Sometimes we ask ourselves, “Do we really need to be so sad over a temporal loss such as a marriage or the death of someone we love since we’re really made for heaven? Is it even proper for the Christian to grieve over the death of someone when the truth is they will be in heaven with us for eternity? Should we spend so much time trying to get over a broken marriage when the truth is I have Jesus who makes me complete? Why spend so much time processing this temporal pain?”
Whether we admit it or not, temporal pain does have implications for eternal purposes and to ignore it is to miss a great opportunity to grow spiritually. I’m not saying we should want to suffer for spiritual growth, but suffering can give us a greater sense of meaning and purpose if we process it in a healthy way. First, suffering reminds us our temporal life is just that, temporal. No matter how hard we chase pleasures found in worldly things, they cannot stop our suffering. Suffering is a part of living in this broken world. All religions deal with suffering in some way but as we have established, Christianity provides a unique way to understand suffering.
A Christian response to suffering touches the very core of human experience, it doesn’t transcend that experience by providing hyper-spiritual or cognitive philosophies to dismiss what we feel. In the book “Competent Christian Counseling” the authors explain suffering in the Christian life in the following way:
Life is not a question of whether or not we suffer; that is a given for everyone born on planet Earth. The more crucial question is how we respond in the midst of suffering. The reality of heartache and hardship should not lead us to the false and twisted belief that God causes suffering. Since we cannot escape distress in this life, we are better off finding a way to live with it, finding meaning and redemption through it (Clinton & Ohlschlager, 2002).
The reason we suffer is a direct result of the fact we love in a disordered and improper way. In Genesis chapter three we read about our disobedience to God and how it reflects the improper exercise of our free will causing the harmonious structure of creation to be fractured. Our desire to be more than God made us vulnerable to the lies of evil encountered in the perfectly constructed reality of Eden. Our disobedience destroyed our access to paradise. Yes, God could have created a creature that only did as he asked but that would mean the creature itself could never truly love him since love requires an act of free will. God gave humanity that gift of free will fully knowing the ramifications of its misuse. When we did misuse our free will (Which we still do) the world became something it was not intended to be. Human beings did not love God first, one another in selfless acts of love, or care for creation in a responsible way. When you read Genesis chapter three you find the answer for why there is suffering in the world. We suffer because disordered love destroys relationships, people, and creation. It separates us from God – We are exiled from the bliss of being aware of his continual presence. Disordered love separates us from one another – We see other people as objects to fulfill our needs and desires, not fellow creatures on a shared journey of living Godly virtue in service to one another. Lastly, disordered love causes us to make created things into idols taking the place of God and to be used as an endless supply of material things to fulfill our selfish desires, needs, and entertainment. Suffering occurs because we have elected to break the harmony of God’s creation.
It’s important to recognize our personal sin causes suffering in our lives and the lives of others, but so does a general condition of sin which accumulates in our reality simply because the world is broken. Sin perpetuates itself on people and creation. Someone hurt by another person doesn’t learn what love truly is and perpetuates that hurt on others. The land is stripped by one community to meet their energy needs and another community hundreds of miles away suffers when mudslides kill thousands of people living in the path of destruction. Illness, natural disasters, and a myriad of other problems may not be caused by one person’s sin, but these maladies do exist because all the brokenness in this world accumulates and bursts forth wherever it can.
While I have been proposing that God uses suffering in a way that leads us to spiritual growth, I caution the reader to note that I’m not proposing God desires us to suffer in order to grow spiritually, but only that suffering exists in this world because we have elected to be disobedient to him. God, in his infinite mercy and grace, can use this broken condition to reveal himself more profoundly as the God of love, peace, mercy, healing, and strength when we most need it. Later in this book, we will look at meaning making and how critical moments of crisis and suffering can become powerful moments of growth. In a very dark time in my life, a wise friend showed me God can use the difficult and painful events in our lives for a greater purpose and path to peace. He said to me, “Always remember Dominick, God writes straight with crooked lines.” Suffering is the crooked lines in which God delivers a message of love to us.
To summarize what has been said this far, suffering in the Christian life reminds us of the temporal nature of human existence. Its root is in the fact sin has entered the world and at the heart of sin is its divisive nature. Sin divides us from God, one another, creation, and finally from our very selves. We are separated from our bodies in death because of sin. Other religions attempt to understand suffering and often write it off as nothing more than an illusion, but the Christian recognizes it for what it is, a reality found in a world that is not as it was intended to be.
Next week in part 2 we will dig a little deeper into answering this important question.