2019 did not start well. I wept with my New Zealand friends when mosques in Christchurch were attacked and almost 50 people lost their lives. Then I cried in disbelief when my sister nearly lost her home in terrible floods in a province in Papua, Indonesia, where hundreds of people lost their lives and thousands of people were rendered homeless.
My heart continues to break for the persecuted Christians and people of minority religions who face a constant threat of violence, rape, imprisonment and even death all over the world. Their stories are heartbreaking, and the needs seem overwhelming. If thousands of innocent people suffer at the hands of a crazed killer or a sudden change in the earth’s atmosphere, why does God seem to remain silent? How is that right or fair?
C.S. Lewis argued that the issue of suffering does not lie with who God is, but with who we are as beings created in His image. In The Problem of Pain, he explains, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
The Bible clearly affirms God’s goodness—He is “compassionate and gracious . . . slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6); He “loves righteousness and justice” (Psalm 33:5); there is no darkness in Him (1 John 1:5). But while God is good, we are not. God gives us choices, and the consequences of those choices can, unfortunately, end up affecting both good and bad people. Our sin has corrupted the world itself, and illness, accidents and natural disasters are consequences that every living creature is susceptible to.
What can we do to overcome the pain? How do we worship God in the storms of life? Here are four things I’ve discovered that help me to focus on God’s unchanging goodness:
1. Be real with God
I used to think that I had to come to God in prayer only after I’d figured things out on my own. But God asks us to call on His name when we need help. It’s when I share my anger and pain with Him that I’ve noticed a real change occurring in my heart.
My relationship with my own dad has helped me better understand how I can approach my heavenly father. My dad has always been there for me. When I share my struggles with him it helps draw us closer. This helps me see that if I can be real with my earthly father, I need to be real with my heavenly Father, too.
The Bible has many examples of people being open with our heavenly Father. In one of his many psalms, King David urges us to pour out our hearts to God in all situations (Psalm 62:8). In 1 Samuel 1:15, Hannah cries to the Lord about the pain of her barrenness. We may not understand why painful things happen, but God wants us to share them with Him. We are His children, and He cares about our pain.
2. Recognize that trials can help us grow
It is a precious gift to be able to put our faith in Christ, but the Bible does not promise that our lives would then be easy. Paul even says that we will face greater trials when we follow Jesus, but that we are to count them all a blessing for the sake of the gospel (Romans 8:17). After all, pain and trials can serve to strengthen our character.
In my teenage years, I experienced chronic illness and bullying, and I believe that these experiences helped me develop a deep sense of empathy for others who are vulnerable and weakened. Looking back, I recognize that it was during some of the darkest times in my life that my relationship with Jesus has grown. Recognizing that I can’t do life on my own helped forge a deep sense of trust in God—that I can lean on Him and that He will guide me.
As Paul says, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
3. Look beyond our own pain and help others
As Christians, what should our response to acts of violence be? How should we respond to God when bad things happen to good people? Jesus calls us to love one another and to love our neighbors (John 13:34, Mark 12:31). But it doesn’t end there. We are even called to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-46).
Responses to the New Zealand shootings from churches, politicians, and community groups are a good example of love in action. People prayed with their Muslim friends and showed them love regardless of their faith or culture. Similarly, when my sister’s town was flooded, she was brought to tears by the acts of loving-kindness the community showed for one another. Churches, schools, police officers, and community leaders banded together to care for those who needed help. Despite the fact that many of these people lost possessions and homes of their own, they looked beyond their own situation to see how they could be a force for good in someone else’s life.These beautiful acts of grace challenge me to consider my own heart in greater detail, and to seek ways to love those around me even in times of difficulty.
4. Jesus understands and can comfort us in our pain
God understands suffering more than any of us ever will. Jesus was the suffering servant who endured mocking, shame, slander, pain, violence, and the weight of the world’s sins as He died on the cross for our redemption (Isaiah 53:3). It is a great comfort to know that the Creator of the universe not only hears us when we cry to Him, but knows our pain intimately. When we are hurting, He is hurting with us.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 tells us that God comforts us in our troubles so that we can in turn comfort others who are hurting. When I was grieving the loss of two young friends and struggling with my own health scare, I felt like giving up. I had no way to see through the darkness, so all I could do was cry out to God and give Him my pain. It wasn’t an instant fix, but I can honestly say that I felt “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” as I was held in the loving arms of God (Philippians 4:7). This peace enabled me to offer comfort in turn to a friend who had lost someone close to them.
Pain and suffering rarely make sense. When we’re in the midst of suffering, it can be easy to blame God or assume He doesn’t care. But don’t lose heart! We can tell God how we’re feeling. We can remember that He is always with us, through the good times and the bad. We can also be there to help others in their pain.
We know that God is good because He loves us so much that He suffered in our place. We may not always understand why some things happen, but it helps to know that God cares, and He is with us in our pain. Suffering will not last forever, and even if our pain stays with us for many years, we can still look forward to the hope of eternal glory with Christ, one that far outweighs any present suffering (2 Corinthians 4:17).