What role does suffering play in the life of a Christian? Is suffering a sign of failure, either of ourselves or of God? For some that is the way suffering is perceived. Repeatedly people will point out the suffering in the world as a sign that God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. Then for others suffering is seen as some sort of punishment for offenses; either in our past or even from our ancestors’ pasts. Throughout the Old Testament we see this ranging from the Book of Job to the prophets (Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31) where the adage: “The parents have eaten wild grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge” is quoted – meaning the present problems are our parent’s fault. So is suffering a sign of failure? Then that makes the cross the biggest failure of them all.
The Second Creation Story, specifically in Genesis 3, attempts to make some sense out of how a loving God might have allowed suffering to enter the world. The main point of the story is that there is a relationship between knowledge (of good and evil) and our suffering. More than that, knowledge without wisdom produces alienation from God, separation from those whom we love, and sorrow in our lives. But in the passage from the Apostle Paul we see that suffering produces endurance. Endurance is a quality that enables individuals to be free of control of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The word we translate endurance, from suggests patience combined with consistency. This describes someone who has developed wisdom which is seen in their actions, their mannerism, and their interactions. Contrasting this, the undisciplined, untried individual is easily redirected by their circumstances. They are slaves to their environment, forced to accept whatever difficulties come their way.
So are we supposed to suffer? It’s hard to say. There is a mystery as to how we find ourselves in a world that at times includes pain and injustice. We are not able to resolve the paradox of how suffering came into the world. We only know that through God’s Spirit suffering becomes for us wisdom and has the capability of deepening our relationship with God.
Which brings us back to our own lives: If God loves me, then why do I have to suffer indignities and pains? If God is loving and just then why does the DMV exist? If God cares for us then why doesn’t He bring a plague on telemarketers who call during dinner? Or in all seriousness why do people we love suffer illnesses, pain, and hardships? The problem is that from the perspective of asking that question we are unable to gain knowledge or wisdom. It is when we live in perseverance and faithfulness that we come to know God, and in that way grow in understanding.
Over the summer we are exploring our relationship with situations that challenge us, cause us to learn to endure, and to find God in the midst of the suffering. I will admit at the outset that we will not find perfect resolution in all of these questions and challenges. But in the process, if we find peace and become closer to God; possibly it will all be worth it.