Why Do Christians Suffer?
Maran from India – part of our TWR360 audience – asks a simple yet profound and important question: Why do Christians suffer?
There is a lot to be said about suffering in the Christian life. Many believers have a poor understanding of what God says about suffering, both in general and for believers.
- Some think that becoming a Christian means, “no more suffering.”
- Some think that all suffering is from the devil.
- Some think that all suffering is from God.
- Some think that suffering in itself will make us better people.
But let me get to Maran’s question directly: Why do Christians suffer?
There is no one answer to that question. There are many different reasons why a Christians might suffer. These seven reasons are not given in any particular order.
- We might suffer because we live in a fallen world.
- For example, consider the common suffering from natural disasters or birth defects. In Luke 13, Jesus mentioned 18 people who died in His day when a tower fell (perhaps or probably through an earthquake). Jesus said that those people were not worse sinners than other people.
- We might suffer because of our own sinful or foolish choices.
- For example, Proverbs 6:12-15: the wicked man receives calamity.
A worthless person, a wicked man,
Walks with a perverse mouth;
He winks with his eyes,
He shuffles his feet,
He points with his fingers;
Perversity is in his heart,
He devises evil continually,
He sows discord.
Therefore his calamity shall come suddenly;
Suddenly he shall be broken without remedy.
- For example, 1 Peter 4:15-16 warns that we may suffer out of our own fault.
But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.
- We might suffer because people have sinned against us.
- For example, consider all the suffering of Jesus.
- We might suffer because God brings judgment upon a nation or a culture.
- For example, the sufferings of Jeremiah when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and Judah. When God brings judgment upon a nation or a culture, some of those who are relatively innocent suffer.
- We might suffer because of a satanic or demonic attack of some kind.
- For example, in Luke 13 Jesus spoke of a woman who was bent over by some terrible physical affliction – and this was because she was “bound by Satan” in some way.
- We might suffer because God is correcting His children.
- For example, Hebrews 12:7-8: God uses chastening, correcting, in the lives of His people and to never be chastened by God is a bad sign, not a good one.
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons.
- We might suffer because God has a redemptive purpose in it.
- For example, Hebrews 5:8: Jesus learned by what He suffered.
Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.
- For example, Hebrews 2:10: Sufferings made Jesus “perfect” (complete in His work as our Savior, perfectly identifying with fallen humanity)
For it was fitting for Him, whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
- For example, Romans 8:16-17: In some sense, our present suffering is connected to our eternal glory.
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may be glorified together.
- Suffering is a real part of the Christian life
- There are many different reasons why a Christian might suffer
- God can and will work, even in our sufferings – especially in our sufferings.
For those who believe the “office of being a prophet” is no longer for today, do they base that off Hebrews 1:2?
Hebrews 1:2—[God] has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds.
There are people today who believe that God no longer speaks to anyone, at any time, in any place through prophecy, dreams, or visions. We would call them cessationists. Oftentimes they will point to Hebrews 1:2 as proof. But I don’t think that verse says what they think it says.
I do believe that God speaks to people today. I do believe that there is a valid exercise of prophecy today. And I do believe that God may speak to people today through dreams and visions. I do not believe that everyone who claims to be a prophet, or to speak a word from God, is truly a prophet or is actually speaking words from God. I do not believe that every dream or vision is a message from God; not at all. I think these things need to be tested, judged, and understood rigorously, and not with credulity. We don’t just believe it because somebody says it.
I know that some of you aren’t going to like to hear this, so you can take it for what it’s worth. I don’t like calling people prophets today. I would never give somebody the title of prophet. I won’t speak that way, because I think it creates too much weirdness today. Perhaps in biblical times it didn’t create that weirdness. All I know is that today, it creates too much weirdness. I do believe that God can speak through people today in the gift of prophecy, but I’m not for calling people prophets.
Hebrews 1:2 does not say that the last divinely given words were spoken through Jesus. It’s very clear that the New Testament came to us after Jesus ascended to heaven. It’s wrong to interpret Hebrews 1:2 to mean that after Jesus ascended to heaven, God had nothing more to say to humanity. But if God’s final word was spoken through Jesus, it was spoken through human agents: the Apostles and prophets in the first century.
Now, I do not believe that God is giving forth more Scripture today. No. The gift of divinely hearing God, being able to perfectly hear Him in a way that would bring forth God’s Word, ended with the Apostles and prophets. The Bible never calls that a spiritual gift, but it is one spiritual gift that did end with the Apostles. Yet I nowhere see that it violates this principle that God’s greatest revelation was given to us in and through the person work of Jesus Christ, including his Apostles and prophets. But we can’t say that after Jesus ascended to heaven, God never spoke through human agents again. He spoke through them in the words that are given to us in the New Testament. God also spoke through the Apostles and prophets through words that are not recorded in our New Testament.
I don’t think that Hebrews 1:2 proves what the cessationists claim it proves. I’d love to have a discussion with a cessationist about that verse.
Why didn’t King David name his son Solomon instead of Jedidiah?
There are a couple of passages in the Old Testament which I’m recalling from memory. Some passages tell us that David’s first son through Bathsheba had the name Solomon, whereas other passages tell us that son was named Jedediah. In the ancient world, people could be known by more than one name. I don’t have any problem with resolving this slight difficulty by thinking that Solomon could have been referred to by two names. Many people in the world today, especially notable or famous people, can go by more than one name.
How should we harmonize the different narrations of the empty tomb in the Gospels?
Here’s my perspective from my own study. Of course, I don’t know more about the Bible than anybody else in the world. But I do come to you as a person who has studied the Bible extensively, including what people claim are the so-called problems with the resurrection narratives. I don’t see clear contradictions in those passages. There may be some difficulties which need resolution. For example, one gospel might say it was two women, while another gospel might say it was one woman. But “two” doesn’t necessarily contradict “one,” unless it says one and only one. There are places in the Bible where it says two lepers came to Jesus or one leper came to Jesus, in the same account. Again, two doesn’t exclude there being one. Now, again, if it said, “One and only one leper came to Jesus,” then two would be a contradiction.
So, we find things that are differences, but not contradictions. I think this adds to the validity of the biblical accounts. When you have eyewitness accounts of the same event, there will be differences in their testimony. What’s important is that there are not contradictions. When you work through the resurrection appearances of Jesus, step by step, there are clear differences, but there are not contradictions.
That’s the simple approach I take. There are people who have done extensive work on this; I recommend them to you. We can work through these passages and harmonize them, understanding that a difference doesn’t necessarily mean a contradiction. The differences add to the historical narrative and trustworthiness of the text. They show that this came from actual flesh and blood human beings, who each see things from a different vantage point, and will describe the same event in different terms. This is a phenomenon that’s well known. All sorts of research and psychology supports this idea, that eyewitnesses will look at the same event and give truthful accounts that are different. Again, different doesn’t mean contradictory.
To what extent should we keep our distance from non-believers? Is it ok to do business with non-believers?
There are several different layers to this question. First, there are many ways in which we might associate with people who are not yet believers. For example, we might associate with them socially, or professionally, or in some kind of partnership, or romantically, and so on.
Christian wisdom bids us to be wise in the way we associate with people. The people you spend a lot of time with will have an influence on your life. It’s been said, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” There’s some truth to that. It’s wrong for us to deny that our friendships or associations have no influence on us whatsoever. That may not be a bad influence; maybe they have a good influence on us. But to deny that there’s an influence isn’t truthful or wise.
Here’s another aspect. There is no one answer to this question because Christians are at different places of maturity. Friends, it was no problem for Jesus to hang out with notoriously sinful people all the time, because Jesus was not going to sin after their pattern. Jesus was not going to be given a bad influence from them. But look, we’re not Jesus. There are some of us for whom it is a genuinely bad and maybe even dangerous influence upon us, given our current place of discipleship.
We need to be real about this. I have no doubt that there are some Christians who are being influenced in a very bad way by people who do not yet believe around them, in their social or business or romantic or circles. And they’re not being true with themselves about it. They’re lying to themselves, saying, “Oh well, it’s fine.” It’s not fine.
I also have no doubt that there are some strong Christians who are walking with the Lord, who ought to seek out more connections and associations with people who don’t yet know Jesus, so that they can be a good influence upon them.
This question is complicated because there are different kinds of associations we can have with people. We as individuals are all in different places. There’s no one universal answer. Some Christians may need to start hanging out with more people who don’t believe. There are other Christians who need to separate themselves from unbelievers more.
Concerning partnerships with unbelievers in business, the Scriptures discourage it. I wouldn’t say that it completely prohibits it; we find some notable men and women in the Bible who entered into partnerships, even business partnerships with unbelievers, and God blessed it. For example, David and his son Solomon had a business partnership with the people of Tyre and Sidon in modern-day Lebanon, to produce the materials necessary to build the temple. The Bible talks about a very happy partnership. There are other places in the Bible that warn us against partnerships with unbelievers.
So again, we don’t have enough to give an absolute answer. But this is something that we should at least be cautious about. We really need to be dependent upon the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom in each situation. I can’t give you an absolute categorical answer that would apply to every situation, but we can draw upon these general principles.
How can I get my boys (11 and 14) interested in reading the Bible?
That’s a tough question. Are you working with a translation of the Bible they can understand? I would commend to you for this purpose, perhaps, the New Living Translation. There’s no translation that’s perfect. But the New Living Translation is pretty good. It puts things in very simple, understandable language.
Maybe they would be more inclined to listen to the Scriptures. Maybe you could listen with them to passage Scripture while you’re driving or doing activities each day, and then talk about the Scriptures with them.
The other thing might be to give them some Bible assignments about compelling stories from the Bible. You could give them one every day or every other day. Have them read about it and then talk it over together. “I want you to read this about Jesus’s encounter with the rich young ruler, and then let’s talk about it.” Or, “Read about this event in the life of Samson. What do we learn about it?” Or, “Let’s read this about Jesus talking to this person.” Maybe give them specific assignments, and then follow up and talk to them about it.
Here’s one additional way in which perhaps you can encourage their Bible reading. Let your boys see you reading your Bible. I don’t doubt that you read your Bible. But do they see you reading your Bible? That will make a huge impression on them, maybe immediately or maybe not. But believe me, they will notice when they see you reading your Bible.
What encouragement or Scripture reference would you give for people struggling with stress, anxiety, fear, depression, and so forth?
I’ll give you some encouragement, and then some Scripture. The first encouragement is: don’t be afraid to see a medical doctor and have a good physical exam. There are some people who suffer greatly from aspects of stress, or depression, or overwhelming discouragement; it may be called different things. Don’t be afraid to get a good physical checkup from your doctor; be honest with them about what you’re feeling or thinking. Now, I’m not saying that the immediate answer for such things is through the medical, or certainly not through the pharmaceutical field. But we don’t want to deny that there are biological aspects which can really affect a person’s mood and emotions. Those things are worth looking at.
The area in which I have a lot more familiarity is the Scriptures. Here’s what I would recommend to people who are really undergoing what you’re talking about: stress, anxiety, fear, depression, etc. I would recommend to them a concerted effort to memorize and to meditate upon the Scriptures. I’m imagining that as I say those words, a few people in our audience might be groaning, “Oh, here’s a pastor who thinks that if you throw a Bible verse at something, everything will be fixed.”
Friends, I just want you to know, that’s really not how it works. I don’t believe that “a Bible verse fixes everything.” No; I’m not saying that. But I do believe that there is power in God’s Word. The power in God’s Word goes beyond what we learn through the pathway of our intellect about the Bible. Now, I’m all for what we learn through the pathway of our intellect regarding the Bible. But please understand that there is a spiritual power and dynamic to the effectiveness of God’s Word, which goes far beyond the intellectual.
There is spiritual power and benefit that comes from reading God’s Word, which goes beyond our ability to understand and analyze that Word. The more time we spend with God’s Word, reading it, memorizing it, meditating on it, the better it is for us.
Again, I’m not at all saying that we wave a Bible verse over every problem, and it goes away. I am saying that there is true power in God’s Word. We want to deal with the basics of our life and our spiritual life before we start looking to other things for solutions.
What’s your take on Christians having or getting tattoos, piercings, and so forth?
I might be considered a somewhat rare type of person in the world today, in that I don’t have a single tattoo or piercing. That’s my own personal preference. My wife has pierced ears, but no tattoo or anything like that. But I have to say, my children have tattoos. We told our children, “As long as you’re living in our home, you’re not going to have tattoos, but when you’re a grown man or a grown woman, out on your own, you can decide those things for yourself. It’s between you and God.”
I do not believe that the Bible prohibits the practice of tattooing as it is practiced in our culture today. Now, the Bible does make a specific mention of tattoos and markings for the dead. But it’s within the context of prohibiting the burial and mourning customs of the Canaanite and other pagan cultures. And it is true: we should not mourn like the pagans. So, in that regard, I would agree we should not follow along the same pathway as the pagans in what they do. But I don’t think that’s the same thing as tattoo. Also, I don’t think that people receive markings for the dead in the way Leviticus describes it. My commentary on Leviticus has more detail on that topic.
I believe this issue is between the individual believer and the Holy Spirit. But I do think that a Christian truly should seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in doing these things. Piercings and tattoos are life-long decisions. You can cover over a tattoo, but you can’t really erase it. Before you do things that will have a permanent effect on your body, you should think about it very carefully. Have a true assurance of the Holy Spirit in it. And, if you are still under your parents’ roof, don’t do something that goes against their authority. I don’t believe it’s wrong for a Christian to get a tattoo, but I would say that there’s probably many believers who don’t think carefully and really seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit before they get a tattoo.
Regarding 2 Timothy, what are some of the ways we as Christians can and should avoid getting entangled in civilian pursuits? What is a “civilian pursuit”?
2 Timothy 2:4– No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
First, if we consider ourselves to be in God’s army, and soldiers for God’s cause, then we can make the analogy that soldiers are not concerned with the same things as non-soldiers are concerned about. Soldiers need to pay attention to their business: winning wars. The business of believers should be advancing the kingdom of God. There are things that would interfere with the advance of the kingdom of God. I don’t imply that we should all be in full-time ministry. You probably work right now at a job or go to school. In those functions, you can glorify God right where you are. But you need to consciously be doing that. Things which would interfere with your ability to glorify God, and advance His kingdom where you’re at right now, should be regarded as civilian pursuits. Those things are not appropriate for you. People in the world can be involved in those things — that’s between them and God — but you should have blinders on concerning them. We should be more concerned about the furthering of God’s kingdom and need to avoid things that would distract us.
Here’s the difficulty with this debate: it could be anything. We can make idols out of anything. Anything can be an ungodly distraction for us. A person can be so consumed with the food they eat, and be a true foodie in every aspect, but it truly distracts them from their kingdom purpose. In that regard, they should regard this as a civilian pursuit, and they need to deal with it. We can be very interested in travel, or vacations, or cars, or entertainments, or sports, or whatever. Again, it’s not to say that a soldier has no involvement in those things, necessarily. But those pursuits are certainly not the point of what they do. Any of those things can become idols in our lives.
We need to be sensitive to the things that would interfere with our kingdom purpose. If God is dealing in my life with something that might interfere with the kingdom purpose, my tendency is to want to apply that to everybody. If God says I can’t do something, then I think nobody should do it. But that that’s not really true or honest. There are certain things about which God may say to me, “No, David, that’s not for you.” And I can trust God to deal with His other servants however He wants to deal with them.
When Paul writes in Romans 7, is it from the perspective of him before he was a Christian or after?
There is a fair amount of debate among Bible scholars and students concerning this question. Did Paul write Romans 7 regarding his perspective as an unbeliever, having not yet believed and been born again, or did he write it concerning his experience as a struggling believer? I respect people on both sides of the issue.
I believe that Paul wrote Romans 7 from the point of view of a believer who’s really struggling because they are focused on self. They’re not focused on Jesus and His power and work in their lives. I believe he’s referring to things that he does as a believer, but as a believer who’s struggling, because his focus is upon himself. This is why I emphasize the idea of the focus being on himself.
Read through Romans 7 and notice how many times Paul refers to himself in some way. “I” and
“me” and “my” are repeatedly used. When I read it, it feels exaggerated. It seems like Paul wrote this passage with the goal of trying to see how many ways he could cram in the idea of being self-focused into just a few verses. Paul writes us as a believer, but a believer who’s focused on self, not Jesus, and is therefore struggling greatly.
When we have been forgiven of our sin, is it possible to still suffer the consequences?
Yes, it can be that way. For example: if I’m in sin, and I get drunk, drive a car, crash the car, and am injured for the rest of my life because of it, I can be forgiven for my sin of drunkenness. Drunkenness is a sin. I can be forgiven for that sin: truly, completely forgiven. But I still must live with the consequence of that for the rest of my life. I’ve heard somebody use the analogy of a nail being pounded into a board: that’s like the sin. You can remove the nail: that’s like being forgiven. But the hole in the board remains: that’s like the consequence. Some aspect of the consequence can remain even after we’ve been forgiven. If a person commits a crime, and goes to jail for it, I believe they can be truly and actually forgiven by God. God no longer holds it against them. Yet, they’re still in jail and have to suffer the consequences. Well, you can play that analogy out in a lot of different settings. Forgiveness of sin does not necessarily mean that we escape all of the suffering that comes as a consequence of that sin.