By Dr. Stephen Kim
Recently, Open Doors USA (OpenDoorsUSA.org) released its 2015 World Watch List and ranked the top 50 countries where Christians face the worst persecution (North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were the top five—in that order). According to Open Doors president David Curry, 2014 had the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era and things seem to be only getting worse. Curry estimates more than 100 million Christians worldwide are currently suffering persecution. 100 million!
All around the world, Christians are suffering. Believe it or not, Christians are particularly suffering in major global cities known as megacities—locales where the population count exceeds 10 million people. From Guangzhou to Bogota, there’s persecution occurring (cities without persecution (e.g., New York, Los Angeles) are actually rare exceptions). This harsh reality not only conclusively proves that the so-called “prosperity gospel” is a complete sham, but it also raises a vital question in our minds: “Why does God allow so many of His children to suffer?”
THE ROOT REASONS
Although it is often difficult to state with any real decisive assurance the single reason for any malady, the Bible does not leave us in the dark on this issue. In fact, Scripture sheds an immense amount of light on the purposes behind Christian suffering. Now before I present you with my list of 8 reasons for Christian suffering, please note that I said “Christian” suffering. I draw attention to this fact only because we live in a world where both Christians and non-Christians experience suffering. The issue of non-Christian suffering, however, is not the focus of this article.
Christians (living on earth) cannot grasp, nor appreciate, the holiness of God without the existence of pain and suffering. As Christians, we believe that all suffering is—at its root—the result of Adam’s sin. There is no way around this truth. From the Holocaust to the recent earthquake in Nepal, all suffering is a result of sin—specifically, Adam’s sin. When Adam rebelliously ate the forbidden fruit, he plunged all of creation into sin. Suffering and death are merely effects of sin: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12).
But why is suffering a consequent of sin and why is it necessary? The truth is, our hardened hearts have a hard time grasping the heinous enormity of sin and the utter holiness of God, but we certainly have no problems understanding pain. When we look at the crucified body of Jesus hanging on the cross, we understand the weight of sin and the holiness of God. When we look at a homosexual in his final stage of life—dying and losing his battle with AIDS, we understand the weight of sin and the holiness of God. When an earthquake hits a nation that is largely given over to idolatry, we might not have grasped God’s repugnance of idolatry, but we certainly understand and grasp devastation and death. There is no such thing as haphazard, gratuitous evil. Everything happens for a reason because God is in full control. One of the strongest statements ever made about the truth of that statement was made by Jesus Himself. While speaking to the crowds about the issue of suffering, Jesus brought up an incident that they were all familiar with. Apparently, eighteen people were (seemingly) randomly killed when, while they were merely walking about and minding their own businesses, a portion of the tower at Siloam collapsed on them and crushed them. If we saw such an incident on the evening news, we would sadly chalk one up to a “freak accident.” Jesus however, informs us otherwise. He told the people that God was in full control when the collapse occurred, and that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). Amazing.
The point is this: Whenever we see suffering—from headaches to crumpled bodies at the scene of a car accident—we ought to pause upon the wages of sin and the holiness of God. God has wisely shackled the world to suffering so that we could see the destructive effects of our sin and cry out for a Savior (Rom 8:20).
Secondly, after Adam abdicated his role as God’s vice-regent, the world fell under the control of Satan and his demons. Yes, God is still ultimately in charge, but for the time being, God has ordained Satan to have sway over the people of this world (Eph 2:2). Satan is on “God’s leash.” Satan is now the prince (Eph 2:2), father (John 8:44), and ruler (John 14:30) of this world. It’s no wonder there’s so much suffering and destruction (John 10:10)!
Finally, let’s agree that God is in full control of everything that occurs anywhere. Let’s agree that if God is indeed God, then both good and evil circumstances are ordained by His good hand.
8 REASONS FOR CHRISTIAN SUFFERING
Contrary to popular belief, God’s highest aim for your life is not your comfort. God’s highest aim for your life (and your greatest joy) is Christ-likeness. If this, rather than comfort, is God’s highest goal, then it makes sense for Him to use discomfort to bring about those virtues that make us more like Jesus. For example, the fruit of patience (Gal 5:22) could never be attained and honed if the discomforts that tested our patience were not strewn into our lives.
A good piece of advice that I plan on telling my sons later is this: A fruitful life (a life worth living) is always the product of blood and sweat. The lazy man looks comfortable, but his life is one that’s not worth living. Anything worth having in life is attained through hardship. You want the joy of having a baby? First go through 9 months of pregnancy with morning sickness, and then endure the hours of intense labor pains. You want a medical degree? Study hard for 16 years, sleep a few hours each day during medical school, and shell out thousands of dollars. You want to maintain a healthy body? Sacrifice your favorite foods, go to the gym regularly and run till you drip in sweat. This is the way God has made the world. He did it intentionally so that it would mirror spiritual realities.
Life on earth is one big hardship, and in that sense, life on earth is one big preparation for Heaven—for perfection. We are literally being prepared for Heaven through (not in spite) our hardships on earth. The apostle Paul literally says that our afflictions here are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17). Through our hardships, God is preparing us for Heaven. Our faith (through suffering) is being tested, purified, and strengthened. We are looking more like Jesus each day, and though we suffer, we consider it joy because the goal is worth it (James 1:2). In God’s wisdom, suffering makes us more like Jesus.
Are you sick and suffering because of sin in your life? Yes, sin could very well be the reason. Don’t simply shrug it off. Examine your life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Though the punitive element of our sins was paid for on the cross by Jesus Christ, there is still a disciplinary element that Christians have to deal with. The very vital teaching that God disciplines Christians is largely lost in many churches today. God loves you and therefore, as any good father would, He disciplines His children when they do wrong (Heb 12:6). Let me be clear: Certain sicknesses, ailments, and deaths are directly due to sins committed by the Christian. The Old Testament is rife with evidence for this as the nation of Israel, time and time again, was disciplined for her iniquities. The prophet Amos gives us one such example in his book: “’I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,’ declares the LORD” (Amos 4:6). In other words, God struck the land with famine so that Israel would learn, repent, and turn back to the LORD.
In the New Testament, one only has to look at the Corinthian Church—which, because they were taking the Lord’s Supper improperly—was struck with weaknesses, illnesses, and even deaths (1 Cor 11:30). So yes, when you sin, God will discipline you. And yes, sometimes God will discipline with an illness. At other times, He’ll send you circumstantial hardships, and still yet at other times, He could even slay you and bring you Home. God loves you that much. The wise Christian sagaciously pauses during personal hardships to ask whether or not there’s sin in his life. Upon prayerful reflection, he might conclude that his life is clean. That’s fine—Job suffered as a righteous man, and not all suffering is due to sin. On the other hand, if the Spirit of God convicts you of sin, quickly repent. God is speaking through discipline.
3. HEIGHTEN HUNGER FOR HEAVEN
Nothing makes you look forward to Heaven like earthly suffering. When loved ones die, when body parts fail, when Islamic militants burn churches, and when life just becomes physically painful, we heartily look forward to Heaven. Suffering keenly remind us that this world is not our home (1 Peter 2:11) and that we’re merely strangers passing through a strange land. Suffering sets our hearts to Heaven. When we suffer loss, it re-orients life for us and enables us to look forward to the things that last for eternity.
4. LOOSEN LOVE FOR THE WORLD
Suffering does heighten hunger for heaven, but it also loosens our love for the world. Suffering often reveals to us our idols. How we react to suffering and loss will powerfully demonstrate where our ultimate hope lies. When we can’t get over the loss of a loved one, we demonstrate that our love for the loved one exceeds our love for God. The potential loss of Isaac (Gen 22) powerfully demonstrated to God that Abraham loved God above any earthly treasure. Perhaps like nothing else, suffering (especially intense suffering) forces us to loosen our grip on the things of this world. Our frailty and pain remind us of life’s fleeting nature and forces us to look to eternity. In moments of loss, we will either give up our idols or turn bitter against God. The Christian does the former.
5. CULTIVATE CONTENTMENT
The absence of contentment is entitlement. It is a rebellious declaration to God that we deserve better. A better job, a better spouse, a better family, a better anything. A sense of entitlement is derived from a forfeiture of the gospel. We forget that we were sinners that deserved eternal Hell.
Contentment must be learned (Phil 4:11). More specifically, contentment in Christ alone must be learned. God told us that we could not serve two masters (Matt 6:24). The lack of contentment will produce the love of money, and the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). The Christian is commanded to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:18). It is very easy to give thanks when the barns are full and everyone is satisfied with food. It is much harder to obey that command when one has very little. Yet, suffering and loss should cause a true believer to live on a tighter budget and be grateful for what he does have (remember, we deserve nothing more than Hell!). Additionally, when (and if) times of plenty later come, the Christian is that much more prone to be thankful for his new-found affluence because of his difficult past. Past poverty will produce a greater contentment during times of sufficiency. In that way, suffering produces contentment. Additionally, when God shows us (through the loss of seemingly indispensible items) that Christ alone really is sufficient, then we truly learn contentment (Phil 4:11-12).
6. PROPEL PRAYER
Let’s face it: Suffering forces us to pray. It forces us to pray hard, and if the hardship is particularly intense, we pray even harder. Hardships force us to run to God and to depend on God. If we could just bottle-up and release the fervency found in our hearts when we pray during hardships, then all our prayer times will be significantly richer. Interestingly, the more severe the hardship, the greater glory we tend to give God when our prayers are answered. In Acts 12, the early Church prayed hard for Peter because of his imprisonment (Acts 12:5). Upon release, the Church intensely glorified God for answered prayer. God rightfully receives all the glory for prayers answered during personal distress: “And call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:15). So when we suffer, we pray, and when we pray, God answers, and when God answers, we glorify God.
7. EXPAND EMPATHY
Often, we tend to be harsh and brash toward those who suffer in ways we’ve never personally suffered. Yet, when we go through (and come out) of a similar ordeal, our tone suddenly changes. Suddenly, we’re able to empathize with the struggling brother/sister. We know what it feels like, and when we emerge victorious, we can testify to others that “God is able!” God wonderfully enables us to comfort others with the comfort that we’ve received from God: “Who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God”(2 Cor 1:4). In this way, personal suffering better equips us to be empathetic servants of Christ.
8. KILL PRIDE
Nothing kills pride like suffering. At its core, pride is simply the desire to replace God with oneself. This was the root sin of the devil. It was also the root sin of Adam and Eve. The suffering that followed their sin effectively humbled them and caused them to beg God for a Savior (Gen 4:1).
Now, it is important to note that suffering in an unbeliever will only serve to harden his heart against God (e.g., Pharaoh (Ex 10:20)). On the other hand, suffering will have a positive effect on the lives of believers. It will cause repentance, abandonment of pride, and dependence on God.
God knows us all too well. He loves us too much to allow us to become entangled and enslaved to pride. He will not give us any more suffering than we can bear, but at the same time, He will send us suffering to ensure our humility. God did this in the life of the apostle Paul:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor 12:7-9)
One could even say it this way: the more pride you have as a Christian, the more suffering you should expect from God. God loves you too much to allow you to wallow in pride. Hence, vigilantly be about killing personal pride for God always gives grace to the humble—even if it means sending you some suffering in order to make you humble. Why? Because God wants to be gracious to you.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” -God