A Tale of Grief
Several centuries ago, there lived a wealthy man reputed to be the greatest in the ancient Near East. He was so rich he had multitudes of livestock, thousands of camels, and a vast number of servants, as well as a large family of ten children.
Then one day, everything changed.
He lost everything within 24 hours. First it was the livestock. A band of raiders carted them away and killed all the servants. Then the camels were stolen away by robbers from a neighbouring tribe. Finally, his children were killed when a storm ripped through the house where they were all feasting. Later, the man himself was stricken with a disease which left him covered with boils.
Those familiar with the Bible can readily recognize this as the story of Job. The pain, the misery, and the grief he felt have been discussed throughout Christian history. And we can’t help wondering how such sorrow can ever be considered a gift.
The Goal of Pain
While scripture does not minimize the grievousness of human suffering, it points us to a purpose behind it. Affliction and misery originate from humanity’s rebellion in the garden, yet God works through it for his glory and our good. And there are at least three ways in which this works out.
1. Suffering reveals the genuineness of our faith. God boasted about Job’s faith and allowed Satan to test him not because the faith wasn’t there, but because it was. It is easy to say one is a Christian when everything is fine, and Satan himself laid this charge against Job before God. But God allows affliction to show to us and the world that our faith is true. We do not worship God because of what we hope to get from him, but because we see him as worthy of our love and trust.
And we see that in Job’s reaction to his situation. In the midst of his tragedy, he ‘fell on the ground and worshiped’ (Job 1:20).
True faith is most clearly discovered in affliction.
2. It unveils God to us – God will always come through. Without any affliction, a life of faith can seem like mere routine. And we can easily slide into doubt whether God really exists or not.
We see this in the experiences of God’s people throughout history.
When Job had passed through his affliction, God eventually showed up (Job 38) and restored all he had twice over.
Jacob struggled with God and eventually had his thigh dislocated. However, the result of the encounter was that he saw God and received a new name (Genesis 32:22-32).
The Israelites were in Egypt for 400 years under affliction by the Egyptians, and God came to their rescue. Even the sufferings that the Israelites experienced on account of their sins still brought about a disclosure of God when they repented.
And in the early church, the persecutions by King Herod and Saul served to unveil God in a powerful way. It brought down Herod himself, it brought about the conversion of Saul, and it dramatically led to the growth and spread of the church across the region.
In this life, we don’t see God in person. We see him through his works. And deliverance from suffering is a major way by which we see God at work.
God has promised that he will never leave nor forsake us. This means he will always show up. You can count on it.
3. Finally, afflictions draw us to God thus aiding our sanctification. James asked believers to rejoice in trials because it leads to their steadfastness (James 1:2-4). It brings us to rest in God as our deliverer and saviour. Joseph’s captivity was God’s plan to preserve his family and God’s people (Genesis 50:20). However, the experience itself was a powerful force in shaping Joseph’s own character.
And we see a similar reaction in Job. While grieving his loss and contending with misunderstanding friends, he professed an unyielding faith in God: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15).
Reflecting on this sober theme, the Puritan pastor Thomas Watson once wrote:
“Affliction teaches us to know ourselves. In prosperity we are for the most part strangers to ourselves. God makes us know affliction, that we may better know ourselves. We see that corruption in our hearts in the time of affliction, which we would not believe was there. “
God uses suffering to bend us in the right direction. He sets our motives aright and refines our desires.
To quote Watson again,
“As we sometimes hold a crooked rod over the fire to straighten it; so God holds us over the fire of affliction to make us more straight and upright. “
And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that God is treating us as his children when we go through such afflictions (Hebrews 12:7-11), with the intention of producing ‘the peaceable fruit of righteousness’. David likewise remarked in Psalm 119:71 that affliction had made him learn God’s revelation, a lesson he probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
A Christian Response
In light of scripture, how then can we best respond to suffering? Here are some guidelines:
- If you are a believer, understand that your circumstance is not outside of God’s knowledge and control. It is really from the hands of your loving father. And he will never leave you nor forsake you.
- It is OK to grieve. Jesus genuinely wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). And the writer of Hebrews points out that he feels our infirmities. However, grieve in faith and hope, as you await the day when all grieving will end.
- Resist the urge to retreat inward; look for opportunities to serve others. It is possible to get submerged in our pains and wallow in self-pity. Prayerfully seek opportunities to help others and thus take the focus off yourself.
Suffering is an anomaly; it is not a part of God’s original design for us. Yet, since the Fall, God works through it to manifest his glory and secure our holiness. No greater suffering has been experienced than the pain Christ took upon himself two millennia ago. And that pain was endured in order to end all misery. We live today in hope of the final victory from that sacrifice.