What is the purpose of suffering?
This question has puzzled and challenged people throughout time. Since suffering is a universal element of our human condition, various religions have formulated an answer. For example, Buddhists might say we suffer because of how we see the world, our spiritual ignorance, and our desire to hold on to material things. Hindus will often point to suffering as punishment for deeds in a previous life. Muslims may see suffering as a way Allah leads us to repent of misdeeds and strive to do good deeds. Other religions may point to our suffering as a result of a curse or evil spirit. Atheists and agnostics will use suffering to try to prove a loving, kind God doesn’t exist. After all, if God is a God of love, how would such a God allow His creatures to suffer?
What does the Bible say about suffering, and how does it differ from the answer other religions try to provide? Do the Scriptures provide examples of suffering and reasons behind these sufferings? We believe the Bible does provide relevant examples and valuable perspectives on why we suffer. Not only does it answer why, it provides counsel and comfort to help us through the suffering.
The most prominent example of suffering in the Old Testament is the story of Job. The entire book which bears his name was written to describe his suffering and its lessons. Other examples include Joseph, the Lord Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, and early Christians.
Joseph Prefigures the Sufferings of Christ
Starting with Joseph, there is nothing in scripture to suggest that Joseph suffered for any wrong or for his own discipline. Instead, we need to remember that the apostle Paul wrote that the Old Testament histories were written “for our admonition” (1 Cor. 10:11) and learning (2 Tim. 3:16). Joseph is a well-known picture of the suffering and subsequent exaltation of Christ and the reconciliation with His (Jewish) brethren. So, in Joseph’s case, his suffering was for our learning that we might learn from his history of the sufferings of Christ. Moreover, the detailed pattern of the story of Joseph is really prophetic and shows that all things pertaining to Christ were in God’s sovereign plan and power (Acts 2:24).
Sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ
More could be said about the sufferings of the Lord Jesus than would fill many books (Jn. 21:25). Here we can not even presume to “scratch the surface.” First, it must be asserted that suffering for the Lord Jesus involved no discipline as we might suffer ourselves. There was not a particle of imperfection in his holy life that needed restraint or correction. Nevertheless, we read that He was “made perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). Yet, this was in view of him being a “merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). We can have no doubt that he knows, even by personal experience, the difficulties we encounter and can therefore sympathize and help us (Heb. 2:18).
The second aspect of the Lord’s suffering is that at the hand of man. In this, his life is both a sweet aroma to God (1 Pet. 2:23 with Lev. 2:9; and also 2 Cor. 2:15-16) and our example (1 Pet. 2:21).
The Apostle Paul Suffered to Keep Him Humble and to Glorify God
The apostle Paul gives us an example of how suffering can be preventative and for the glory of God. In the familiar passage 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul describes the fact that the Lord gave him a particular trial in suffering that he called a “thorn.” He recognized that this was ultimately for his own blessing and that God might be glorified in it. This passage is a good one to study since many of our trials may fall into this category. Paul also wrote that “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:26). This is a very general guarantee of God’s goodness that we can truly rely on.
The apostle Paul gives us another example when in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 he writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” So, the suffering we experience can be a preparation for us so that we will be able to empathize with and minister comfort to others who are suffering.
Paul writes to the Philippian church which was familiar with his and Silas’s imprisonment (Acts 16:22-34) encouraging them to hold on to their faith despite their own persecution (Phil. 1:29-30). The letter to the Thessalonians also draws from the sufferings of the Jewish Christians and the Thessalonian believers, reminding them to stand firm (1 Thess. 1:6, 2:14). Peter also writes to the dispersed believers to encourage them in their trials (1 Pet. 1:6-7) and provide purpose and context for their sufferings (1 Pet. 4:12-16).
The Early Church’s Sufferings Promoted the Gospel’s Spread
Finally, in Acts we have the record of the early believers suffering for the name of Christ. They were imprisoned (Acts 4:3; 5:18; etc.), persecuted (Acts 5:41, 17:4-10), and were killed (Acts 12:1-2). The effect of these sufferings was to force the disciples outside of Judea and into the world to reach the lost for Christ and cause an explosion in the numbers of Christians (Acts 8:3-4, 11:19-21). Paul suffered many things throughout his ministry (Acts 9:16), was taken to Rome for trial (Acts 27:1; etc.), and later martyred for his faith (2 Tim. 4:6-8). In 2 Corinthians 4:8-16 Paul explains that the purpose for all these sufferings was to point to the resurrection power of Christ and to bring others life.
Sadly, there is also the possibility that we suffer for our own disobedience or folly (1 Pet. 4:15). In God’s mercy, even this might have a purifying effect for us.
Closing Perspective in Hymn Form
The following anonymous nineteenth-century hymn captures some important and profound thoughts. I have been especially impressed by verse 5.
We Thank Thee, Lord, For Weary Days.
1 We thank Thee, Lord, for weary days
When desert springs were dry,
And first we knew what depth of need
Thy love could satisfy.
2 Days when beneath the desert sun,
Along the toilsome road,
O’er roughest ways we walked with One,
That One the Son of God.
3 We thank Thee for that rest in Thee
The weary only know,
That perfect wondrous sympathy
We only learn below.
4 The sweet companionship of One
Who once the desert trod:
The glorious fellowship with One
Upon the throne of God.
5 We know Thee as we could not know
Through heaven’s golden years;
We there shall see Thy glorious face —
Here understand Thy tears!
6 And here in peace, with Thee we go
Where Thou, our Shepherd, trod,
Still, learning through our need below
Depths of the heart of God.