In a world where suffering is an acute reality, where people struggle daily with pain, abuse and trauma, how is it possible to maintain faith? Last week I shared an article – The Reality of Living with an Invisible Illness – seeking to honestly explore the battles people with chronic physical and mental illnesses face. Here though, I want to articulate how it is possible to have faith in the midst of chronic illness, in the loss of a loved one, in the shock of a cancer diagnosis, in the hunger of famine, in the chaos of a natural disaster. Suffering and faith are not mutually exclusive; I would argue, from my experience and the testimonies of numerous friends, that faith is essential for surviving suffering.
Whether you know God, are searching for truth or believe God can’t possibly exist, please know that I’ve wrestled with these truths for almost a decade, reading widely in the hope of finding answers to my own suffering. I’ve battled with doubt, and by no means walked in ‘blind faith’; my faith and hope have been hard won. I’ve questioned and looked for truth in other worldviews and religions, but nowhere have I found a solution to suffering, a promise in suffering and a purpose for suffering that even come close to explaining my personal experience and what I see in the world like the Bible does. I write this with certainty, and I hope that whatever your background or present circumstance, you can read this with an open mind.
The problem and solution to suffering
Many people think that the God of the Bible (if he even exists) is an impersonal being who has the power to end suffering but doesn’t. However, the biblical narrative does not ignore or minimise suffering; it unapologetically addresses the cruel reality of our world, in which suffering is an unavoidable problem, inherent to life on this earth. It explains suffering’s origin: human sin and the resulting brokenness of our world; and it provides the solution: Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God became fully human – facing all the pain and temptation we face daily, in total obedience to God. He chose to enter into our weakness, so that He could minister to our brokenness. Jesus was mocked, whipped, crowned with thorns and ultimately crucified on a Roman cross – taking all our sin upon Himself and experiencing the agony of our separation from God. He rose to life, conquering death and bringing, through His resurrection, the hope of a new creation. He did this all for us – so that we could have life and the hope of ultimately being freed from our sin and the pain and suffering of this world.
John Stott once wrote: ‘I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’1 No other worldview or religion provides a solution to suffering that involves a loving, relational God humbling Himself by becoming human to suffer on our behalf. In this, the God of the Bible is unique, and He is a God we can relate to personally. He understands our pain, and He does something about it. In the midst of suffering, our world questions how a good God can allow it to continue – while refusing to acknowledge that He’s already worked, through Jesus, to bring it to an end. Revelation 21:4 says: ‘…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ God has promised a new creation free from suffering and sin, and though our present pain is very real, we can look forward to the day when it will be a distant echo of reality.
The promise in suffering
The God of the Bible does not promise a suffering free life to those who believe in Him; in fact, He promises the opposite! We will suffer in this life; this is inevitable. John 16:33 recounts some of Jesus last words to his disciples – the men who walked alongside Him as He did his ministry on earth, the men who watched Him suffer and die on the cross, only to come back to life and appear to them. Jesus said: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer, and they did. Yet they had courage even as they faced death for preaching the gospel, knowing that Jesus had overcome death for their sake. We too have this promise, and can take heart in the midst of our own suffering!
God does not leave us to suffer alone; the Psalms speak to God being present with us in our suffering. Psalm 23 says: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The Psalmist recognises that God provides for us in the midst of our suffering, that He walks beside us as we face death and pain and trauma, that He guides us and comforts us in our suffering. In my previous article I explored how chronic illness can be isolating, as the sufferer faces stigma and the assumptions of misguided people. The Bible reveals a God who does not leave us to suffer alone in our illness, but provides us with His word: pages filled with accounts of people who suffered in numerous ways, yet trusted in God not just to deliver them, but also to equip them to endure their suffering. This faithful God promises that no suffering – no matter how great – can separate us from His love.
The apostle Paul recounts the suffering he experienced as he shared the gospel: imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst and all kinds of danger (see 2 Cor 11:23-30). He later says that though he pleaded with God to take away his suffering, God didn’t – rather, ‘He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. And how does Paul respond? ‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). In our weakness, like Paul we can learn to rely on God more – to recognise how much we need Him. When our bodies are weak, overwhelmed by pain and fatigue, we can look to God for strength, knowing that His grace is sufficient. When our minds are in chaos and anxiety leaves us reeling, we can pray, knowing that God not only hears our prayers but is already working for His glory in our lives.
The purpose of suffering
As well as God providing a solution to our suffering in Jesus and the sufficiency of His grace in our weakness, the Bible is clear that our suffering has purpose: both in this life and the next. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 explains that God comforts us in our affliction so that “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” I’ve seen this in my own life through the love of my family and the friendships I’ve been blessed to form with others who suffer from similar chronic illnesses. As I shared in my previous article, our experiences of suffering enable us to empathise with others who struggle; we can learn to live outwardly and comfort others even in the midst of our own pain. In a world that has no answers for those who suffer in isolation, God provides – both in Himself, and in the blessing of community with fellow sufferers.
Furthermore, God works in us in the midst of our suffering. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, Paul writes, ‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’ When we suffer, as our bodies decay with age or sickness and our minds weaken, God is working to strengthen our character through perseverance, to prove our faith genuine, uniting us with Jesus. There is not only hope that our suffering has purpose now, but also a hope that our suffering has purpose beyond this world. Seeing our present suffering in light of eternity changes our perspective. The temporary suffering we experience in this life, however painful and frustrating and unfair it may be, is what God uses to prepare us for the eternal glory that awaits those who hope in Him.
Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of books I’ve read that articulate – with greater clarity and depth than I am capable – the truths I’ve sketched above. I’ve ordered them from most academic to most accessible.
How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson
Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy Keller
Suffering and the Sovereignty of God edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor
Where is God When It Hurts by Phillip Yancey
Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free by Tullian Tchividjian
Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond
If I Were God I’d End All The Pain by John Dickson
My story: If I’m Honest: Life With Chronic Fatigue