May 2, 2014 Broadcast

Understanding Suffering

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Sooner or later, each of us will encounter suffering in our personal lives. When it comes, how will we handle it? Some people try to deny its existence. Others face it head on. Still others find themselves paralyzed by the haunting question, Why me? In this lesson, Dr. Sproul looks at several common responses to suffering and explains how the Bible calls us to react differently.

From the series: Dealing With Difficult Problems

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Together in Suffering

  2. article

    Suffering and the Glory of God

  3. devotional

    Understanding Suffering

Together in Suffering

R.C. Sproul Jr.

It is perhaps the deepest challenge and, in turn, the greatest lesson for a man when those whom he loves suffer. Everyone is tempted to wonder about God's will and the why of suffering. Everyone tastes the bitterness of that first fruit, pleasing as it was to the eyes and desirable to make one wise. Everyone feels the sting of suffering, the shared pain of shared lives. But a man, a husband, a father—he feels something else: impotence. There comes, when the doctor gingerly delivers the bad news, a horrible, gnawing, piercing pain because you are the fixer, and you can't fix it. You are the hero, encased in kryptonite. Those who look to you, who hope in you, discover the dreadful truth that your knowledge, your strength, and your will are insufficient, wanting. Worse still, you run headlong into the same truth: You have failed.

As strategy after strategy failed and as each new step in her fight against cancer came with longer and longer odds, I wanted nothing more than to give my dear wife hope, a reason to believe that she could get better, that as bad as it all was, we could together get through it. We, naturally, spoke quite a bit about Jesus. I reminded her that Jesus reigns, that He does all His holy will. I reminded her that Jesus had suffered greatly, only to be exalted to the right hand of the Father. I reminded her that Jesus loved her with an everlasting, immutable, and unstoppable love. He was the answer to my weakness.

But there was still a weakness in my understanding. There was one promise I longed to make to her, one beautiful thought that I thought would warm and comfort her. One thing I had purposed in my heart as this journey began, however—I would not tell her a lie. I knew that if she could not trust me to tell her the truth, that even the truths I told her could offer no comfort. So while I told her Jesus had suffered even greater hardship, I would not tell her that He had trod her exact path, that He had experienced exactly the hardship she was going through. That is exactly where I went wrong.

It is a good and glorious thing to remember what our union with Christ means in terms of our justification. That our sin is imputed to Him and His righteousness imputed to us is no legal fiction, as Rome accuses, precisely because of the reality of our union with Him. He really was guilty because He really was one with us. We really are innocent because we really are one with Him.

It is a good and glorious thing to remember what our union with Christ means in terms of our glorification. His work did not merely acquire for us a verdict of not guilty. Rather, because we are in union with Him, we are joint heirs with Him. The glory that is His in His resurrection is ours. The glory that is His in His ascension is ours. We are even now, because we are in union with Him, seated with Him in the heavenly places. We are kings and queens even now because we are one with Him—the One who reigns over all.

There is, however, more still. Remember that Jesus, when He met Saul on the road to Damascus, did not ask, "Why are you persecuting My bride?" but "Why are you persecuting Me?" He, in union with us, so identifies with us, that what we suffer, He suffers. Because we are one flesh, what one half suffers the other does as well. Because of our union with Him, Jesus suffered from acute myeloid leukemia. Because of our union with Him, Jesus went into remission after a successful bone marrow transplant. Because of our union with Him, Jesus relapsed. Because of our union with Him, Jesus' clinical trial was unable to slow the deadly progression of the disease. Because of our union with Him, He was unable to try more chemotherapy because His kidneys began to fail. Because of our union with Jesus, Jesus went into hospice, said goodbye to His friends, to His parents, His sister and brother, and to His little children. Because of our union with Jesus, Jesus said goodbye to the man who loved her forever and always. And because of our union with Jesus, Jesus, one with me, sat helpless while His bride waltzed into eternity.

Jesus, however, was raised from the dead. With Him was raised my beloved and with Him was raised my hope. Because she is in union with Him, she has found the fullness of the kingdom, and His righteousness is now all her own. Furthermore, because I am in union with Him, though I see through a glass darkly, I am there to dance with her. Because I am in union with Him, I got to be there when Jesus and Denise welcomed our little girl Shannon to eternal rest.

We are called to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. By His grace, we know that in His grace, His kingdom and His righteousness has been seeking us. But even that is not the utmost glory of the kingdom. The great glory of the kingdom is the glory of the King. For the King and His kingdom are one, even as we and the King are one. Rest and rejoice. Give thanks and give praise.

Suffering and the Glory of God

R.C. Sproul

I once visited with a woman who was dying from uterine cancer. She was greatly distressed, but not only from her physical ailment. She explained to me that she had had an abortion when she was a young woman, and she was convinced that her disease was a direct consequence of that. In short, she believed cancer was the judgment of God on her.

The usual pastoral response to such an agonizing question from someone in the throes of death is to say the affliction is not a judgment of God for sin. But I had to be honest, so I told her that I did not know. Perhaps it was God's judgment, but perhaps it was not. I cannot fathom the secret counsel of God or read the invisible hand of His providence, so I did not know why she was suffering. I did know, however, that whatever the reason for it, there was an answer for her guilt. We talked about the mercy of Christ and of the cross, and she died in faith.

The question that woman raised is asked every day by people who are suffering affliction. It is addressed in one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. In John 9, we read: "As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him'" (vv. 1–3).

Why did Jesus' disciples suppose that the root cause of this man's blindness was his sin or his parents' sin? They certainly had some basis for this assumption, for the Scriptures, from the account of the fall onward, make it clear that the reason suffering, disease, and death exist in this world is sin. The disciples were correct that somehow sin was involved in this man's affliction. Also, there are examples in the Bible of God causing affliction because of specific sins. In ancient Israel, God afflicted Moses' sister, Miriam, with leprosy because she questioned Moses' role as God's spokesman (Num. 12:1–10). Likewise, God took the life of the child born to Bathsheba as a result of David's sin (2 Sam. 12:14–18). The child was punished, not because of anything the child did, but as a direct result of God's judgment on David.

However, the disciples made the mistake of particularizing the general relationship between sin and suffering. They assumed there was a direct correspondence between the blind man's sin and his affliction. Had they not read the book of Job, which deals with a man who was innocent and yet was severely afflicted by God? The disciples erred in reducing the options to two when there was another alternative. They posed their question to Jesus in an either/or fashion, committing the logical fallacy of the false dilemma, assuming that the sin of the man or the sin of the man's parents was the cause of his blindness.

The disciples also seem to have assumed that anyone who has an affliction suffers in direct proportion to the sin that has been committed. Again, the book of Job dashes that conclusion, for the degree of suffering Job was called to bear was astronomical compared with the suffering and afflictions of others far more guilty than he was.

We must never jump to the conclusion that a particular incidence of suffering is a direct response or in direct correspondence to a person's particular sin. The story of the man born blind makes this point.

Our Lord answered the disciples' question by correcting their false assumption that the man's blindness was a direct consequence of his or his parents' sin. He assured them that the man was born blind not because God was punishing the man or the man's parents. There was another reason. And because there was another reason in this case, there might always be another reason for the afflictions God calls us to endure.

Jesus answered His disciples by saying, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him" (v. 3). What did He mean? Simply put, Jesus said that the man was born blind so that Jesus might heal him at the appointed time, as a testimony to Jesus' power and divinity. Our Lord displayed His identity as the Savior and the Son of God in this healing.

When we suffer, we must trust that God knows what He is doing, and that He works in and through the pain and afflictions of His people for His glory and for their sanctification. It is hard to endure lengthy suffering, but the difficulty is greatly alleviated when we hear our Lord explaining the mystery in the case of the man born blind, whom God called to many years of pain for Jesus' glory.

Understanding Suffering

Christian or not, suffering remains an inevitable result of living in this world. Human beings often find themselves asking “why?” any time they encounter a terminal illness, a child with birth defects, unjust imprisonment, or any other such tragedy.

Non-Christians have offered several answers to this question, and it is helpful to examine some of them since these replies can influence us. Some non-believers adopt a docetic view of suffering, which denies the reality of pain altogether. Suffering is merely an illusion in this view. The docetic view is held by the Christian Science cult, and it has many affinities with the teachings of Eastern religions.

Our culture has embraced the hedonistic view of suffering more than any other. This worldview seeks to reduce pain and acquire pleasure, at any cost. To dull their physical and emotional pain, men and women turn to sexual infidelity, illegal drugs, gluttony, and other sinful behaviors believing that “if it feels nice, don’t think twice.”

The stoic view of suffering says that we have no control over what happens to us externally. All we can do is choose how we will respond internally; the goal here is to let nothing bother us. We should do our best “to keep a stiff upper lip” and to “let nothing get us down.”

Evangelicals have probably been most affected by the stoic view. Regrettably, we are often prone to minimizing the reality of our grief and will act as if the proper way to face suffering is to pretend nothing of any consequence has happened. But this is not the approach of Jesus; after all, John recorded that He wept (John 11:35). It is not sinful to mourn the loss of a loved one or to admit our pain.

Christians ask God “why?” when we suffer, and sometimes we find that it results from the Lord’s discipline (Heb. 12:3–17). However, Job’s life shows us suffering is not always due to our sin. And as with Job, God may not tell us the “why” of our pain in every case.

God is not obligated to give us the reason for our suffering. Still, whether He is disciplining us or not, we know He is always with us in our pain (Ps. 23:4) to use our suffering for good, redemptive ends and to bring glory to Himself (Rom. 8:28).

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