Q: You have recently written about suffering. Why is this an important topic for the church to understand?
A: Suffering is important for the church to understand because it is what we experience on this side of glory. The Scriptures are so abundantly clear that the mark of believer is one of suffering (John 15:20; 16:33). This has been confirmed in pastoral ministry where you encounter the agony and pain that comes from living in a sin saturated world. We need to address this because the Bible spends so much time addressing this. The Bible provides many beautiful and powerful words of hope to comfort God's people. It would be a tragedy to see believers struggle when they hold the Word of truth that can help them see their pain from a new perspective... one that gives hope and joy in the midst of hardship.
Q: What are some of the key points for Christians to know when they encounter trials and suffering in their own lives? What about when they see it in the lives of others?
A: What a great question. Where should I start? There is so much to say. First, remember that we have a sovereign God. Our suffering does not take Him by surprise. He is in total control of our situation. In some recent theological discussions since 9/11, people have challenged and even denied the sovereignty of God as a way to exculpate the Lord from any wrongdoings- "If He could have planned things in such a way to avoid painful trials, then why didn't He?" In order to exonerate the Lord, some suggest that He really couldn't do anything about the situation. But this really leads to more despair since it freely admits that He also cannot really help you either.
Theological truths are the foundations by which we discern life, not the other way around. It is so significant to remember that a satisfactory resolution to trials comes from a theological reality, the reality of Christ. Second, there is hope, there is hope, there is hope. Trials brings a sense of hopelessness and darkness. I love how Christianity is built upon our faith in Christ. Faith causes us to look outside ourselves and towards our living God. Hope in trials does not come "by believing in yourself" (the Gospel according to American Idol). True, genuine hope comes when we look "towards the mountains from where comes my help, the Lord Maker of Heaven and Earth" (Ps. 121). In Christ, there is hope because Christ has the power to transform. Never forget that, always remember. Third, as Paul teaches us, there is a future glory that will "outweigh" our current pain (Rom. 8; 2 Cor. 4:17-18). That is so meaningful. Fourth, although there is a future glory, there is also a current comfort. We can have a "joy unspeakable" NOW.
Suffering strengthens and refines our faith (2 Cor. 1:8-9; 1 Pet. 1:6-7); it builds Christian character (Rom. 5:3-4); it demonstrates the glory of God (John 9). Finally, it calls us into a deep "fellowship with Christ" (1 Pet. 4:12-13; Phil. 3:10). This is profound - we can know Christ fully if (and only if) we know His suffering and His glory. Otherwise, we really do not know Christ. When the New Testament summarizes the life of Christ as "suffering then glory" (Luke 24:26-27, 44-46; 1 Pet. 1:10-11), it is also describing the life of believers and the church who are united to Christ by faith in a living union.
Q: What bible passages would you point someone to, if they are dealing with this issue?
A: I mentioned several in the previous question. I would definitely start there: Rom. 8:18ff; 2 Cor. 4:17-18; Rom. 5:3-4; Phil. 3:1-11. Read all of 1 Peter, which is an amazing book that address Christian suffering directly. Then in light of that, especially 1 Pet. 4:12-13 (and Phil. 3:1-11), read the Book of Job and the lament psalms, and "fellowship with Christ in His sufferings."
Q: What would you say to a non-believer about this topic?
A: What a great question....and a difficult one. I would stop for a moment to pray for them, for their salvation and resolution of their trials. If, afterwards, I am given an opportunity to share my thoughts, I would encourage a non-believer to ponder where and how their struggles can be resolved from their naturalistic worldview. So often you find that in the midst of the fiery trials, they begin to talk like believers ("there is a purpose to all this," "I know this is for good," I'm thankful (to whom exactly I'm not sure) that this will make me stronger," etc.). I wonder how they can be so sure when they have no concept of a God (much less THE GOD) who providentially watches over His people.
As Christians, we have a simple yet profound hope in Christ, in our living God. But without that, what hope is there? Talk about wishful thinking! I would challenge them to see that if they genuinely want change and resolution to their issues, if they truly see this as a good fortune, they can only do so by turning to the Lord. "Dear friend, I hurt with you in your time of agony and I'm sorry that you are enduring this. I don't know if this means anything to you, but I want you to know that I'll definitely pray for you...this means much to me. Let me encourage with this thought. If you don't see that God is working in your life, then you really can't say that there is a good reason for your pain. I'm sorry to say this, but it makes no sense to think there is a good reason for trials unless you believe that there is someone who is greater than the problem. I want you to get through this and I want you to truly see that there is a good reason for your hardship. So, start believing in the Living God." Something like that.
Q: If someone wanted to read more about the Christian view on suffering, what’s a good book to read?
A: There are so many great books on the subject. Several that have made a huge impact on me:
How long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil
, by D. A. Carson. Dr. Carson probes several themes in Scripture that are relevant to the discussion of the problem of evil and suffering. In so doing he has shown how various parts of Scripture come together to form a framework through which we can analyze and understand our trials and pains in their proper place in light of the sovereignty of God.
Why Does It Have To Hurt: The Meaning of Christian Suffering
, by Dan McCartney. He begins by defining specifically that the type of suffering that he is addressing as that of the righteous sufferer. He then turns to the book of 1 Peter to seek out answers to questions regarding the existence of suffering and ways we can find hope in the midst of them.
Why Do I Suffer: Suffering & the Sovereignty of God
, by Dr. John Currid. Dr. Currid is an Egyptologist (i.e. academic scholar of ancient Egypt) by training, yet he demonstrates a balance of theological soundness with words of pastoral care and sensitivity. Each chapter of his book ends with a pastoral soliloquy where he addresses his readers as a shepherd would address his hurting congregants.
Of course, yours truly is also working on this subject, but that won't be available anytime soon.