When we first made the decision to follow Christ, many of us were filled with joy, excitement, and passion. But as the years wore by, and the pain of the world embraced us, most of us, at some point or another, wondered why God would let us suffer. Suffering is undeniably part of the human existence, but what does the Bible teach about suffering? Why does God allow suffering? And should Christians suffer?
Two Opposing Views On Suffering In the Bible
There are two primary Christian views on suffering in the Western Church. One group embraces suffering as part of the Christian lifestyle. To not suffer is to not be Christian. Although not verbally expressed like this, it is implied from the pulpit. The other view rejects suffering and encourages Christians to use things like faith, prayer, and decrees to shape the world around them. But which view is Biblical?
Let’s look at each view in turn and the scriptural support for it.
View 1: Christians Should Embrace Suffering
Christians that embrace suffering often remind us that persecution will follow the Christian believer per Jesus’ words.
John 15:20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (ESV)
Yes, the cost of discipleship is high. Jesus’ words unequivocally remind us that following Him would not be easy.
Jesus also tells us in his Sermon on the Mount to rejoice and be content in suffering because our reward will be great in heaven.
Matthew 5:10-12 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (ESV)
This idea is echoed by the Pauline epistles (letters written by Paul the Apostle). Paul had suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” and had sought God to relieve him of it. God’s response was simple. His answer was, “No.”
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 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. (ESV)
What This View Gets Right
Per scripture, suffering in this world is to be expected, especially for the Christ-follower. In addition, to living in a world engulfed by corruption and the natural consequences of that corruption, as Christ-followers we will most likely see persecution at various levels because of our faith. Christians that embrace suffering are not wrong in that respect. It is clearly laid out in scripture and it can also serve a purpose.
Suffering, although unpleasant, does produce strength of character and the ability to better adapt to future circumstances. Personally, I don’t wish to undo all the things that I lived through in my childhood. Although difficult and traumatic, I don’t believe I would be the same person today. I don’t think I would have liked the person I would have otherwise become.
The Shortcomings of This View
The primary shortcoming of this view is not so much the underlying doctrine behind it, but the overemphasis on suffering. It tends to lead congregations to glorify suffering itself. At its extreme, it has led Christians to look down upon other Christians who on the surface have not suffered at all or have suffered little.
The overemphasis also leads to a misunderstanding of the underlying reasons why we must strive to be content in suffering. The misunderstanding is not at the theological level by those that define the doctrine, but how everyday believers internalize a constant message of suffering. They walk away with the impression that suffering itself is good. However, if that was the case, there would be suffering in paradise. Suffering is not what God intended and why all of creation will be redeemed.
Revelation 21:4 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. (ESV)
So why should we be content in suffering? Biblically, we must strive to acknowledge our weakness in the midst of suffering so that “the power of Christ may rest on me” as stated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 (above). It is an act of humility to remind ourselves that it isn’t by our own power that we accomplish anything, but by the power of God. The emphasis is on the power of God to get through periods of difficulties. That was at the heart of God allowing Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” to remain.
Ironically, because suffering is so overly emphasized, what gets left out of the conversation by this view is the power of God to change circumstances here on earth. They recognize that God is all-powerful and sovereign, but only to the extent of being able to endure present-day suffering and to accept that everything that happens to us is the will of God. The rationale goes, if it is His will, therefore, we must accept our circumstances and not really seek to change them.Ironically, because suffering is so overly emphasized, what gets left out of the conversation by this view is the power of God to change circumstances here on earth. Click To Tweet
That attitude has a two-fold effect. First, at the doctrinal level, many theologians reject the possibility that miracles initiated by believers, such as were seen in the early church, can happen today. Second, even if at a doctrinal level miracles initiated through the actions or prayers of believers are accepted, at the practical level there is timidity in prayer and a lack of belief that if one prays that an actual miraculous response may come.
For example, a person may pray for a loved one to be healed, but they don’t actually believe that person will be healed. The prayers will then focus more on the efforts of the physicians and the strength to endure. However, rarely when among believers that embrace suffering in this way have I seen confidence that a miraculous response awaits at the end of the prayer for healing. Effectively, this kind of attitude denies the power of God. It is no wonder miracles are often lacking in churches that espouse this doctrine!
Being content in hardship (content in God’s power to see you through it as opposed to the suffering itself) also does not mean that we shouldn’t seek to change it. Jesus himself taught his disciples the following:
Matthew 10:23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (ESV)
However, when a world view glorifies suffering, then many seek not to change it. This can greatly hinder our work or ministry. There are times, just as Jesus identified above, where we must seek to flee from it. Not necessarily to avoid it, but because the painful circumstances can be so constrictive that we are unable to fulfill our God-given purpose. And sometimes it is a physical flight, but sometimes it involves powerful prayers that move mountains and the use of spiritual gifts that are supernatural (more below).
Relevant Article: How to Help Someone Overcome Extreme Suffering
View 2: Christians Should Not Suffer
At the other end of the spectrum is the belief that Christians should not suffer. We have been instilled with the power of the Holy Spirit, resurrection power, and therefore we should be able to change our circumstances by the power of God. The power of believing to receive is central. The “prosperity gospel” falls within this view.
Believing to receive is based on Mark 11:23-24
Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (ESV)
This is also echoed in Matthew 17:20 during a lesson on casting out difficult demons.
He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (ESV)
There are numerous examples within the Gospels and the Book of Acts on how Jesus’ first disciples also performed miracles. They were able to cast out demons, heal the sick, and witnessed angels intervening in supernatural ways. Those that embrace suffering many times claim that those abilities were only given to the early church and no longer available today. Those that reject suffering believe that all of this is available here and now.
Another central tenet of this view is that the lack of belief can affect the results. In Matthew 13:58, referring to Jesus hometown, it says,
And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.(ESV)
Reversely, on several occasions, Jesus mentioned a person’s belief when performing miracles. From scripture, there seems to be a clear connection between belief and results.
What This View Gets Right
Although each side can make their own doctrinal arguments and pull verses to prove their point, I have personally seen believing and receiving in action. I have seen miracles performed right before my eyes. You can read my article, “How Child Like Faith Can Activate Miracles,” to see how God performed a supernatural weather event. Not once, but several times.
Miracles are just as available today as they were in the times of Moses or Jesus when people initiate it. There are churches that hardly ever see supernatural miracles, but there are others where it is commonplace. The stories coming from underground churches are nothing short of astounding. Scripture takes precedence but when you have two doctrines that can both be supported scripturally, you cannot ignore modern-day evidence.
For example, if a doctrine says that it is no longer possible to cast out a demon from a person and another one says it is possible, which one is right? If I see someone cast out a demon then I must lean towards the latter.
I personally saw my parents cast out a demon from my two-year-old daughter. (You can read a little more about that in my blog, “Top Five Spiritual Warfare Books to Read.”) It was an event that shook my husband and me to the core. And although you can make the argument that an adult is “acting,” it is harder to make that argument of a two-year-old, who had never seen that happen before, whose behavior changed dramatically right afterward and who has never been the same since (for the better).
Personally I believe that doctrines that espouse that the “miracle” gifts are no longer available today have the scripturally weaker argument basing it on scripture alone. Although I can’t delve deeper on it right now for the sake of time and space, the scripture is pretty straight forward on the spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:9-10 tells us that God gave various gifts to born-again believers.
… to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (ESV)
To deny that this is able to happen today is to deny the power of God.
What This View Gets Wrong
The problem with those that embrace this view is that they do tend to ignore scriptures about suffering being a part of our life in this corrupted earth. The result is a tendency for believers to glorify the miracle (instead of the miracle worker, God) and to become self-centered. The other problem is that people seek to believe and receive for purely selfish reasons. That is the unfortunate reality of the “prosperity gospel.”
James 4:3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume [it] upon your lusts. (KJV)
“Believing to receive” and the “miracle” gifts were never meant to be used for our own greed or selfishness. That would run completely against the gospel message. When Jesus gave his disciples the words about moving mountains or believing and receiving they were in the context of his training them for their ministries. Did Jesus’ disciples become wealthy men? No, most were martyred. However, they did go on to perform great miracles. For what purpose? For their own glory? Not at all. It was for the sake of spreading the gospel message. It was for reasons outside of themselves.Believing to receive and the "miracle" gifts were never meant to be used for our own greed or selfishness. That would run completely against the gospel message. Click To Tweet
Bottom line: Whatever principles we cling to about believing and receiving and the use of the “miracle” gift should always be for the love of others and more importantly for the love of God. It should be for the sake of the gospel, for us to be successful in our ministries for His Glory, for bringing other people to Christ or easing the suffering of others.
My Experience With Both Views
I wanted to provide a quick note on my experience with both views. I grew up in a church where believing and receiving was a common doctrine. There was even a book on my shelf called, “Christians Should Be Prosperous.” I grew up rejecting suffering and believed that people’s difficulties were the result of their own doing or lack of belief. How wrong I was!
Despite my pride and arrogance, there was something that was common for me back then, I walked with pure confidence in God’s ability to make great things happen. Impossible doors would open. Impossible problems would be resolved. And impossible things would happen for other believers in my Church around me.
Fast forward decades later, and I was surrounded by individuals that overemphasized suffering. My own pride and arrogance quickly became evident and I grew spiritually in that sense, but my faith in God doing the impossible faltered. Fear became more commonplace. I questioned God’s goodness and whether he was actually able to do the things He said He could do in the Bible.
That recently has led me to reflect on suffering and its place in the Christian life. As I prayed and asked God for clarification, the answer I received was this: You need to view suffering from a warrior’s point of view.
The Warrior’s View of Suffering
How can we reconcile the clear scriptures about suffering in this life with those about God performing miracles and Jesus’ doctrine about believing and receiving? A God that can perform miracles can certainly remove suffering from people’s lives, right?
The key is found in 2 Timothy 2:3-4
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
These words were written by Paul towards the end of his life while he was imprisoned. It was a difficult and lonely time. And in that season he encouraged the early church to share in the suffering as a “good soldier.” The wording appears to be allegorical, but it is not.
Ephesians 6:12 confirms that we are in a type of war.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (ESV)
Our war may not be physical, but it is a war nonetheless. So let’s discuss a bit the nature of war and the soldier to help us know where to place suffering in our current context.
In War, Suffering is Inevitable
War is suffering. By its definition, there is conflict and pain and loss are inevitable. Therefore, no soldier goes into the battlefield believing that he will come out without a scratch. At the onset of a battle, even a soldier that has never experienced combat before expects bumps and bruises. Battle-hardened warriors are more realistic and know severe wounds and even death are likely.
In the same way, in this spiritual war that we are in, we should expect to experience outward manifestations of that battle. Unfortunately, what happens in the spiritual, invisible realm plays itself out in a very physical way.In the same way, in this spiritual war that we are in, we should expect to experience outward manifestations of that battle. Unfortunately, what happens in the spiritual, invisible realm plays itself out in a very physical way. Click To Tweet
Causes of Suffering in War
Who initiates the suffering? In war, suffering is initiated by the enemy, the environment, and the commanding officers of the soldier. The enemy inflicts pain to achieve his objective regardless of the consequences to those in his path.
The environment can also cause suffering and it becomes an obstacle the soldier must navigate, overcome, and endure. For example, bad weather such as extreme heat or cold can make the warrior’s mission almost unbearable.
Finally, the soldier’s own officers may inflict pain to train the soldier in preparation for the battlefield. They will make him go through grueling training so that he is not caught off guard during combat. Ask any SEER school or RANGER graduate just how painful and torturous that experience can be.
Causes of Suffering in This Life
Do you see the connection? Suffering in this life sometimes comes at the hand of Satan, our enemy. He has no love for us and will inflict as much pain as possible whenever he can to achieve his own evil objectives. Satan can cause someone to get sick for example.
Suffering can also be caused by our environment, the corrupt nature of our own bodies, and the world. In other words, we may get sick because of a genetic defect in our bodies.
Finally, there are times when God will allow or initiate suffering as he did for Paul. Why? To train us to depend on Him and to train us for the spiritual war by pruning, forming, and shaping us. Because he knows that in this war we may have to endure bigger and greater obstacles as our ministries grow bigger and move into more dangerous territories. He is, therefore, preparing us for “such a time as this.”
The Weapons of Warfare
Even though a soldier expects to suffer, no soldier goes into the battlefield without his weapons or proper defenses. He also does not enter the battlefield with a defeatist attitude. He can’t as it is paramount to suicide. If he walks across “no man’s” land with his weapons down and inoperable defenses, he will be cut down.
In the same way, Christians who do not use the tools that God has given them will be tossed about to and fro. They will suffer needlessly. If I had chosen to believe that my daughter’s suffering was “God’s will” and had not allowed my parents to cast out the demon that was tormenting her, she would still be walking around today with that cloud over her. She would have suffered and our family would have suffered because of it. We would have needlessly allowed the pain to continue that was easily overcome with spiritual tools.
Even though there is nothing a soldier can do to prevent the suffering invoked by his commanding officer for his training, there is plenty that he can do against the enemy and to shape his environment. The same for the Christian. There is nothing we can do to free ourselves from suffering God has allowed for our training, but there is plenty we can do against the enemy and to shape our spiritual environment as we did with our daughter.
What are some of the things that we can do and what are those spiritual tools?
- The Faith of a mustard seed to move mountains.
- Believing to receive when we pray.
- Spiritual gifts to include supernatural ones.
- Casting out demons.
- Using the truth of God’s word.
- Armor of God as found in Ephesians 6.
- That is not an all-inclusive list, but it is a good place to start.
A Practical Example of a Warriors View of Suffering
A perfect example of learning to be patient in suffering and yet using the tools at our disposal is found in James 5:7-20. It summarizes suffering in the Bible.
This section of scripture begins by encouraging the Christian believer to be patient in the midst of difficulty and then asks them to look at the prophets of old as an example.
James 5:10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. (ESV)
Many of God’s prophets suffered greatly and were persecuted. We cannot deny that and we must learn from their example.
However, the discourse does not end with exhortations to be patient. That is not the end of the story. The discourse is quickly followed by instructions to pray in faith and it gives an example of what prayer of faith looks like. He mentions how Elijah prayed fervently that it might not rain, and it didn’t and then prayed again and it did. That was a prayer that produced miracles, and yet how many of us truly believe that we will see miracles when we pray?
Relevant Article: How Child-Like Faith Can Activate Miracles
We do not want to be Christians that overemphasize suffering and deny the power of God. We also don’t want to be Christians that walk around using the tools God gave us and deny the war that we are in.
So onward Christian soldier, walk believing in the power of God today. Yes, expect to suffer as we are in a spiritual war. But also expect miracles. Pray with the expectation of seeing God’s power unfold before you.
A good place to start: Top Five Spiritual Warfare Books to Read