It is an age-old question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Another way of asking the question is, “Why is there suffering in the world?” These questions have plagued man ever since he was cast out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24). Suffering exists in the world. You do not have to go very far from where you live to see how people suffer. There are physical afflictions, emotional afflictions and even spiritual afflictions. People are starving for love, food, answers to life’s toughest questions and for peace.
Nevertheless, a question remains unanswered as far as I can see. What is the purpose of suffering? I believe that God has a particular plan for each of us. The Bible teaches us in Psalm 139 that God has everything about our being in His purview. Nothing about us is hidden from His sight because He is the One who has planned all of our days. Read how the psalmist put it:
For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them. (Psalm 139:13-16)
It is obvious that the psalmist realized the weight of God knowing him as intimately as He truly does. It makes sense that God knows us equally as well since He is the One who has weaved us in our mother’s wombs and ordained for us all the days that He has written in His book. The psalmist in other words is writing the truth about all of us.
Now if God cares to know us as intimately as He does, then what is His purpose in our suffering? I ask the question this way because it is reasonable to believe that in His book of our days He has written the days of not suffering and our days of suffering just the same. This does not mean that He loves us less; it simply means that God has planned all of our days. It is quite comforting to know that He even thought of us in the days that we suffer as much as He has in the days that we do not suffer.
So for what reason do we suffer? Why do we have to see our loved ones suffer? I believe that the Bible tells us a few things about suffering’s designs. Yes, suffering has a design and its purposes are for us to grow as difficult as that may appear. God affords us the opportunity to suffer so we can in turn go to Him in our deepest and darkest of days. In Him we find comfort and we can have joy even in the midst of pain.
It will be helpful for us to consider a few verses of Scripture to help us understand the idea of suffering. There is no greater place to turn except His Word. However, we are going to go through these verses in a series of writings. I am hoping that all of this will be helpful to you as I am discovering that it is helpful for me as I have a sister who is suffering with cancer. In this first installment on suffering, we will discuss the first design which is to show the Lord’s mercy.
Suffering’s First Design: To Show God’s Mercy
Now this may be hard for us to accept and understand. How can God show mercy in the midst of suffering? After all, if He has numbered our days and if He has planned these days of suffering, how is that showing mercy? The short of it is that He shows mercy to us in the midst of suffering because through the suffering He is present with us, ever working to see us through the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).
Isaiah the prophet knew what suffering was all about. After all, God had called him to speak to His people Israel and it was difficult because God’s people were living in sin. Any time we live in sin there is going to be suffering of some sort.
First, the suffering will take its toll on our physical well-being. Read what the psalmist wrote:
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit! When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah. (Psalm 32:1-4)
Sin causes a physical suffering, especially when our sin is unconfessed. The consequence of sin is a draining of our physical health. Sin has a way of debasing our body, eating away at it as it were.
Secondly, suffering will take its toll on our emotional state. Consider what the psalmist says in the above-mentioned passage: when he kept silent about his sin, he groaned all day long. His unconfessed sin took its toll on his emotional state. He was down and depressed. His soul groaned and growled with despair because of his sin.
Finally, the suffering will take its toll on our spiritual well-being. Notice that the psalmist said that God’s hand was “heavy upon me.” He was burdened. The Lord was not letting what he had done simply fade into his memory. Rather, He was keeping it ever in front of him. He afforded King David to feel the brunt of the consequences deep within his spirit. The separation from God that he was feeling was something that was real.
Nevertheless, David knew the loving mercy of God. Notice what he said in the first two verses of the passage: How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit! The Lord shows mercy to those who acknowledge their sin. When one turns to the Lord, He is ready to forgive, He is ready to release and renew. In essence, He is ready to allow the man who has sinned to not have that sin imputed against him any longer. God is willing to forgive and to change the man to where there is no longer any deceit in him.
Therefore, what we are seeing in this passage is that the first design of suffering is to bring man back into a right relationship with God. Suffering is designed to help us return to the Lord when sin has crept into our camp. God is fully aware of our propensity to sin. After all, our natural bent after the fall of man in the Garden is toward sin. When we confess that sin, He is faithful to forgive us of our sin and to cleanse us and make us righteous in Himself (1 John 1:9). Now understand this: Just because God forgives us of sin, that does not mean that we will not face consequences to that sin. It just means that He has shown you His mercy by revealing your sin to you and He will show you mercy as you face those consequences.
Are you suffering right now? Ask yourself these questions: Is my suffering caused by some sin in my life? How do I see the Lord’s mercy in revealing my sin to me and by giving me the opportunity to confess and repent of my sin? If my suffering is not due to some sin, how am I recognizing the Lord’s mercy in my suffering? How is He showing me mercy in my suffering?