As I’ve written previously, the question of suffering is among the most difficult to answer for the Christian apologist. How, indeed, can a perfectly good God allow so much injustice and suffering?
I’ve tried to point out elsewhere that the root of suffering is human sin, but it is also necessary to affirm as a child of God that our suffering is used by God to accomplish His purpose in us, and through us.
God uses suffering and tribulation to chasten His people. We should not think about the issue of suffering as an isolated phenomenon. Rather, as believers, we must ALWAYS remember that in His atoning death, Christ sanctified us, made us holy, and set us apart. We have become adopted sons and daughters of almighty God, and it is in that relationship that we are chastened. The author of Hebrews says:
6For whom the LORD loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives."
7If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.
Chastening means to train by correction. It is important to note that the sufferings God allows are not punitive, but corrective. They are done so that “we may be partakers of His holiness.” Like an earthly father who disciplines his children to bring out the best in them, so God wants to bring out the potential that is in us. Verse 10 says that He does it “for our profit.” Moreover, the text says that if we are without God’s chastening and correction, we are “illegitimate and not sons” of God. So, on one level, suffering is a mark that we belong to God, and are loved by God, who is bringing us into holiness.
We should also remember that there is an important difference between divine punishment and divine chastisement. The Christian is not punished for sins because that punishment was already paid. Consider Hebrews 10:10, “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Scripture tells us that as a result of Christ’s death, there is “no condemnation” and that we walk in the Spirit rather than the flesh (Rom. 8:1). The Bible also says that if we hear God’s Word and believe in Christ, we will have everlasting life, “and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
Though we are sanctified and set free from judgment by Christ, there is still a process of cleansing that takes place in our life. In the Old Testament, there were a panoply cleansing rituals. John speaks of the connection between confession and cleansing, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
When I pick this up next time, it is in that light that I want to think about suffering. Not as something we endure as punishment that has no meaning, but as a tool used by an all-loving, all-knowing, perfect, holy, redeeming God to cleanse His people and work out His holy will.