The Purpose of Suffering
July, 2018: Back in December, I wrote a letter entitled, “Bigger.” It outlined some of my hardships and wins as I sought care for my heart arrhythmia. But mostly, it focused on our outlook on life. The whole idea that life owes us something, or that if we work hard we are guaranteed success, is not a total given. Yes, the odds may be greater, but at the end of the day, sadly, we cannot control everything. That’s why it’s great to know a God who is bigger than our daily challenges, and even bigger than the largest obstacles we face in life. But unlike the prosperity gospel talked about on TV and social media, the real truth of the matter is that God doesn’t test us to reward us. It’s not even about us. The idea of “Bigger,” was that God has a plan for us that we cannot know or see in advance. He prepares us for what’s ahead, many times an even “bigger” challenge than what we have faced before. Now, this may seem unkind. Maybe even cruel. But if you have lived long enough, you have seen it. Selfish people who live for themselves every day, succeeding in the eyes of the world in every way while kind, generous people who live selflessly endure struggle after struggle. Every now and then there appears to be a silver lining or happy ending for someone who has faced tragedy, but many times it seems to be the exception to the rule. The lifelong disabled facing another cancer diagnosis. The mass shootings with unsuspecting, innocent victims. The drug addiction and suicides that are rampant. It makes us sometimes think, what is the purpose of this life and where is God when we need Him? Why does God allow innocent people to suffer here on earth? Well, the fact remains that our time here on earth is limited. The purpose of the believer is to live a life for Christ, giving Him the honor and glory despite our circumstances, with the reward stored up in heaven, not on this earth. That’s the whole idea of faith. Faith is hope in that which is unseen, not in that which is seen. Why would you need any faith if a pile of riches lay just down the road, visible in the distance? C.S. Lewis has said, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house…He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably…You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come & live in it Himself.” But even then, sometimes the people whose walls He’s knocking down never really see the palace, not here on this earth anyway. It gets difficult, a struggle that may take any shape or form during this life or encompass your entire life. This makes it very difficult not just for the person enduring the challenges, but also to those around him or her. It’s human nature in our Western culture to see hardship and run away as fast as we can. We have become soft, looking for the quick fix, rather than digging in and seeing what this struggle can teach us. Timothy Keller has written extensively on this topic in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Because our Western culture believes in escapism when faced with difficulty, not only are we terrible at traversing rough waters, our support systems vanish, uncomfortable with getting too close to suffering, not knowing what to say or do. Although Keller states that this is a belief derived from post-modernism, this belief was alive even during Jesus’ time on earth. In the gospels in the Bible we find the story of Bartimaeus, an adult who was born blind. His parents’ friends and the disciples stated publicly that his blindness was the product of his parents’ or his sin, something they were being punished for. Jesus healed him and rebutted the naysaying disciples and friends of his parents, saying, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but rather that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:3. In the book of Job, human nature took center stage as his friends piled on Job during his hardship, certain that it was something he said or did that caused him to lose absolutely everything of value to him. Surely these examples show us that life is meant to be hard, and likely has nothing to do with our works, or our sin, but rather are a test of faith for which rewards could be seen on this earth in Job’s story, but for others may only be seen in heaven. So what does all of this mean for us? Have faith during the struggles of life! Consider a different viewpoint, that God is not punishing you, but rather giving you an opportunity to be the light that others might see, resting in His grace to show His glory. Don’t ever give up! There is hope, even in the most dire circumstances. The Apostle Paul said that he sought the Lord’s help three times to remove the thorn in his flesh, but God answered, “…My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response was, “Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” II Corinthians 12:9. There is purpose in suffering. Consider those words again. There is purpose in suffering. I remember these words daily as I once again pursue treatment for some complications from my previous heart surgeries that currently prevent me from doing what I love to do. While God’s plan is most certainly “Bigger” than mine, I rest on Him in faith knowing His way is not just bigger, but better.