Moore, Oklahoma. Boston, Massachusetts. Newtown, Connecticut. Within the last several months, places like these have become synonymous with suffering. My heart breaks for the people involved, especially the families who’ve lost children. As a father to three sons, I can’t bear the thought of losing them to a natural disaster or a man-made tragedy. If not for my relationship with Jesus, I would likely lose all hope and peace if something like that were to happen to me. Words are inadequate to describe how difficult it must be for those who lost loved ones in the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.
How have you reacted to these tragedies? Have you ever thought about how you would respond if something tragic were to happen to you or to people you love? You might call me gloomy or melancholy, but I am convinced it is important to have a solid biblical theology of suffering before you experience suffering. Like a natural disaster, suffering is extremely difficult to deal with unless you have made some necessary preparations. Granted, your preparations won’t guarantee your safety, but that shelter you prepared just might be the very thing that helps you survive. Christians, don’t be unprepared. Life is full of suffering, and most of the time suffering comes as a surprise.
So what does the Bible say about suffering and how should we respond to it?
The Bible speaks plenty about suffering because God wrote the Bible through people who were discipled by suffering. The apostle Paul is an excellent and authoritative source on suffering. Through his letters to various churches in the New Testament, Paul provides at least five instances where he addresses suffering. I hope these five points provide you with a basic framework for a theology of suffering. Suffering happens to everyone in various ways. I pray these points will help you see that it is God and His Word that will ultimately help you through your darkest days.
1. Understand your suffering
Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raised the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:8-10).
Paul experienced great affliction, even to the point of having suicidal thoughts. However, Paul began to understand that suffering was brought his way in order to help him rely on God. Please don’t miss this. Paul viewed suffering as the means by which he learned to hope in God. As harsh as this sounds, especially to someone going through great tragedy, suffering exists to help you see the need for a deliverer. The reality is that everyone needs a deliverer whether in tragedy or triumph. Jesus Christ, the suffering servant, has come to deliver you.
2. Rejoice in your suffering
Paul writes to the church in Rome, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
Rejoice and suffering are two words that typically don’t go together, yet Paul has no problem with telling the church in Rome to rejoice in sufferings. Why? Suffering reveals your true self, and suffering reveals your true hope. The character of a person is never found in times of prosperity, but in times of poverty. Suffering helps you to see who you really are. In addition, suffering reveals where your true security is found. When events turn tragic, a person quickly discovers what holds them together. Paul says to rejoice in suffering because it becomes the means by which you discover your true self and your true hope. Suffering is the grace whereby a person can sing, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
3. Compare your suffering
Paul writes again to the church in Rome, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
It is easy to find someone who has it worse than you. Whenever you are going through something tragic, remind yourself about the billions of other people who have it far worse. I’m not suggesting to belittle your suffering, but I am suggesting to keep a global context in mind. Comparing your suffering to others is good, but this is not what Paul is suggesting. One of the greatest blessings you can give to yourself in this lifetime is to compare everything with the glory that awaits those who are in Christ Jesus. Paul says to compare your suffering, but he says to compare it with your future glory. If you belong to Jesus, all suffering is fleeting and you will one day be perfectly united with Christ in eternity. Especially in suffering, Christ must be proclaimed as the only hope because of how His goodness outweighs any bad you might face.
4. Appreciate His suffering
Paul writes to the church in Philippi, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Paul recognizes that if anyone knew extreme suffering, it was Jesus. He had all the rights, privileges, and authority with God because He was and is God, yet Jesus suffered by becoming a man. The highest King became the lowliest slave. Jesus also debased himself by willfully dying on a cross. He suffered more than anyone else in human history by taking on the sins of the world and by bearing the full brunt of the wrath of God. No one else has ever had to endure that kind of suffering. The ultimate theology of suffering is one that appreciates Christ as the only One who endured the severest of suffering for His glory and for your good.
5. Use your suffering
Paul writes to the church at Colossae, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known” (Col. 1:24,25).
Again Paul is rejoicing in sufferings. His reason for rejoicing is that his suffering is a great benefit to the church. Paul recognizes his suffering is a great means by which people will be drawn to Christ. If in his suffering Paul shows others that he has hope in Christ when it seems like all hope is lost, then suffering is a mighty witness. Oftentimes the life of a Christian is the only Bible other people will read. It seems impossible to get others to read God’s Word, but they certainly have no problem reading your life. As you make preparations for future tragedies by developing a solid biblical theology of suffering, don’t forget that moments of suffering can also be moments where others are strongly drawn to receive Christ as their only hope. Use your suffering for His kingdom and for His glory by demonstrating to a lost world that Christ is all you need, even when a tornado comes and takes away everything.
If you would like to help with and support Moore, OK and churches in the area who were devastated by the tornado last week, visit http://frontlinechurch.tv/servemoore/ for more information.