Yesterday night, one of the regular readers of this blog posted the following question: “Do you have any idea why a merciful, loving God would allow a godly minister to suffer from something horrible like Parkinson’s disease?” The subject of suffering is an immensely difficult one, for a variety of reasons. For one, none of us like to suffer, nor do we like to see friends and loved ones suffer. As if this was not enough, those who suffer or are trying to encourage those who suffer often have to deal with the (usually unwarranted) feeling or accusation that the suffering was somehow deserved. So, in discussing why people suffer, let us limit our discussion only to people who suffer unjustly, for whom the suffering is not in any way intended as a sort of punishment. Why would a good God allow suffering to a godly believer?
Part of the issue in dealing with the question of suffering is that we do not know exactly why we or someone else is suffering. Indeed, there are almost too many possible families of reasons, and there is not the time in this particular entry to discuss all of them in depth, as large books are written about the subject material. Likewise, until and unless God reveals the specific reason for a specific trial, the best that we can do is try to guess at least among different possibilities, with the possibility that there could be something specific, or something more general, and then try to examine at least what it is that we should be getting out of suffering, or looking forward to as a reward for having suffered well and blamelessly.
So, let us look at some of the scriptural reasons unconnected with discipline or judgment wherein good people suffer. These are not presented in any specific order, just as a way of showing the broad context of reasons for suffering. John 9:1-4 gives the reason of suffering for one man as being an occasion to show the power of God: “Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” Here we see that the first instinct of the disciples was to see some sin in the man or his parents, but Jesus Christ was very quick to correct that (common) misconception.
Other trials, as Solomon says, are the result of time and chance, as it is written in Ecclesiastes 9:11: “I returned and saw under the sun that— The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.” Included in time and chance can be being in the wrong place at the wrong time, having certain genetic or environmental susceptibilities that one can do nothing about except for try to cope as best as possible, and other related issues. Since we live our lives in a world that has elements of chance as well as design, we cannot be sure that the odds will be in our favor, even if we do the best we can and are careful and conscientious. Obviously, some people court hazard and are reckless, but others simply have to deal with misfortune where there is no blame.
Another reason for trials is that sometimes God uses believers as bait to prove our faithfulness against the accusations of Satan. As it is written in Job 1:8: “Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?”” We may not understand, or ever be told (as Job was not) that his trial and suffering were the result of a cosmic dare to show that a godly man who had been blessed would keep on struggling in faith even when everything had been taken away from him. To be sure, Job did not always speak wisely, but he was entirely right to defend his integrity, and God backed him up. Job won the bet on God’s behalf, showing not only that God can sometimes bring trials as a way of proving larger spiritual points where believers are entirely unaware of the stakes, but also that God appreciates others wrestling with Him about His sense of justice. I can only hope He will be as merciful with me in my own wrestling.
At times, God even uses the suffering of believers to convict the world of sin in some fashion, as it is written in Hebrews 11:35b-40: “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” Here we see that one of the reasons why good people in the past suffered was so God could wait long enough to include later believers in His family, and demonstrate that godly people remain faithful despite the immense torment that sometimes results from living a godly life in a fallen and rebellious world.
Finally, God uses the sufferings of believers to allow us to understand what it was like for our Messiah to live a sinless life and suffer on our behalf, and to share in blessings and praise from God for remaining godly despite provocation, as it is written in 1 Peter 4:12-19: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now “if the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.” Let all believers who suffer and remain godly see the glory and the reward that will come in His time.
Does knowing that there are many reasons why godly people suffer at times here and now make it any easier to suffer? It is hard to say–no suffering is enjoyable in the present, and it is later on, after the suffering is over, that we an appreciate the character we have gained through our torment. In the light of future joy, the trials of the past take on a different appearance in context than they do in the present. Perhaps I am not the best person to attempt to comfort those who suffer–I have known torment all of my days, and I am not the easiest person to comfort or encourage, but I too await the joy and glory that is promised to those who endure faithfully. No matter what we endure, may we look forward to that, and appreciate the loyalty of godly people who stand beside us even if suffering people are not always the most fun.
 See, for example: