How would you finish a sentence beginning with the words "Suffering is ..." Suffering is random? Suffering is unjust? Suffering is your own fault? Suffering is someone else's fault? Suffering just happens? Some might say, "Suffering isn't important, it's how you respond to it that matters."
All of these ideas are legitimate for consideration. In their own ways, they're all true. Suffering certainly does seem random. Some of us get sick, others don't. Some of us enjoy satisfying relationships, others don't. Some of us are constantly constrained by money troubles, others aren't. A variety of factors can be useful predictors of suffering, but none of them is guaranteed.
Suffering certainly seems to be unjust. Lots of people we'd consider "innocent" suffer in significant ways. Visit the children's ward of a local hospital, if you have doubts about this.
Some suffering is certainly our own fault. I've done lots of things that have produced negative consequences. I didn't intend the action I took to have the effect it did, but because I didn't take all the possible outcomes into account, I ended up suffering and have no one to blame but myself.
At the same time, some suffering is clearly someone else's fault. We suffer when others act thoughtlessly, or carelessly, or maliciously. From time to time, I can point to actions on the part of others as the source of my pain.
For most of us, suffering just happens. There doesn't seem to be any sense to it. Not only is it random, in the sense of following no pattern, it seems to be inevitable. No one I know has successfully avoided all suffering. It has a certain universal quality.
Suffering is related to affliction in the same way that laughter is related to a clever punch line. It’s a response to a stimulus. Suffering is our emotional response to the unpleasantness we encounter in life and we reject it because we weren’t created for it. We were created for perfection, for paradise, for God’s presence.
Now, if you think that, as a Christian, I’m about to tell you that if you’d only believe in Jesus all your suffering would be over, then you’d be mistaken. Not only does the Bible never promise Jesus’ followers a rose garden. It promises the opposite, trouble, persecution, problems, and burdens of care. But don’t take my word for it.
Jesus told his disciples plainly: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also...” (John 15:19-20)
In Acts 14:22 we find Paul and Barnabas visiting Christians in several cities “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said.
To Christians in Thessalonica, Paul wrote a letter to strengthen and encourage them in their faith, so that no-one would be unsettled by their trials. He wrote: “You know quite well that we were destined for them [the trials]. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know.” (1 Thessalonians 3:2-4)
To his younger colleague, Timothy, Paul sent a reminder about his teaching, his way of life, his purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, sufferings and the persecutions he endured. “Yet,” he said, “the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3:10-13)
Make no mistake, believing in Jesus adds to our suffering. Not only do we face all the usual things, illness, accidents, miserable neighbours, ungrateful family members, harsh bosses, and the like. Christians are regularly despised, held in contempt, hated and persecuted because of their faith. So why would anyone become a Christian? Why would anyone put themselves into the position of adding to their troubles when they could avoid it?
Two reasons leap to my mind. Considering that we all have to go through a variety of unpleasant circumstances, I prefer to not do that alone. In the Old Testament, God told His people to not be afraid “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:1-2) Along with this are several reiterations in words like these “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Then, looking further down the road, consider Jesus words to His disciples in John 16:33 “I have told you these things [about eternity], so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus promises us that, while our present lives may be characterized by troubles, when we step into eternity, we’ll leave them all behind. Having this confidence makes all the difference in how we’re able to respond to them.
If life is burdening you down, it could be that your vision for the future doesn’t rise above the horizon. Understanding that Jesus knows all about suffering, Himself, and is promising to be with you through yours, can ease the discouragement which is so often associated with afflictions. Personally, having the right person with me when I’m suffering helps a lot. Whoever else might fit that description in any given situation, Jesus always does.
Having the sure hope of being able to leave all of the misery behind, one day, is the proverbial icing on the cake. In a context of grievous trouble Jesus advised His disciples “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28)