What is the meaning of suffering? Should God spare us from suffering when He didn’t spare his own Son? To be able to trust God even through suffering is a gift that is hard-won.
LATELY, I HAVE been pondering a lot on suffering, its source and its purpose. To say that God doesn’t figure actively in suffering—that He just “allows” it and then makes beauty out of the ashes—seems like a cop-out to me and lets God off the hook. He does make beauty out of ashes, but that has to be only part of the picture if it is not to detract from who God is—all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving—and make Him weak, wishy-washy or limited in some way. If He can’t protect me from suffering but rather turns it around and uses it for my good, somewhat like the good fairy in Sleeping Beauty who couldn’t remove the curse of the evil fairy so turned the threat of death into a deep sleep, then He really isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing. To say that yes, God can keep me from suffering but just doesn’t choose to means that He isn’t all-loving, right? After all, is He the God of the Bible or isn’t He?
Driven to the Scripture a short time ago I came upon Exodus 17. Interesting, isn’t it, how these thoughts can be turning around in your mind for years, sometimes subconsciously, and then something happens that acts as a catalyst, just at the right time, and it’s as if God has turned a light on. In this case it was the apparently premature death of a colleague’s spouse. The thoughts on the source and purpose of suffering that have come to me over these past few months have had such an impact on me that I haven’t been able to move on from ruminating on them, even though I have moved on from Exodus 17 in my reading. As much as I read and continue to learn, I find myself returning to these thoughts on suffering.
Several points immediately stood out to me in this passage of Scripture from Exodus. First, it was God who led his children into this place of suffering. Second, He led them into suffering while they were being obedient to Him and were following Him as He commanded them. Third, He ultimately gave them victory but it was not without personal cost. Fourth, Moses built an altar to the Lord and worshipped God saying, “The Lord is my Banner. For hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord” (see Exodus 17:15-16).
Exodus 17:1 says that the whole Israelite community traveled as the Lord commanded them and He led them to a place of suffering where, on his orders, they set up camp. They weren’t even just passing Exodus 17:15-16 Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, “Because hands were lifted up against the throne of the LORD, the LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.” through; God told them to set up camp. He intended them to stay awhile in this barren place where there was no water, as far as they knew, and no way to sustain life. Moses called the place “Massah” because it was here that the people tested or doubted God, saying, “Is God really here with us or has He abandoned us?”
I believe that anyone who has ever loved God can identify with these Israelites. We’ve all been there … or we will be soon. Like others, I’ve asked, “Has God abandoned me?” even though I know that He has promised that He will never abandon me and that nothing can ever separate me from his love. I know this is true because I know Him and I know that He can never lie—He is Truth. It is not in his character to lie to me about anything, the good or the bad. But knowing this has not prevented me from questioning God when suffering comes. I believe that the lesson of Job is that God ultimately desires from me the kind of faith in Him that does not become fixated on “Why?” when suffering comes but is able to accept it from his hand with an open heart. It is most often found in children, which is why Jesus said that we must become as little children in our dependence on him and our trust in him. It seems the older we get and the more we experience the disappointments of life, the more we naturally lose our capacity to trust. To be able to trust God even through suffering is a gift that is hard-won.
So the Israelites followed God into a barren place where there was nothing to sustain them. To be camped in the desert with no water was bad enough, but to make matters even worse, they were attacked by the Amalekites, who were seeking to destroy them. And in this place of suffering and death in which they found themselves not in spite of their obedience to God but because of it, they experienced the miracle of victory and the intimacy of true worship. It was not a spectacular victory like the defeat of Jericho would be, or of the Midianites and their allies, “thick as locusts,” by Gideon’s three hundred men. This time, there was no overt display of God’s power; it was a communal act of simple obedience to God in the roles He had given each one. As long as Moses, their leader, was able to hold up his hands in supplication before God, they were able to prevail against the Amalekites. Finally, when he had no more strength, those God had given him as supporters in leading the people held his hands up for him. Only then was the battle finally won. Joshua, the brilliant, anointed, and charismatic general, couldn’t win the battle in his strength or with his strategy alone; he needed to know that the leader God had provided to intercede for him was still there doing his job. And Moses couldn’t do it alone in his limited strength; he needed Aaron and Hur to support him.
It seems to me from this chapter that God doesn’t just allow suffering into our lives; rather, God has intended that suffering must come to those whom He loves. Isaiah 53:10-11 says, “It was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.” Of course this passage is talking about Jesus, but as a child of God, the Bible says that I am a joint heir with Christ to God’s promises and resources. 1 Therefore, those promises apply to me as well. Though God leads me into suffering—dare I say designs the suffering for me—I will have victory in it. I will see the light of life, my soul will be satisfied, and I will worship God.
Of course, this is not to say that I don’t sometimes suffer because of my own sin or foolishness or because of the sin or foolishness of 1 Peter 4:16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. someone else. The Bible is filled with examples of those who suffered for their own sins. In the case of Job, however, God Himself says that he was blameless and upright, a man who feared God and shunned evil. And unlike his letter to the churches in Asia in Revelation, this was not followed by the chilling words, “Yet, I hold this against you.” Job did not suffer on his own account. I believe he suffered for the sake of those millions who have come after him and have learned from his experience.
Indeed, Scripture says in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 that God comforts us in our suffering so that we in turn can comfort others with the same comfort He has given us: the implication being that our suffering can benefit someone else and therefore, sometimes we suffer for the sake of another. In John 16:33, Jesus tells his followers that they should expect suffering. But it’s important to recognize that there are different reasons for suffering, and therefore, since suffering is inevitable, one might as well suffer for the right reason (see 1 Peter 4:16).
HERE WITH ME
But that doesn’t totally explain suffering and it doesn’t explain why God actually deliberately led his people into suffering in this passage from Exodus 17. Can it be that sometimes my suffering is directly according to God’s plan for me, that sometimes God leads me into suffering, that sometimes suffering is designed specifically for me by God? Is it possible that He has not just allowed it into my life but has actually brought me to this place of suffering in order to accomplish his purpose in and for me to teach me something about myself or about Him? Is it possible that it may have nothing to do with disobedience or God’s inability to protect me from suffering?
In fact, I may find myself in a place of suffering when I am following closest to the Master. If this is true, and I believe it is, that sometimes my suffering has come from God’s hand, according to his will and plan for my life, rather than asking how a God who claims to love me could allow me to suffer, I am reassured realizing that this period of suffering is because He loves me. He is desirous of a deeper relationship with me that can be achieved in no other way and is perhaps preparing me for the future. It doesn’t remove the pain of the suffering but it does comfort me to know that since God Himself has brought me to this barren place He is here with me. He is sustaining me and has provided for me, even when I feel that He has abandoned me; it is He who fights for me and He will give me victory. 2 Chronicles 20:15 reminds me that ultimately, this battle is not mine; it is God’s. I am the battlefield, just as Job was. And “the Lord is strong and mighty, the Lord is mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8).
But it also seems to me from this chapter that God does not intend for us to suffer or triumph on our own, abandoned and without Exodus 17:15-16 He said: “Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. resources. Not only has He promised that He is with us and that He will never forsake us 2 but He has provided support for us in the form of family, friends, leaders, and the church. It is their—and our—role to provide tangible encouragement and comfort in the middle of the suffering as well as to lift up hands in petition to our heavenly Father even to the point that our own physical resources are drained. Only together is victory won. God does not mean us to suffer in silence or to suffer alone. As the liturgy of the United Methodist Church says in the New Year’s recommitment service, we are to be the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ. That is the church in action. To allow a fellow believer to face their suffering alone is to fail in our responsibility as followers of Christ and is not part of God’s plan. To refuse to accept the role God has given us in another’s suffering is to prolong that person’s suffering, perhaps even to condemn them to defeat. Even then, God is there in the suffering. But just as He has allowed us to share with Him in the miracle of creation by having children and to share in the miracle of salvation by being the messengers of his good news, so He has allowed us to share in the miracle of victory by participating in another’s suffering.
AT WHAT COST
So God brings me to this place of suffering, many times for reasons known only to Him. And He ultimately gives me victory here. But I am also reminded from Exodus 17 that victory isn’t cheap, either for God or for me. It has been promised by God but it still comes at a cost. Yes, the Israelites defeated the Amalekites that day; but how many Israelites died in achieving victory? How many families mourned the loss of one they loved, perhaps depended upon? They weren’t fighting with toy weapons; this was war, and no one then was concerned about “collateral” damage. Victory costs: Jacob walked with a limp; Job’s new sons and daughters were not the same children he had lost; Jesus’s glorified body still bore the nail scars in his wrists and feet, and the hole in his side. And ultimately, victory is only possible at all because of the suffering of God through Jesus’s death on the cross. Although victory is assured for me by God, I should not expect it to be without personal cost. So then I am forced to ask myself, how much do I really want victory? At what cost?
Scripture assures me that if I persevere, I will see light and life restored. I will be satisfied with what God has done in my life and with what I have learned of his character through this suffering and I will fall before Him in worship. Through the suffering and the victory God has revealed Himself to me in a more complete way, perhaps through the wisdom of a godly friend, as Jethro was to Moses in Exodus 17. After the victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites, Mount Sinai was covered in smoke and fire. God descended among them in fire, gave them the Ten Commandments, and revealed his glory to Moses. He promised that his presence would be with Moses and that He would give him rest (Exodus 33:14). And Moses’s soul was satisfied.
None of this—the Ten Commandments or the lessons of God’s promised victory over suffering or the promise of God’s enduring presence—could have been learned if the Israelites had not first followed God into that place of suffering where there was nothing to sustain them but God, where they had to acknowledge that they were totally dependent on Him, where they were vulnerable to attack from those who wanted to destroy them.
God leads me into suffering because He loves me. But He doesn’t leave me there. He provides for me, sustains me, and gives me victory. He gives me his divine presence, his righteousness, and afterward, those times of green pasture and quiet waters where He restores my soul and guides me into the paths of righteousness—all so that I might really know Him and love Him. After I have learned to trust Him and have recognized my total dependence on Him, my soul is satisfied.
The next time I find myself facing suffering—and there will be a next time—I can say with the psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me , your rod and staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies (the victory you gave me before is known to all and you will do it again); you anoint my head with oil (you honor me before my peers); my cup overflows (I am satisfied).” Then I will worship God in the true spirit of worship. I will give Him glory as I lift my hands to heaven in thanksgiving and humbleness for God’s love and care and loving kindness to me, and I will say, “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”
PREPARING AND MOLDING
Lastly, I’ve always thought that God’s purpose in my life here on earth is to prepare me for heaven, and that He will do whatever is necessary to accomplish that purpose, for as long as it takes. I’ve shared that thought with parents who are grieving the perilous path their child has taken, as a comfort to them. And it’s true that while we are here on earth God is preparing us for heaven—but it’s only partially. It’s kind of a “motherhood” statement: it has no teeth, nothing you can grasp. What does it really mean, that God is preparing me for heaven? What is it that makes me ready for heaven? What is the actual goal? Is it just heaven itself? Then why doesn’t God just take us all at the moment of conversion?
What I’m beginning to realize is that God’s purpose in my life while I am here on earth is not so much to prepare me for heaven as it is to mold me into the image of his Son. And that is done through suffering. If this is true, that God’s purpose in my life is to mold me and shape me into the image of his Son, then why should I be surprised when I suffer? Why should I expect that I should be spared from suffering when Jesus suffered so much? In Matthew 10:24-25, Jesus says, “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher and the servant like his master.” So if Jesus was born to suffer according to God’s design, why should I expect that God should protect me from suffering? Should God spare me from suffering when He didn’t spare his own Son—even though Jesus pled that there might be another way to effect salvation— but instead, gave him up to suffering and death for us all? In fact, should I not expect to suffer even more, the more I become like him?
This is, in fact, why so many believers in generations past actually prayed for suffering or tortured themselves by beatings and flagellation. (Of course, suffering that is manipulated or deliberately provoked does not originate with God or accomplish his purpose in my life, as God is not in it.) Yet I’m afraid we have become soft and complacent in our commitment to what we believe. God molds me into the image of his Son in order to prepare me for heaven. And only as I submit to his gentle but firm hand and accept the suffering that He brings into my life can it be said of me as it was of the apostle Paul, that it is God who works in me to will and to do, according to his good purpose, so that I may be conformed to the nature of his Son, who humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. 3
Only then will I be ready for heaven. Only then will I truly worship. Only then will I be able to hear from the Father, “Well done!” Because it’s all about the Son!
Margie Zacharias is Senior Vice President of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and the wife of Ravi Zacharias. Romans 8:17 says, “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.” See e.g., Joshua 1:5; Psalm 27:10; Isaiah 41:10, 13. See Philippians 2:13 and 8.