Human Suffering and God’s Presence – Part Two
In Part One of this article I looked at the issue of suffering as found in the Old Testament, and the wonderful truth that God promises to be with us in our suffering. He may not always deliver us from our hardships and trials, but he does say that he will not abandon us while we are in them.
This same truth can be found in the New Testament. In it this theme carries over in many ways. A number of passages can be appealed to here. Let me mention just a few. In the book of Acts for example we find a story somewhat similar to the Daniel story that we discussed earlier.
Because of his bold gospel proclamation, Stephen faces stiff opposition and is tried by the Jews (Acts 6-7). Notice how he was not delivered from his stoning, but the presence of God is especially highlighted in the conclusion to the account (7:55-56): “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’.”
Just after this we hear about his stoning (vv. 57-60). Given that we read about how Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 10:12), several suggestions have been made about why he is standing here. One is that he stood to receive Stephen.
The other is that Jesus stands to defend him as in a court of law. As James Montgomery Boice reminds us, there are really two different trials being mentioned here:
If this is the case, then what Stephen caught a glimpse of was that second and much greater trial in which he was involved. Up to this moment, he had only been able to see the earthly trial. He was condemned by the earthly court. But at the moment of his death he caught a glimpse of that greater, heavenly trial, in which he was acquitted. In this trial the Lord Jesus Christ took his side, pleaded his case, and prevailed. Perhaps he said something like this to the Father: “Stephen is my follower. He is confessing me. I am going to take him with me into heaven forever.” I find that immensely encouraging.
Here we have the first record of a Christian martyr. God did not deliver him from his fate, but he certainly was with him in it. We find similar things in the Christian Hall of Fame as found in Hebrews 11. I always like to compare and contrast two verses there.
In Heb. 11:34 we read about the great heroes of the faith who were spared the edge of the sword. But in Heb. 11:37 we read about great heroes of the faith who died by the edge of the sword! Some escaped death and some did not. Both were known as saints with great faith, and in both cases God was fully with them.
We have various incidents of both outcomes occurring in the Old Testament. For example, Elijah escaped the wrath of Jezebel (1 Kings 19:10), but Uriah was killed by the sword (Jer. 26;23). As F. F. Bruce comments, “By faith one lived, and by faith the other died. So too in the apostolic age Herod Agrippa I ‘killed James the brother of John with the sword’ (Acts 12:2); but when he tried to do the same to Peter, Peter escaped his hands.”
So we have no guarantees that we will always be exempt from suffering, persecution and trials. But we do have the promise of God that he is present with us in these hardships. As George Guthrie reminds us, biblical faith may have a variety of outcomes: some positive and some negative:
Faith can also involve being tortured, mocked, beaten, destitute, stoned, put in prison, generally mistreated, and even mutilated. These do not fit easily into the “see all the wonderful things God wants to do in my life” gospel of modern, Western Christianity. Yet the picture is biblical. Our application of this passage must point out that faithful people sometimes do not see “results” in this life.
But God is always with us nonetheless, just as he promised. The presence of suffering and difficulty in our lives does not mean the absence of God’s presence. Quite the opposite: Scripture often links our sufferings with the fact that we really are with Christ, and he with us.
In this regard, one final passage is worth looking at. In Romans 8 we read much about suffering. Let me offer just part of it here (vv. 16-18): “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
This takes things to a whole new level. It is one thing to say that God is with us in our sufferings. But here Paul says that in some mysterious way we actually share in the sufferings of Christ. And it is an indication that we are indeed his children. Plenty of ink has been spilled on this text. Let me offer just a few thoughts from several important commentators.
I quite like how James Montgomery Boice introduces this passage and the problem of suffering: “But why should Paul introduce the idea of suffering, of all things – and at this point? None of us would do it. If we were trying to assure Christians that they really are Christians and their salvation is secure, suffering is probably the last thing we would mention. We think of it in the ‘problem’ category.”
Yes modern, superficial Christianity sees an utter disconnect here. But not Paul nor the other New Testament writers. Suffering is a sure sign of God being with us. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is a sure guide here. At the end of his seventh volume (of 14) on Romans, he says this about Rom. 8:17:
There is this unity in Christ; we share the blessings, but we share the sufferings also. It is the picture of the Head and the body once more. That, then, is the argument. If you are suffering as a Christian, and because you are a Christian, it is one of the surest proofs you can ever have of the fact that you are a child of God, and if a child, then an heir, an heir of God, and a joint-heir with Christ. . . . The argument is inevitable; if we are suffering as Christians it is an absolute proof that we belong to Him, that we are therefore joint-heirs with Him. So we must look at our sufferings in that way.
And this is just one of a number of passages which say that we somehow suffer with Christ, that we share in his afflictions. There is a real unity here between Christ the sufferer and Christians who suffer. Joseph Fitzmyer, commenting on Romans 8:14-17, puts it this way:
“The suffering now endured must always be seen as a participation in the suffering of Jesus himself, in what he has already suffered. Christian suffering is never an individual, lonely experience; Jesus has suffered before, and Christian suffering is only the overflow of his (see Col 1:24).”
Or as Michael Bird puts it,
Christians participate in Christ’s sufferings in two ways. First, in baptism they have entered into the story of the cross and made it their own story (see Rom 6:4-6). Second, suffering for the sake of Christ is the inevitable result of uniting oneself with the crucified Lord, where shame, scorn, abuse, and even persecution may follow (see Phil 1:29; 3:10; 2 Cor 1:5). Witherington sums things up eloquently: “One must follow the path Christ followed to glory, the path of self-sacrifice, or suffering with him and for him in the cause for which he suffered.” In sum, sonship sets Christians on the path to glory; yet such a path takes us under the shadow of the cross, into the waters of baptism, and through many trials of despair as we track toward our final destination.”
Such is our oneness with Christ: Jesus was not delivered from his hour of trial, and believers are not to expect anything different. Of course the sufferings of Christ are unique. But, as Burkhard Gartner notes, “Christ’s vicarious suffering means, however, for his followers not deliverance from earthly suffering, but deliverance for earthly suffering.”
So knowing that God is with us in our sufferings is elevated in the New Testament. Our sufferings as believers become proof that we are indeed united with Christ and we share in the heavenly inheritance. Incredibly, we even share in the afflictions and sufferings of Christ.
Modern gospels pushing ‘your best life now’ and happiness and prosperity have little time for such truths, but we must nonetheless side with Scripture here. It is the path of suffering that the Son of God took, and that is to be our path as well.
Knowing these vital truths means we will not see suffering and hardship as indications of God’s absence or displeasure with us, but of his presence and his love for us. All the great saints have known these realities. Let me close with two important quotes from someone who has known great suffering, but who has also known the presence of the Lord so very deeply, Elisabeth Elliot:
“God will never disappoint us… If deep in our hearts we suspect that God does not love us and cannot manage our affairs as well as we can, we certainly will not submit to His discipline. …To the unbeliever the fact of suffering only convinces him that God is not to be trusted, does not love us. To the believer, the opposite is true.”
“I could not feel the truth of God’s love for me at that time. What it felt like was that God had dealt me a cruel blow, as with a whip. But underneath all those raging emotions the truth lay. A lifetime of knowing Him had laid a strong foundation that quietly supported me.… I knew with my mind and heart what went deeper than my pain—that Jesus showed us once and for all what He is like and what kind of love He has for us, by dying on the Cross. And that is fact. History. Nothing, no circumstance, no matter how hard or painful can change that. He has showed us His character once and for all. Our circumstances are not the window through which we understand His love, but rather we must view our circumstances through His love.”
Part Three of this article is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/06/03/human-suffering-and-gods-presence-part-three/
14 Replies to “Human Suffering and God’s Presence – Part Two”
Dear Bill, once again wonderfuly written, & I read your words in tears as your clarity dispelled a topic I have grappled with for half a lifetime. Thank you I shall pass these on
In these days of proclaiming a prosperity doctrine (at least in western society), we need to get our facts straight. It is a completely unbalanced view, ignoring the tremendous amount of suffering in many places. Does that mean we are better Christians than those living under persecution. As Paul would say, “God forbid!” On the other hand, we miss out on so much of the gospel by proclaiming that Jesus’ sacrifice delivers us from suffering! In fact, our relationship with Christ ensures we participate in suffering for the sake of his Kingdom. This is already apparent in much of the world – and will soon become clear to all Christians now living in comparative safety. As believers, we must right now commit ourselves to stand firm despite all odds, knowing that one day we shall receive our reward of “Well done, good and faithful servant!” It is enough.
Beautiful reflection Bill on the theme that mostly precoccupies most Christians – what is the meaning of suffering on this earth – why does terrible suffering come to good people? As a Catholic I was taught from childhood years that we were to unite our sufferings – any of them – a headache, toeache, bump – with the Cross of Jesus – and in that way – the suffering acquired great merit – and somehow formed a powerful prayer for others – in a way that prayer along cannot do. Prayer united with suffering and the suffering of Jesus enables us to be co-operators with Christ in a special way. That is a great meaning given to our sufferings – and has sustained many people in the depths of their loneliness in suffering. Someone has even coined the term ‘the hidden cloister of suffering’ to refer to those who live out their lives uniting their sufferings for Christ for all who need care, conversion and so on. This has even turned around suicidal people who though life was meaningless – when they understood their closeness to Christ their life took on a totally different meaning. No faith outside Christianity gives such meaning to suffering. Psychology ignores deep, undeserved suffering. You might be interested in St JPII’s beautiful writing on suffering ‘Salvifici Doloris’ from 1984. He lost family, his country, his friends, so much and was led to wonder what it was all about, considering the constant cry of suffering in the C20. .http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html
It’s worth noting that there is a strand of opinion abroad today which seeks to play down the Biblical narratives of the sufferings of God’s people: There is a school of thought which wants to deny the oppression and bondage of Israel in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus. There are also some who also would erect a case for claiming that the persecution of the Early Church by their non-Christian neighbours in the context of the pre-Constantine Roman Empire has been greatly overstated.
Such progressive thinkers seek, in some cases, to erect a new counter-narratives of suffering and oppression where certain social minorities or discreet sections of society are the “martyrs” and those who follow the Judaeo-Christian God are cast as the oppressors…
The Father of Lies first manifest himself as a learned theologian and would-be benefactor of the human race…
Great article(s) Mr M. We (the bible girls) have experienced suffering in our own ways so warrants a response to your article not only to unburden ourselves but to offer hope to others. I should say that a good passage to read that is often overlooked is Gen 3:16. Note this passage, tells us pain (suffering) was part of our original design, it doesn’t say, Eve will now suffer in childbirth, but the pain (suffering) will increase. So, yes, gentlemen, even without the fall, your wife would have still said “I am never going to let you touch me again” when little Johnny was about to make his first appearance, probably at the same time a baby Sarah somewhere was making her first appearance so Sarah could deliver pain with her words to Johnny twenty years later, just as Johnny’s dad had to suffer those words from Johnny Mum perhaps.
I have come to understand that suffering is a loss of something, yes the loss brings something too, usually pain or anguish, however, the loss comes first, and without the loss often the pain diminishes.
When I read Matt 26:39, I think of my mum, her car was hit by a drunken driver who ran off. The coroner said the crash didn’t kill my mum outright, but she bled to death and could have been saved with medical intervention. My mum, at some point, would have known human help was not coming. She would have known I was waiting patiently at home to tell her I had practised the piece of music she had left me and I wanted to show her how well I could play it. She would have known my brother Tom would have wanted to tell her he had scored a goal, and mum would have to have pretended to be all excited (my mum and I hated football, but it was our secret). I bet she stretched out her hands to my dad in that crumpled up car, wishing he was there for her. She would have known I depended on her more than anyone in the family, as the youngest not to mention a girl in a male-dominated home. She would have known one-day She would have had to stand at my side and argue my case that I was now 13 and its time daddy realised I was developing into a woman, and makeup was the norm, but she would have told him, don’t worry husband your wife is in complete control of our little bundle of energy. She would have known I would cry on my wedding day as she wasn’t there to help me, and I will scream out for my mum when I give birth (every time).
I hope and pray; my mum would have told God that she was needed and to save her. But I also hope she said, not my will but yours Lord, as it wouldn’t have been Gods will to take my mum to spite me, but he would have comfort in store for me, my dad and brother, as he would have comforted my mum as the life bled out of her. I think it’s right to say that if my mum looked down on her and my dad’s handy work, she would realise not only their efforts had fruit beyond what they would have expected when they first married, but she would see better than us Gods hand on our lives. My brother became a man earlier than he needed, just to help me. He even slept across the doorway of my room since I was in such shock I left the house one night to look for my mum. My dad even now has open arms; I can cry in any time I want. I play my mum’s favourite piece of music at her graveside on mothers-day and her birthday. I know she can’t hear me, but I want to tell her one day I never forgot her and still missed and loved her. If my mum were still with me, I would be getting ready to go off to the RSM. My life would have been music since I wanted to be like my mum. I am going to have to break my dad’s heart as I have decided I am not going to take up the offer to study at the RSM. My dad wanted me to follow in my mum’s footsteps. I think he believes she would have expected that from him. I am, however, going to follow in my mum’s footsteps. I too, am going to take on the important role of wife and mother. The reason is simple when I was at my lowest music didn’t help; it only helps me get closer to my mum when she was alive; it ceased to do anything after her death. When I meet my mum again, I will give her the good news that I didn’t follow her music path and when she asks why I will tell her that the music was her not what I played. What more could I offer a musician than to say to them they were my music?
It would have been so easy to fall away from God at such a time, but Gods comfort isn’t to let you walk away its to hold you closer. I do know this isn’t true for everyone but perhaps the greatest support God could bring at that time was to be the one to take the loss as it is a loss to him when people walk away from him. I think for some its easier to see the monster in God than the monster in them. To be who I am today required me to lose my mum. I am not saying I am better off without my mum; I am worse off. A day hardly goes by when I don’t mumble where are you when I need you, mum. I could cry with frustration somedays just because I need a mum’s advice or help there and then, not on Sunday morning or when kate’s mums available. But each of these mountains of frustration makes me wiser and stronger; it’s not the trade I would have accepted if offered. I would have chosen mum, dad and brother living happily ever after. I know that the future is uncertain for my worldview, but here’s the thing, the world has stolen my childhood, murdered my mum and trampled over my faith. It’s taken the sacred and turned it into the profane, however, I’m still standing, so world, if that’s the best you can do then not only have you failed, but I’m now coming after you to take your sacred, your values and replace them with mine and be aware mine is from Gods.
Suffering is like a rainy day that you think is never coming to an end. What I can tell you about suffering is that you appreciate even the smallest release from it. I am Molly, and I have told you about the bullying I suffered for two years before, suffering day in, day out, the only sunshine was school holidays.
I differ from Sarah in that the bullying didn’t make me stronger it took away all my confidence, and I felt valueless. There is only so far someone can fall into hopelessness. It seemed at the time that the fall is never ending and there is always worse to come, and worse did come to often. I had a similar experience to Sarah in that I needed help. I couldn’t get released from the nightmare by my own strength. Anyone who has suffered been bullied will tell you the bullies ensure you fear to ask for help as much as you fear the bullies. When I read what Sarah had said about her mom dying alone in that car I was aware of how Sarah and the other girls were affected by that harrowing time, but I thought I would have gladly swapped places with Mrs Clark at one time, it would have been a blessing.
There is something very different about my suffering and Sarah’s, and I think it goes back to Sarah’s point about loss. My loss of being bullied has made me not only happy, but even simple things bring me joy. Sometimes I look at the girls interacting with each other and see love moves from one to the other. I giggle when Sarah and Alice have a go at each other, neither understanding the other, but a bond is there that overcomes any malice. I see this, and I know the other girls don’t. Every day for me is a sunny day because even the smallest thing brings out the sun for me. That is not true for Sarah; there is always a sadness in her smile, always sadness in her joy. She longs to recreate what she has lost. She strives for A-grades, and when she gets them, the joy isn’t enough. Sarah saved my life, but that doesn’t make up for the life she lost. You are probably thinking I am exaggerating as how could someone keep going day after day like that. I can tell you from bitter experience someone can go day after day like that. But it would be untrue to compare Sarah with me at the time I was being bullied for a start I could hardly function to get an A-grade to make myself feel better. The difference between me and Sarah is that God is carrying Sarah. I know that sounds dramatic, but she always manages to find that strength just when she needs it. I believe God heals some and the ones he doesn’t heal he carries. I am thankful he heald me, and I’m grateful he carries my friend.
KM, AS, MK, AL, SC and MM.
We are aware what binds us all isn’t our suffering, but the suffering of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ for our sins, so we may appear acceptable before a righteous God. Our sufferings connect us back to the cross so we will be forever grateful to the one who took away our sins and transgressions in the act of mercy to his creation. The gift of Jesus is available to all, the greater you’re suffering, the greater the blessing, and this is identified in our Lords suffering for us.
Our future isn’t in this world; what we suffer now will seem like a blinking of the eye in eternity with Christ. However, some will exchange the blinking of an eye for everlasting love. We are not to be like those people we are to look beyond our selfish desires and seek the pleasure of our creator. We are to live lives of joy in the knowledge of Christ, daily saying, not our will Lord, but yours, yet we should not live as though right and wrong do not matter or the suffering of others is just a temporary inconvenience in an eternity. We should bring the love of Christ to the suffering even if that brings suffering onto us, as only we have the assurance our suffering will be a blinking of the eye and a gift to our saviour.
Many thanks for your stories girls. Such a tragic story Sarah. Prayers to you all. Blessings.
one thing that always gets me on this ‘your best life now’ thing is wouldn’t that mean at BEST heaven would be just like life here?? (if this is your best life heaven can’t be better) OR at WORST heaven would be worse. (if now is your best then heaven would have to be lest then best). Either way what would there be about heaven to look forward to?? or to draw people to?? if the first would be the case you’re probably going to want to live a good long life and enjoy a lot now since it will be just the beginning. if the second was the case you would want to live a VERY long life because you will never have it this good again.
it seems that at a certain point the more money you get the less committed a christian you are. NOT to say there aren’t really committed wealthy christians but it seems that money does corrupt one. Some who have the strongest faith are the poorest and content to be so. As Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that a rich man to get into heaven. with all this ‘your best life now’ stuff I can see why. When I want more money it is because I want to have more to give. (no matter how much I give it always seems so small) I trust God to give me the funds he knows I can handle. I also pray he gives me the strength to handle them.
Bill I am not sure this is allowed but I have written a book on recovery from bullying which Molly may find useful. It is called, The Question Space – tools to aid recovery from workplace and other bullying. At the time of writing it was the only book of its kind, focussed totally on recovery. It is advertised on the biggest bully recovery site in the world – bullyonline.org. I haven’t written it as a Christian book though it is written with Christian principles and contains bible verses. I did this so that as many people as possible may have access to the information. It is a Kindle ebook (free reader available). The paper copies sold out quickly and I will only reprint if I have an order of 20 or more. All details may be found at http://www.gailfostertasmania.com I hope this is helpful for many. I suffered a great deal after being bullied from my job. Thankfully I was able to use the experience to help others.
Thanks, Mr M and thanks to Molly too as she had to edit the post from book size to just squeezed by Mr M’s delete key lol.
You are quite right, Mr Wilson, however, I’m wondering, imagine a flock sitting under satans ‘word’. It would be correct to say that flocks best life is now. The flock’s lack of discernment or more correctly habitual forbidden fruit eaters, rather than fruit producers, is their failing. I think I am right in saying that those deceived are responsible for the outcome in themselves of that deceit/deception (biblically).
Molly was due around mine this evening, but the word has it she is grounded. Molly hangs around with one of our number, (Alice) who isn’t like me, well behaved. I heard that Alice went before the head today for taking exception to someone looking at her, and another girl was with Alice; I bet that was Molly. Alice will not tell her parents about the incident, so she will not get grounded. Molly would tell her parents so she is likely grounded (neither Alice or Molly are answering their phones so Molly’s mum may have contacted Alices Mum. We have told Molly we never lie to our parents, but it’s ok to leave stuff out unless they ask. What’s the betting I will get drawn into this, and I wasn’t even there! I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, and Alice was going to be my alibi, bother!
Anyway, Thank you on Molly’s behalf for pointing her to your work on bullying. I think it’s great someone read what she said and thought how could I help.
I will be seeing Molly at her grandma’s tomorrow evening as her grandma is teaching us to knit. I may see her before at school, but I may get break detentions, weep-weep. I have located your book on Amazon UK. Molly’s grandad has a kindle so he will get it for her. Thank you again, Gail.
Thanks Sarah, I hope the book is helpful. You are a gem. I love reading your posts. Keep writing, perhaps you will be published one day.
Molly has your book on her granddads Kindal. She is not able to use her computer at the moment as parents can use the most imaginative ways to punish the ‘lawbreakers’.
Molly told me to tell you that when she has read your book, she will write a review on Amazon, however, you have to bake her a cake with a file in. I made that bit up, but she did say she will write a review.
I don’t think I will ever have anything published as I intend to be a baby making machine. My future husband may, as he will have nine months to write and get his work published before demands will be made of him again.
Sarah, keep writing as an option. You are very funny and children have a habit of growing up. Also, in order to keep them out of trouble you need to inspire them to good works, for example music and writing. Children will watch what you do more than what you say. (end of sermonette)
Please thank Molly for me. I am pretty good at making cakes, having had lots of practise. It’s a shame you don’t live closer. Molly’s parents sound pretty impressive.