“I just think God wants me to be happy. It’s never God’s will for his children to suffer.” I hear those statements frequently from Christians as they try to make sense of the character of God. Why would a loving God not want his children to be happy?
And I understand the reasoning behind it. Like everyone else, I want to be happy. I don’t want to experience pain, or even inconvenience. I don’t want my close relationships destroyed. Or my health ruined. Or my livelihood taken away.
But, in the manifold wisdom of God, as I look at Scripture, I see clearly that God uses suffering for our good. And when it comes to suffering, one of the best places to learn about it is the book of Job, because that’s the subject of this entire book.
Whenever we consider the topic of suffering, one of the first questions we want to ask is, “Who’s to blame? Who’s responsible for my suffering?”
And while the purpose of this sermon is not to answer that question, I can give a quick answer by saying that some suffering is caused as a result of our own sinfulness, our own wrong choices. And some of our suffering is caused by the sinfulness of others. But, there’s some suffering that’s not necessarily anybody’s fault, so the responsibility seems to lie with God. If God doesn’t actually cause the suffering, we would have to admit that he certainly does allow it to happen.
Which leads us to another question in regard to suffering — “Why?” “Why do we suffer?” More to the point “Why do good people suffer, especially when it seems that evil people are prospering?”
Let’s take a look at this video from the Bible Project that will give us an overview of the book of Job to see if that book can give us an answer to this question of, “Why?
So, I’m guessing that there may be a few of you who are disappointed that Job doesn’t give us an answer to the question, “Why?” And so, we still want to know. Why does God allow us to experience pain and suffering? What purpose does it serve? And how can we reconcile that with our understanding that our God is an all-loving God? Why would an all-loving God allow me to experience pain and suffering? It just doesn’t seem right, it doesn’t seem fair.
One of the characteristics of pain makes it difficult to find answers to those questions when we need them the most. You see, the very nature of pain causes it to always concentrate our attention on ourselves. When we’re hurting, we have a hard time thinking about anything else except for our pain. Think back to the last time you were in extreme physical pain — a broken leg, bad back, headache, whatever. Whenever you’re in pain, it’s difficult to think of anything else but getting relief.
And what’s true of physical pain is also true of emotional pain. That’s one of the bad things about depression; emotional pain focuses our attention on our pain and that just adds to the depression itself. The result is that in the midst of pain, it’s difficult to see past the pain.
As so, when we’re going through a tough time in our lives, when all the problems seem to be mounting day by day with no end in sight, it’s very difficult for us to even think about the benefits of suffering. Intellectually, we know that God said, “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). But believing that, really believing it, when things are going rough, is a difficult thing to do.
What we need to do is to step back from the situation to look at the big picture. And that’s what I want to try to do with you this morning. Because many of the things that seem to be so terrible at the moment, later on we can look back and see them as something positive.
It’s like the discipline we received as children. The Hebrew writer tells us in Hebrews 12:11 that “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant,”, but he goes on to say that it does serve an important purpose that we can appreciate as we get older. No child likes to be spanked. I don’t remember ever saying to my parents, “I really enjoyed that. Would you please do it again?”
But now that I’m older, I look back and I see that that discipline served a purpose and, in fact, I even appreciate it. But if you try to tell that to your kids when they’re about to get a spanking, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. Because in the midst of suffering, it’s hard to see the benefit.
Now I say all this because I believe the same thing is true in regard to the problems and trials of life. If you are in the midst of an especially difficult time right now, you may say, “Well, all that talk about the benefit of suffering sounds nice, but I just don’t see how any of that applies to me.”
Because when the pain is great, it’s hard to appreciate the benefit. But later on, when the pain eases up, you can look back in appreciation and say, “God was right. All things do work together for good to those who love God.”
And, for those who are not going through such dark times at this moment, we can prepare ourselves so when those tough times do come, hopefully we’ll be ready for them.
Because, what we have to realize is that while suffering itself isn’t good, it can accomplish some good things in our lives. So, I want to suggest this morning several good things that can come about as a result of our suffering. But first, I want to define what I mean by “something good”.
What’s Good and What’s Bad?
Sometimes it’s hard to always know what’s truly good in our lives and what’s bad. But generally, we would be in agreement. For example, if I were to ask you, “You’ve just inherited a million dollars from a long-lost relative. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Most of us, I think, would say that’s a good thing.
And if I say to you, “You’ve just been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and you’ve got three months to live. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Again, I think that most of us would say that’s a bad thing.
But let me give you a little different perspective. Since our purpose here on this earth is to live as close to God as we possibly can, then it seems to me that whatever draws us closer to God is good, and whatever takes us away from God is bad. And once you accept that standard, then a lot of things that happen in this world can be seen in a different light.
It’s quite possible that the riches and the pleasures of this world are actually hindrances rather than helps. If I inherit a million dollars, but the result of my new-found fortune is that I end up leaving God, then that’s not good at all. Jesus said, “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
It’s also quite conceivable that illness, loss of money or even the loss of a loved one might serve some good purpose. If I’ve got only three months to live, but those three months draw me closer to God and my family, and perhaps others are led into a right relationship with God during that crisis, then how can we say that that’s a bad thing?
I think that’s what Solomon meant when he said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2-3).
Now, I don’t think Solomon is saying that you should never laugh and have a good time. But what he is saying is that those sad times are good for us because they make us stop and reflect about our relationship with God. It’s quite possible that illness is better than health. A man who spends some time on his back in a hospital room will often see things in a clearer light than he ever saw them while he was going through life without a care.
So, with that thought in mind, let’s look at the book of Job to find some specific good that may come out of our suffering.
1. Suffering may bring glory to God.
The book of Job opens with what amounts to a contest between God and Satan. “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?’” (Job 1:8) God brought the righteousness of Job to Satan’s attention.
Satan’s response was to accuse Job of serving God only because of the great material blessings that God had given him. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!'” (Job 1:9-11).
Satan said, in effect, that God had bought Job’s affection. He felt certain that if everything was taken away, Job would curse God to his face. And so, God allowed Satan to test Job.
But let me ask you a question. What would have happened if Job had done what Satan said he would do and he cursed God? If that had happened, then Satan would have been vindicated. Job’s suffering and his faith brought glory to God.
The way we handle suffering has the ability to bring praise and honor to God. Suppose you experience some terrible hardship, or you’re in great pain. And perhaps you find yourself asking the same questions Job asked. But like Job, you remain faithful to God, and someone you know is led to faith in Christ because of your faith in the midst of suffering.
I don’t think that hypothetical case is so far-fetched. Don’t you think that the way that Jesus handled his suffering influenced anyone else? Don’t you think Paul’s attitude even while he was chained in prison influenced the people around him? Don’t you think the faith of the early Christians as they faced the lions influenced others in a positive way?
Suffering itself isn’t good, but it can used for good as God is glorified by our faith in the midst of suffering.
2. Suffering may draw us closer to God.
Job was a great man of faith before his tragedy; he was a man who walked with God. In the first verse, we read that he “was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil.” (Job 1:1). Job was a model follower of God, but then tragedy struck. And throughout his tragedy, Job never quit trusting God.
But then, at the end, God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. And even though Job’s questions weren’t answered, he stopped questioning God. He said to God, “I know that you can do everything, and that no purpose of yours can be withheld from you. You asked, “Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.'” (Job 42:1-3).
Even though Job was a great servant of God before, his suffering brought him into a deeper relationship with God. He ended up knowing God better because of his suffering. The suffering itself wasn’t good, but it resulted in something good.
The same thing can happen to us today. Sometimes we allow our relationship with God to be somewhat superficial. We keep God out on the fringes of our lives, setting aside a couple of hours for him on Sunday mornings.
But, the pain of suffering focuses our attention. It doesn’t allow us to look at anything superficially or take anything for granted. We can no longer take God for granted, but he becomes our only hope for deliverance. Like Job, suffering can focus our attention on God and it can cause us to have a deeper relationship with God.
I think that’s what James had in mind when he said, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4).
I read once about a young man who invested all of his savings in a peach orchard. He worked hard, the weather was favorable and he had a beautiful crop. Then, just before harvest, a hailstorm struck. In a matter of minutes, everything he had worked for was ruined.
As a result of this, he became bitter and quit going to church. A fellow Christian expressed concern. The young man said, “I’m not going to church anymore because I can’t love and worship a God who cares so little for me that he would let the hail destroy my crop.”
His friend said, “The Lord loves you more than he loves your crop. He knows that fruit does better without the storms; but he also knows that it’s impossible to produce Christian character without the storms of trial. God’s primary concern is not to develop lovely peaches, but strong men.”
Some of you are going through some tough times. You may have suffered a great loss. Or perhaps you’re enduring some painful physical illness. Or maybe it’s something even too excruciating to talk about. Please understand that God can use that suffering to draw you closer to him.
While suffering itself isn’t good, through God, it can be used for good.
3. Suffering can help us focus on our faith rather than our blessings.
Remember Satan’s original accusation against Job? Satan said that Job served God only because of the blessings. Now, that was a false accusation, and the book of Job proves it. God knew it was a false accusation right from the start.
But the question is, “Did Job know that it was false?” Could Job have been certain that his faith was out of a purely spiritual motive and not a shallow material one? He may not have known for sure before his experiences, but he certainly knew afterwards.
So, one of the benefits of Job’s suffering was that it focused his attention on his faith and not his blessings, and it showed that his faith was strong. The suffering itself wasn’t good, but it did result in good.
It’s easy for us to serve God when things are going well; it’s more difficult sometimes to do so in the midst of suffering. We live in a society that makes it relatively easy to be a Christian. Sure, there are temptations and influences that lead us away from faith. But it is comparatively easier to be a Christian in America today than just about anywhere else. We don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We don’t have to worry about persecution. And perhaps some of us are Christians just because it’s easy to be a Christian.
But in suffering, our faith stands alone. Suffering makes Christianity a matter of faith and not circumstance.
The book of Habakkuk has one of the most beautiful passages of faith in all the Bible. The whole book is really a discussion between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk begins by saying, “God, I don’t understand. There’s a lot of wicked people around us and nothing’s being done to punish them. What’s the deal?”
And God explains what’s going to happen, but Habakkuk doesn’t like that either. But, in the end, he learns to trust God. He says, “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls — yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
Habakkuk says, “Even if everything in the world that can go wrong, does go wrong, I won’t lose my faith in you.” Because he came to realize that while suffering itself wasn’t good, through God, it was able to be used for something good.
In conclusion, let me share with you an illustration that shows the good that can come from difficult times. In the city of Enterprise, Alabama, there is a monument that has to be one of the strangest monuments in the world. It’s a statue of an insect, a boll weevil. Which seems to me to be a very unusual statue to put up in the middle of town.
Here’s how it came about. In early plantation days, almost everyone around Enterprise raised cotton. And they made a good living at it. But then came the boll weevils. Nasty little insects that came by the millions, destroying the cotton crop every year before the farmers had a chance to harvest.
They tried to get rid of those boll weevils, but they couldn’t find any way to do it, so scientists, including George Washington Carver, started looking for another crop. The solution they found was peanuts. And it wasn’t long before everyone stopped growing cotton and started growing peanuts. Enterprise became known as the peanut capital of the world. And, as a result, the farmers’ profits soared.
Folks in Enterprise decided to do something for that boll weevil. At one time, they hated that destructive little insect. But it was because of him that they were forced them to develop a better way of doing things. So, they built a statue to honor the critter.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that that horrible problem you’re facing right now may be the best thing that ever happened to you if it causes you to react in such a way that makes your life better, that brings you closer to God.
As much as we would like to, we can’t always understand why God allows problems to come, but one thing is sure — every difficulty we face, every pain we experience, every bit of suffering we go through, can be used by our Heavenly Father to promote our spiritual growth and development.
As I said in the beginning of this lesson, if you’re going through a difficult time right now, it may be hard for you to see that. But as we look back over our lives, we can all see times that we felt things were as bad as they could possibly get, and yet now we’re able to understand a bit and maybe even appreciate.
And day by day, we learn to trust God even more fully when he says, “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28).
It is that kind of attitude that allows us to sing the song that we’re about to sing together. Because no matter how bad things may get, “It is Well With My Soul”.