Consider these ministry scenarios: you are teaching a Bible study and during a time of group discussion, a woman reveals that her husband left her for another woman. What do you say? Or someone you serve in ministry learns they have a debilitating disease of which there is no cure. Their future is dark and bleak. How do you comfort them? Perhaps a couple shares that one of their children has denied Christ and now calls themselves an atheist. How would you help? These scenarios are not out of the realm of possibility; any of these situations could happen any time in the course of ministry. Before we consider how we would respond to someone’s suffering, we must have a theology of suffering. We must know what we believe about suffering, why we suffer, and what God has done and is doing about it.
Why Does Theology Matter?
Theology, or the study of God, shapes not only our minds but our hearts as well. What we believe informs how we respond to the circumstances of life. Especially hard things. When we encounter a trial in our life, what we believe about trials, why they happen, and what our response should be, all emanates or flows out of our theology. How we endure or go through that trial also depends on what we believe about it. This is also true for how we help someone else who is suffering.
To be honest, if we don’t have a theology of suffering, how can we hold the hand of someone whose spouse just walked out on them? How can we listen to the cries of a woman who just delivered a stillborn child? How can we pray with someone who has stage four cancer? If we don’t have our theology in place, hearing such stories can knock us down. It can overwhelm us and shake our faith. It can cause confusion and doubt to grow in our heart. In addition, without a theology of suffering, we can say something to the hurting that isn’t Biblically true, and in so doing, we end up hurting our fellow brother or sister in the Lord even more than they already are. Or we might even lead them astray. We all need to have a theology of suffering, and not only for ministry, but also for our own lives as well.
Developing a Theology of Suffering
Many books exist on the subject but there are several factors to consider when developing a theology of suffering.
Who God Is
Theology is the study of God, therefore we must begin with God when we consider suffering. What do we believe about who God is, His character, His power, and His authority over our lives? It makes a big difference whether we believe God is sovereign over all things or whether He takes a back seat in the details of our lives. “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:37-38). It also matters whether we believe He is the Creator, Maker, and Sustainer of all things or not. “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens” (Jeremiah 10:12). What do we believe about His character? Do we believe in His goodness? Do we believe He is holy, righteous, and just? “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (Psalm 145:17).
If we believe that God is good, faithful, sovereign, and ruler over all things, then when suffering enters our lives, we must believe that He is sovereign over that suffering as well. We must believe that such suffering is under His control. We must trust He will use it for our ultimate good and His glory.
Origins of Suffering
Another element to a theology of suffering is in understanding the origins of suffering. When God created the world, suffering did not exist; everything God made was good. When God created our first parents, they only knew joy and peace. They were never sick. They never spoke an unkind word to one another. They lived in perfect harmony with each other and with their Maker. There was no loss, sorrow, or tears. Until the day they both disobeyed God and ate from the tree of which they were forbidden to eat. Sin then entered the world and with it suffering. Sickness and death entered the world. Loss and sorrow. Fear and loneliness. Injustice and violence. War and poverty. All the suffering we know and experience today finds its origins in the fall of Adam and Eve.
The Why of Suffering
When suffering enters anyone’s life, we all want to know, “Why?” The why of suffering is an area in which we all stumble. We think we can figure out why something has happened, and in so doing, perhaps we can get to the end of it and make it go away.
The book of Job tells the story of a man who endured intense suffering. In the blink of an eye, he lost all his children, his wealth, and his health. After this tragedy, Job’s friends came to be with him and talked to him about all that happened. The problem was their theology. They believed good behavior resulted in blessing and bad behavior resulted in punishment. If you lived a good life, good things happened to you and the opposite if you did not. So when Job lost everything, his friends assumed Job must have disobeyed God in some profound way. Much of the book of Job documents each friend taking turns trying to get Job to admit to some kind of wrongdoing. But Job was an upright man; he loved and served God. We know from reading Job that his suffering was not because of something he had done but because Satan came before God and asked permission to bring suffering into his life (Job 1:9-12). Job’s losses were not because God was punishing him for sin, but because there were lessons God wanted to teach him through his suffering: there were things he needed to learn about God.
The same theology still existed in Jesus’ day when the disciples asked Jesus about a man born blind. They asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus responded, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
This is a common error we all can make, assuming we know why something has happened in someone’s life or even trying to figure out the reasons why. But we can’t assume. We don’t do a sufferer any good when we try to figure it out for them. When we study God’s word on the subject of suffering, we see that there are multiple uses and purposes for suffering in our lives (see James 1:2-4, Romans 5:3-4, 2nd Corinthians 12:9-10, 2nd Corinthians 1:3-4). We know that all suffering is for God’s glory and our ultimate spiritual good. But sometimes we don’t see all the good in this life. Job never knew about the encounter Satan had with God which precipitated his suffering. Much of the time, we have to trust in God’s promises, His sovereignty, and in His goodness, knowing that even if we don’t know why something has happened, God is in it and He will ultimately redeem it.
God’s Response to Suffering
The story of suffering doesn’t end with Adam and Eve being barred from the Garden. God sent them out with a promise that a seed would come and one day defeat Satan (Genesis 3:15). The rest of the Bible tells the story of that promised Redeemer. When a sufferer wonders if God even cares about the suffering in this world, we can answer with an emphatic, yes! God cares so much that He sent His only Son into the world. Jesus is God in the flesh, Immanuel. He lived in this fallen world, experiencing all the heartache, sorrow, suffering, and temptation we experience, yet He didn’t sin. He became the perfect sacrifice to take our place and receive the punishment our sins deserve. He bore our sins on the cross, died, was buried, and rose from the dead, conquering sin and death. Jesus is the suffering servant, the man of sorrows, the one who sweat drops of blood, knowing the suffering He would endure for our sakes, yet “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
The End of Suffering
Because of Jesus, there is an end to suffering. Because He conquered sin and death, we have the hope of eternity. One day He will return and make all things new. We will dwell with Him forever. This is His promise and our comfort. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
Knowing what we believe and why about suffering is essential to helping someone else who is suffering. We must have a theology of suffering. We need to study God’s Word to learn more. We need to know what we believe and why. Then we can go and comfort fellow sufferers with the comfort and hope found in Christ our Savior.