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What Good can possibly come out of Suffering?

Christians know from firsthand experience that whatever a person believes, no one is exempt from suffering. Frank Reteif, a pastor of a church in South Africa, described how he was leading the Sunday worship when the service was interrupted by terrorists who lobbed grenades into the congregation and strafed the building with machine gun fire, killing many of his congregation. In the aftermath of the tragedy, as the wounds healed and the community re-formed, Frank wrote: "We must do away once and for all with the great myth that suffering is never part of God's will".

Many believers struggle with the problem of suffering. On the one hand. we believe suffering is an alien intruder into the good world, God originally made. But knowing the truth about suffering doesn't stop us asking occasionally: What good and loving reasons could God have for allowing suffering?

Here's a few possibilities:

"Death is not on my agenda" said the multi billionaire businessman, but he was deluding himself. Death comes to us all and suffering can be a timely reminder that we are all frail creatures, who will die someday. Suffering should remind us all to make preparations for that eventual day. In The Problem of Pain, C.S.Lewis wrote: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world". Many Christians have found it to be true that God sometimes has to put us on our backs in order to make us look up. There are many Christians who can testify how suffering and heartbreak led them to seek and find the Lord.

Many Christians have found that their experience of suffering has deepened their relationship with God. Indeed, it was only through pain, that I learnt that God loved for me for who I am, rather than, what I do. This was a truth I knew in my head, but it took pain, to make that truth drop into my heart. Sometimes we see more through a tear than a telescope.

Suffering can change us, whether we believe or not. The question is: does it make us bitter or better people? By walking with God in our suffering, I believe we can be changed for the better. As Christians we pray that God will use the tool of suffering to chisel away the sinfulness in our lives to make us more like Jesus. This is not to say that all our suffering is caused by our own personal sin. "Pain and suffering are not necessarily signs of God's anger: they may be exactly the opposite" (John Blanchard). In God's hands, suffering can be used to prune us - removing the bits in our lives which aren't flourishing. The Bible put it like this: "Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Hebrews 12:10-11)

Who would you talk to when you are in the midst of suffering? For most of us, we'd go to someone who had some empathy for our situation. As a Christian I'd go to someone who personally knew the comforts that only God can bring in hard situations. Paul talks about "the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). It appears that experiencing some suffering is an essential qualification for all those who would effectively care for others.

There is a Chinese story which goes like this: A young trainee monk climbs up a mountain to see his Zen master. The Zen master asks his young acolyte what's been happening in the village below. "Oh," says the young monk, "A young boy was bought a pony by his parents. Isn't that brilliant?" "Hmmh", says the master, "It's too early to say".

Two years later, the boy falls off the horse and breaks both his legs. "Why on earth did they buy him a horse? Wasn't that an irresponsible gift?", says the monk to his master. "Hmmh", says the master, "It's too early to say."

Ten years later, the monk climbs the mountain to see his master. "Do you remember that boy who broke his legs falling off the horse? You wouldn't believe what's happened! He's just qualified to become a doctor. Apparently, the accident made him see pain in a whole new light and he wanted to do something to relieve people's misery. Isn't that wonderful?" "It's too early to say" muttered the old master

Two years later, the monk informs his master that the young doctor has now caught some potentially fatal disease after treating some plague victims. Isn't that terrible. Oh if only he'd never been bought that horse when he was a young boy."

Two years later, the monk informs his master that the doctor recovered from his illness and then found a cure for the plague. Isn't that wonderful? How wonderful it is to think that all those people have been saved because those parents bought their son a horse all those years ago. How wonderful to think that all the sufferings that the boy experienced have resulted in much good"

The story is whimsically far fetched but it makes certain points well. God can take suffering and use it to accomplish great good. The story of Joseph is a case in point.

Rejected by his own family and sold into slavery, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, left in a jail cell to rot. How could any good come of this situation? And yet, amazingly Joseph testified to his own brothers that even though they intended to harm him, "God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen 50:20). For us today, the Cross "is God's great proof that suffering in the will of God always leads to glory" (Warren Wiersebe)

However, for most of us, the reasons for our suffering might never be known this side of eternity. Frank Reteif wrote: "Probably one of the hardest aspects of suffering to endure is the fact that our suffering is not explained. It would be much easier if we knew why". We cannot and must not expect to know all the reasons for ours or anyone else's suffering. The difference between real life and the movies, is that the movies have to make sense. Sometimes (often?), believers (like Job), get no answers for their suffering in this life. Joni Eareckson Tada was paralysed after an accident when she was a teenager. After coming to terms with the accident she took up painting, (by placing the brush in her mouth) writing and speaking. In her biography Joni she wrote: "Without a doubt, what helps us most in accepting and dealing with suffering is an adequate view of God- learning who he is and knowing he is in control".

Rev. Dr. Mark Duggan

Published in the Bramley Baptist Church Magazine, Sept-Oct 2008

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