Suffering in Light of the Gospel

The cross reveals the very possibility of suffering. In the Gospel a righteous man brought glory to God while dying on a cross. If we understand this, we will not “be surprised” (1 Pet. 4:12) when we experience the same.

One of the reasons that people lose faith in times of suffering is our tendency towards a religious rather than a Christian worldview. A religious worldview teaches, “bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.” Far from a random thought, this is the default of the human heart. The biblical examples are numerous. This is what the disciples assume when, coming upon a blind man, they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Joh 9:2) In Luke 13 Jesus recounts two tragedies. One involved Pilate slaying a group of Galileans and mingling their blood with sacrifices. The other concerned a tower that fell on a group of people at Siloam. In both cases the crowds assume that these tragedies took place because the people were greater sinners than most. Finally, remember the words of the natives of Melita when the snake came out of the fire to bite Paul: “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” (Act 28:4) The assumption here is that an injury such as this can only mean that this man is guilty of something. All of this sounds very much like Eliphaz in the book of Job: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7)

The flip side of this, of course, is that good things will happen to good people. Some think that as soon as I give my heart to Jesus my problems will disappear: my grades will come up, the pretty girl will fall in love with me, and grandma will get healed.

The Hebrews are struggling because they have adopted this religious world view of suffering. They cannot help but think, “How is it that we who follow Jesus are losing everything and those who have abandoned Jesus are doing so well?”

The Gospel brings us face to face with the very possibility of suffering. Peter writes boldly, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1Peter 4:19) In a similar way, the writer of Hebrews shows us that if the sinless, righteous Son of God suffered while following God’s will, it is reasonable that His followers will too. (Hebrews12:5-7) In other words, the Gospel teaches us that pain, loss, and suffering are not a sign that a person is unfaithful to the Lord.

Hebrews 11 illustrates this so well. In this chapter the author takes an inventory of some of the great men and women of the faith. Many of these are described as accomplishing great things. But, note the contrast in the middle of these verses:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.  ////   Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated– of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Heb 11:32-38)

By faith some subdued kingdoms; by faith some were subdued by the kingdoms. By faith some escaped the edge of the sword; by faith others went to the sword. Some of these saints glorified God in life; others glorified God in death.

I cannot explain why some seem to live in the first half of this paragraph and why others exemplify the latter. But we can be sure that both were faithful to the Lord.