One of the toughest questions any person, let alone Christians, has to answer is “why is there suffering?” I think suffering is part of life, and we have the resources of a loving Christ to help us through all of the difficult situations in which we find ourselves. Yet, we always strive to look for meaning. What is the meaning of the suffering we are facing or observing? Here are a few reasons people have suggested for the purpose of suffering.
Suffering allows us to show love. When Christians see someone suffering, they respond by offering love to others, just like the love given to them through Christ. Being there for people is a way of showing God's response to suffering. The Church is there too, via street pastors, food banks or night shelters, to help God respond to the suffering and the needs of people.
Suffering could also be a result of free will, the consequences of foolish actions. Every action has a consequence, and because we have the gift of free will, it is not up to God to keep on intervening and getting ourselves out of difficulties. So, the precious gift of free will leads to suffering because people are not putting others first. Instead, they put themselves first because of greed, pride, envy etc. The free will that we enjoy is also the cause of others suffering.
Sometimes we can learn from suffering. It promotes discipline, endurance and perseverance. If suffering is a long term situation, perhaps there are lessons we can learn from it or disciplines we can improve upon. Paul, for example, had a constant thorn in his side.
Suffering is common to all of us. It is human, it is inevitable, it is part of life. Perhaps the suffering of others brings us together? It certainly brings families together when a child is suffering. It prompts the question of what is fair. Often people complain that it is not fair that they have got gout, arthritis and so forth. Yet, what exactly is fairness? I have heard that if you do not experience the lows, you cannot enjoy the highs. It gives you some contrast. Having temporary low periods heightens the good times when they arrived.
Suffering teaches us humility and grace. When suffering, you may look for the little chinks of light, positive things. It makes you more aware of your circumstances and enables you to find grace in the smallest of things. Pain can push us forward; we can grow from pain. Suffering can promote willpower and develops character. It allows us to respond to and sympathise with other people's pain. As I have already said, suffering is something that everybody has experiences, therefore, all humanity can help one another.
How one responds to suffering is a personal choice. We cannot help what happens to us externally, but as Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The way we respond is up to us; it is our choice. As Christians, if we respond well, it helps us help others determine how they should respond. Suffering reminds us of our vulnerability. It is not a personal thing; we have not been targeted. It is not God's punishment for anything we have done.
Suffering, of course, is also a warning. Pain is a warning. If you put your hand over a hot stove, your body immediately forces you to retract it. If you have a hangover, the pain is a warning you had too much alcohol or drugs. It is saying, please do not continue to do this. An awful pain in your stomach warns the body that something is wrong. Suffering can also be cleansing, a purging. When you have come out of a period of suffering, you sometimes feel purer and better. It can increase your compassion for others. Our hardships help us understand how others are feeling and help us respond accordingly. We become more empathetic; we want to help.
Suffering is a reality check. It stuns. It tells us we have to stop what we are doing and get help. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, so the phrase goes. When we are suffering and feel like giving up, we somehow keep going and find new resources or willpower. This can develop us and make us better people. History is littered with people who have suffered, and as a result, have become better people. Abraham Lincoln, for example, suffered depression and suicidal thoughts, yet this made him a better president.
There is a quote from the 2006 biopic Rocky Balboa, which sums up what I have said. “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!” Suffering has many reasons, from which we can extract lots of meaning, but as I said at the beginning, suffering is just a fact of life. We have the resources of God to help us get us through, and, of course, we have the resources of the Church, our friends and our family to help us. If we are suffering, we should never feel that we are a burden. We must share our experiences of suffering, and in so doing, enable others to respond, enable them to show their humanity and kindness. Knowing these people are there helps you to keep going, as does knowing God is with you. God, of course, is in the suffering. God has suffered. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, suffered for us on the cross. God is not a God who is remote. God is with you, so use God as a resource. Pray. Read the Bible. There are many instances of suffering in the Bible, for example, Job. Know that you are not alone. You have not been singled out for punishment, so rely upon God to help you through the suffering. Amen.
Written by Reverend Martin Wheadon, May 2021
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon