Every morning, I wake up next to the man I love in a home I love.
I drag my feet over to a closet full of clothes and spend too much time debating over what to wear. I take a hot shower and whine if the water gets too cold before I’m done. I grab my lunch from the fridge, snag my keys, kiss my husband goodbye and drive my car to work. I ride the elevator up to the sixth floor of an office building in my favorite city in LA—and then I spend the day reading and writing stories about people around the world who are suffering.
As a writer for non-profit organizations, I’m often overwhelmed by the amount of suffering that is being endured around the world at any given moment. Just this last week, I did four interviews with four different people across the US who had all struggled to stay alive while living on the streets. Then, there are the stories of children around the world who have lost their parents to riots or violence in their villages. Or maybe they’ve lost siblings to malnutrition or malaria.
The stories are overwhelming. Every day, children suffer. Loved ones battle cancer. Parents lose their jobs. Families sleep in their cars. And the cycle continues.
More often than not, I find myself wondering how I ended up on this side of suffering. Why am I sitting in an air-conditioned office drinking a soy hazelnut latte while the person in the story I’m working on is sitting in a refugee camp with her four hungry children, wondering if her husband is still alive?
Today’s question hits home for me. Here it is...
Some people’s lives are very easy and others’ are very difficult and painful. Where is God in all this? Why is it that some suffer while others don’t?
I’m just going to call this out from the very start: as somebody who has had a relatively easy life, I feel pretty uncomfortable responding to this question. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of struggles, challenges, doubts and letdowns. I’ve gone through seasons of feeling far from God. But I’ve also written enough of these stories and heard enough news reports to know that I’ve got it pretty good.
So this is me getting a conversation started on a topic that makes me uncomfortable. I hope we can work together to discover God’s Truth on the matter. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
1. God is our Comforter in suffering, not our enemy
This seems like an important starting point. Questions like “Does God cause suffering?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” come up often in both Christian and non-Christian circles alike. When bad fortune falls upon us or the people we love, our knee jerk reaction is to find someone to pin it on. Someone to blame. Someone to throw all of our anger and sadness at. And when we can’t find that person, we shake our fists at the heavens and convince ourselves that God is the cause of it all.
Then, we remember that sickness, sorrow and pain have never been part of God’s ultimate plan for us. That they’re the by-products of a fallen world that exists outside of the perfection that He desires and intends for us. The perfection that Adam and Eve traded for a sweet piece of fruit. The perfection that God sent Jesus Christ to restore. By sacrificing His only son for our sake, God makes it clear that He is for us, not against us. He’s the reconciler, not the divider. “In this world you will have trouble,” says Jesus, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
In the depths of any suffering, remember this: Your pain is real AND God is not your enemy. My mind goes straight to Psalm 23, where David talks about God being with him in the green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness, valley of death, and presence of his enemies. When we look at the different verbs that David uses to describe what God is doing in each of these places, we see only verbs of comfort and peace. We see Him “lead,” “restore,” “comfort,” “prepare,” “anoint.” Through the green pastures and the valley of the shadow of death, He will be our good shepherd.
When we choose to make God our enemy because nobody else fits the bill, we miss out on the peace, comfort and strength that can only be found in Him.
2. Suffering isn’t something we earn or don’t earn. It just is.
In trying to understand why some people experience more suffering than others, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that suffering is not a consequence of personal sin. What better example is there of this than Jesus? Jesus led a sinless and blameless life and yet He suffered more than anybody else ever will. Along with Jesus, many of the most righteous people in the Bible are the people who experienced the most extreme suffering. God Himself described Job as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil,” and yet Job lost everything. All twelve of Christ’s disciples faced many trials and were ultimately martyred for their faith.
On the flip side, we live in a cut-throat world filled with a fair share of people who lie, steal and cheat their way to the top. Many of these people seem to avoid suffering and find “success” by the world’s standards. With that being the case, thinking of suffering as something that is either deserved or not deserved just doesn’t add up.
During His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Whether you are evil or good, righteous or unrighteous, we all experience some form of suffering. It just is.
3. Your experience of suffering is shaped by your cultural context
My dad has been a pastor for over thirty years, so sometimes I call him to talk through the questions I receive for this project. This is one thing he mentioned on this topic that really stuck out to me. The idea that suffering is interpreted differently in different parts of the world. For instance, many of us who were born and raised in the states have the mentality that nothing bad should happen to us. The tiniest inconvenience will be photographed, instagrammed, and captioned with angry face emojis. This is what I was talking about at the beginning of this response. Why do I complain about having too many clothes or whine when my shower water gets cold too fast? Because culture has given me a superficial understanding of what suffering is.
I have a vivid memory of a pastor from the Middle East speaking at my church years ago. He was giving the congregation an update on the state of his church, his community and the many trials his country was facing. Towards the end of his message, he said something that gave me pause. He said “I often receive word that churches in the states are praying that our suffering will end, and I want you all to know that we pray for your faith to remain strong and vibrant in the absence of suffering.” Wow. If that’s not a punch to the gut, I don’t know what is.
This pastor’s view of suffering has been shaped by his circumstances, but more importantly, it has been shaped by God’s Word. In his first letter to Christians in the Roman Empire, Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
4. God doesn’t cause our suffering, but He sanctifies us through it
Some people experience more suffering than others, yes. There’s no denying that. And even if God is not the cause of that suffering, it can be difficult at times to understand why a loving God would even allow that suffering to exist. This is why. It’s because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3-5).
Instead of quoting C.S. Lewis this time, I’m going to quote a scene from the movie Shadowlands… which is about the life of C.S. Lewis. Here’s a monologue about suffering that screenwriter William Nicholson wrote and Anthony Hopkins performed for the on-screen character of C.S. Lewis:
Does God want us to suffer? What if the answer to that question is ‘yes’? You see, I don’t think that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think He wants us to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up.
You see, we are like children who think that our toys bring us all the happiness there is, and that our nursery is the whole wide world. But something has to drive us out into the world of others, and that thing is suffering. Put simply, pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
We're like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect. The suffering in the world is not the failure of God's love for us; it is that love in action. For believe me, this world that seems to us so substantial, is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet.
Once we finally strip away all of these false perceptions that we have about suffering—that it’s caused by God, that it’s somehow deserved or undeserved—we can begin to see His redemptive plan for it. We can begin to see that neither suffering nor comfort are ever the end in themselves. That the pain of the chisel is what forms us into works of art.
It’s only in the light of that realization that we can live out the truth of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, knowing that, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
So now what?
As a living, breathing human being in this fallen world, there’s probably something in your life that’s not going your way right now. Regardless of how big or small you think your suffering is, look to God for comfort, guidance and peace. Let Him be the hope you find in the messy middle of your refining fire.
Writing this response has made me realize that there’s really no sense in wondering why I have the life that I have. All I know is that God has a purpose for me here and that His love implores me to live whatever life I have for Him and Him alone.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). If you’ve been given much, consider how you can bring light and hope into the suffering of others. Pray that God would break your heart for what breaks His—and that He would fill you with the conviction and strength to do something about it.
When your cup is full, turn to your neighbor and pour into his. Commit to stewarding all that you have and are for the glory of God the Father, for He “will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5).