There's no doubt, the Why questions of suffering are utterly perplexing. And as we search the Scriptures and consider stories such as Job's, we are tempted to see those as worst-case scenarios designed to help us get our heads straight in relation to our comparatively small "first world" problems. We look for ways to manage pain. We medicate; we minimize; we moralize. We rage, and we run. We develop theories to explain what is happening to us. While they may temporarily help us categorize and compartmentalize our thoughts and feelings, when true suffering comes, all our speculations fall flat. The Why's of suffering keep us shrouded in a seemingly bottomless void of abstraction where God is reduced to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes measure on the same scale as ours.
But since no one alive can see the beginning from the end, from the divine vantage point, we're left stranded in a prison of inscrutability. And sadly, we often prefer our confinement to the disorienting possibility that our suffering is actually ordained, that God is involved in it. Ray Ortlund said:
When the righteous cannot connect the realities of their experience with the truths of God, then God is calling them to trust him that there is more to it than they can see. As with Job, there is a battle being fought in the heavenlies. Trust in God, not explanations from God, is the pathway through suffering.
Fortunately, we worship a God who is in the business of freeing captives and creating trust where there was none before. In fact, the cross tells us that He does so (and has done so) through suffering, not despite it.
Grace is available because Jesus went through the valley of the shadow of death and rose from death. The gospel engages our life with all its pain, shame, rejection, lostness, sin, and death. So now, to your pain, the gospel says, "You will be healed." To your shame, the gospel says, "You can now come to God in confidence." To your rejection, the gospel says, "You are accepted!" To your lostness, the gospel says, "You are found and I won't ever let you go." To your sin, the gospel says, "You are forgiven and God declares you pure and righteous." To your death, the gospel says, "You once were dead, but now you are alive. (Justin Holcomb)
And let us not forget our friend Job, who was refused his Why so that he might recognize the Who. Oddly enough, even Job's story testifies to the truth of that blessed little formula: Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Our hope is not Jesus plus an explanation as to why suffering happens or Jesus plus an explanation as to why your child or spouse is so difficult, why the cancer hasn't gone into remission, why finances continue to be so tight. Thomas Merton once said, "The truth that many people don't understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt."
Think about it for a moment: What is that thing in your life that if God were to take it away, you'd feel like life was not worth living? When we're able to answer that question, we will figure out what we are really worshipping, and what, by definition, might lie at the root of our suffering. It could be our children, our spouse, an ambition, or a dream of financial success. Those good gifts God gave us for our enjoyment that we have turned into idols. Suffering is often the process of these things being stripped away. Indeed, there is nothing like suffering to remind us how much we need God. What good news that His purpose and plan for our lives moves in a different direction from ours!
The good news of suffering is that it brings us to the end of ourselves-a purpose it has certainly served in my life. It brings us to the place of honesty, which is the place of desperation, which is the place of faith, which is the place of freedom. Suffering leaves our idols in pieces on the ground. It puts us in a position to see that God sent His Son not only to suffer in our place but also to suffer with us. Our merciful friend has been through it all. He is with us right now! And while He may not deliver us from pain and loss, He'll walk with us through it. That is simply Who He is.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:15-16)
(Excerpted from my forthcoming book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free)
A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tullian has authored a number of books including Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Crossway). He travels extensively, speaking at conferences throughout the U.S., and his sermons are broadcast daily on the radio program LIBERATE. As a respected pastor, author, and speaker, Tullian is singularly and passionately devoted to seeing people set free by the radical, amazing power of God's grace.
When he is not reading, studying, preaching, or writing, Tullian enjoys being with people and relaxing with his wife, Kim, and their three children: Gabe, Nate, and Genna. He loves the beach, loves to exercise, and when he has time, he loves to surf.