The Majesty of Suffering

We live in a world that unarguably is beset with sin and evil.

Since the Garden of Eden, uncounted numbers of God’s image bearers have earnestly inquired of their Creator – and of each other – in an incessant and seemingly interminable quest to find the definitive answer to the dilemma of human suffering. But in reflecting on why humankind has persisted for so long in contemplating such a weighty proposition as the teleology (or ultimate purpose) of suffering, it is interesting that the obverse question is never posited, that of why is there happiness, joy, and pleasure in this world.

 

“It is a blessed thing to be subject to the sovereignty of God.” – John Calvin

Over the continuum of history there have been questions that have perplexed and discomfited us as human beings. One of the more enigmatic of inquiries has been, and continues to be, why there is suffering in the world.

In contemplating this question, the noted German philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche opined that, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Contrast Nietzsche’s somewhat pensive perspective with that of the French poet and novelist, Alfred de Vigny, who confessed, “I love the majesty of human suffering.”

Since the Garden of Eden, uncounted numbers of God’s image bearers have earnestly inquired of their Creator – and of each other – in an incessant and seemingly interminable quest to find the definitive answer to the dilemma of human suffering. But in reflecting on why humankind has persisted for so long in contemplating such a weighty proposition as the teleology (or ultimate purpose) of suffering, it is interesting that the obverse question is never posited, that of why is there happiness, joy, and pleasure in this world.

We live in a world that unarguably is beset with sin and evil (1 Jn. 5:19b). The evidences of that reality are both ubiquitous and unambiguous. It is a reality that is magnified by the prevalence of so-called “smart devices” that not only allow us to observe the pain, hardship, and adversity of others, but to share ours with them. Nevertheless, by virtue of God’s common grace (Matt. 5:45), we also experience moments of elation, bliss, and contentment in the midst of the afflictions and difficulties we encounter. And yet, why God allows us to partake of such moments of self-satisfaction is hardly, if ever, a matter of inquiry or inspection. We simply embrace them as gifts from God as signs of His unmerited or, in some cases, merited, favor toward us.

After all, isn’t that what a loving and merciful God is supposed to do?

“One of the aims of God in the suffering of the saints is to enlarge their capacity to enjoy his glory both here and in the age to come.” – John Piper, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God

Among the manifold effects of sin on humanity, is that in our finite and fallen state it is our nature to internalize suffering and make it all about us and what we’re “going through”. Even as followers of Christ, seldom, if ever, is our initial response to suffering to reign in our self-centeredness long enough to prayerfully consider what is God’s purpose in allowing our suffering in the first place. To put it differently, what we often lose sight of when it comes to suffering is perspective. Which is to say, we fail to contemplate just who and what it is we are choosing to believe in those moments when difficulty and adversity arise in our life (Eccl. 7:14).

The significance of having a biblical perspective of suffering is highlighted in this doctrinally robust statement from the apostle Paul in Phil. 1:29, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”

In Scripture, the word ‘suffer’ has both positive and negative connotations (though mostly negative). One positive example would be Matt. 19:14 (KJV) where, in Christ’s exhortation to, “Suffer [the] little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me; for such is the kingdom of heaven”, the Greek verb “suffer” is the word aphiēmi, meaning to send forth, to permit, or to allow. However, in Phil. 1:29, the word “suffer” is used in a negative context. It is the Greek word paschō, which denotes to undergo, to be adversely impacted by a situation or circumstance, or to find oneself in a dire, distressing, or grievous plight.

In Phil. 1:29a, the pronoun “you” is referring to Christians. EveryChristian. It is a personal pronoun, meaning the text is to be understood as if Paul were speaking to each of us individually or one-on-one. What Paul was saying to the Philippian believers – and to you today – is that suffering will be such a constant and ever-present reality in the life of the follower of Christ, it is as if you could replace the word “you” in that verse with your own name.

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