Flying over the Pacific, I winced to overhear the conversation unfolding behind me. A young lady was explaining, “I did believe in God. But after getting sick and almost dying I struggled to believe he was real anymore.” Our plane hit a little turbulence, the fasten seatbelt sign ticked on. Both conversation and ride were getting bumpy. I leaned further back into my seat to hear more. “I did everything right! So, if God is real then I can’t understand why he’d let me suffer?” The empty hum of the plane seemed to grow louder in the silence that ensued.
This was my moment—every preacher wants a brilliant airplane conversion story. A grand moment to hold up a steady hand, stand tall, and make a brilliant announcement about God where the whole cabin tearfully applauds while accepting Jesus. Why didn’t that happen? Firstly, when I tried to stand I realized I’d left the top button of my jeans undone needing a little post-Christmas “breathing room” and nearly lost my pants. Secondly, an announcement to buckle up for turbulence came from the captain. But the truth is I’m not sure I would have offered a satisfying answer. Of course, I could offer a theological treatise on how sin has tainted all life and we experience pain as a consequence… but I fail to see people having a sudden revelation, “Ah ha! Well, in that case I’m very happy to suffer—bring on more suffering!”
No, I don’t fully understand why God allows suffering and I’m wary of those who say they do. But I have reasons to believe God really can be trusted even when our faith is tested by life’s turbulence. Here are three I’ve found helpful during these moments.
Firstly, my Christian worldview helps me make sense of suffering. We don’t need to deny the pain exists or find it to be a meaningless by-product of an advancing species, as some might suggest. No, suffering is real and loaded with significance. Both intuition and Bible affirm, “There’s something wrong about the suffering in our world!” If this is the case, denying the existence of God because of suffering would seem counterintuitive. The Bible describes suffering to be a reality which has motivated God into loving action. Yell, kick, scream, cry- I can do all that in a closing buffet line and before God. But I wouldn’t deny God’s existence when the reality the Bible describes is matching my lived experience.
Secondly, suffering can be a time of significant personal growth. Even when “doing everything right”, everyone suffers—even Jesus! But I’ve seen how pain can redemptively shape our lives for the better. Relationships suddenly restored, a fresh appreciation for life, or greater compassion for people—all reflections of the kind of life-giving people God would have us become. Many faithful followers of God in the Bible used suffering for personal growth, social justice, or arouse a new sense of what makes for a meaningful life. Even our own lives can be enhanced or diminished depending on what we make of our suffering. We can easily let suffering send us on endless cycles of blame games, become self-absorbed, or depressed beyond recall. But if we follow in the steps of Jesus we remember he forgave those pointing fingers who cursed him, showed selfless compassion, and offered a message of hope along the way to the cross. If suffering is a part of life I want to make it bring out these life-giving qualities of who I am.
Thirdly, Jesus tells us there is hope for those who suffer. Jesus spoke of troubled times ahead in life but “take heart”. A time was coming where God would bring peace to our pain, breathe new life into what seems dead. The resurrection was God’s affirmation of this message Jesus announced- new life just around the corner for our suffering world! “But doesn’t God care about here and now?” The Christian story tells us God cared so much he entered into a suffering world to be with us. Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer, he wears the scars of life, and reminds us we can trust God to make something beautiful grow in the barren places of life. Can you tell me anyone else who can identify with your scars as Jesus can? God-in-the-flesh does. Can you tell me anyone else who can take the worst we suffer and redeem it with new life on the other side of our turbulence?
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. -John 16:33b