by Linda Parker, LMFT

The experience of suffering, either our own or that of someone we love, exposes us. We suddenly see and are sometimes shocked by the attitudes and beliefs that we didn’t know we had until that experience.

As we look at some of those, we should first define suffering for the Christian. Scott Shaum of Barnabas International has done some excellent work to form a working scriptural definition of suffering through word studies of New Testament words associated with suffering (See Trauma and Resilience, Schaeffer, 2012, pp. 1-7). He concludes from his study (of such words as affliction, temptation, testing, trial, persecution, rebuke, insult, grief and reproach), that “Suffering is any experience that causes internal or external duress physically, emotionally, spiritually or relationally,” and includes those experiences that are self-inflicted through one’s own sinful choices or immaturity.

Most of us can accept that God loves and cares for us when we experience illness, persecution or death of a loved one. But what is our attitude toward Christians (and for that matter, the sufferer’s feelings about himself) whose suffering comes in less noble ways, such as an extramarital affair? Is that person any less worthy of God’s (and our) care? Along with this is the need to not judge another’s pain through our own experience.  For example, conflict with a team member for us may not pose a big problem but the other person might feel like their heart was ripped out.  God is concerned to bring growth in us through any difficult circumstance, including those that are self-inflicted or perceived as more difficult than we would. So should our attitude be.

One of the more painful experiences in the midst of suffering is when it brings major questions regarding God’s character, or makes us doubt our call or our worth as individuals. We may be uncomfortable with these questions within ourselves or others because life looses all meaning if we don’t see a wise and loving God at the healm who directs us, values and cares for us. But allowing the questions to be there enables the kind of wrestling that God can use to do the deeper work only He can do in our lives.

Preparing ourselves ahead of time by having a good theology of suffering, that is, understanding His general purposes for suffering will probably enable us to better handle the experience of suffering when it comes in our own lives and in the lives of those we help. This entails a sort of aligning of our perceptions of God, ourselves and the world with His truth. We belong to an active, loving God who uses suffering to produce character growth (James 1:2-4), to strengthen our faith and refine our view of Him (the book of Job and II Cor. 1:8-10) and of ourselves (II cor. 12:7), to increase our desire to obey Him (I Peter 3:17), for discipline so we can learn from a loving father when we sin (Hebrews 12:5-13), and as a way of showing the power of Christ through us to an unbelieving world (Acts 7), to name some. We would do well to meditate on these truths so that they sink deep into our soul and lodge themselves into our core beliefs.

Still, while we are in it, the experience of suffering can be mystifying, especially if we want to know then and there the reason for what has happened. God is not upset with our confusion and questions. They are part of His expose’ and subsequent work in our lives. This past year my heart went out to a couple I came to know who had several major difficulties occur in their lives over a short period of time. As they prepared to return to their passport country, leaving behind all their dreams of ministry in their host country, I asked them, “What do you make of all that has happened?” Their answer was simple. “It is enough,” they said, “to leave having gained a far richer knowledge of who God is in our lives.”  That’s an attitude toward suffering we could all hope to have.

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