Why Do God’s People Suffer?
Dr. Jim Denison
Innocent suffering is the greatest single problem confronting the Christian faith. We Christians believe three facts about God:
God is all loving—he would want to end evil and suffering, it would seem.
God is all powerful—he could end evil and suffering.
Evil exists—it is not merely the product of wrong thinking or appearance, but very real and very deadly.
The easy answer to innocent suffering is to minimize one of these three convictions. Some will say that the Fort Worth tragedy happened because God is not all loving, and is somehow punishing them; or it happened because God either doesn’t or can’t get involved in such things; or it isn’t real. We’re past the stage of denial, so we must either question God’s love, his power, or both; or find a better solution.
Let’s find that better solution together today, from the word of God, not just for the victims of the shooting, but for every person who faces suffering today or tomorrow.
Truths for troubled times
Our text makes four statements plain. First, we will be persecuted.
Jesus does not say, “Blessed are you if people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (v. 11). He says, “Blessed are you when people insult you ….”
The Greek grammar actually says, “Blessed are those who have been and are now being persecuted” (v. 10). Suffering is a fact of the faith.
Listen to 1 Peter 4:12: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” Suffering is a part of the Christian life.
Around the world, 500,000 are killed every year simply because they are Christians. Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott were murdered at Columbine High School specifically because they stood up for Jesus. Seven people were killed in Fort Worth last Wednesday because they were Christians.
Jesus was clear: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Christians will be persecuted for their faith.
The second truth of our text is that such suffering is not our fault.
Christians die in plane crashes and car accidents like everyone else. We get cancer like the rest of the population. But sometimes we suffer specifically because of our faith. When we do, such suffering is not our fault.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (v. 10). He amplified, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (v. 11).
Listen again to Peter: “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:15-16).
There is a great spiritual battle going on between God and Satan, between good and evil. We are the turf. And the African proverb is right: “When elephants fight, the grass is trampled.”
Those who died in Fort Worth were doing exactly what they should have been doing. After standing up for Jesus on their campus, they stood up for him at their church. Now they’re standing in his presence forever, blessed by his joy. Suffering for Jesus is not our fault.
The third truth of our text is that God will redeem our suffering for him.
We are to “rejoice and be glad” for this reason: “great is your reward in heaven” (v. 12).
Not because suffering is good, for it is not. But because God will redeem our suffering for a greater good one day. God redeemed Joseph’s slavery, using him to save the nation; God redeemed Moses’ years in the wilderness, calling him to shepherd his people; God redeemed John’s suffering on Patmos by giving him the Revelation; God redeemed Jesus’ cross with his crown.
God will redeem this suffering somehow. He will use it for good, as we’ll see in a moment.
And so innocent suffering has always been part of the life of faith.
Listen to Hebrews 11: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. They were all commended for their faith” (vs. 36-39).
Remember Jim Elliott, the martyred missionary, and his motto: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Those who died in Fort Worth were not fools—they were faithful. And God will be faithful to them, and to us.
Why do God’s people suffer?
On the basis of this text and the larger word of God, let’s ask our question: Why do God’s people suffer? There is no single answer to the question. Instead, we need to build a “theodicy” together—a theological approach to evil and suffering. There are six facts which make up that approach, and I want us to be very clear about each one of them.
Fact one: God is love. Remember 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God didn’t “do” this. He didn’t cause this. Rather, he grieved it. If a father in that sanctuary watched his child die, how would he feel? God did that at Calvary, and again in Fort Worth last Wednesday. No matter how bad this fallen world becomes, God is love.
Fact two: Satan is real. 1 Peter 5:8 is plain: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” We have an enemy who wants to destroy us.
Jesus warned us that he “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). This is just what he did last Wednesday. John 8:44 says that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning.”