Editor's Note: This week, Ryan continues to explore the reality of suffering from a prepositional understanding. Each post in this series relates God to suffering using a different preposition. This is the fourth part. You can catch the other parts in this series below. All parts of this series were originally posted as a single article in its entirety, written by Ryan Lister, Ph.D., in the Fall 2015 edition of Western Magazine and is posted per their permission. All rights belong to Western Seminary. Thanks, Western!
God Through suffering
Suffering, for the Christian, takes on a new identity. For one who has been delivered “from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13), suffering often becomes a teacher, an instrument by which God prepares us for the world to come. This is why the gospel puts every aspect of our lives under the discipleship of Christ. We are to become like Christ in all things: in his resurrected life and also as we walk with him on his march to Golgotha (1 Pet 4:12; cf. 1 Pet 2:21). Sharing in Christ’s sufferings is a very real part of the Christian life (Phil 3:10; Matt 16:24; cf. 10:38), no matter what the preacher with the glistening white smile and toll-free number tells you.
So we know that suffering does not bypass God’s people, but we still feel obligated to try and make sense of it all. This is why we are tempted to carry Romans 8:28 and other texts around with us like theological “band-aids” to somehow stop the severed artery of pain and sorrow. We know that God uses all things to work together for the good, for those called according to his purposes (Rom 8:28). And we know suffering, according to Scripture, can be used to discipline us; to free us from the world; to push us deeper into holiness and faith; or simply to make his glory known in mysterious ways (cf. Jesus and the man born blind).
But as we feel pain and help others with theirs, we must recognize our limitations here. God promises to work through our suffering, but that is as far as the promise goes. He does not promise to submit His every act and purpose to our finite and fallen judgment for our approval. Our problem with God is that he does not always make clear how he is going to use our pain and sorrow for our good. We want, and at times demand, that God give us a Genesis 50:20 type of guarantee that makes sense of our time in the pit and prison. We want God to interpret our lives as he did Joseph’s. But it does not always work this way; sometimes our enemies never bow before us. So even for Christians, there is no magic formula that explains every purpose behind all of God’s dealings in our lives. But there is faith and that is where pain and suffering should compel us.
Even though God has promised believers that he is working through their suffering, this is as far as the promise goes, and that should be enough for us. He doesn’t tell us how it works out and we should be silent where he does not speak. So be aware of your response to suffering, both in your own experience and in helping others process theirs. We are not called to figure out God’s purposes in full; we are called to trust the God who works through suffering. We shouldn’t try to be God and we should not try to be Job’s friends. Rather, we answer the inevitable questions of suffering like a fellow sufferer, as one who feels pain and knows sorrow. We listen and weep. And then we weep and listen. And then do it again. And we do all of this in the shadow of the cross.
Ryan Lister is a husband, father, blogger, author, and professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. Follow him on Twitter!
image credit belongs to Bastien Grivet: http://fav.me/d7mrqv