin.  He does not will that my organizations or churches fail because they have succumbed to sin, and He does not will that I suffer because some people are sinning against me.  But on the other hand, it is crucial for me to know that He absolutely does will everything that happens to me, at least in one sense or another.  He is totally and firmly in control of all of my failures, and He has the power and supremacy to reconcile me to Himself through the death of Jesus.  This is the single-most important truth that I could ever affirm.

Therefore, it can be said that God does not will that his people suffer due to evil.  But He does will that they suffer in order to display his power and supremacy to the world.  A final quote from John Piper perfectly encapsulates the argument of this paper:

Through suffering, God is preparing for [Christians] an eternal weight of glory beyond death, and he is working out his infallible purposes to gather all the elect from the nations of the world and bring in the consummation of his kingdom….To know this, and to see how it can be so, will help [Christians] believe that when all around [their] soul gives way, the Lord is all [their] hope and stay.[25]

[1] Mark L. Bailey, “A Biblical Theology of Suffering in the Gospels,” in Why, O God? Suffering and Disability in the Bible and Church, eds. Larry J. Waters and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 161.

[2] Susan A. Calef, “Taking up the Cross: Suffering and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark,” in Suffering and the Christian Life, ed. Richard W. Miller (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013), 50.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid., 68.

[5] Mark E. Dever, “Nothing but the Blood,” in In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 107.

[6] Ibid., 102-103.

[7] Darrell L. Bock, Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 594.

[8] Cf. John Nolland, Luke, vol. 3 (Dallas: Word, 1990-93), 1139.

[9] Bock, Luke, 596.

[10] Nolland, Luke, 1156.

[11] Bock, Luke, 596.

[12] William Barclay, Mark (Louisville: Westminster, 2001), 52-53.

[13] James R. Beck, The Healing Words of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 15.

[14] Barclay, Mark, 53.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. 53-54.

[17] Ibid., 55.

[18] Ibid., 56.

[19] For an overview of this particular idea, cf. Shannon Craigo-Snell, “A savior, not a hero,” The Christian Century 132, no. 15 (July 2015), under “Archives,” (accessed November 1, 2015).

[20] Gary M. Burge, John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 315.

[21] Ibid., 317.

[22] Ibid., 316.

[23] This particular section relies heavily on John Piper, “The Happiness of God,” in Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Colorado Springs: Multonomah, 2011). 31-50.

[24] Ibid., 35.

[25] John Piper, Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (Colorado Springs, Multonomah, 2012), 350.

Thanks for reading.  Have a comment or question?  Leave it below.

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