Why do people suffer? Especially innocent people? Why do children have to die in war? Why do babies get HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome through no fault of their own?
We can never satisfactorily answer all such questions. Even if we accept that WE LIVE IN A FALLEN WORLD, a world that is not as God intended it to be, we still wonder sometimes, "Why?"
As horrible as suffering can be, God has a way of using it for his purposes. Sometimes God uses suffering to punish the wicked, a retributive action. They are getting their "just desserts." God also uses suffering as punishment for the purpose of deterrence - to warn people, to turn them from sin. God has two other purposes for suffering - REDEMPTION, which we will look at in another article, and DISCIPLINE.
Suffering has a way of refining, training and educating a person, especially a believer. Through the process of suffering, especially suffering as discipline, we can learn to love the Lord more and depend upon his grace and his resources. There are basically two forms that suffering for discipline can take.
"God has always tested his people." Abraham is one example. In Gen. 22:1 the Bible says, "God tested Abraham." Some versions read, "God tempted Abraham." The Hebrew word here, ns, means "test, try, prove, tempt, put to the test." It is incorrect to think of it in terms of "entice to do wrong." (TWOT, p.581). The idea of "God tempting would not fit with Matt. 4:3, where the devil is the tempter, and James 1:13-15, where it says God does not tempt people to do wrong. But God can and does test people.
God tested Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his only son (Heb. 11:17-19). Would Abraham love his son more than God? Would Abraham, like Adam and Eve, choose to go his own way and do his own thing? Abraham was put to the test. And I can’t imagine what kind of emotional agony it must have been for a dad to lead his son to the place of sacrifice, knowing it was his own son that was the offering. When my children ask me a question of a spiritual nature I get a funny feeling inside. These are my offspring, my children that I want to see in heaven, and they are asking me a question! I have to answer it right! These are my children at stake!
And Abraham had a lot at stake - his son. And more than that, his direction. Where would Abraham’s heart lead him? In the way of the Father, or self? When Abraham chose God over son and self, here is the commendation the Father gave him: "I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son from me, your only son." Gen. 22:12.
God frequently tested the children of Israel. Exodus 15:25 - God tested them in Marah with bitter water. Exodus 16:4 - God tested them with mana. He would give them plenty, but would they trust God and take only what they needed? Or would they prove to be selfish and lack faith, taking more than necessary?
One reason for God testing people is to learn their hearts. Deuteronomy 8:2 says God led the Israelites in the desert for 40 years to "humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands." The reason for this is explained in v.5 - "Know ... that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you."
Wandering in the desert was also punishment. Punitive punishment. People died the in the desert for their sins. The would never see the promised land. But for their children who also wondered in the dry, dusty climate, hoping for rest, it was not punishment. It was a testing.
Is there suffering in your life? What may God be trying to tell you? Is he trying to discipline you? Discipline from a loving Father has the aim of testing our hearts. Do we truly want communion with the Father? Who do we love the most, God, or self? Testing, suffering bears that out.
Sometimes God is trying to teach us something through our suffering. Hebrews 12 is the classic passage about suffering as a means of "learning." Eight times in verses 5-11 some form of the word "discipline" is used.
What is the nature of the suffering or discipline in Hebrews that chapter 12 is referring to? Persecution. In Heb. 10:32-34 the writer calls upon these Christians to remember an earlier persecution they suffered - they were publicly insulted and persecuted. They were thrown in prison and had their possessions stolen by the state. But they didn’t lose their faith! Now, another contest of suffering is upon them (12:4). There is more persecution. Will they stay strong? Faithful? The writer wants them to know that this suffering is not because of punishment! It is for discipline. (12:5b-9).
The word for punish literally means, "to flog." Many of God’s followers have been literally "flogged." Jesus and his disciples were. Some of the witness in chapter 11 had been (see 11:36). Some of the current readers might be! But it is important for them to realize that this "flogging" or suffering is not a retributive punishment. It is a form of discipline to motivate the sufferers to reach higher levels of maturity. (12:10-11).
What good does God intend by this discipline? That we share in his holiness. That the "training" we experience from suffering produces righteous and peace. "God uses suffering and pain to produce a fruit whose purpose is communion with him." (Hicks, Yet, p.137). Suffering teaches us discipline.
But one more thing it teaches us ... Joy and perseverance. (James 1:2-3). And the great reward for persevering under trial (testing, suffering)? James 1:12 says it is the crown of life!
"The crown of life is worth the trials, and God disciplines us with that goal in mind. God acts, sometimes by inflicting pain, even floggings, to train and prepare us to share his holiness. God intends good even when it seems painful and senseless to us." (Hicks, Yet, p.138).
Is there suffering in your life and you wonder why? We all do. Please, when suffering comes into your life, don’t let it break you or discourage you. I know that is easy to say in a time free from suffering. But try to hold on. Remember, one way God uses suffering is to teach us to be stronger and more like him.
If suffering is in your life right now ... suffering of any kind ... take it to the cross. One way we all suffer is from the contamination of sin. And Jesus stands ready to clean that up as soon as we have suffered enough and are ready to come to him for cleansing.
(Many of the ideas for this series come from the book Yet Will I Trust Him by John Mark Hicks)