As I think back to painful times in my life, the weight often feels very fresh. Emotions rise to the surface and memories replay in technicolor hues. Because the good world God created is now broken, each of us has a unique lived experience of this brokenness. While God has graciously spared me from agonizing physical suffering, I have at times felt the crushing blows of mental and emotional anguish. During those times, God felt very distant, and it was perplexingly difficult to understand why He chose to leave me in my circumstances. I knew without a doubt that He could reach down, pluck me up, and rescue me if He wanted to, so why didn’t He? I’ve watched friends and loved ones experience tragedy that made no sense to me. Lives cut short, jobs lost, property devastated by natural disaster, bodies ravaged by disease. Why would people who were serving others, loving God, and making His name known be subjected to such pain and sorrow? Why are innocent lives destroyed through no fault of their own? Why does God allow injustice to continue? Why doesn’t He choose to immediately wipe away every tear and eliminate all pain? Isaiah 55:8-13 provides the clearest yet still difficult to grasp answer, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.’ This is the Lord’s declaration.‘For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
Wise theologians and brilliant philosophers have attempted to solve the problem of evil with its subsequent suffering and pain since the beginning of time. C.S. Lewis famously said in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God does tend to awaken something in us through suffering. Difficult experiences in my life make more sense to me as I think about them in terms of a visual metaphor and view them through three different lenses: a magnifying glass, a projector, and a telescope. The first helps me look inward to see how sanctification is God’s end goal for me. The second directs my view outward and illuminates the fallenness of the world. The third casts my gaze upward and makes me long for the sweetness of eternity in heaven.
Personal suffering often leads me to focus on myself. My pain can cause me to become introspective and engage in self-examination, reminiscent of how a magnifying glass functions. This type of convex lens causes light rays to be refracted inward in order to enlarge things that may be difficult to see with the naked eye. The Psalmist says in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” God can use painful experiences to help me see my own heart more clearly and understand better how my sin contributes to the fallenness in the world. In his book Why Does God Allow Evil, Clay Jones says that as we encounter evil on earth, we are learning lessons about the stupidity of sin that will benefit us in eternity. If I suffer well through the inescapable consequences of my own sin and the sin in the world around me, God can use these experiences to sanctify me. His ultimate purpose is to prepare me to live in eternity with Him and be free from the repercussions of evil. While they may seem unbearable at times, we can be certain that our light and momentary afflictions are serving God’s greater purposes in our lives as He prepares us to be participants in His eternal kingdom (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
When I think about the fallenness all around me, I’m reminded of how a projector works by using a concave lens to cause light rays to diverge out into the distance. It takes images that start out small and makes them bigger. Looking through this lens, I see how brokenness is not only present in my own heart but is broadcast out into the world. I become acutely aware of the universal problem of sin that infects every person. God’s perfect and good creation was marred by the fateful choice to elevate the will of the creature above that of the Creator (Genesis 3). The effects of that single decision have roared like a riptide through human history ever since, causing unspeakable atrocities among fellow image bearers. Dr. Thaddeus Williams says in his book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth that this longing to elevate ourselves above God is the root cause of all other injustices in the world. When we fail to give God His due first, the dominoes topple over and we quickly fall short in treating those who bear His image with kindness and dignity. Even the natural world experiences the effects of the fall. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:22-23, “For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. Not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits—we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” While we inhabit this earthly realm we will experience the results of brokenness both through our interactions with other people and in the natural world through disaster and disease, but praise God for the redemption and hope we are promised in Christ.
Suffering also functions like a telescope for me. Telescopes have a narrow, but extremely focused field of view. They work by collecting light rays from a distant object and bringing them together into a precisely defined point. As we are sanctified and suffer well through the inevitable consequences of the world’s fallenness, God’s character and His eternal purposes come sharply into focus like brilliant light from a far away star. We experience attributes in Him that sustain us no matter the circumstance. Through suffering I can see more clearly that He is:
- All-powerful, so I don’t need to wonder whether or not He can handle the pain in my life. Oh, Lord God! You yourself made the heavens and earth by your great power and with your outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for you! (Jeremiah 32:17)
- Good, so I know that He has my eternal benefit in mind, even in suffering. You are good, and you do what is good; teach me your statutes. (Psalm 119:68)
- Just, so I am assured that evil and wrongdoing will be punished when He sees fit. When I choose a time, I will judge fairly. When the earth and all its inhabitants shake, I am the one who steadies its pillars. (Psalm 75:2-3)
- All-knowing, so I am confident that nothing escapes His notice. Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up; you understand my thoughts from far away. You observe my travels and my rest; you are aware of all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know all about it, Lord. You have encircled me; you have placed your hand on me. This wondrous knowledge is beyond me. It is lofty; I am unable to reach it (Psalm 139:1-6)
- Ever-present, so I am comforted to know that He is with me in whatever circumstance I may face. Where can I go to escape your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I fly on the wings of the dawn and settle down on the western horizon, even there your hand will lead me; your right hand will hold on to me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will be night”— even the darkness is not dark to you. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to you. (Psalm 139:7-12)
Speaking to His disciples before He was betrayed and arrested, Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) Pain is promised as we struggle against the spiritual forces of evil that surround us, the sin that resides within our hearts, and the fallenness of the world around us. As followers of Christ, we can be assured that our sovereign and faithful Heavenly Father does not waste even one second of it, but uses it to sanctify, comfort, and prepare us for an eternity with Him.