Christianity is unlike some religions which tell us that pain and subsequent suffering is illusory, that it is not real. The Bible takes our suffering as a very real experience. The Bible tells us that suffering is, in general terms, the result of sin entering the world. Our suffering continues from birth. We cause others to suffer and we, ourselves, suffer because of the lives of those that we come in contact with.
The Bible is so full of suffering that roughly one third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament, where God’s people are groaning, and struggling, and wrestling. Whole Books of the Bible, such as Lamentations are lamenting in their very essence. Every prophet in the Bible, with the exception of Haggai, has at least one lament in their Book.
Human suffering is so real, and so raw that there are, occasionally, those in Scripture who, despite their great love of God, question why they were even born, cursed the day of their own birth. Perhaps, you can identify with them. Perhaps, you have or are suffering to such a degree that you wake up and, occasionally, look in the mirror and ask, "Why, God, was I ever born? It seems like it is nothing but sorrow, and shame, and suffering, and why in the world would I be brought into an existence that is marked by this level of pain?
You and I can only handle seeing so much suffering, and hearing so much suffering, and we reach a point where we simply cannot continue to see it or hear of it. And I want you to, for a moment, consider with me what it must be like that we are incapable of fully experiencing this; what it must be like to be God. The Bible tells us that God sees everything. That means that God sees all injustice, evil, sin, atrocity, pain and suffering. He sees all of it. There is never a moment that God is not seeing suffering. Unlike you and I, God never has a moment of respite.
Additionally, the Bible teaches us that God hears all. There is never a moment that God does not hear those who are weeping, and wailing, and screaming, and shouting, and crying, and moaning in agony, and pain, and suffering. God endures this continually, unendingly, unceasingly. The Bible says that God is good. God is loving. God is merciful. God is compassionate. And you and I, when we see suffering in our life for the life of others, when we hear of suffering in our life or the life of others, we are overwhelmed. But for God, this is continual and it encompasses every human being on the earth.
1. Finding joy in suffering
18 times in the New Testament, joy and suffering are spoken of together. We tend to think of joy and suffering as foes and not friends and, according to Scripture and the testimony of Paul, suffering and rejoicing are friends, but only if we understand the personal work of Jesus, which is where he continually returns. Paul, here, is suffering. And what Paul is exemplifying for us is that there is a way to suffer as a Christian so that our suffering is purposeful and not purposeless. Will we suffer in a way that God could do a good thing in us? We call it sanctification. It is where through suffering, and hardship, and pain and mourning, and loss and strife, and struggling, we are made to be more and more patterned after the character of Jesus Christ.
a. We can rejoice when our suffering compels us to love Jesus.
b. We can rejoice when our suffering purifies our motives.
c. We can rejoice when our suffering reorients our priorities toward the Gospel
d. we can rejoice when our chains of suffering become opportunities to speak of Jesus
e. we can rejoice when Christians who watch us suffer grow in their faith
f. We can rejoice when non-Christians become Christians as a result of our suffering
2. How we miss out on the joy
a. If we believe that suffering is caused by the lack of faith.
We see in Scripture there are people who have great faith in God, like Job, Paul and Jesus Christ who is God himself, and they suffer. They also experience poverty, hardship, loneliness, and they weep.
b. When we equate suffering and being Christlike!
Sometimes, we suffer because of our sin. If you disrespect your boss, you will suffer unemployment. If you are cruel to your spouse, you will suffer a divorce. If you eat and drink too much, you will suffer physical ailment. And in those moments, you can’t say, "I’m like Jesus." You can’t. You must say, "I’ve sinned and I’ve reaped what I’ve sewn.
c. When we equate suffering as punishment.
God can discipline his people and punish non-Christians for sin, but there is not always a correlation between suffering and a sin. There is an example in the Bible where a man is born blind and some followers of Jesus ask him, "Is he blind because of his parent’s sin or his sin?" Jesus says, "Neither. He’s blind that the glory of God might be revealed in him." God is doing something altogether different with that man, and his suffering is purposeful, not purposeless, but it’s not the consequence of anyone’s sin.
d. When we pursue suffering.
The early church had some erroneous teaching where suffering purifies us and identifies us with Jesus"; therefore, they tried to suffer. They pursued suffering.we can do the same. When there is a conflict or a difficulty, you insert yourself that you might have something that is painful so that you might use it to be sanctified. Whilst it looks holy, it’s unholy. It’s pride which says, "I do not trust God to bring into my life his divine appointments of suffering. Therefore, I will help him by pursuing my own." Do not pursue suffering. What we are saying is when it comes, either from the hand of God or through the hand of God, when it comes, suffer well. Suffer well.
3. Responding to suffering with joy
What then should our theology of suffering dictate? Only one thing; that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed and in that, I rejoice. As long as the truth about the death, and the burial and the resurrection is ringing forth, that in that, we can rejoice!
Throughout the Scriptures, particularly in the Psalms, we’re told repeatedly, "Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice!" Joy is a choice. Joy is a lifestyle, and rejoicing is something that is possible in the midst of suffering. It is not rejoicing that we are suffering. It is rejoicing that in our suffering there is a purpose that God would do something great in us and that God, in his grace, would so something great through us.
Isaiah 53 says of Jesus that he is a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. Jesus left the glories of Heaven to enter into the suffering of the earth. He chose a life that you and I, were we given a choice, would not have chosen, a life of suffering. He suffered physically, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, in every way, and to a greater depth; and even – that even Paul, or you, or I will ever taste. Yet Jesus’ suffering was purposeful, not purposeless.