Our conversation today is a difficult one. It deals with suffering. Webster’s Dictionary says suffering is, “The state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.” When we hear suffering described that way, suffering sounds rather clinical, sterile, and lacking in depth. Suffering, true suffering is real. It is raw. It is physical, spiritual, relational, and emotional.
The question, “Why is there suffering?” is common to every human culture and has persisted for centuries. Because we bring interpret everything that happens to us in order to give it meaning, we interpret suffering to bring meaning to it as well. Today, we will think theologically about suffering, applying an interpretation to it, and how suffering effects our life, our relationship with God, and our relationships with others. Often, in suffering, we wonder, “God, what did I do or what did I not do to cause You to bring this suffering upon me?” This is a very common thought among the people I counsel who are experiencing the loss of a loved one. They are suffering and want to know how God allowed this death to happen or why didn’t God keep this death from happening. When we interpret suffering through the lens that God is the cause of our suffering, then as Christian counselor Paul Tripp wrote, “It’s hard to run to God for help, to rest in his care, to be assured of his love, and to believe that his mercies are constantly available and new every day when you’re convinced you’re being punished by him.” Dr. Tripp’s words are powerful. For if we interpret suffering as coming from God, then our suffering is made all the worse because we will not reach out to God, who is the source of our healing.
What then are we to do? I would suggest we deal objectively with some facts of life and suffering. First, “We live in a broken world where people die, food decays, wars rage, governments are corrupt, people take what isn’t theirs and inflict violence on one another, spouses act hatefully toward each other, children are abused instead of protected, people die slowly from disease or suddenly from accidents, drugs addict and devastate families, gossip destroys reputations, bitterness grows like cancer, and the list could go on and on.” I think we all get the picture that there are many avenues and pathways that surround us which lead to suffering. This is the world in which we live. Since, we are experts in worldly suffering, I do not think we will need to expand on this point.
Second, because the world is broken, then to experience suffering is to live the human experience. Meaning, suffering comes from human living. Then when we suffer, we need to realize that God has not singled us out for suffering. Suffering is common to all. Therefore, the source of suffering is not of God or from God.
Third, although God is not the source of suffering, God is intimately aware of our suffering and desires it to end. Sometimes we think that because we follow Christ we should not suffer. “God doesn’t bargain people into faith in Jesus by offering immunity from suffering. Because Jesus took on himself the punishment of our sins, we are free from sin’s suffering, but not from life’s suffering.”
Finally, not even God is immune from suffering. God understands suffering in a very real and personal way. It is with this point that I would like us to spend some time.
We are the beneficiaries of the relationship between God and suffering. Let that sink in for a moment. We have benefited from God’s very personal suffering. We see the relationship between God and suffering most clearly in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Why is that so? Because Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). Jesus said, “6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14:6, 7). Most simply, Jesus was and is the exact image of God.
Since Jesus is the exact image of God, then we should ask ourselves about the relationship of Jesus and suffering. Ask yourself, how many times and how many people did Jesus single out and inflict suffering upon them? How many times did Jesus inflict a disease upon someone or cause someone’s death through an accident or ruin someone’s reputation with gossip or abuse a child? The answer is Jesus never did any of those things. Jesus never inflicted suffering upon anyone and yet he was the exact image of God. I guess we can then dispense with the idea that suffering is part of God’s inherent nature and plan.
This then requires us to examine how Jesus reacted to those who were suffering. Let me give you three quick examples from Gospels. One: “14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Mt 14:14). Two: “32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way” (Mt 15:32). Three: “11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” 14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (Lk 7:11-15).
We could go on for the balance of our time citing additional examples Jesus’ response toward suffering. The result would be that we would find Jesus was never indifferent to suffering in its many forms and that his desire was always to alleviate suffering. His acts show that God does not provoke suffering, does not find the slightest joy in human suffering, and his desire is to lead us through suffering. Therefore, if this was Jesus behavior toward suffering and he is the exact image of God, then when we suffer, we should not interpret suffering as coming from God, but that God is the source of our healing.
Perhaps one more illustration can help us see more clearly the relationship between suffering and God. Let’s look quickly at our New Testament readings today. Our readings came from the Gospel of Matthew and painted disturbing scenes. The first reading came from Chapter 26, verses 57 through 67. Jesus had been arrested. His hands bound together. It was night. The best and brightest of Israel gathered to hear evidence of religious crimes allegedly committed by Jesus. The trial was in the home of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas. Witnesses testified against Jesus, but they could not keep their stories straight. Nevertheless, suffering for Jesus had begun. Jesus, fully man and fully God, was tied up and accused. He was suffering in a very personal and visible way.
The trial of Jesus was a falling apart. So, Caiaphas intervened directly and said to Jesus, “‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ 64 ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?’ ‘He is worthy of death,’ they [the best and the brightest of Israel] answered. 67 Then they spit in his [Jesus’] face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him.”
Jesus, the exact image of God, was suffering. He was suffering at the hands of his own people. They spat upon him. People all around him were punching and slapping him in the head and face. Bruises were forming and blood was beginning to flow from Jesus’ body and the rejection by his own people was now complete. Suffering. Jesus suffered.
The best and brightest of Israel were not done. They dragged Jesus to the Roman governor. Another flimsy trial was held. Another unjust decision was reached. From our second reading, after the soldiers whipped Jesus, “27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” Suffering. Jesus, the exact image of God, suffering the brutal abuse alone in silence.
Was the source of this suffering God upon God? Or was this suffering the act of man upon God? Arrested, bounded, rejected, spit upon, punched, slapped, whipped, stripped, mocked, pummeled with a rod, and then nailed to a cross. This was human behavior inflicted upon God. We might say, “I would never do that!” And yet, if we want a visual representation of our sin against a Holy God, it is no less personal and real as the suffering Jesus endured.
What then are we to make of this conversation on suffering? First, we know we live in a fallen world in which suffering is a part. We have all experience too much life to deny the truth suffering is part of life. Second, we must see that God is not the author of our suffering and God takes no delight in our suffering. Third, God understands our suffering in a very personal way because he experienced it firsthand. But what was the purpose of God’s suffering? Jesus consented to suffer and die so that we could understand the love God gives to us and never withdraws from us. Jesus consented to suffer and die so that we could experience grace. Grace so overwhelming that when we receive it, God removes from us the desire to cause suffering and replaces it with a desire to love others. That is what God’s grace does. If we receive God’s grace, if we genuinely allow God’s grace to flow into our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies then we are remade into a new creation. God understands our capacity to inflict suffering because he experienced suffering at the hands of humans. Even though God suffered, his character did not change. God desires that we not suffer in our life or suffer in our sin. Finally, God wants us to trust him in and with our suffering. He wants us to turn to him in our suffering that he can comfort us. God wants us to be an instrument of relieving the suffering of others. God knew that people could experience him in a real way not by visions of heaven to a few people but in the flesh, through Jesus. Jesus knew that people could continue to experience him in a real way not through majestic buildings or monuments but in the flesh, through his followers, you and me. If those who are suffering “can feel his [God’s] love, a love made incarnate, full and complete, in the caring people they see, touch, and hear, then they are assured of God’s presence. They can know that he hasn’t abandoned them. In you they see God.”
Jesus suffered that we might experience grace and share it with others. To express the depth of God’s grace, its life altering nature, as Jesus was being nailed to the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” This was an act of grace to his tormentors and to all who would sin against God. Jesus gave of his body and blood upon the cross so that we could receive God’s grace.
Jesus’ words on the cross harken us back to the final meal with his disciples when he took bits of bread and a cup to explain that he would suffer in body and blood for them, for you, and for me. We come now and see the bread and cup before us and realize that God is not the author of suffering, instead he is the one who suffers with us, he is the one who offers us the grace to heal, and to heal one another. Let us come to the table prepared for us by Jesus, the exact image of God, who suffered for us and offers us companionship, grace, and healing in the suffering we experience in life. Come and join with me and experience God afresh. Amen and Amen.
 Tripp, Paul David, Suffering; Gospel Hope when Life Doesn’t Make Sense, (Crossway; Wheaton, IL; 2018), 33.
 Ibis, 30.
 Haugk, Kenneth C., Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart: How to Relate to Those Who Are Suffering, (Stephen Ministries; St. Louis, MO; 2004), 24.
 Ibid, 30.