On Our Hope in Suffering

May 30th, 2008

Michael Patton at Parchment and Pen has posted an email from one of his readers, who is struggling with the question of suffering, and whether God is there.  My comment ended up being too long to post, so I’m posting it here.



First, I would encourage anyone struggling with suffering  anyone who may struggle with suffering anyone to listen to D.A. Carson’s two sermons On Evil and Suffering (pt 1, pt 2). (I just found online notes on both the first and the second sermons.) I think his insights are very helpful for learning to think “Christianly” about suffering–in the way that sustains you in very hard times.  (Note: One point he makes is that it’s important to think about these things before we encounter suffering–it’s much harder to process these things when you’re in the midst of it.)

Second, you (the writer of the email) said:

I found it ironic that your biography page on the Parchment and Pen blog lists “A Mighty Fortress” as, apparently, a song that you like. I’ve reached the point where I just can’t sing that song, because it feels so false. I used to think that God would essentially protect his children from any major suffering, but I now realize that that is not true.

I agree; it is not true that God will protect his children from any major suffering. If you have been taught to expect that God would, that’s not good.  I don’t think that is what God has promised us.

Scripture teaches that this world is fallen, with much evil and suffering. It teaches us about how God works in us through suffering; and Paul talks about learning to be content in all circumstances. He says, “I can do all things through him who strenghtens me,” not, “I will not face hardship.” On the contrary, he speaks of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

I wonder what about “A Mighty Fortress” seems false. I suppose it is the opening lines, “Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing”. In the midst of pain, I see how that could ring false. But… I think you are misunderstanding the hymn.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

When we sing “A Mighty Fortress”, we are not looking to God to avoid pain and loss; we are looking to him to carry us through. We are looking forward to the redemption of all creation.

Please, read through Romans 8, taking the time to feel the suffering and pain and hope:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

We groan; we suffer; we are killed; we know pain and need and trials. But God is with us; he helps us in our weakness–not giving us easy lives, but working all history to our good, to bring us through to the end, to the hope that does not disappoint.

Our hope and joy in Christ. Our satisfaction and rest in him–in the face of such suffering–shows the glory God to the world. (Please see John Piper’s words on the health, wealth, & prosperity gospel; they are applicable, and moving.)

Update: I want to add one thing.  I have to confess that it is very easy for me to write these things.  I have never experienced the kind of suffering that would put me to the test.  I don’t know how I would do.  I can say that I understand what Paul meant when he said that he had learned the secret of being content in every circumstance.  But really, I don’t know if my trust in God runs that deep. I hope it does.  I hope that I would value Christ above any sufferings and pain.  When I look at my heart… I just don’t know.  I pray that God will teach me and change me.

So I don’t want to seem as though I am speaking from prideful self-righteousness, with no sympathy for those who mourn and struggle.  But I also don’t want my own failings & weakness to prevent me from speaking and sharing the Word that God has given us.  I want to mourn with those who mourn, and I want to point them to Christ, who sustains.  And I pray that the Spirit would work in us, so that we would live and breathe the reality of these words:

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.  (Eph. 1:15-23)

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4 Responses to “On Our Hope in Suffering”

  1. Last night a friend and I were studying John Murray’s Redemption and discussing how it is and why it is that Jesus learned discipline through the things that he suffered. As Hebrews enlightens us, the discipling of a son requires suffering just as Christ suffered. He to the point of blood, meaning that his entire life was marked by it, we suffer no where near what he did. But, it is more than that, the idea of suffering is that same idea of bearing a load. So Paul encourages us in that he claims to fill up in his person the sufferings of the Lord that were lacking, and that towards others. We are to bear one anothers burdens, suffer with them as we in our own turn suffer so that no one in the body is without the grief of all others. The amazing thing is that some now who we do not know suffer things unspeakable so that others do not. What price has been paid for our comforts by them and who they were we will not know until we all know one another as we are known by Him.

    It has become a sad day that we no longer endure nor even think that we should. As many have remarked, what characterizes this generation of western civilization most of all is the narcissism, the expectation of self- pleasing comfort, fulfillment and significance. Far from that is the description of what marked the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11.

    If Christ so endured the calamities of this life as a servant (doulos) offering himself to suffer our burden, what then should be our attititude: Philippians 2:1-18

  2. Will says:

    C’mon, Tim – update this thing! I demand fresh content!

  3. Will says:

    Tim, seriously. Stop working and update your blog!

  4. Tim says:

    OK, Will! I finally gave you a new post.