The Suffering of the Unrighteous
Why do the righteous suffer? This question has troubled and perplexed God's people throughout the ages. The Bible by no means sidesteps the question, but provides strong answers, as we shall see.
But before we explore these answers, we must put the suffering of the righteous in a proper perspective. In my lifetime I have seen many calamities befall good people. But the worst suffering I have seen has been the reprobate meeting the consequences of his sin—the murderer facing death in the electric chair, the alcoholic going through delirium tremens, the homosexual in the last stages of AIDS, the hedonist who has devoted his life to self-indulgence but who, in his declining years, finds himself jaded and alone, with nothing to live for.
In these cases we see a Scriptural principle. Although the Bible teaches that suffering and trouble will enter the lives of God's people, it leaves no doubt that what the wicked will endure is much worse, not just in eternity, but perhaps in the present world also. It reinforces this principle by giving many examples.
- One of the most notorious sinners in history was Herod the Great, who massacred the innocents in Bethlehem and committed many other atrocities. Among those he executed were three of his sons and one of his wives. Herod's death involved ghastly suffering, described by Josephus (Antiquities, 17.6.5). "A fire glowed in him slowly. . . . His entrails were also exulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent fluid also had settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, further, his loins putrefied and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns. He also had convulsions in all parts of his body. His afflictions seemed greater than any one could bear."
- Jesus gave the surname "sons of thunder" to His disciples James and John (Mark 3:17), no doubt because in days to come He would enable them to preach with Spirit-filled power. James’s ministry lasted until he was killed by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of the first Herod (Acts 12:1–5). Soon afterward, when Agrippa welcomed flattery describing his own speech as godlike, God struck him with an affliction that quickly took his life. Like his grandfather, he also was "eaten of worms" (Acts 12:20–25).
- The Pharaoh who resisted Moses lost his eldest son in the last plague that God sent upon Egypt. Just days later, Pharaoh himself drowned when he tried to follow the dry path that God had made for Israel through the Red Sea (Exod. 14:27-8). Imagine the horror in the last moments of his life, when he saw the walls of water collapse and an irresistible flood come roaring toward him from either side.
- The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, rejected the counsel of the godly prophet Jeremiah and confined him to a hole in the ground. After overthrowing Zedekiah, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar punished him by putting out his eyes after he watched the execution of his sons (Jer. 52:10-11).
- Haman plotted to exterminate the Jews, but God brought him to a gruesome end. He was hung on the same "gallows" that he had prepared for Mordecai, the godly Jew who refused to bow down before him (Est. 7:9-10). The English rendering is misleading. Actually, Haman was raised high in the air for public display after he had been impaled on a long stake.
We conclude that God's judgment on wickedness is not wholly reserved for the next world, but may begin even now.
Why the Righteous Also Suffer
We who know God also suffer in this world, but again we must put our suffering in a proper perspective. We do not suffer all the time. Trouble seems to come in waves, as we see in the Book of Job. The periodic nature of trouble is illustrated also in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Although Pilgrim endured severe battles with the flesh in the Slough of Despond and Doubting Castle, and with the world in Vanity Fair, and with the devil in the Valley of Humiliation, God also gave him times of refreshment, in such places as Pleasant Meadow and the Delectable Mountains. Let us not exaggerate how much we suffer, for then we show ingratitude for God's mercy and kindness.
We are now ready to examine the many reasons that God allows the righteous to suffer. In the Bible we find at least ten.
1. Because we live in a sinful, dying world under the curse
No one can pass through this world without tasting the effects of sin. As we must all experience death, so we must all know sickness, sorrow, and disappointment. In this way, by seeing at first hand what sin produces, we learn how bad sin is, and we learn to hate sin.
2. Because of Satanic opposition to the work of God
(2 Cor. 4:8-12)
Paul's suffering was the direct consequence of his efforts to spread the gospel. The harder he worked, the harder Satan worked to oppose him through persecution. Everyone in Christian service can tell stories of Satanic attack designed to make their ministries ineffective. Satan is especially likely to attack a new ministry, before it gathers momentum making it harder to stop.
3. To provide a witness to the lost
When we react to trials by expressing faith in God, the lost can see that our faith is not natural, but supernatural. Instead of bitterness there is bright hope. Instead of gloom there is a glow, such as the radiance Stephen's persecutors saw on his face before he died. When we suffer, do the lost see faith shining on our faces?
4. To provide a witness to other believers
Paul's steadfast faith in affliction encouraged others to step forward for Christ.
5. To provide a witness to Satan and his angels
(Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5)
One of Satan's grievances against God is that God intends to raise man from a place a little lower than the angels (Psa. 8:5) to a place where he can judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3). To understand how Satan feels, you might imagine how much we would resent the prospect of being judged by dogs. Thus, Satan argues that man is a hopelessly inferior being, not worth being promoted, who will inevitably fail and disappoint God. He alleged that Job was faithful to God only because God had blessed him and set a hedge of protection about him (Job 1:9-11). Later, he maintained that Job was still faithful only because God had spared him from bodily affliction (Job 2:4-5). Yet despite all the trouble that Satan brought upon him, Job did not fulfill Satan's prediction that when hard-pressed, he would curse God. Job's perseverance in righteousness showed Satan that divine grace can change a frail being of sinful flesh into a creature worthy of eternal glory.
6. To provide a witness to the angels of God
(1 Cor. 11:10)
Our faithfulness to God has cosmic implications. Our lives do not pass unnoticed by the angels (Heb. 12:1). The contest over Job took place before the heavenly host (Job 1:6; 2:1). We may assume that Satan has always tried to draw more angels over to his side; also, that one of his ploys has been to provoke jealousy of man, especially on the grounds that man is inferior. But again, our faithfulness shows the justice and wisdom of God's plan for the ages and blunts Satan's arguments.
7. To improve our character and build our faith
Tribulation yields patience, experience, and hope. Why is hope the result? Every difficulty requires a choice. We can complain against God, or we can submit to Him and trust Him to manage all things for our good as He promised (Rom. 8:28). But since the present moment is wholly enshrouded by our difficulty, trusting God means that we must wait for the good to appear, and the waiting teaches us patience. Then when we finally see the good, we gain experience, in the sense that we now have firsthand knowledge of God’s wisdom and love. From this knowledge springs hope, for we have learned that we can trust God’s workings in our lives. Such hope is indistinguishable from faith.
Do you know someone whose faith is especially strong? Probably it is someone whose faith has been nourished by suffering. Let me tell you the story of my sister Carolyn. During my years of wandering away from the Lord when I was a young adult, she was entirely resistant to my influence. My arguments against Christianity did not budge her. This was surprising, because when I was a young boy, she usually, out of her good nature and soft heart, let me have things my way, although she was thirteen years older. In a hundred squabbles over whether we would listen to "The Lone Ranger" (my preference, needless to say) or a program of serious music such as "The Bell Telephone Hour," the final score was a hundred to zero in my favor. (I may be exaggerating.) Yet we were very close.
Why was her faith so strong as an adult? Because it had been refined by suffering. She lost her mother when she was only six. The next few years, before our father married my mother, she and her sister, Dorothy, were tossed from pillar to post. The turmoil in her life left its mark. As a teenager she had a stuttering problem and was a little withdrawn. But in her early twenties she left our home in Toledo and took a job at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. A godly man with a responsible position at Moody noticed her and married her when she was age 27. It was wonderful to see her blossom in his love. For the next ten years she lived in a state of bliss, happy in her marriage and in her growing family.
Then tragedy struck. When her youngest of four was barely a year old, her husband died suddenly, within a few weeks after the doctors discovered that he had a brain tumor. For the sake of her children she forced herself to keep up the routines at home, but in her heart she went through blackness of darkness. The light had gone out of her life. In her despair she cast about for something to hold on to, and she found God. No doubt it would be more correct to say that God took strong hold of her. God enabled her to recover, though the process was slow. In the years following the tragedy, she never remarried, but completed her college degree so that she could support her family. She returned to Moody and worked there for many years, eventually being promoted to the position of administrator of admissions. As a single mother, she was, with the Lord's help, very successful. All four of her children have gained distinction in some field of Christian work.
During the years when she was still grieving, I at times expressed to her my skepticism toward the Bible. She replied that she had never been able to argue with me, but she knew I was wrong. I credit her prayers for me as one reason I returned to the Lord.
8. To chasten us
(Heb. 12:6-8; Jas. 5:15)
Suffering is extremely effective in provoking self-examination. The question inevitably occurs, "Why is this happening to me?" And one answer that inevitably comes to mind is that God may be punishing sin. Therefore, suffering is a tool God can use to force a sinner to repent.
But when we suffer, we should not take it for granted that God is chastening us. Even worse is to take it for granted that the suffering of a fellow saint is due to sin. Yet chastening is always a possible explanation. If a believer harbors sin, God will not leave him alone, but will set him on a hot seat until he makes things right. So, when trouble and suffering enter our lives, we should seek the counsel of the Holy Spirit and repent of any sin that He brings to our attention.
9. To teach us, as Christ's ambassadors, how we can comfort others
(2 Cor. 1:4)
I have observed that older people are often the quickest to show sympathy. They are often the first to go to someone who is hurting and give him comfort. Why are they more tender-hearted than the young? The chief fault in many of our young people, even the best products of our Christians homes and schools, is an indifference to the feelings of others. Their sheltered lives have left them a little shallow, without a good understanding of how others feel. You can see this deficiency when, in fulfilling an assignment in English class, they attempt to write about tragedy. They cannot make it real. Yet God will in His good time deepen their understanding. He will put them through the experience of suffering. Then they will learn sympathy and the ability to give comfort.
10. To remind us that life in this world is ultimately unsatisfying
Hear Jesus' first Beatitude, the opening declaration in His moral program. "And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). If the Pharisees had written it, it would say, "Blessed are the rich, for they are God's darlings." But Jesus announced at the outset of His ministry that God's special favor rested not on them, but on the poor. Why? Every victim of grinding poverty knows one thing. This world is an evil place, affording no true happiness or satisfaction. Its pleasures are too fleeting and elusive to quiet the soul's yearning for a better world.
Some people who are not actually poor have nevertheless come to sense the emptiness of life here and now. So, on another occasion, Jesus stated the same Beatitude in a slightly different way. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). He meant, blessed are they with the spirit (the attitude or the mind-set) of a poor man.
Many commentators have misread the First Beatitude as a blessing on the lowly in spirit, the humble. But this interpretation misses the point. The First Beatitude is distinct in meaning from the Third, which says, "Blessed are the meek."
The First Beatitude is close in meaning to the Second: "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5:4 ). These two beatitudes are alike in that they urge us to view life in the same way a man views it who has suffered a hard blow. In the First, the hard blow is poverty. In the Second, the hard blow is a loss provoking great sorrow and mourning. In poverty and loss there is a blessing. Indeed, we can generalize beyond these two Beatitudes and say that there is a blessing in any adversity—not only in poverty and loss, but also in sickness and persecution and suffering of any other kind. The blessing is that adversity teaches us to long for a better world.
God does not want us to settle down and be comfortable in this world, with no loftier desires than to buy another car or take another trip. Rather, he wants us to be always alert and watchful for the coming of Christ, who is our deliverer. From what? From this evil world (Gal. 1:4), evil in part because it is permeated by suffering.
Any suffering we must endure has a good purpose—many good purposes as we have seen—not least of which is that it encourages us to look forward with keen anticipation to the time when there will be no suffering, no pain, and no crying (Rev. 21:4). God wants us to love His Kingdom even now, before it has come to pass, because the more we love His Kingdom, the more we will also love the King.
How then shall we summarize the lesson? What is the purpose of suffering? Its ultimate purpose, as well as the ultimate purpose of everything God places in our lives, is to deepen and broaden our love for Him.