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What Should Christians Do About the Pain and Suffering in This World?

Written By Karen Kwek, Singapore

A lifelong scribbler, Karen enjoys the company of friends, a great cup of tea and seeing the gospel transform hearts and lives. She worked as a book editor until she and her husband traded peace and quiet for parenthood. It seemed a good idea at the time.

I never expected celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain to take his own life. No one did. Few guessed the internal struggles that sapped his zest for living, even while publicly he personified vitality itself. Sad news comes as a shock, even when there is so much of it.

We will never be immune to the pain that is part of living in this world: war, genocide, terrorism, poverty, natural disasters and other horrible events on a global scale. . . . And then privately, too, innumerable instances of personal pain: broken relationships, physical or mental illness, loved ones lost. For a time—occasionally a very long interval—the shock can be so great, the hurt so debilitating, that the world as we know it comes crashing down around us. Little wonder that in his book The Problem of Pain, the great writer C. S. Lewis called pain God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” “We can ignore even pleasure,” Lewis wrote, “but pain insists upon being attended to.”

Given that our own and the world’s brokenness confront us daily, how should we respond to pain and suffering? What do we do as believers? In the face of terrible struggles, we have no easy answers. Others have written helpfully about the whys of suffering and about individual responses to loss and emotional hurts, so the focus of my thoughts is more on our response as a Christian community. What is it about believers that will stand out to the world, in our approach to pain and suffering?

 

1. Cry

Pain alerts us to the fact that something is wrong with the world and with people. So it is right to grieve alongside one another, to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

We also cry to God. If we aren’t honest about admitting our vulnerability and hurt, we risk becoming jaded and cynical, soldiering on in our own strength without experiencing true comfort and safety in God. In his greeting to the Corinthian Christians, the apostle Paul describes God as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). In affliction Paul turns to God, the giver of comfort.

This is not to say that there is no place for questioning, even struggling against, what God has done in our lives. In fact, the psalmists poured out their broken hearts and laid their wrecked plans at God’s feet. Their raw emotions ranged from fear to anger, confusion to despair, self-pity to remorse. Like David, who at least on one occasion sought comforters and did not find any (Psalm 69:20), we may not always feel comforted. Nevertheless, just as David still called on a “sure salvation” (Psalm 69:13), we can trust that God is tenderly present, “close to the brokenhearted”, promising salvation for the believer (Psalm 34:18). That is ultimate comfort, even if our present sufferings are hard to bear.

And it doesn’t end there.

 

2. Share the comfort of God

Crying to God brings His comfort, and Paul says God’s comfort is given us to be shared with others (2 Corinthians 1:4). The reason? Jesus. Following Him brings both suffering and comfort, and unites all believers on a shared journey:

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:5-7)

What an extraordinary picture of unity in Christ, expressed in a Christian community’s togetherness, even camaraderie, in enduring suffering! In fact, community is one of God’s means of sending comfort. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:6-7, for example, that Titus’ visit and the Corinthian Christians’ concern encouraged him. Eugene Peterson paraphrases 2 Corinthians 1:6 like this: “Your hard times are also our hard times.” We are in this together.

Comforting our friends with the comfort we’ve received from God is more than merely relieving discomfort. It suggests that in all our circumstances, whether distress or well-being, we should consider and act for others’ well-being and salvation—so that they might continue trusting Jesus. Our encouragement should help others patiently endure their difficulties and not give up believing in Jesus, because our common goal, the hope Paul mentions in verse 7, is to live forever with God.

With this goal in mind, we can contribute many practical forms of comfort and help, depending on our friends’ specific needs: our presence, cooked meals, financial assistance, occasional childcare, providing transportation, words of encouragement, and so on. These come to my mind because I have, in times of bereavement or illness, received these comforts myself from brothers and sisters in Christ.

What about you? What comfort have you received from God and other Christians? What can you share?

 

3. Pray for God-honoring endurance

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always prayed to be spared pain in the first place, and prayed for the removal of suffering, and prayed this for my loved ones, too. No-brainer?

But recently an older Christian remarked to me that our times have become very pain-averse. She wasn’t recommending that people masochistically seek out painful experiences. She was merely observing that many new pharmaceutical drugs now provide relief where people of the past would have put up with a great deal more discomfort.

We wondered if choices in medicine and health were also reflected in other areas of life, with people increasingly pursuing the greatest ease over the greatest good (or equating the two). I think our prayer life may reflect this desire to be comfortable, too. And I was stunned to read that Paul and his Corinthian prayer supporters seem to have prayed quite differently!

In Asia, the early Christians faced such intense persecution that they felt they had “received the sentence of death.” Yet, Paul says, God was in control and this suffering “happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:9). God graciously answered the prayers of many Corinthians and delivered Paul and his companions. But look at what Paul means by deliverance—in verse 10 it is clear that he doesn’t mean they didn’t suffer, only that they didn’t die!

In fact, Paul is certain that the Corinthians’ prayers will result—not in the absence of suffering—but in God continuing to preserve his life. This means that Paul fully anticipates getting into more trouble preaching and defending the gospel!

This observation has radically changed my prayer life. Not that I now pray to be experiencing pain per se, but I long to seek in my circumstances—whether painful or not—whatever speaks loudest about my Lord and Savior, Jesus. Do we dare pray this way as a church? It would be such a powerful testimony of our identity in Christ: “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.” (2 Corinthians 1:17)

 

4. Keep doing good

Even as we endure for Jesus’ sake, the world is watching. Paul urges the Galatian Christians “not to become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). We should extend this generosity in good deeds to fellow Christians as well as unbelievers—in the words of Galatians 6:10, “to all people.”

In fact, the radical stand of Christians in the face of the most horrific kinds of suffering has always been a powerful witness, winning many for Jesus. Think of the Christian martyrs during the persecutions of the Roman Empire, for instance, or Bonhoeffer and other German Christians who defied the Nazis during World War Two, or the Cambodian Christians who eventually forgave their Khmer Rouge torturers.

 

5. Look heavenward

When we continue repaying evil with good, others begin to recognize that suffering doesn’t dim our hope as Christians. This is because we don’t live for the brokenness of earthly things but for a perfected world to come. At that time, God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).

In God’s sovereign scheme, pain and suffering are not only powerless to destroy the believer, they can result in a refined, resilient faith that perseveres and spurs others on in the same way, until we see our Lord and Savior face to face. As pastor and author Tim Keller puts it in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, “suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption. And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.”

If you, like me, are sometimes baffled, discouraged or paralyzed by the hurt and pain of this world, won’t you take heart? On the cross, Jesus overcame the worst evil of all, for our sake. In all hardships, then, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Of all people, we who trust in Jesus have received the utmost encouragement to face pain and suffering with empathy, courage, practical initiative, and hope.

How God Comforted Me in the Midst of Pain

Nobody told me how hard it was going to be.

Nobody told me about the emotional roller-coaster ride I would go on after hearing the words of the emergency room doctor: “Your daughter needs immediate attention at a larger hospital.”

My helpless little baby had had a seizure out of nowhere. I had stood there in the room, watching my wife hold our daughter. “What am I supposed to do?” Thousands of thoughts ran in a million different directions. The adrenaline rushed through my veins, my palms were sweaty, yet my body couldn’t respond. I must have looked pitiful and helpless as a father, frozen in shock. Anger and fear collided as we rushed to the emergency room that Saturday morning.

“Is she okay? What is going on?” No answer.

My wife and I had run out the doors, driving madly to the hospital, our 8-month-old screaming at the top of her lungs. And there was not a single thing we could do to help her.

From the gut of my soul I cried, “Why God?”

Where are you, God, in the midst of my pain? How can I trust your goodness in the midst of this suffering?

Here are two ways God comforted me in my situation:

 

Christ Is Our Peace in the Midst of the Storm

After spending all day in the emergency room, caught between worry and anxiety, I was reminded by God of His closeness in our lives.

When Christ is the captain of your soul, there is this peace in the midst of the storm of life. While Jesus does not always rebuke the wind and the waves and calm the storm (as He did in Mark 4:35-41), Christ’s sustaining presence never leaves us. God doesn’t necessarily change the circumstances, but He gives us peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

When the circumstances and worry hit me like truck, I cried out, “God, why is this happening? Why aren’t You doing anything when I pray?” And God granted me peace simply by being with me in my trials. God reminded my wife and I, “Be not weary and dismayed, I will get this right. Be not bitter and angry, for I your God am in control of it all.” All things have happened by His eternal permission.

Though I lay awake at 2:00 a.m., thinking through the responsibilities at church that I had to carry out in only a few hours, the scriptures I had memorized as a young believer struck me like an avalanche of grace: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

The grace of God alone allowed me to be able to step away from my family that day to preach, teach, and lead the congregation, as He was the solid rock I stood upon. He used this trial to draw me even closer in Christ-likeness for His glory.

 

Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of Christ

When the storm of life hit and I needed to take shelter, these words comforted my soul:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 39)

In the midst of my anxiety, God revealed to me that He is a good and  perfect Father. When I thought, “I could have, should have, would have. . .” and felt like a major failure of a father, I trusted instead in the sovereignty of God—who was perfect in all of His ways. When I felt like I couldn’t take another step or take another breath, my Heavenly Father reminded me, “My son, trust Me on this roller-coaster of anxiety. I’ve got you in my righteous right hand.”

After the adrenaline rush, I looked to my wife’s head on my shoulder, and my daughter in my arms, and I was overwhelmed by the reality that was set before me. God granted us the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). In the silence of the night, God’s close presence pressed upon our hearts.

God used this suffering of our daughter’s illness for His own glory. Though I was in despair the entire journey, His grace and His infinite power held us tight.

God reminded me that, no matter what happens in our lives, we can place our trust in the Creator of all things and be sustained by His irresistible grace.

God Is With Me In My Panic Attacks

Written By Marissa Cathey, Mexico

It was just like any other Saturday night, and I was hanging out with my friends after the church service. A large group of us went out for dinner as usual and had a grand time talking and relaxing. I was enjoying myself, laughing and cracking jokes with my friends sitting closest to me.

Then suddenly, I looked around at all the people around our tables—friends and strangers alike in the restaurant. I became uncomfortably aware of all the conversations going around me, the sound of people chewing food, utensils clattering on plates, and food orders being yelled in the kitchen. The smells of the many different meals around me became too much to take in and I started getting dizzy.

Knots formed in my stomach, and it was becoming difficult to breathe calmly. I quickly got up from my chair and made a beeline for the exit. It wasn’t much better outside though, since we were downtown and there was so much activity. People swarmed all around me on the sidewalk, and traffic was busy as ever. Soon, the sensory stimulation overwhelmed me; it was something I had zero control over, and I simply couldn’t handle my surroundings anymore.

The tears started coming and I felt myself going down another one of my dark mental spirals of fear, confusion, and insecurity. I walked and walked until I found a small, lonely alley and tried to calm down enough to try the breathing exercises my counselor had taught me. Standing in that alley trying to ground myself in reality again felt like forever, but the intense emotion of fear finally faded and I felt safe again.

This scenario has happened countless times in the three years since my battle with anxiety started. It has happened in restaurants, in stores, in church, in friends’ homes, on the metro, and other places. I panic when my brain realizes it can’t control its surroundings and the way my senses are affected.

The struggle is constant and ongoing. Panic comes unexpectedly and usually for no obvious reason. Often I’m frustrated with myself—why can’t I be like the rest of my friends and peers, who can enjoy themselves and not be so deeply affected by their senses as I am?

 

God Comforts Me

But even in the midst of fear and confusion, I am increasingly realizing that God is near. Regardless of what we’re going through, God always has something to speak into our lives (Psalm 91:15). And He has been teaching me to distinguish His voice from my intense fears of suffocation and feelings of despair, so that I can push past my anxiety and clearly hear  what He has to say.

God created me, and He knows all my weaknesses and faults. He has been gracious to me even as I learn to trust Him through my hardships. This can be seen in how He has surrounded me with close friends who understand my struggles, who know when to keep me company or talk me through my panic. I do not take this for granted.

Each time I have a panic attack, I also discover more and more how much comfort even the simplest, shortest of prayers or a well-written passage can bring. One day a friend shared with me an excerpt from Bob Goff’s book Love Does:

I get the invitation every morning when I wake up to actually live a life of complete engagement…it’s ushered in by a sunrise, the sound of a bird, or the smell of coffee drifting lazily from the kitchen. It’s the invitation (from God) to actually live, to fully participate in this amazing life for one more day.

I realized that my senses are a gift from God so I could experience His amazing creation. God wants me to receive His blessings and enjoy His goodness (Ephesians 1:3), and my senses are an invitation for me to enjoy life and enjoy my relationship with the Creator through it.

 

Learning to Love Others

With this in mind, I am learning more and more how to take my panic attack triggers, turn them around, and practice seeing God in them. Most of my triggers are people-related (crowds, outdoor noises and smells), so I am trying to see past my difficulty and love people around me more.

After a panic attack, I will often focus on being useful or kind to people around me, largely so I can take my mind off my panic. Sometimes I am prompted to pray for people around me. Other times I stop and notice that people have specific needs I can help with, such as lifting something heavy, walking up the stairs, or needing directions.

It’s amazing what happens when we take time to look around us and see how we can serve others. This is what Jesus did (Matthew 14:13-14), and as His followers, we’re to do the same. This can be very hard to do when we’re caught up in our present troubles. I know that often it is difficult for me to even see light at the end of the tunnel. But when I am able to look around me, I have often received unexpected blessings by giving to people through acts of service.

 

Be Willing to Seek Help

Improving mental health is a process. For anyone experiencing trouble in this area, please be encouraged knowing that getting better really is possible, even if it is a slow process. Prayer and Bible reading have been vital for me, but they were not enough on their own. I saw a licensed counselor for some time, to help me learn to push through my intrusive thoughts. God can and certainly does use the medical expertise He’s given others to help us live better lives. Don’t be afraid to reach out and seek help.

We all have an opportunity to experience nearness to God through hardship. We don’t have to be “good” at maneuvering life and all its aspects (e.g., mental health). We just have to be open to letting God come to us. Spend time with Him, make it a point to talk with Him throughout your day. Ask for medical help if you need to, there is no shame in wanting to live better. Don’t push away those who sincerely care for you and want to be there with you; they can be angels in disguise. These are choices we make every day. Invitations to experience God’s grace.

When darkness and confusion seem to be clouding your mind, know there is still a God of love and power Who is holding you and seeing you through it all. As He promised in His Word:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
(Isaiah 43:2-3a)

When God’s Promises Don’t Mean Very Much

Written by Nelle Lim, Singapore

I was standing at the precipice of a new season, nervously anticipating the last day of my salaried job and the dreaded world of freelancing that awaited me after. It wasn’t a career move that I’d chosen. But the company wasn’t doing well, so I’d been retrenched.

As I prayed and looked for another job, I encountered something familiar: all the doors to the work that I wanted were firmly closed, but the door to the sort of job I didn’t want—freelancing—was flung wide open.

In the week leading up to that last day, friends coincidentally sent me links to sermons and articles, all related to the same verse, “So do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10). None of them knew each other or knew about my job transition. Receiving the promise “I am with you” in several different forms happened enough times for me to know that God was trying to get through to me.

So, I sat down one evening and said to God, “I’ve got to be honest. I know being told that You are with me is supposed to be something very precious, but it doesn’t give me the comfort that I think I’m supposed to feel.”

I braced myself for what was surely going to be (at the very least) gentle chastising. What a sacrilegious thing to say, after all. But as I waited on God, a surprising question came to my mind:

When have I felt assured simply because of someone’s presence with me?

Thinking back over my experiences, I remembered two people who had a remarkably reassuring effect on me.

Mr. and Mrs. B. were teachers I had in high school when I was in New Zealand. They would often organize hikes in the New Zealand wilderness during the summer weekends. They were absolute experts, and knew all the beautiful and formidable things about the outdoors, as well as how to navigate through them.

There were always any number of things that could go wrong in the bush: the way the unpredictable New Zealand storms could transform the safest looking path into a deathtrap, or how an unusually hot summer could dry up a stream at a campsite and leave you stranded for fresh water. Someone stepped on an innocent-looking tree root once, some 10 minutes after Mr. B. warned the team not to (tree roots are always deceptively slippery). She had to be helicoptered out of the bush because of how terribly she’d sprained her ankle.

Yet, amidst all the potential for chaos, I was never once anxious about how dangerous tramping could be. I was so assured of Mr. and Mrs. B.’s competence that I knew, when the worst happened, they’d manage it perfectly. I was also certain that they cared about their students and would use their expertise if we needed help. There isn’t much point having experts at hand if they’re indifferent to your situation. This combination of what they could do and who they were made their presence indispensable.

It occurred to me to apply this reflection to my current circumstance, so I thought about the sort of expert I’d ideally like to have during this season of freelancing.

My answer rolled right off: someone excellent at finding jobs for me, the ones I like and can do well, the ones that open doors to meaningful projects where I can make a difference. It wouldn’t hurt if they paid well too, of course, the bills and all that. . .

And then, almost immediately, another question dropped in my heart, “Is there anyone more of an expert and more willing than God is to provide all those things for you?”

It felt like such an obvious question, with such an obvious answer. But I was shocked to realize just how ineffectual I’d thought God was. A source of comfort, sure, insofar as one is comforted by having their hand patted and told that everything will be fine. But that’s not what relieves fear, no.

Fears arise from an acute realization that what one has at hand is insufficient to thrive in a situation. I feared freelancing because I wasn’t sure that the irregularity of the work could always keep me financially afloat. The only thing that would dissipate my fear was knowing I had a tangible way through the quagmire, something I clearly didn’t think God was capable of doing!

My fears revealed my insufficiencies of which I was most aware. And they also revealed the aspects of God of which I was most unaware. My inaccurate impression of who God could be made me ascribe His promise with the value and power of a fridge magnet.

After all, whether the words, “Don’t worry, I’ll be with you wherever you go; I won’t ever leave you,” mean anything to us really depends on the person who says it. (Stalkers say these things too, and that’s what restraining orders are for.) In the same way that I valued Mr. and Mrs. B. because I knew what they could do and who they were, I needed to learn who God is before I could cherish His promise.

In the face of my limitations, God promises Himself to me—with all His expertise and His willingness—so that I will have what He has to meet my circumstances. His expertise is in keeping unstable situations stable (Psalm 18:2), in making something come out of nothing (Isaiah 48:21), in knowing how to give us exactly what we need (Matthew 6:8). How He’ll do it, He’ll never say, but that He’ll keep His word is a given.

I realized it’s a little like how it was with Mr. and Mrs. B. I never questioned the routes they took us on, even through some of the most mundane  landscapes or those perilous cliff edge trails on the side of a mountain. They had my complete trust, so whatever paths we were taking became irrelevant. I knew they would always lead us to some of the most spectacular campsites or mountaintop views that New Zealand has to offer. They always led us somewhere good.

When I question God’s instructions, or if I fear the path He’s taking me down, it’s because I’ve lost sight of how much of an expert He is in that area of my life. He knows the ins and outs of the land and all the tricks of the trade and is the most qualified to navigate me through it competently. He’s the very best at healing broken hearts, in building secure inner worlds, in redeeming failures, in sustaining human relationships, in overcoming the impossible. . . an endless list of specialties for a God with infinite capacities.

I don’t know why being a freelancer is so necessary for me just yet, and I don’t know where it’ll lead. But I trust that He has excellent reasons for it. It’s been three months into this new season, and He’s already given me more work than I know what to do with. Expert, indeed.