~ The Need for Suffering ~
There exists a rare disorder in some people which prevents them from feeling any pain. Their bodies are just as vulnerable to disease and malfunction as ours. Their teeth decay, viruses attack, bones break, skin burns, organs fail, tumors grow. Their quality of life is very limited and they die quite young. These people wish they could feel pain. Suffering would alert their imperfect bodies to seek medical help and guide them in how to maintain their health.
Suffering is a by-product of a sinful, imperfect, broken world. Suffering commands a response. It drives some into despair, some into denial, some into self-anesthesia, and some into the presence of God. If God were to remove all suffering from this broken, evil-infused world, evil and death would instantly triumph.
Jesus was tempted to eliminate His suffering during His 40 day desert retreat. Prior to His arrest He prayed to the Father asking if there was another way, explaining to His apostles that His anguish made Him feel as though He was dying. Even just a short time before dying on the cross, He was tempted again by the malicious tauntings of those on watch: "If You are the Son of God, save Yourself, come down off that cross, and we'll believe You!" But He knew His Father's will was perfect and remained obedient.
Ironically, if He ended His suffering, the entire world would die and evil would reign forever. He knew that and we are still learning it. When people cry, "Why doesn't God do something about the suffering in the world?" they betray their ignorance that He has done not only the greatest thing He could do but the only thing, through His Son, the Christ.
The first task toward creating a world in which there is no suffering and pure love reigns has been accomplished, and that Good News has been spreading throughout this world. The first task could not have been the direct elimination of suffering in a imperfect, broken world, which would have been as deadly to the human race as magically removing sensation of pain from every single person on earth. For that to happen we would need every human body to be perfect and completely immune to any injury, disease or malfunction, then there would be no need for pain.
Thus, that is indeed our Creator's next task in this great work of redemption. As the scriptures declare in many places, God will create a new and perfect world in which His love and kingdom will reign. Through the ministry of Christ's redemptive work, we are to prepare ourselves. We are invited to participate.
So what can you do to relieve the suffering in the world? Jesus said the greatest thing, actually a commandment, is to love God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength. However many people are comfortable in the midst of suffering. Some cling to suffering as a badge of honor. Others use suffering to control others and promote themselves. Not everyone wants to rid the world of suffering and they work hard to perpetuate it.
The Pharaoh of the book of Exodus presents an accurate profile of so many people today. The first plague upon Egypt was the turning of the Nile river into a river of blood. Aquatic life died, putrefying the air and virtually eliminating drinking water. Pharaoh's response? "He dismissed the entire matter from his mind." (Exodus 7:23b) That is denial, looking the other way.
The second plague was the total infiltration of frogs; frogs in the clothes, underfoot, in the food, wash basins, everywhere including Pharaoh's palace. Moses said he could pray for the elimination of the frogs anytime. The Pharaoh's response? "Tomorrow." (Exodus 8:10a ) One can only guess what was on his mind. Perhaps Pharaoh was downplaying his desperation and grasping some control, as if to say, "You're not that tough, I can take it."
After the fourth plague of the flies, Pharaoh said something interesting. He told Moses that the Israelites could offer sacrifices in the desert "and pray for me." (Exodus 8:28) Then, after the seventh plague of hail, Pharaoh told Moses, "This time I have sinned. The Lord is right and I and my people are wrong. Pray to the Lord." (Exodus 9:27-28a)
There is no reason to assert Pharaoh was not sincere. This is a response to pain that you might have heard many times. "I was wrong. Pray for me." First, admitting sin is not repentance. Second, it is necessary to establish your own relationship with God by praying directly to Him. Naturally without that repentance and relationship, and the ending of suffering, Pharaoh went back into denial and control, prompting his officials to ask, "When will you realize that Egypt is ruined?" (Exodus 10: 7b)
Then the plague of the locusts came and Pharaoh told Moses he sinned again, asking for forgiveness "one more time" and for prayer. (Exodus 10:16-17) When Pharaoh relented again, he told Moses to take his people and "just go," then he added "and bless me too." (Exodus 12: 32) Of course when the suffering ended, Pharaoh once again pursued the Israelites. God induced suffering and removed it. Pharaoh made gestures of piety, then resumed his old controlling nature. Millions do the same thing today. That was a blessing of suffering that Pharaoh wasted and thus prolonged.
Job is often held as a model of response to great suffering. However, he began his response with cursing the day he was born. (Job 3:1) Then for the thirty five chapters, he and his friends engage in intellectual sparring over the issue of suffering. Finally God steps in with apparent disgust, rhetorically asking, "Who is this that belittles my advice with words that do not show any knowledge? Brace yourself like a man! I will ask you, and you will teach me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have such insight." (Job 38:2-4). God continues challenging Job for four chapters. Job responds with uncharacteristic brevity: "I know that you can do everything and that your plans are unstoppable... Yes, I have stated things I didn't understand, things too mysterious for me to know... That's why I take back what I said, and sit in dust and ashes to show that I am sorry." (Job 42:2-3 b 6)
Christ promised us many things, including growth-promoting pain and suffering. But why should that be questioned? When we commit ourselves in loving marriage we do it "for better or worse." Only the most immature and self-absorbed person expects the story book ending of "and they lived happily ever after." When they realize this broken world of sin isn't a story book, and suffering is necessarily married to love and joy, one or both spouses divorce. Tragically, many Christians divorce Christ.
Buy your child a loving puppy dog and you provide years of joy. Only those who look the other way like Pharaoh do not understand that they also brought the child pain and suffering. Someday, the dog will get sick, will be injured, and will die. That day should not bring surprise or regret.
The age old question, "Is it better to love and suffer than to have never loved at all?" presents itself. I chose love and suffering. The supreme love of Jesus the Christ provides a peace that transcends understanding, in a way the world cannot understand, as the Scriptures point out. Christians in love with their Lord thus embrace the expected accompanying suffering. Consequently, throughout the past 2000 years, Christ's followers were able to sing hymns of praises as they rotted in dungeons or were tied to fire posts to be burned alive.
When the sun is warming the fresh morning air and the birds are waking up with their joyous songs, it is exquisitely wonderful and easy to feel good and praise and thank our Creator for blessings and life. If one is confined to a hospital bed, a prison, a depression, a loss, one can find some relief in fantasizing about memories of strolling along a sun splashed gurgling forest brook with a love one or feasting with family and friends. However, such fantasies, however pleasant and temporarily relieving, are not the peace of Christ that transcends understanding. That is actually a form of self-anesthesia and a hindrance to spiritual growth.
Blessed is the person who mourns, for he will be comforted. Blessed is the person who can rejoice in feeling the presence of the loving Holy Spirit, our Comforter and Intercessor, while constrained in physical or emotional shackles. That person doesn't need to seek tenuous comfort in past memories or present fantasies. As God told St. Paul, His daily bread and grace is sufficient. His powerful and loving indwelling of His Holy Spirit, the gift of Christ's redemption through suffering, death and resurrection, allows us to suffer in gratitude, understanding, endurance and meaning. Our fantasies of what could be or what we think should be, direct our attention away from the most critical reality: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, my Lord is with me and in me. (Psalm 23) And that reality merits our gratitude, worship and praise!
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © May 12, 2001
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotation are used by permission.
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