Why do Christians suffer?

The problem of human suffering is a real one that affects both Christians and non-Christians alike. It has lead many people to respond in bitterness to God and those around them. Indeed, the renowned Biblical Scholar Bart Ehrman (a graduate of the conservative Moody Bible Institute) has gone on record to say that it is the problem of human suffering which ultimately lead him to abandon his Christian faith.[1] While the atheist can only conclude that human suffering is ultimately meaningless, cruel, and final, the Christian can have a much more positive outlook. The scriptures teach that God is saddened by the sufferings of human beings and that human suffering can have redemptive value. That is precisely the message of Hebrews 12:4-14. This passage has much to teach us on why God allows his children to experience suffering and how we are to respond to our fellow men despite the struggles we face.

Hebrews 12:4-11 is best viewed as a unit. The theme of this short passage is certainly that of “discipline.” In this passage the word “discipline” is translated from the Greek noun “paideia” (or “paideutes” in verse nine) and connotes the idea of “the education of a child”[2] The passage also mentions how God, and competent and loving earthly Fathers, faithfully discipline their children. When used in this verbal sense, the Greek word behind the translation is “paideuo” and connotes the idea of “educating and bringing up child.”[3] The author of Hebrews wastes no time in demonstrating to us why God disciplines us by allowing us to face suffering and trials. Verses five and six are instructive “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives. (NASB)” The author of Hebrews makes an undeniably bold claim here to Christians: Oftentimes our suffering is a sign of God’s very love toward us!

Indeed, the author of Hebrews goes on to explain that God allows us to face trials because he loves us and wants to conform us to the image of his Son. Verse ten says “but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness (NASB).” John Wesley commented that the “holiness” that is being spoken of in verse ten is none other than a referent to “God and his glorious image.”[4] For Wesley, God wisely uses trials to draw us closer to himself and thus bring greater spiritual awareness and reward into our lives. The author of Hebrews soberly notes in verse eleven that trials and suffers are indeed unpleasant and bring much sorrow, but God can, and does, use them to make us righteous. On this passage Matthew Henry writes

By steadfastly looking to Jesus, their thoughts would strengthen holy affections, and keep under their carnal desires. Let us then frequently consider him. What are our little trials to his agonies, or even to our deserts? What are they to the sufferings of many others? There is a proneness in believers to grow weary, and to faint under trials and afflictions; this is from the imperfection of grace and the remains of corruption. Christians should not faint under their trials. Though their enemies and persecutors may be instruments to inflict sufferings, yet they are Divine chastisements; their heavenly Father has his hand in all, and his wise end to answer by all.[5]

Henry’s exhortation is twofold: When you are tempted to wallow in sorrow due to the difficulties you face, remember what Christ went through to redeem you and you will recognize the triviality of your own sufferings compared to his. Also, God has a deeper purpose for allowing you to face suffering in this life. Suffering is never pleasant or enjoyable, but the Christian can take solace in the fact that it is not meaningless nor is it the result of a cruel and unjust God. Rather, God can use suffering for his own redemptive purposes, and lest we forget, God is still a God of justice who will not allow evil to go unpunished and will one day right every wrong.

Now that the author of Hebrews has made it abundantly clear that God can use suffering for his own divine purposes, he now turns his attention to practical exhortation in righteousness. The author of Hebrews is not merely interested in probing why God allows us to suffer, but how the Christian should live when facing suffering. The author of Hebrews states in verse twelve: “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble (NASB).” It is likely that the author of Hebrews is referring back to the “race” analogy he used earlier in the chapter. Indeed, Hebrews 12:1 says “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (NASB).” Here, we are being exhorted to stay in the “race” that is the Christian life and encourage others to do likewise. Now that the author has clearly demonstrated the purpose of trials in the Christian life, we should be motivated to press on with the full knowledge that we will now run stronger because of the chastening of God.

In verse thirteen the author of Hebrews continues with the “race” analogy and exhorts us: “and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (NASB).” This passage synthesizes well with the teaching of Jesus in Matthew chapter seven where we are exhorted to walk the “narrow way.” Outside of the narrow, straight path there is only destruction, but by living out the commands that the Lord has given us we can “run the race” with success. The author of Hebrews’ thought develops further and reaches a kind of climax in verse fourteen. In this passage we are exhorted to “pursue peace with all men” and holiness as well. Indeed, we are told that without holiness we will not see God. It is probable that the author here is referring to the holiness that is imputed into our account when we are justified by God. Indeed, without accepting Christ as our Savior and becoming the beneficiaries of his life of perfection we will never make it safe to the heavenly shore (Romans 5:1-21). However, I think it would be premature to think that the thrust of this verse ends here. Indeed, the scriptures also clearly teach that the true believer will obey the commandments of Jesus Christ and will experience sanctification on some level (John 14:5). Commenting on Hebrews 12:14 Adam Clarke states “No soul can be fit for heaven that has not suitable dispositions for the place.”[6] Sanctification is not an “extra” of the Christian life, it is essential and it is a natural byproduct of justification.

In conclusion, the author of Hebrews points out for us that God chastens those whom he loves. God often uses suffering to make us stronger. This demonstrates to us that we do not have to view suffering as meaningless. Rather God can use it for his divine purposes. Hebrews chapter twelve does not answer, nor does it seek to answer, God’s reasons for allowing suffering in every circumstance, but it does leave us feeling confident that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing human suffering. Finally, the author of Hebrews calls us to press on towards the prize that awaits us in glory, and pursue holiness with the singlemindedness of a dedicated athlete.

 

[1] Ehrmanblog.org, “Leaving the Faith.”

[2] Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon To The Greek New Testament, 348.

[3] Ibid, 348.

[4] Wesley, Parallel Commentary on the New Testament, 802.

[5] Henry, Parallel Commentary on the New Testament, 803.

[6] Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, 1281.

Bibliography

Clarke, Adam, and Ralph Earle. Adam Clarkes commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979.

Ehrman, Bart. “Leaving the Faith.” Www.erhmanblog.org. July 19, 2017. Accessed February 17, 2018. https://ehrmanblog.org/leaving-the-faith/.

Mounce, William D. The analytical lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1993.

Water, Mark, C. H. Spurgeon, John Wesley, and Matthew Henry. Parallel commentary on the New Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003.

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One thought on “Why do Christians suffer?

  1. Bible blogger

    Hi there. Fantastic study which explores the biblical principles on responding to our sufferings. It’s a fantastic piece you have explained. God bless you. Keep writing. Keep posting. Thanks 😊✋

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