We wanted to begin our journey of walking the road of suffering with God by talking to a CRM staff member who has guided many people to connect with God in the midst of difficult life circumstances—times where our understanding of God can become clouded.
In this video, Bill O'Byrne speaks about the biblical foundations of suffering, why we so often blame God in our pain, and how we can overcome our tendency to distrust him when we suffer. (Bill has written a devotional book for Lent which delves deeper into this topic of knowing God's love in the midst of suffering. You'll find links to the book at the bottom of the post.)
Listen as Bill speaks about biblical suffering...
Read Bill's thoughts on biblical suffering...
In order for us to have a biblical theology of suffering, we have to look at the problem of evil and see why there is suffering in this world in the first place. When we look at scripture and at the world around us, we intuitively know that something is wrong with this world, and we are right!
In the very first pages of scripture we see that God created a world that was good, that didn't involve suffering. Then evil came into the world, and with evil came suffering and death (see Genesis 3:16-19). We listened to the wrong voice and decided not to listen to the voice of God in the Garden of Eden, but to the voice of the Serpent-Tempter. Satan subtly plants the idea in our hearts that God can't be trusted, that he is withholding some good that we want, need and deserve: "Did God really say...?" Is God really good? Can you trust God? No, you can't! (see Genesis 3:1-5). “God is a party-pooper,” we respond, “and we're better off not following him or trusting his word. We're better off on our own, taking things into our own hands.”
This is where everything went wrong!
Our Mistaken Mistrust Complex
As a result, we have what I would call a "mistaken mistrust complex" toward God. As soon as anything bad happens in our life, we immediately have this dark default, this reflex reaction—as if God's not out for our best, but that he is "doing this" to me—as if God is out to get me. Like an abused dog, we shrink back from what we expect is an arbitrary and angry God, expecting God to blame us and shame us and tell us that we deserve this as punishment—after all we are not worthy of anything good anyway.
But this simply is not the case. The Bible consistently shows us from beginning to end that God is constantly initiating love and goodness to us.In actual fact God is Love (1 John 4:9, Exodus 34:6)! God can't do anything that is not done out of love! He can only act in love! God's basic attitude toward us is only, ever, Love.
But we react otherwise. According to our "mistaken mistrust complex," we anticipate that God's out to get us. It turns out when we take matters into our own hands and do life on our own, not in connection with God, independent, not dependent on him, not trusting him, we end up making a bad situation worse! This is our natural, fallen, internal response to the suffering in our life. It is a response that comes out of a broken relationship of trust, a predisposition to distrust God; a response that still echoes the Enemy's first temptation in the Garden.
Yes, there is sin in this world. The suffering we experience comes from sin, either as a consequence of our own sin, or as the victim of someone else's sin, or as a natural consequence of a fallen world. The world is not working in dependence on God, as God intended it "in the beginning"! In our mistaken mistrust complex, we compulsively think: this is another example of how God isn't good, but is out to make life more difficult. It is hard for us to accept that suffering is a natural and unavoidable part of life in a fallen world.
What God Is Doing About Suffering
God challenges us to know that he is good despite our suffering. The existence of suffering in this world does not negate his goodness. The evil and suffering of a fallen world is the very situation God is doing something about, in his work to redeem and heal, and ultimately eliminate suffering!
But to do that, God is going to do something counterintuitive for us. We want God to just remove the suffering and evil from the world not recognizing that we are the cause of just as much of the suffering as we are victim to, and we would be removed as well. This is not a solution. It is more complicated than that. God in love is going to enter into suffering through Christ, who becomes a man to experience our suffering and everything that evil and the evil one can throw at him, and he, as the perfect God-Man, lives fully trusting in God's love. His divine life conquers sin, death, and Satan, by moving toward suffering in love on the cross. The Bible says that God's perfect love was best demonstrated in Jesus's death on the cross "while we were yet sinners," when we didn't understand what was going on and when we were more part of the problem, than the solution, putting him on the cross (Romans 5:8). Jesus suffered, in order to conquer suffering by suffering!
How to Overcome Our Mistaken Mistrust Complex
There are actually two ways, then, for us to address this "mistaken mistrust complex" that we have towards God—two ways to retrain our heart, so as to dismantle this default distrust of God. Like any "complex," we need to face it, acknowledge it, fight it, but most importantly replace it with a healthy response, with trust...and that starts with gratitude. The first way to retrain our hearts to trust is through thanksgiving. It is to put into practice the repeated call in the Psalms: "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His mercy endures forever" (Psalm 107:1). This isn't just wishful thinking—trying to be positive and ignoring all the pain and suffering in the world. It is a conscious attempt for us to not allow the evil and suffering of this world to define us, or define God. This is a conscious choice to look at, look for, and learn to anticipate God's goodness in this world—recognizing and acknowledging God's goodness toward us. We must train our heart to enjoy God's goodness and not let the suffering of this world spoil its goodness! I am not talking about living in the illusion that there is no suffering, but to express confidence in God's goodness in the face of suffering. When we do that we can both better see and cooperate with God's goodness in this world!
The second way has to do with the cross, and the perfect example of Jesus. Lent is coming up, and we have the perfect opportunity to press into this way of retraining our hearts to trust. Lent is an invitation for us to join the sufferings of Christ. The New Testament tells us over and over that the Christian life is the "way of the cross," that we are to follow "in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21, see Romans 6:4; Galatians 2:20). Jesus himself invites us to "pick up your cross, and follow me" (Mark 8:31-34). Embrace your suffering and follow me!
The invitation of Lent is to sit at the foot of the cross and experience the outpouring of God's love for us. Jesus accepted suffering and moved toward suffering and hung on the cross, taking all that evil could throw at him. Jesus giving up and pouring out his life on the cross is the greatest demonstration of God's love (Romans 5:8). Finding that God's unconditional love meets us in suffering is the message of the cross. The cross is God saying, I love you this much. So draw near to him, and feel his love. Move toward his suffering and find him already moving toward ours. By receiving and experiencing God's love poured out for us in Jesus, we can relate in a completely different way to our own suffering. In Christ's suffering we learn to experience God's love in our suffering! It's counterintuitive; it's a marvelous mystery, but it is the only way that suffering can be overcome.
While thanksgiving may teach us to accept and endure suffering, only embracing the crucified Christ and our crucified lives can teach us to overcome suffering. To defeat suffering from the inside out is what God is ultimately doing—in order to ultimately eliminate suffering from this world, when he remakes this world. And he is inviting those who will suffer with him, who will learn to overcome suffering in a dependent, loving relationship with him. Only those who know his love in suffering will be able to bear the glory of a world beyond suffering, because that world will operate in complete trust and dependence on God.
Learning to Suffer With God
So what do we do in our suffering? Jesus said that suffering is part and parcel of life in this fallen world: "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). We have to look to Jesus. Admittedly, in the midst of our suffering, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to know and experience God's love. In the midst of our suffering, it is just too much! But at that deepest moment, in that darkest hour, is the very time to express trust, by simply crying out to God. That's what Jesus did. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1). Jesus didn't rant against God or shake his fist at God because of his suffering. Rather, he expressed his deepest trust in his darkest hour. God is good. God will redeem. God does see. God does care, and God will make a difference!
If you look at Psalm 22, the first verse of which Jesus is quoting from the cross, the whole psalm is not one of desolation or abandonment, but a psalm of faith and confidence in God in suffering. Though the psalmist feels as if he has been abandoned by God in his suffering, and Jesus along with him, he is actually expressing his trust in God despite his suffering. First of all by turning to him (Psalm 22:1-2, 20-21). Secondly, by recounting all of the reasons to trust in God even without seeing his presence or deliverance in the moment (vv. 11, 19). Even though I don't understand the suffering that I'm going through. Even though this is hard and painful, and I don't know where God is or what he's up to here, I have trained my heart to trust (v. 24). I have seen his faithfulness, his trustworthiness in the past (v. 4). I know that God has been training me and teaching me to trust him all my life (v. 9). So I will trust him, I will have confidence that he will redeem and he will win. Jesus is our answer and our example. As we follow Jesus, we learn not only the solution to our suffering, but the means by which we can endure and overcome our suffering.
God doesn't save us from trouble and suffering; he saves us in and through suffering, and displays his love and his redemptive purposes despite the suffering. Romans 8 is an incredible passage on trusting God's purposes and love, and it ends saying that "Nothing (no suffering) neither famine nakedness, peril, sword... (no thing in our lives!) can separate us from the love (and goodness) of God in Christ" (Romans 8:39). As we trust him for his loving purposes to bring all suffering to an end, he allows us to participate in a world beyond suffering, and ultimately participate in a world without suffering.
Bill O'Byrne is the co-founder and ministry director of the CRM/ChurchNEXT community of spiritual formation ministry called Imago Christi. Bill has written A Lenten Journey: A Contemplative Devotional on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ (Paperback, Kindle and ePUB), which guides readers through the process of embracing God's love in and beyond suffering.