Jeremy Sarber On Life & Scripture
Jeremy Sarber

Following Jesus requires suffering well

Series: Following Jesus

Suffering is inevitable. Following Jesus requires trusting in God’s sovereign plan and looking forward to the day when God will make all things new and remove suffering forever.

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I’ll admit that I cried when my family and I had to euthanize our dog of twelve years. I remember standing in the vet’s office, holding our dog, and thinking, This is not the way it’s supposed to be.

That came to my mind recently during a much worse situation. Two weeks ago, I was asked to officiate the graveside service of a six-month-old baby girl. She died unexpectedly from what was believed to be a respiratory issue. And just before we left for the cemetery, I overheard her mom crying and repeating to no one in particular, This is not the way it’s supposed to be. This is not the way it’s supposed to be.”

Our instinctive reaction to suffering

In my experience, the most common question asked when tragedy strikes or someone is suffering is, Why? Why did this happen?” In those moments, we seem to know two things quite instinctively. First of all, we seem to know that things are not supposed to be this way. People are not supposed to die. We’re not supposed to feel such terrible heartache. And second, we naturally feel there must be a reason for it, yet we don’t know what that reason is. So, we ask, often crying out through our tears, Why? Why did this happen? It’s not supposed to be this way.”

And, you know, I’ve heard staunch atheists talk this way. But according to an atheistic worldview, we have absolutely no reason to think that things should be any different or that there could possibly be a reason behind it. The well-known, outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has expressed his frustration with people asking, Why? Why did this happen?” When he was interviewed years ago, he said:

Suppose that some child is dying of cancer, we say, Why is this child dying; what has it done to deserve it?” The answer is, there’s no reason why … there’s no reason other than a series of historical accidents which led to this child dying of cancer. No reason to ask why.

And when the interviewer reminded Dawkins that people still ask why, whether there’s a reason or not, he coldly replied, That’s their problem.”

But the thing is, Dawkins is overlooking a glaring issue here. Why are people asking for a reason in the first place? If God doesn’t exist and everything that happens is the result of a cosmic accident without rhyme or reason, then why, when tragedy strikes, is our natural impulse to think something isn’t right? Why is our first inclination to think, This is not how things are supposed to be? Further, why do we impulsively search for the reason behind it?

Again, I’ve known atheists to talk this way. Their worldview says, This is exactly how things are supposed to be, and there can be no reason behind any of it.” So, why does their gut reaction to suffering completely contradict their worldview?

Well, it’s because their worldview is wrong, and they instinctively know it. The Bible speaks to this. In Romans 1, for example, Paul says people suppress the truth of God (Ro 1:18). In their rebellion and hardheartedness, they push it down. They push it away. Paul says, What can be known about God is actually plain to them,” but they suppress it (Ro 1:19). Then, what do you think happens in extreme moments of vulnerability when their hearts are breaking and they feel utterly helpless? Some of the very truth they’ve suppressed bubbles to the surface. They may not ask, Why did God let this happen?” But something in their gut says there must be a reason—a reason they may just discover if only they ask.

We also have Ecclesiastes 3:11. Solomon says, God has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecc 3:11). That’s an interesting passage because, on the one hand, Solomon suggests we inherently know there is a God and an eternity beyond time because God built that sense of the supernatural and spiritual into us. He also says, God has made everything beautiful in its time. So, he acknowledges that everything has a purpose according to God’s wise and benevolent plan. On the other hand, he admits that there’s some mystery to it all. He says, Yet man cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

In other words, we instinctively know there is a sovereign God above who has a reason for the things that happen, but we don’t necessarily know those reasons. And that is precisely why even the atheist will cry out, Why? Why did this happen? It’s not supposed to be this way.”

And it’s not. It’s not supposed to be this way. And every person on the planet feels it deep within their bones when trials come. It’s not supposed to be this way. The atheist can’t explain that universal sensation we feel when we suffer, but the Bible does. It shows us precisely that. We’re living in a fallen world that is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Suffering is inevitable in a fallen world

I often speak to this at funerals. On several occasions, I have begun a funeral by saying:

I wish we didn’t have to be here, not for this. Unfortunately, we live between two paradises. The first was a paradise God created in the beginning. He gave us everything we could ever want and nothing we didn’t. But the first man and woman rebelled against him and his good design for us, and we’ve been living in a broken world ever since.

Then, I’ll go on to talk about the paradise to come and how we are able to enter that paradise through our Lord Jesus Christ.

You know the creation story in Genesis. God created the world, and Genesis 1 says, God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Ge 1:31). There was no heartache. There was no suffering. There was no tragedy or death. But then we read Genesis 3. Despite God’s warning to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we’re told, Eve took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to Adam who was with her, and he ate (Ge 2:17; 3:6). And then came God’s judgment. Their disobedience had severe consequences.

Now, those consequences were not as acute as maybe Adam and Eve would have expected. They weren’t hurting only themselves. If one of my children disobeys, that child gets punished. But when Adam and Eve disobeyed, the consequences were far-reaching. Let’s say Adam and Eve were each holding a glass of water to drink. It’s not as though God said, As a punishment for your sin, I will place a drop of poison in each of your glasses.” No, it’s more like the poison went into the well from which everyone drinks. The Bible says, Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men (Ro 5:12). Adam’s sin tainted everything and everyone.

So, when things go terribly wrong in our lives, and we think, This is not how it’s supposed to be, we’re exactly right. This is not how things are supposed to be. This is not how God intended them to be. This is not how he designed them to be. He gave us paradise, and we ruined it. Yet, the seed of God’s good and perfect design remains inside of us, so when things go wrong, we naturally say, This is not how things are supposed to be.”

Perhaps the next time you hear an unbelieving friend say that, you can respond, Amen. Now, let’s talk about why.”

You see, there’s a reason we feel pain. When we feel physical pain, it indicates to us that something is wrong with our bodies. Have you ever heard of congenital insensitivity? That’s a condition where someone cannot feel pain. And while that may sound very appealing, it’s extremely dangerous. We need to feel pain because that’s our body’s way of alerting us to a problem. It tells us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

When we suffer in this life, that pain we feel tells us that something is wrong. The atheist doesn’t think so. If he were a doctor, he’d say, I’m sorry. The best I can do is give you drugs to manage the pain.” Of course, you would likely respond, Well, that’s great and all, but why do I have this pain? What’s the cause?” And he would reply, What do you mean what’s the cause?’ There is no cause.”

But the Christian has a distinct advantage because the Bible shows us that (1) there is a root cause for our suffering—namely, sin. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. And (2) there is a reason why we are suffering. We’ll talk about this more in a moment, but we ask why because we instinctively know there must be a reason. And if there is a reason, our suffering is not meaningless. And lastly, I’ll say the Christian has an advantage because he or she knows there is hope despite our suffering. Things are not the way they are supposed to be, but it won’t be like this forever.

In fact, let’s talk about that before we go any further. I’ve read from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. We saw God’s good design for his creation, and we saw how sin polluted his creation. Now, let’s jump to the last book of the Bible and see how the story will end.

The promise of a future paradise

Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Revelation 21:1-7)

In short, the Lord will radically, ultimately, and finally undo every consequence of sin. This is our hope as the redeemed people of God. When we face suffering in this life, we’re able to look ahead to a day when death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore (Rev 21:4). So, even if God permits our suffering to last a lifetime, we know it still temporary. It won’t be like this forever. Second Corinthians 4:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Now, when the Bible says our afflictions are light and momentary, it says that only in comparison to what’s to come. It’s not saying, Get over it. Stop your crying. This is a light, momentary thing you’re going through.” No, the Bible recognizes how deeply we can hurt. Hebrews 4 says Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses because he himself suffered greatly (Heb 4:15). He knows the worst of pain firsthand.

This is one of the reasons I despise images of Buddha. In most cases, you’ll see a slight smile on Buddha’s face. Why is he smiling? Well, he’s smiling because he supposedly escaped all of the troubles of this world. And that’s essentially what Buddhism claims to offer. It recognizes there’s something wrong with this world, though it never provides an objective reason why, and claims you can escape into a perpetual state of bliss. And the reason that bothers me is because Buddha doesn’t offer a real remedy to our problems. He’s not fixing anything. As he sits there smiling, the world is crumbling all around him.

But that’s not true for Christ. When Christ came into this world, he didn’t ignore our problems. In fact, he began undoing the effects of the root cause of our problems, which is sin. He cast out demons. He healed the sick. He gave sight to the blind. He raised the dead. He didn’t escape the trials. He plunged headfirst into them. So, if you give me a choice between the Suffering Savior on a cross, dying so that he can make all things new, and a smiling Buddha who is essentially ignoring the problems of this world and offering no real solution, I’ll take the Suffering Savior.

And this is especially true when we face severe difficulties and tragedies in our lives. Do you think Buddha offers any consolation to the mother of that six-month-old little girl who died? Oh, I’m sure he does wonders for middle and upper-class Americans who are merely trying to handle the stress of their jobs, but he has nothing to offer someone who is truly suffering. The Stoic who simply says, Don’t feel,” has nothing realistic to offer. The atheist has nothing to offer. All he can say is, That’s life. What can you do?”

But Jesus says, I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through. I entered into the suffering myself to ultimately fix the problem at its very root. And as a result, it won’t be like this forever. You don’t have to ignore the problem. You don’t have to escape. You don’t have to pretend it doesn’t bother you. It should bother you. Of course, it should bother you. It bothers me. It bothers God the Father. But I am making all things new (Rev 21:5).

Suffering requires faith

So, before I address suffering on a more practical level, I’ll just remind you that the Christian perspective on suffering certainly requires faith. Again, 2 Corinthians 4 says, We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen (2Co 4:18). You see, the atheist might remind us that we have no tangible evidence that paradise is coming. How can you really know Jesus will make all things new? As far as anyone knows, the world has always been broken and will always be broken. Well, faith is the answer. But it’s not merely faith in an idea. It’s faith in a person. It’s faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But,” the atheist says, you haven’t seen Jesus. You haven’t spoken to him. You haven’t seen his supposed power firsthand? Why would you put your trust in him?”

I think about this every time I get on an airplane. There’s a man sitting in the cockpit whom I’ve never met. I don’t know his training. I don’t know his experience. I don’t know whether he’s sober. I don’t know whether he got a good night’s sleep. I know nothing about him. For all I know, he’s not even a pilot. But I get on the plane based on an informed judgment call. My experience and all of the evidence available to me would suggest I should trust whoever will fly the plane. Is that irrational?

The book of Ecclesiastes makes the case that there is a sovereign God who has made everything beautiful in its time (Ecc 3:11). For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” according to God’s good plan and purpose (Ecc 3:1). Yet, Solomon acknowledges, We cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. The Bible doesn’t answer every question we might have about suffering. We can’t know everything. We’re not God. So, it’s perfectly reasonable to trust him in our suffering. He knows. He developed his plans long before we came along. And everything we can know about him and his Son encourages us to trust him and his plan.

Andrew Randall writes:

We need to know that God is with us in our suffering, and we need to know that God can be trusted to see us through our suffering. This is what we need—and in Jesus Christ, this is what God gives us.

Now, I’ve basically addressed the philosophical question of why. Why is there suffering? Why is there pain? Why do we have trials? But listen closely to people when they cry out in their pain, and they aren’t really asking why in general terms. At the heart of what they’re really asking is, Why me?” And frankly, that’s the wrong question. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but the better question is, Why not me?”

One of the most common questions asked of Christians is, Why does God allow suffering?” Or, as it’s often phrased, Why does God let good people suffer?” Well, the first thing we can say to that is, Where are these good people?” The Bible says, None is righteous, no, not one (Ro 3:10). Remember what I said earlier. Adam poisoned the well from which we all drink. None of us are good apart from Christ.

But I think most people asking these questions are not asking them as purely philosophical questions. What we all really want to know is, Why do I suffer? Why does God let me suffer?” And this is true for Christians. Even we find ourselves asking why.

Why Me?’ is the wrong question

Unfortunately, the answer is complicated. You see, we’re prone to think in black-and-white terms. This happened; therefore, that happened. Someone did X; therefore, Y happened. Joe told a lie; therefore, he stubbed his toe as cosmic punishment for his sin. But it’s not that simple.

Consider the book of Job. Job suffered tremendously, and the entire book is basically one long debate about why. And if I were to summarize God’s response at the end of the debate, he says, All of your assumptions are wrong to one degree or another. You can’t begin to understand what I, as God, understand. Everything happens for a reason, but those reasons are immensely complex.” It’s not a simple formula. X happened; therefore, Y happened.

Or, consider the blind man in John chapter 9. When the Lord’s disciples saw the blind man, it prompted them to ask a serious theological question. Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (Jn 9:2). You see, their immediate assumption was that a particular sin (or sins) of a particular person (or persons) caused his blindness. In their minds, X must lead directly to Y. But Jesus says, It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him (Jn 9:3). In other words, sin wasn’t the immediate cause at all. Now, sin was a cause. Without sin, there would be no blindness in anyone, but it wasn’t an immediate cause. In fact, according to Christ, this man was blind his entire life for the distinct purpose of Jesus coming along at that moment and restoring his sight.

Now, having said that, there are times when our sins lead to immediate discipline. Hebrews 12: God disciplines us for our good (Heb 12:10). But generally speaking, it’s not especially helpful to look back when we suffer. That’s what Job and his friends did. That’s what the disciples did. Who sinned? (Jn 9:2). Past tense. We look back because we want to know what caused our suffering. But I believe there’s a better way, and that’s to look forward. Instead of asking, What caused this?” we could ask, What can I learn from this? What is God doing through this? How can I suffer well in the midst of this? How do I follow Jesus in my suffering?”

The purposes of suffering

If you’re following along in your Bible, turn over to 1 Peter chapter 1. First Peter chapter 1.

Now, for a little context, Peter is writing to believers scattered throughout parts of the Roman Empire. You see their locations in verse 1. Now, some commentators say these believers were enduring persecution under the wicked, cruel Emperor Nero, but I’m not convinced. Personally, I’m inclined to think this letter pre-dates Nero’s persecution of Christians. Peter doesn’t directly acknowledge ongoing persecution, but he is writing from Rome, and I think he sees it coming. In other words, he’s preparing them for the persecution that’s likely coming their way. And here’s what he says in verses 6 and 7:

In this [in your salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6, 7)

A sanctifying purpose

So, suffering has, first of all, a sanctifying purpose. Peter compares it to refining gold to burn away impurities. We may have faith in Christ as his disciples, but that’s not to say it’s a perfect faith. We may trust in him, but do we trust in him completely?

In his book Trusting God, Jerry Bridges writes:

Every adversity that comes across our path, whether large or small, is intended to help us grow in some way. If it were not beneficial, God would not allow it or send it, For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men (Lamentations 3:33). God does not delight in our sufferings. He brings only that which is necessary, but He does not shrink from that which will help us grow.

We all have areas of life wherein we trust in things other than Christ more than we should and suffering weans us away from those things. Last week, for instance, we talked about money. Without even realizing it, we may very well have a false sense of security because of the money in our bank accounts or the incomes we earn. But what would happen if the bank collapsed and lost all your money? Or, what if you lost your job? Or, what if you discover that you or someone you love has a terminal illness? All the money in the world can’t save you. What do you suppose would happen to you?

Well, God willing, you would become all the more dependent upon Christ. Your trial would burn away your trust in temporary material wealth, leaving you with a deeper faith in Christ.

I love the following line from Andrew Randall. He writes, The only way to make sure that your greatest treasure is never taken away from you is to make sure that Christ is your greatest treasure.”

And that’s precisely what suffering can do for us. It elevates Christ in our lives. Again, Peter says, Though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, your once-tested faith may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1Pe 1:6, 7). Our faith in other things, if you will, is burned away through trials because those other things inevitably prove worthless. They can’t ultimately help us. Meanwhile, our dependence upon Christ grows. He becomes a greater and greater treasure to us, and he is a treasure that can never be taken from us.

Now, I also want you to notice a phrase Peter uses here. You see it in verse 7. He refers to the tested genuineness of your faith (1Pe 1:7). He might have said, The proven evidence of your faith.” In other words, Peter sees suffering as an effective and probably the most effective means of discovering the authenticity of our faith. You see, it’s one thing to say we have faith. According to James chapter 2, anyone can say they have faith. It’s quite another to prove the legitimacy of that faith through works. And Peter takes it up one more level. If I may paraphrase, he says, If you really want to know whether your faith is genuine, let’s see how your faith holds up in times of trials.”

And this is the example the Lord himself gives. Listen as I read Hebrews chapter 5, verses 7 and 8:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:7, 8)

Now, the author of Hebrews is not suggesting Jesus was once disobedient before learning to be obedient. No, we might say he learned the fullness of obedience. Or, we might say he proved just how obedient he was because he remained perfectly obedient even when he suffered. The text says, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears (Heb 5:7). Jesus suffered tremendously. You likely remember his prayers in the garden the night before his crucifixion. He essentially prayed, Father, I don’t want to do this, but I will.” He learned (or came to understand) obedience as never before because of his willingness to be obedient, even when it meant terrible agony for him.

It’s one thing to trust God and follow him faithfully when everything is going well. It’s quite another to trust him and follow him faithfully when life falls apart.

But how can we know? How can we know how deep our faith runs? Better yet, how can our faith be strengthened? Well, just like the muscles in our bodies, we have to work them. We have to test them. We have to put weights on a barbell and experience the pain of trying to lift them. Suffering will not only prove our faith but make it stronger.

A comforting purpose

So, suffering has a sanctifying purpose. But it also has a comforting purpose. That may sound strange, but turn over to 2 Corinthians chapter 1. 2 Corinthians chapter 1.

After a brief introduction, Paul writes in verses 3 and 4:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4)

This is interesting. Notice the pattern. Paul says we endure affliction, which leads God to give us comfort, which leads us to notice other people enduring affliction—we’re able to empathize because we’ve been through it ourselves—which leads us to comfort them just as God comforted us.

This is probably not the first thing we think about when facing trials. Our first thought is probably not I wonder how this will help other people. Even so, our suffering becomes a means by which God works his grace through us. Think of that blind man in John chapter 9. After clarifying that his blindness was not the result of his or his parents’ sin, he says the reason that man was born blind was so that the works of God might be displayed in him (Jn 9:3). So, the works of God could be revealed or manifested only after a lifetime of blindness—that is, a lifetime of suffering.

You see, the pressure of suffering doesn’t have to result in destruction. When we think of pressure, we probably think of, let’s say, a soda can being flattened. But pressure can also create beauty. Think of the way pressure on carbon creates diamonds. Well, according to Paul, God uses suffering in the lives of his people to create beauty. Job told his wife, Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? (Job 2:10). His wife thought he should react to his suffering with resentment and bitterness, but there’s another way. If, like Job, we recognize that what we receive is from God, it can actually become a comfort for other people. We’re like carbon. God applies the pressure, and a diamond comes out on the other side.

A glorifying purpose

Third and final, I’ll say suffering has a glorifying purpose. What did Peter say? If necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1Pe 1:6, 7).

That’s essentially what Paul told the Corinthians. This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2Co 4:17).

What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end,” according to the Westminster Catechism, is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.”

Consider Christ himself. What ultimately brought him and his Father glory? It was his suffering. It was his death on the cross. Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, [emulate Christ in this way] which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, [this is humility] by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [the worst kind of suffering] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, [this is the glory of Christ] to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

So, Jesus’s humble acceptance of his suffering led to his exaltation, not to mention his Father’s glory. And Paul says, Have this mind among yourselves (Php 2:5). J.B. Phillips paraphrases the text this way. He says, Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be.”

Though Christ did not deserve to suffer, he proved himself willing for the sake of God’s glory. He knew that his suffering was for the ultimate good. And so is ours. For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Ro 8:28). And we’ll eventually see it for ourselves. This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2Co 4:17).

Following Jesus in our suffering

So, to follow Jesus in our suffering requires us to look forward. We ask ourselves, What can I learn from this? What is God doing through this? What will the end result be?” We must trust his sovereignty. We must trust his providence even when that providence is hard. We must lean on him.

I’ll leave you with a passage from 2 Corinthians 12. Paul begged the Lord to ease his burden, and the Lord said, No, grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2Co 12:9). And here is the lesson Paul learned. He said:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10)