Why We Suffer

The Israelites are finally rescued from Egyptian oppression by their God, led out of Egypt and heading towards the promised land where the living will be easy. But then they run into some rather unpleasant circumstances. The supply of food runs out, there’s no water, and they’re getting impatient. This trip isn’t what they expected, nor is this how they foresaw their prayers being answered. This God isn’t who they thought He was.

The Jews in Jerusalem witness the triumphant entry of the man who they know has come to deliver them from Roman tyranny. He has exhibited his power over sickness and demons. He has put scribes and pharasees in their place. He zealously wielded a whip around the temple courtyard, driving out the money changers. He seems invincible—that is until word gets out that he was arrested. The sight of him being dragged around in chains and his unwillingness to speak up for himself when accused is simply pathetic. A true savior would never take this kind of treatment. This man isn’t who they thought he was.

The barren woman experiences the same realizations that these biblical figures did. We have the same initial expectations. “God is a gracious God and He has promised to rescue me in times of trouble, so here I am, hand outstretched for the life preserver. I’m ready Lord … any day now … I know You’re coming. Hello? Can you hear me?” And yet the Rescuer does not arrive. This isn’t the kind of treatment we expected from our God.

If there’s one thing that suffering teaches a person it is this: God is not who you thought He was. I don’t care if you were baptized the moment you emerged from the womb and intensely indoctrinated in the Holy Scriptures, the Small Catechism, and the Augsburg Confession from kindergarten on, there is simply no better teaching tool about who God is than personal suffering. Our Lutheran fathers in the faith called this teaching the “Theology of the Cross.”  It is the realization that the Christian life will include various sufferings and we will each, at some point in our lives, carry crosses of our own, though some bigger than others.

By our very natures we seek to live lives according to the opposite teaching, the  “Theology of Glory,” where we only experience God’s glorious blessings, peace, and harmony each and every day, shunning any experience that might require some pain, patience, or self-denial. The desire for the “good life” is not evil by any means, but the rejection and avoidance of the Father’s loving discipline is a rejection of God Himself and all that He has planned for us.

In my recent search for the meaning behind the trials and tribulations God sends to His children, my scholarly husband pointed me to Divine Providence and Human Suffering by James Walsh, S.J., and P.G. Walsh (published by Spring Arbor Distributors). This is a collection of essays by our fathers in the faith which address numerous topics related to suffering. I was particularly drawn to the essay called The Twelve Advantages of Tribulations by Peter of Blois, a pastor from the 12th century. I want to share with you a summary of his comments and some thought-provoking quotes from the essay.

1. Through tribulation God seeks to deliver our souls from our enemies, which include “false joys and deceitful prosperity in this world.” It also “prunes our hearts to rid it of superfluous love for earthly goods so we might bear spiritual fruit” (p. 144).

2. Tribulation refines and strengthens our hearts, just as a sword is cleaned and filed in order to stay sharp. “[I]n the same way the human heart, without being exercised by tribulation, gathers rust” (p. 146).

3. Tribulation drives us to confession, so that we can properly see ourselves and our miserable state and understand our desperate need for a Savior (p. 148).

4. Tribulation causes your prayers to be heard by God: “The Lord will listen to the entreaty of the wounded” (Eccl 35:16). In times of good fortune we can get lazy in our worship. God often causes suffering so that, unlike this, our suffering will force us to call upon Him (p. 159).

5. Tribulation is evidence of God’s love for you, as stated in Rev. 3:19: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” Blois says, “So if you wish to be loved by God, dear soul, do not reject the tribulations which reveal to you the proof of divine love. … [E]ndure your tribulation now with Christ, so that you may in the end win a crown in the kingdom of heaven. As the Apostle says, ‘We must enter the kingdom of heaven only by many tribulations’ (Acts 14:21)” (pp. 161-162).

In addition to the above reminders of why tribulations come our way, Blois asks the reader to look at her own suffering and compare it to what our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to endure on our behalf.  The church-goer who has lived a carefree life without many trials may very well rush through the words of the Apostles Creed, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.” The Christian who carries her own small cross will carefully reflect upon these words, for she has been given a glimpse of the pain that paid for her sin and is more acutely aware of the gravity of our Lord’s sacrifice. The connection that is made between our suffering and His helps us more clearly see who He really is—a God who will do whatever it takes to help His children remember Him, call upon Him and rely on His providence alone.

I leave you with a final word from Blois who, some 800 years after his death, has been able to paint such a vivid picture in my mind of Christ’s love for me that I don’t believe I can ever look at my pain the same way again.

So realize, O soul, that it is the custom of lovers to send letters to each other, and to remind each other of the welcome and reciprocated kindnesses shown to each other, and to fear that these may be forgotten. This is why your lover Jesus Christ has visited tribulation on you… . Realize, then, that Jesus has kept the scars of his wounds which he endured for you as keepsakes. … So Christ himself says: “I shall not forget you; I have graven you on the palms of my hands” (Isah. 49:16), that is, “When I was stretched on the cross for love of you.” So if Christ has kept the scars of his wounds as keepsakes, do not be angry if he sends tribulations on you to make you mindful of him. (p. 149)