Understanding Suffering

This is a letter I sent to my sister about 5 years ago. It was the culmination of many years of research and thinking about suffering and how it relates to the Christian life. The letter was written on the very day that I had come to a more fuller understanding.

Hi Anne

First things first - don’t panic! I’m just writing you a letter of my thoughts about suffering.

I know this may seem strange - a letter and all - but I felt it would convey my thinking a bit better than a phone call. Besides, we can talk it over after you’ve read this.

I have to say that today I have finally been able to grasp a solution to the problem - I was able to both justify my analysis of the New Testament teaching on suffering and, at the same time, conclude that God uses all suffering to strengthen his people. Yes that’s right! I now admit that all suffering is part of God’s plan to build his church.

My problem started with some basic exegesis of Biblical text. All the New Testament verses that refer to suffering are in the context of persecution - and I mean all of them. When we read the scriptures, we must be careful to understand what the writer was saying to the readers at the time, and then go from there to apply it to our lives. Hebrews 12.7 says “endure hardship as discipline”, but that verse is in context with all of chapter 11 which is a description of saints who were persecuted for their faith. So therefore I conclude that Hebrews 12.7 can only refer to persecution - why else would it refer to other forms of suffering when the writer has spent so much time talking about endurance through persecution? 1 Peter 4.12-19 describes suffering, but is again talking explicitly about persecution. Other NT verses are likewise pointing either implicitly or explicitly at persecution.

The only OT reference is Job. But even that is persecution - Satan was persecuting Job.

So, faced with what the Bible plainly said, I therefore had to ask the question “What is the suffering that Christians undergo that God uses to build them up?” The answer? Persecution. As a result, I therefore had to question my own beliefs, and the beliefs of others, about why we suffer and how God uses it. Since the Bible plainly said that it could only be persecution, I had to begin questioning whether or not it was Biblical to say that God works through general suffering. So, I had a problem - the Bible said one thing, and my experience and the experience of others (like yourself) said another. Being a Bible believing Christian and believing that experience, while valid, is subordinate to scripture, I had to begin questioning whether or not suffering included more than just persecution.

So, after 5 long years of debating this in my head, I finally came to a conclusion this afternoon while talking to a Christian I had never met before at a birthday party for one of Anna’s friends.

The key to understanding all this is Job. Job was persecuted by Satan, but the form the persecution took was physical and mental suffering. Job was persecuted, and this occurred because God let Satan do it, and allowed Satan to kill his sons and daughters and afflict him with a physical ailment.

So, I conlcuded, God allows Satan to persecute one of his people through the means of “general” suffering as it were. Satan did not send anti-Christians (or anti-Jews) to attack and persecute Job, he sent natural disasters to kill his family and physical ailments to attack his body and make him suffer.

Okay, so, I had then discovered one place in the Bible which associated general suffering to the work of Satan. So, I asked myself, could God allow Satan to persecute any more followers of God through the same means? Absolutely.

Then the bombshell hit. Could it then be possible that all forms of suffering is Satanic in origin? Is this sort of belief reasonable? I have concluded that it is.

All forms of suffering occur because we live in a world tainted by sin. We suffer because we live in a fallen world. So all forms of disease, natural disasters, murders and so on are the result of a world tainted by sin. But Satan is behind this because he is the evil that causes this sin to exist and propagate.

So, in this sense, all forms of suffering are Satanic - he sends suffering upon all people, including Christians. But God limits the damage he does - some Christians die from this Satanic attack, others, like Job, do not.

So how does all this fit in with the New Testament teaching on persecution? Well, all suffering Christians undergo is persecution from Satan - whether it be overt (unbelievers killing you for your faith) or covert (contracting cancer, for example). Therefore, whatever your suffering, God uses it to discipline you and make you holy, because you are being persecuted by Satan.

Now we can get all “Spiritual warfare” over this and claim that our sickness is due to Satan and we only need to expel him somehow and we’ll be fine, but there is a big problem with this - God allows Satan to persecute. We suffer because God lets us suffer because it disciplines us. Rather than trying to bind Satan or worry about demonization, we need to realise that God is allowing Satan to do this to us.... just like he did to Job.

Another point to remember is that nowhere does God promise that suffering will be taken away. In other words, if we pray that God heal us he might answer “no!”. Yes God can heal, but he does not promise that we will be healed..... at least not in this lifetime.

Finally, I think one really good application from this whole shebang is that when we see the suffering that goes on in our lives and in the lives of others, we shouldn’t ask “Why is God doing this?”, we should be saying “Satan is doing this”, and accept that God uses it anyway.

The supreme example of this teaching is found in the cross. At the cross we have the embodiment of mankind’s total rejection of God’s rule and Satan’s desire to usurp God, but we also have the embodiment of God’s love and forgiveness for mankind and his total defeat of Satan.

Anyway, I’ll stop preaching now. It has been a good day - after 5 years God has led me to understand! (But I will keep checking on the validity of this belief... just in case!)



From the Theosalient Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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