Why does God allow His people to suffer?
Dear C. B.,
I’ve been pondering this question myself in the wake of recent events. I don’t know the complete answer; however, here are two truths that I’ve discovered recently.
First, consider Jesus. Why did God allow His own Son to suffer? If anybody deserved not to suffer, it was Jesus. I’m not referring to his suffering during his trial and crucifixion. That was specifically related to his propitiatory sacrifice for us. I’m thinking of the psychological suffering of being rejected by his family (John 7:5), his neighbors (John 6:42), and ultimately those he created (John 1:10-11). I’m thinking of the physical suffering he endured through deprivation (Matt. 8:20). I’m thinking of the spiritual and physical suffering Jesus experienced during his temptations (Heb. 2:18).
The writer of Hebrews reflects on Jesus’ suffering and concludes that “it was fitting for God … to make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). Wait! Wasn’t Jesus already perfect? Yes, he was perfectly sinless (Heb. 7:26). But being sinless did not make Jesus “perfect” (fully equipped) for the job God had for him. Jesus needed suffering to fully equip him. Frankly, I find that shocking. But it is what Scripture says. So then, how did Jesus’ sufferings perfect him?
One of Jesus’ roles is to help us as we suffer through trials and temptations. We know from human experience that a person who has never suffered cannot help one who is suffering in the same way a person who has gone through suffering can. Part of what equipped or perfected Jesus for his task as our High Priest was to experience genuine suffering, undeserved suffering so that he could sympathize with us and sustain us in our suffering (Heb. 2:18).
Peter tells us that suffering is God’s will for some of his children (1 Pet. 4:19) and that we must follow Jesus’ pattern in our suffering: he did not rail against those who inflicted his suffering, but entrusted himself to God who judges justly (1 Pet. 2:21-23). It is “after you have suffered a little while,” that God will “perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” In other words, just as it was fitting for God to perfect Jesus through suffering, so too it is fitting for God to perfect us for the task He has for us through our suffering.
According to Heb. 5:8, Jesus learned obedience from the things he suffered. Since Jesus never disobeyed, it doesn’t seem that “learned obedience” means “to learn to obey.” Rather it seems better to take it in the sense he learned to obey in, through, and in spite of the pain that obedience brought. No matter how painful we may find it to obey God, Jesus has already experienced the dregs of the worst suffering that obedience may require of humanity. Thus he is our example of God’s sustaining grace to yield tearfully with “not my will but yours.”
Second, in Philippians 3:10-11, Paul testifies that he longs to know Christ in the “fellowship of his sufferings.” I can understand wanting to know Christ in the power of his resurrection, but—the fellowship of his sufferings? Paul seems to have recognized that there is a certain depth of relationship that is possible only through shared suffering. Those who have gone through war’s horrors together often testify to the indissoluble bond created by shared suffering. Paul prized relational depth with Christ so highly that anything is worth having more, even if it took suffering. Notice that this is a “fellowship” of suffering.
When we suffer, Jesus suffers, for we are his body. We do not suffer alone. He suffers with us in our suffering.
In this light, suffering becomes an avenue to a level of knowing Christ that is not available through other avenues.
I hope it is common knowledge that Romans 8:28-29 teaches that God is at work in all the circumstances He allows in our life for our good, and that “good” is that we become like Jesus. If Jesus had to suffer, is it likely that we can become like him without suffering? For further reading on this topic, I recommend When God Weeps by Joni Earickson Tada and Stephen Estes.