Why is there Pain and Suffering?

Joe Crews and Richard Anthony

Some of the most inspiring accounts in scripture of our loving Father's faithfulness are revealed in the meteoric rise of Elijah the prophet. Like a shooting star, our Father brought him out of obscurity and changed the character of a whole nation in a very short time.

Little is known about the background of this blessed vessel of the Lord. Called of God from the rugged mountains of Gilead, he walked into the palace of King Ahab while apostasy was at its darkest point. Fired by a holy indignation, he confronted the wicked ruler of Israel with words of judgment, "There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word" (1 Kings 17:1).

After delivering his inspired message, the courageous prophet was commanded by God to hide himself in the eastern wilderness by the brook Cherith. There Almighty God arranged providentially for ravens to deliver food to the isolated fugitive during the predicted years of famine.

As the land baked and cracked under the withering heat of the sun, every green plant died for lack of water. But Elijah was well supplied, morning and evening, by the miraculous ministry of the ravens. In addition to the bread and flesh brought by the birds, the Father provided plenty of refreshing water from the splashing brook which flowed nearby.

What a true witness of Almighty God's power and willingness to care for the physical needs of His faithful servant at a time of utter devastation in the land! With great joy we contemplate that scene of restful abundance and deliverance from a wicked nation. The prophet had no problems. Everywhere else the disobedient were suffering from the terror of the draught, but God would not let His obedient child lack for anything. Without fail, the ravens flew in twice a day with their fare of food and the brook was always yielding its life-giving supply of water.

Haven't we seen the same kind of providence in our own day? The God of Elijah still takes care of the needs of His children. The prophet was walking in the center of God's will, and the promised blessings never failed. Or did they?

Let's read on in the biblical account: "And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up" (1 Kings 17:6-7).

Oh, the shock and disappointment Elijah must have experienced when he walked out to the brook to get his daily water supply. He looked down upon the dry, brown stones of the brook-bed and could scarcely believe what he saw. Not a drop of water remained. A terrible thing had overtaken him - the brook had dried up!

We have no way of knowing how long God tested His prophet by the barren brook. For a time, at least, Elijah had to wait in faith. It probably seemed that all the promises were failing. God had abandoned him to an agonizing death in the parched wilderness. But as he lingered and listened, God spoke these words, "Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee" (1 Kings 17:9).

In this, we see how God closed one door so that He could open another one. Elijah had been there long enough. God had another mission waiting for him in Zarephath. God provided the brook, and God dried it up. It would have been error for the prophet to have remained longer in the wilderness. Life was moving on. In the dynamics of divine Providence, it was ordained that another miracle was to be revealed through Elijah in another place. Had the brook not dried up, he would have stayed there. He would have relaxed in the satisfying fullness of material blessing. But he would have missed the witness of the widow's cruse and God's healing of her son, the faithful challenge at Carmel, etc.

Remember, God's brooks always dry up. He doesn't desire us to stay in the same place all the time. That is our great problem. Too many sit by their comfortable brook, surrounded by peaceful plenty, and want to rest there the remainder of their days. Then, when God allows the brook to dry up, we often weep and blame God for afflicting us.

Was Elijah backsliding when the brook dried up on him? No, he was growing spiritually. Zarephath was many times more wonderful than Cherith. But please take note that God closed up Cherith before He revealed Zarephath. Faith had to be tested. There is always a time in everyone's life when everything looks absolutely hopeless. It happened with Elijah and it will happen to us.

The Eternal 'Why?'

How many times do we stand with people beside their dried-up brooks trying to help them see that the world has not come to an end? One of the hardest questions for us to answer is "Why?" Why did my baby die? Why did I lose my job? Why are my children so unconcerned about spiritual things? Why did my companion abandon me for another?

Under the emotional stress of loss, many tend to blame God for making some "terrible mistake" in dealing with their lives. It is so human to do this because human nature is blinding to those who refuse complete submission to the Will of the Father.

Did you mourn when you read the story of Joseph for the first time? He had been so happy and carefree. Then, suddenly, his brook dried up. He was on the way to Egypt as a slave. How Jacob grieved for that lost boy! We can hear him moaning, "Simeon is not and Joseph is gone. Now you want to take Benjamin from me. Everything is against me" (Genesis 42:36).

How familiar it sounds. Poor Jacob couldn't see through the "whys" any more than we can. But a little while later we see him on his camel, hurrying toward Egypt. His heart was overflowing with joy. Another brook had broken forth in his life. And then we hear Joseph saying to his brothers, "Ye thought evil against me: but God meant it unto good" (Genesis 50:20).

It is so easy to look back as Joseph did that day and confess that the disappointments have really been our Father's appointments. Why can't we have the faith to stand by our dried-up brooks and make that confession? Someday in the future every redeemed soul will do it in retrospect. Our Heavenly Father delights in those who will take Him at His word and claim the promise of Romans 8:28 even while the heart is breaking with sorrow. "All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."

The Fires of Affliction

Scripture is laced with texts about the spiritual blessings of suffering. Peter said to "think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you" (1 Peter 4:12). Paul assures us that "all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12). And James makes the incredible statement, "Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience" (James 1:2-3).

In the light of these and many more similar truths in His Word, we must confess that there are mysterious blessings associated with trials and suffering. James witnesses to us that tribulations build up the very faith required to enter into the Kingdom. In Revelation the saints are described in these words: "Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus" (Revelation 14:12).

Obviously, patience is a requirement for those who are redeemed out of this world. And James witnesses to us that patience is developed by tests and trials. This clearly teaches us that suffering for the Lord's sake is a prepatory blessing.

David, who also suffered much, came to this truth: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes" (Psalms 119:71). Again, he wrote, "Before I was afflicted I went astray" (Psalm 119:67).

Until a professed servant of the Lord learns this simple truth, he will live in a ferment of doubt and uncertainty. Every experience of disappointment will raise fresh questions concerning God's justice and love. Too many "Christians" hold the childish view that because they have accepted Jesus and because He loves them, therefore, He will use His mighty power to preserve us from every pain and trial. That worldly view is not found in the Word of God. Our brother Paul makes this quite clear:

1 Corinthians 4:11-14, "Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you."

The inspired record reveals that because He loves us, He will often permit us to pass through the fires of affliction. Why does He do it? Because He sees that this is the only way to prepare us to be with Him for eternity. He is actually answering the prayers of those who have asked for purification of life. When we pray for Him to eradicate sin from our life, we must be ready to accept His ordained method of accomplishing that work. It is not for us to question it. Grinding trials appear to be part of the machinery by which sanctification is effected. And even though we may be persecuted, it's for His purposes.

It is quite possible that more "Christians" have lost their faith over this issue than any other. Every faithful teacher, preacher, and pastor have watched and prayed with His suffering people as they struggled with the "why" of their dried-up brook.

Not even the most consecrated believer can be insulated from shock and grief when loved ones are taken by death. But they can be prepared ahead of time so that their faith will not give way under the stress of loss.

We must rest upon the assurance that God will not permit any circumstance that is not for our best good. This requires faith, but it is not difficult to trust the One who died for us. We must continually reminding ourselves that God may allow many occurances in our lives which will seem like terrible tragedies at the time. We will not be able to discern any logic or reason behind the events. Human faculties may rebel at the very thought that any good could ever result from such circumstances, but this separates one from the knowledge of God.

Here is where we must cling to the Word of God and nothing else. This is the dividing place between the mature and immature follower of Christ Jesus. The loss will either drive us closer to Him, or cause us to turn from Him. At this point, everything depends upon the relationship which has been developed prior to the crisis. Only those who have understood and accepted, through faith, the eternal truth that God's love will not allow any trial or tribulation which is not for their best good - only those will truly trust in and remain in the Lord.

Purposes for Trusting

We know that faith alone will hold us in times of trials and tribulation. Nevertheless, our faith is not blind. We have a more than sufficient record of His unfailing love and concern for all of His children, not only in our Father's written Word, but those tests which we have already been through. Why should the next test be any different? Even though we may not understand it, we know that we can trust Him who has promised. If His Word has never failed before, how could it fail the next time? Then, like Job, we can say, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15).

Here we may learn a lesson from the trustful manner in which parents surrender their children into the hands of a surgeon. How can they submit that beloved child to the cutting of that knife and the throbbing pain which inevitably follows? Two factors make it easy for them to place such confidence in the doctor. They trust his skill and ability to operate successfully, and they have faith in his wisdom to do the right thing at the right time for the good of their child. They also know that after the temporary suffering is past that the child will be better off than it was before the pain.

If so many are able to trust a human physician who often fails, why do they find it so difficult to trust a divine One who never fails? Children would ever choose to be operated on, no matter how serious the condition. It is only because of the greater knowledge of their case that the parents submit them to the surgery. In the same manner, we would never choose to experience the trials and afflictions which our heavenly Father often allows to come upon us. He understands the case completely and knows that after the temporary pain we will be better prepared for a what he has in store for us.

And here is a beautiful parallel in that illustration: Even though a parent believes that his child will be greatly improved as a result of the cutting, he still suffers right along with his child. He sits up during the long hours of the night, holding his hand and ministering to every possible need.

Don't believe for one moment that our wonderful Father in heaven doesn't do the same thing for us. Like a small child, we may cry over the pain and blame our Father for allowing the cutting to be done. But we are unable to understand His decision for our lives as it is for a child to comprehend the decisions of their parents.

It would be an overwhelming revelation to see ourselves without God's mysterious permissions, painful though they be. Only when we see Jesus face to face in immortality will we be able to fully praise Him for allowing things to be just exactly as He would have them.

Can you look back upon certain shattering experiences in your past and recognize how they altered the entire direction of your life? In them, it can be easily seen that any significant change in those disappointing events could have sent you in a totally opposite direction. We should tremble to think what our lives might now be had God not measured out to us those bitter lessons.

Chosen from Eternity

If indeed the hardships are required to prepare us for entrance into His eternal Kingdom, then they should be looked upon as a part of His great election for our salvation. Isaiah wrote, "Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction" (Isaiah 48:10).

What a difference it makes in our spiritual walk if we can see suffering as a sign of God's special choice for us to spend eternity with Him. He loved us before we were born, and according to Paul, "He hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love" (Ephesians 1:4).

Can anyone fully appreciate that truth? You are one upon whom the eye of God has rested from eternity. Through all those eons of time, His divine Wisdom has been perfecting a detailed plan for your sanctification and ultimate salvation. As you submit to Him, He will certainly perform only what has been determined as absolutely essential to carry out His plan for your life. If that plan allows for heartaches here and there, and even apparent disasters from time to time, God will never permit more than we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). He will be there to measure and temper the furnace according to our strength and according to our need.

Does that sound like a contrived explanation for the problem of pain and affliction? It will, no doubt, to those who believe in themselves and their world, and not in Almighty God. They scoff at the idea that a loving, omnipotent Creator would not intervene to spare His children from all trouble and pain. They continue to attempt to save themselves, thereby forsaking "the fountain of living waters, having hewn them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jeremiah 2:13).

Often the believer is hard-pressed to justify the apparent arbitrary manner in which some suffer and some are spared. How can we respond to the accusation that a just God would protect all His people from all trouble at all times?

First of all, let us concede that God could do that very thing. He has the power to prevent "accidents." He could commission angels and the Holy Spirit to override "the law of cause and effect." No one would get bad colds, stub their toes, or contract cancer.

What would be the effect of such a program? The answer is obvious. Everyone would rush into God's camp, without tried and true faith, in order to be protected from trouble in the flesh. The world would literally be compelled to follow Christ for purely physical reasons. God doesn't build His kingdom upon appeals to such motives.

God has to allow His order to operate equally upon all to demonstrate the unconditional nature of His love. Believers have "accidents" and often die of the very same diseases which assail the unbeliever.

God reveals no partiality in the way He permits His order to affect general mankind. Any difference which enters in is based upon our response to Him rather than any difference that He makes between persons or classes. This is another way of saying that no one in the world can prevent troubles coming into his life, but he can decide what those troubles do to his life after they happen.

Like our brother Paul, the true servants of Christ meet troubled times by surrendering to the will of God and praising Him for whatever He has in store for them. Such a trusting faith can not only bring power to bear the suffering with less pain, but also, in chosen cases, to be healed of the affliction as well. This response of God to the faith of each one of His children has nothing to do with favoring a class of people. God is still operating within the framework of law, but this time spiritual law instead of natural. His Law is not specially limited to any nationality, race, or religion. Only those who approach Him in faith come within His divine favor. Even though God's love is unconditional, His healing power is not. Nevertheless, the conditions are the same for all, and He delights to set the spiritual laws of asking, believing, and receiving into operation for anyone and everyone.

Here, then, lies the most understandable explanation for the mysterious way some are afflicted and others are not.

Romans 11:33-36, "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen."

Some are delivered and healed, while others suffer and die. God must deal with each on the basis of the basis of their faith and the kind of prayer offered. If his greatest concern is for God to mold him and prepare him for His heavenly Kingdom, his prayer will be for God to shape all the circumstances of his life to that end. In order to answer such a prayer of faith, God may have to permit pain or affliction in the process. Only the One who has true foreknowledge and has seen the consequence of every act can safely be trusted in such matters.

Is it hard to submit to a God who does not always explain His omniscient actions? Indeed, it would be impossible to trust Him if we had no other evidences and witnesses of His commitment to our happiness. But anyone who believes that Jesus was willing to die in our place would have to believe also that Jesus would always work for our best good.

This is the assurance that sustains those who suffer under unexplainable circumstances. Even though they can't understand why God allows their condition, they know it would be totally contrary to His ways to permit anything that would strive against His eternal purpose. Their faith dares to believe that if they could see from the beginning to the end, as God has, they themselves would choose no other way than He chooses.

Is there evidence that obstacles and hardships are sometimes necessary for the highest end? His creation itself bears witness that it is so. Certain migratory birds must wait for strong, opposing winds before they can achieve the heights necessary for their long-distance flights. There are some fruits which cannot ripen until they have been nipped by the frost.

Can Hardships Help Us?

Are there souls who cannot mature until they have been buffeted by hardships and opposition? Undoubtedly! We see Moses spending forty years in the wilderness before God could use him to lead Israel out of bondage. We marvel at the years John was isolated and imprisoned on Patmos before he could become the writer of Revelation. And Paul experienced torture and imprisonment before he could write, "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Timothy 6:6).

These saints were ripened for the Kingdom during those seasons of solitary confinement. John needed the rest from constant, wearying oversight of the churches. It is almost impossible for man to recognize the limits of their physical endurance. They seldom stop in time to prevent damaging collapse. A Cambridge naturalist released a pigeon that had been born in a cage. For the first time the bird used its wings to fly around the laboratory room. Around and around went the pigeon, excited and panting. Finally, in utter exhaustion, the frantic bird crashed into a wall and fell to the floor seriously injured. Only then did the scientist realize that the pigeon had inherited the instinct to fly but not to stop its flight. Had it not been willing to risk the shock of a crash landing, the bird would have died of stress in midair.

Sometimes God has to stop people from their furious pace before they destroy their own usefulness. The trauma of a sudden stop may be hard to understand and accept. Sickness, loss of job, or even tragedy may be necessary in order to provide time for physical and spiritual recuperation. "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:10). In the thoughtful hours and days of slow recovery from surgery, many have found the secret of life in Christ.

Perhaps only God understands why pain is often the only thing which can get the attention of human beings. Never should anyone blame God for utilizing His ways which will ultimately draw us to Him. Strange as it may seem, prosperity, good health, and smooth sailing do not attract the soul to God.

A man was falsely imprisoned in a tower and was trying to alert passersbys of his dilemma. They could not hear his cries, so he began to drop gold coins from his pocket to attract their attention. But although they scrambled about to recover all the falling money, not one of them looked up to see the plight of the prisoner. Finally, he managed to break off a chunk of mortar from the crumbling wall and dropped it out the window. It struck a man on the head, injuring him. Only then did the man look up and get the message from above.

In the same way all manner of blessings are taken for granted. Instead of looking to the source, too many are busily gathering more from the world around them. It is only when they are hurt that they look up and begin to listen to the message God has been trying to communicate to them.

Looking for Answers

After a period of test, will God always reveal the reasons for His divine permissions in our lives - His dried-up brooks? Eventually, yes. But not necessarily in this life. Our faith may have to hold us steady until God can explain to us, face to face, why it had to be. Paul finally came to know why God allowed his thorn in the flesh. It was to keep him from feeling exalted over the abundance of revelations granted him.

It took a few years for the citizens of Coffee County, Alabama, to understand why the boll weevil invaded their fields, devastating the cotton industry completely. After turning to diversified farming and eventually doubling their income from growing peanuts, the farmers of Coffee County erected a monument to the boll weevil. In the memorial inscription, credit is given to the boll weevil for forcing the change of crops, creating unprecedented prosperity for that area.

Christ's servants should look for God's purpose when trials appear. Usually, a new door will open when one brook dries up. But if the years bring no satisfactory explanation of pain or loss, then we are to trust Him still. Someday He will make it clear to us. In the meantime, we are sustained by the comfort of the One who fully understands our griefs and sorrows. Jesus became one of us so that He could experience every pain and be a faithful Intercessor for us. Only those who have passed through the same suffering can truly sympathize and communicate with our hearts. When one grief-stricken father cried out, "Where was God when my son was killed in that car accident?" the answer quietly came back, "He was exactly where He was when His Son was tortured and killed on the cross."

Isn't there a tremendous lesson in that answer? If God would not intervene to save His own Son's life because He saw that great good would result, then He must have seen some future good when He allowes that father's son to die also. And is that not why that father could feel the sweet touch of the Father upon his life during those dark hours of grief? God knew exactly how he felt. He could minister to him as no earthly friend could. And his own ability to provide healing comfort has been greatly strengthened because he has shared a similar sorrow with those who have lost children.

Christ's servants should have no illusions about the source of afflictions. Sin is the cause of all suffering in the world today. Up to certain limits God allowed Job to be tested by afflictions, and the triumphant conclusion of the epic reveals why God permitted things to go as far as they did. Job emerged from the devastating trials with a stronger faith and greater prosperity than he had before.

There may be many different purposes why God allows tribulations to happen to His chosen followers, but one of the chief positive effects is to keep them constantly on guard against sin. Through the exercise of a wide-awake conscience, the first approach of His cunning enemy can be recognized and repulsed. The knowledge that that spirit is apt to attack at any moment or place develops a healthy spirit of alert defensiveness.

The story is told of one old Cape Cod fisherman who always hauled in the most sought-after catch of the entire fleet. Because his fish were so lively and healthy, they invariably commanded the highest prices in the marketplace. In vain did the other fishermen try to uncover the secret of his success. Only after his death was the formula revealed by his son, and it was as simple as it was effective. After securing his load of fish safely in the holding tank, the old fisherman would loose several pugnacious catfish into the tank. The constant fear of attack kept all the commercial fish in agitated motion, preserving them from the normal lethargic state brought on by prolonged captivity. Their obvious alertness made them the most desirable in the eyes of the buyers.

Can we not see in this story the purpose for our own harassment by that old crafty serpent? Does God allow it to threaten us so that we might be constantly in a protective stance? Perhaps this provocation is exactly what we need to develop the proper attitude of vigilance.

In the days of the Napoleonic wars, before radio or telegraph had been invented, messages had to be sent by semaphore signals. Even from a long distance the flags could be deciphered as they slowly spelled out words letter by letter. It was by this method that the Battle of Waterloo was reported to the anxious citizens of London.

For years Napoleon had struggled to bring Europe to his feet. Finally his goal was in sight and only the thin, red line of Highlanders stood in his way at Waterloo. The banks of England had poured every available pound into government loans to defeat Napoleon. If the Battle of Waterloo was lost, Britain would be lost.

On the coasts of Dover the people of London gathered to watch for news of the battle. Suddenly they saw across the channel the big semaphore begin to move. Painfully slow, the letters began to form into the first words of a message: "W-E-L-L-I-N-G-T-O-N D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D." Then suddenly, a dense fog settled over the scene and blotted out the signals. But the people had seen enough to convince them that their general had been put to rout. In despair they fled the city. Raw militia rushed to the coast prepared to die in desperate hand-to-hand combat with the expected invasion force. Road blocks were erected and houses hastily fortified.

For two days London resigned itself to destruction. Then the storm abated and the fog began to lift. Watchers saw the semaphore flags begin to move once more, and the message was slowly spelled out: "W-E-L-L-I-N-G-T-O-N D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D N-A-P-O-L-E-O-N A-T W-A- T-E-R-L-O-O." The joy of the people knew no bounds as the full import of the news struck home.

Living in a world that is often obscured by tears and earthly misunderstanding, we do not always have access to the whole truth. Like the despairing Londoners, we are not able to see past the apparent tragedies of His interrupted message. When the fog of unbelief is lifted and the veil is completely taken away, we will recognize for the first time that there was no defeat at all. It had been victory from the very beginning, but we just didn't have the rest of the message. The whole message will be understood only when Jesus Himself speaks to us beyond the mist of our limited earthly view.

In the meantime, what is the solution? The solution is simply to trust the promise of the One who has never failed anyone. "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." Romans 8:28.

Christ Jesus said His disciples would be hated, persecuted, and suffer for his name's sake (Matthew 10:21-22, Mark 10:29-30, Luke 21:12, John 15:18-19; 16:33, Acts 9:16, Revelation 2:10). He said His disciples are blessed when other men hate them for His sake (Matthew 5:10-12, Luke 6:22). The apostles said it was worthy and righteous to suffer (Acts 5:41, 2 Thessalonians 1:4-7, 2 Timothy 2:9, 1 Peter 4:14-16,19). The apostles said God's people must go through tribulations (Acts 14:22, Hebrews 11:25,33-40, 1 John 3:13). We learn obedience, patience, and become complete in Him, through suffering (Hebrews 5:8; 10:33-36, 1 Peter 5:8-11).

For instruction on how to deal with adversaries, see Matthew 5:25; 19:17-20, Luke 12:11-12,58, and Ephesians 6:13-20.

Psalms 34:19, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all."

Job 5:17, "Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:"

Philippians 1:29, "For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake;"

2 Timothy 2:12, "If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us:"

If Jesus suffered for us when we didn't deserve it, how can we refuse to suffer for him when he does deserve it?

The glorious journey is not real unless the disciple experiences persecutions along the narrow way. There are painful costs to be suffered when journeying by faith after Jesus, but as the Word says,

2 Corinthians 4:17, "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a for more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."

And don't forget the Spirit's words through Peter:

1 Peter 4:12-13, "Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy."

Remember, trials prove and improve us!

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