Message Summary

Any thought that a Christian has about suffering is going to be a challenge. We casually accept that God provides good things, but it feels out of character for God to allow suffering and sometimes even (gasp!) impose suffering.

That's not to say that all suffering is a challenge to understand.

For example, in the Genesis story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), we read about Joseph suffering rejection by his family, slavery, false accusations, and imprisonment. But, God used Joseph’s situation of suffering in order help a nation (and beyond) to prepare for a famine – one person suffering for the good of many seems worthy. Joseph summarized how his suffering eventually ended up bringing about a greater good:

20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20)

We can also understand suffering as punishment for intolerable evil or wickedness, such as in Sodom and Gomorrah (Ezekiel 16:49–50); or, God using a moment of suffering as part of a teachable lesson, such as the story of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41).

It is all that other suffering - what seems to be senseless and without purpose - that shakes our paradigm of God. And perhaps that is needed. We prefer to view God through comforting portraits such as Loving Father, Good Shepherd, or Merciful Creator. But, there are other portraits of God that are more difficult to embrace: as Authoritative King or as Righteous & Holy Judge. Yet, God is all of these portraits.

I could continue, as the topic of God and Suffering is so vast that I would never hope to address all the questions and the philosophical points that surround it. Countless are the books, sermons, and seminars.

This message is only seeking to focus on stress in the midst of suffering, and in particular two words that highlight an attitude God desires His people to hold in these times: perseverance and hope. I will stress that it isn't easy to turn our attention away from the pain and toward hope, but it is possible with experience. And as you are able, eventually, you will find peace in the midst of the pain.


Good Stress Produces Righteousness

If you have been following my recent messages on stress, you will recall that I’ve divided stress that we encounter into two bins. The first is good stress, and this type of stress functions as God has designed stress to operate. With good stress, stress acts as a propellant to move us from out of unhealthy ruts of life, and into healthier, more productive, and more righteous paths. An simple example of this might be a person who had developed a lazy, lay-around attitude, and they find themselves without a job and hungry. Lazy was replaced with stress, and that stress of hunger prompts them to seek out a job and be more productive.

The other bin is bad stress, and this is stress that doesn’t produce any change, but simply wears us down even to the point of depression. Much of this stress is self-imposed, and it can be lessened from our lives if we just turn away from stress-inducing news, controversy, coveting, and behavioral addictions. (I've described these in previous messages.)

Even as we successfully get rid of all the bad stress, we will still suffer and have stress. Consider all this suffering that is in and around our lives: death and disease, chaos and persecution, crime and evil behavior, and natural disasters. It surprises many of us to hear that these stressful situations can end up producing goodness for our future, assuming we are encountering them with the presence and guidance of God. In the Scriptures, these are labeled as discipline, trials, and persecution. The promise of God is that His people can face these troublesome times in such a way that we can move out of unhealthy paths of life, and into righteous paths of life.

What is Righteousness?

We see this word used a lot in the Bible and around Christianity. I think most people think of this word as the same as personal morality or upright living. That’s part of it. Typically, moral living is thought of as the personal boundaries that God wants, such as don’t lie or cheat, don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t hurt others, don’t sleep around and keep sexual behavior within marriage, don’t get angry, don’t be divisive, don’t practice witchcraft, etc.

But, righteousness also has some proactive moral attributes such as generosity, caring for those in need, having mercy and forgiveness, serving others, giving thanks to God, caring for the foreigner in our midst, prioritizing our finances and time with God, etc.

As much as we may try, we will eventually conclude that total righteousness on our own strength is impossible, but total righteousness is possible through the cleansing of sin by Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As this happens, a person’s heart and mind are reconditioned to think like God thinks, and love like God loves, in every way. That is, true righteousness means that we live our lives in a righteous way because our very nature has become righteous (1 John 3:7).

Righteousness is goodness, and God uses suffering to help transition our lives toward righteousness. So, because of the promise of righteousness, suffering can be a source of joy. This is what James is describing:

2 Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Similarly, Paul writes about joy in the midst of suffering:

3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Finally, Hebrews expresses the result:

11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

Taken together, the guidance of these passages tell us that suffering (with its stress) can be a catalyst, shaking our spirit, and loosening us from where we were and toward righteousness in our lives. Here is a graphic that might help you visualize the sequence:

All suffering produces stress. This can be a long-term drain of our energy, and unhelpful, if our minds are drowning in confusion, hopelessness and despair. But, God instills His people with energy through Hope and Endurance. The Christian knows that God is always present, working for our benefit in the shadowy air of suffering. This is well articulated by Paul as he writes in Romans 8:28, Romans 8:31, and Romans 8:38-39.

Rick James, a writer and staff member of CRU (the organization formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, expressed it this way:

… the Christian always has hope because there is nothing random, unplanned, or unforeseen in any of the trials that come into their lives. For the Christian, absolutely nothing is random. All their pain and trials can have redemptive purposes, and anything that has come into their lives has been allowed by God. [1]

I think one of the great Scriptures that describes the journey of one of God’s people through suffering is expressed in Psalm 23. Have you noticed that it contains this path of Suffering, through Hope & Endurance, to Righteousness?


The Reality

Knowing that God is present and working for my good is a wonderful truth that I can agree with ... at least, when I'm not suffering. But, when suffering comes, these truths feel hidden and distant. Sure, any of us can remind a person in the midst of suffering to have confidence in God, to have hope and endurance, and that good things will result in this process. But, few of us are able to grasp that in the moment, and we only cry out, “Why God?”

C.S. Lewis wrote perhaps the most famous book on God and Suffering, entitled The Problem of Pain. He gives all the right answers in that book, at least from a theological and biblical perspective, but there’s an emotional side of suffering that causes us to feel lost and alone, and we may not quickly find the promised peace. Following the suffering and death that he experienced with his wife, Lewis released another book, A Grief Observed, that contained his journal entries as he went through this period. He wrote:

Where is God? When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms.

But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity, and so very distant a help in time of trouble?

In later journal entries, C.S. Lewis notes that he is not in danger of thinking there is no God, but that the real change will be that this experience, guided by God, will change him. That is righteousness.


Changing the Question in Suffering

So, how does one replace the stress we experience in a time of suffering with the more peaceful attitude of hope so that we can endure? It isn’t automatic, even for a Christian. I believe it is something that we develop as we have repeated experiences with God (this is the message of Hebrews 12:11). Like training helps an athlete become stronger and better, we can better approach each new episode of trials, sufferings, persecutions, etc. with a stronger hope.

(For me, I practice hope and perseverence on minor sufferings, or those that are of short duration, to help me better handle more serious sufferings).

As I was preparing for this message, I happened to hear the story of a young man by the name of Ray Davis. It doesn’t matter, so much, what he does or who he is, for his wisdom speaks for itself [2].

A life cultivated by suffering. Ray Davis says that the early part of his life was not cultivated by wealth or philosophy, strong parenting or a supportive community. Instead, he tells the story of his life as one that has been cultivated by suffering. His life began with a disadvantage, as both of his parents were incarcerated when he was born. For the first several years of his life, he bounced between family members – sometimes there was hunger, sometimes he had no place to sleep – but mostly he was too much for people to support. At age 8, he was turned over to the California foster care system. Now, he was living with strangers, and he didn’t even know their last name.

At age 12, he was in a homeless shelter, then back to his grandmother. And, all through these episodes of instability and poverty, he was also around violence. He says that many of his friends are no longer alive today.

Changing the question of suffering. In all this, Ray implies that he received wisdom from God, and this wisdom told him to change the question. He said that he used to ask questions like …

God, why?
I don’t have a place to sleep. Why me?
I don’t have a bed or a bedroom. Why me?
I’m hungry. Why me?
Why God?

Questions like that are focused on the pain. But he grew, God stood with him, he experienced power, and eventually after persevering through many episodes of trials and suffering, he learned that God had better questions for him to be asking. His new questions were focused not on the pain, but on how God will be using the pain for his good:

God, what are you doing?
God, what lesson do I need to learn?
God, what goodness are you bringing into my life?
God, how will I now be more useful to You or others?

Hope replaced stress, and allowed him to persevere as he anticipated the goodness that God would bring into his life.

Like Ray, any Christian can have the wisdom to change their questions of suffering.




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[1] James, Rick. The Signficance of Trials., Cru.org.

[2] If you are curious, Ray Davis is a college football player. There are many written articles about his journey, such as this one from Sports Illustrated: Kentucky Running Back Ray Davis Always Adapts. But, I couldn't find one that described the spiritual aspect that I am relaying here, perhaps because they are all from secular sites. The spiritual dimension, with the questions I paraphrased, were derived from a live broadcast on ESPN during the Kentucky-Georgia football game, October 7, 2023, with about 10:20 remaining in the third quarter.