This is an adapted excerpt from Suffering Is Never for Nothing (B&H Books, 2019).
It’s only in the cross that we can begin to harmonize the seeming contradiction between suffering and love. And we will never understand suffering unless we understand the love of God.
We’re talking about two different levels on which things are to be understood. And again and again in the Scriptures we have what seem to be complete paradoxes because we’re talking about two different kingdoms. We’re talking about this visible world and an invisible kingdom through which the facts of this world are interpreted.
Suffering in Scripture
Take for example the Beatitudes, those wonderful statements of paradox that Jesus gave to the multitudes when he was preaching to them on the mountain (Matt. 5:3–12). He said strange things like this:
How happy are those who know what sorrow means. Happy are those who claim nothing. Happy are those who have suffered persecution. What happiness will be yours when people blame you and ill treat you and say all kinds of slanderous things against you. Be glad then, yes, be tremendously glad.
Does it make any sense at all?
Not unless you see there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of an invisible world. And the apostle Paul understood the difference when he made this stunning declaration. He said, it is now my happiness to suffer for you, my happiness to suffer (Col. 1:24). It sounds like nonsense, doesn’t it? And yet this is God’s Word. Janet Erskine Stuart said, “Joy is not the absence of suffering but the presence of God.”
It’s what the psalmist found in the valley of the shadow of death: “I will fear no evil” (Ps. 23:4). Now the psalmist was not naïve enough to say, “I will fear no evil because there isn’t any.” There is. We live in an evil, broken, twisted, fallen, distorted world. What did he say? “I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
When I stood by my shortwave radio in the jungle of Ecuador in 1956 and heard that my husband, Jim Elliot, was missing, God brought to my mind the words of the prophet Isaiah: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee” (Isa. 43:2). You can imagine that my response was not terribly spiritual. I was saying, “But Lord, you’re with me all the time. What I want is Jim. I want my husband.” We had been married 27 months after waiting five-and-a-half years.
Five days later I knew that Jim was dead. And God’s presence with me was not Jim’s presence. That was a terrible fact. God’s presence didn’t change the terrible fact that I was a widow, and I expected to be a widow until I died because I thought it was a miracle I got married the first time. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever get married a second time, let alone a third. God’s presence didn’t change the fact of my widowhood. Jim’s absence thrust me, forced me, hurried me to God, my hope and my only refuge.
Suffering is an irreplaceable medium through which I learned an indispensable truth: God is God.
And I learned in that experience who God is in a way I could never have known otherwise. And so I can say to you that suffering is an irreplaceable medium through which I learned an indispensable truth: God is God. Well, I still want to go back and say, “But Lord, what about that little child with spina bifida? What about those babies born terribly handicapped, with terrible suffering because their mothers were on cocaine or heroin or alcohol? What about my little Scottie dog, McDuff, who died of cancer at the age of six? What about the Lindbergh baby and the Stams who were beheaded? What about all of that?”
Mystery of Suffering
And I can’t answer your questions, or even my own, except in the words of Scripture, these words from the apostle Paul who knew the power of the cross of Jesus. And this is what he wrote:
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:18–19).
The creation was made the victim of frustration—all those animals, all those babies who have no guilt whatsoever—not by its own choice, but because of him who made it so; yet always there was hope. And this is the part that brings me immeasurable comfort: The universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God.
Where does this idea of a loving God come from? It is not a deduction. It is not man so desperately wanting a god that he manufactures him in his mind. It’s he who was the Word before the foundation of the world, suffering as a lamb slain. And he has a lot up his sleeve that you and I haven’t the slightest idea about now. He’s told us enough so we can know that suffering is never for nothing.