How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
—Psalms 13:1, ESV
O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the heavens for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth. . . .
How long, O Lord?
—Psalms 79:1–2, 5a
There was so much to do . . . so many things that Christ had called me to do. It would take more pain, more loneliness. Maybe death. Why was it so hard? Why? (Bruce Olson, missionary to the Motilone Indians)
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)
The empty silence of no heartbeat. The chilling sight of cold body in coffin. Nights so filled with pain, sleep can find no room. Loneliness so real, everything else seems false. Husbands stolen by war, estranged children, unjust bosses, hunger, cold.
Suffering is far too familiar a companion. We all know the taste of its bitter bite. For some, every meal seems served with suffering. These people bury parents and children alike, lose health and money, live constantly with want. Others have only sampled suffering. These people know occasional illness and times of want. But whether in large or small proportions, all alike have tasted suffering. And all have wondered why.
Why me? Why this? Why now?
Why did the thief choose my car? Why is my husband’s cancer inoperable, while others celebrate clear scans? Why did my daughter choose now to stop talking to me? I wasn’t ready for this. But ready or not—and most often when and how we least expect—we all will suffer.
King David spent much of his life fleeing head hunters. The prophet Ezekiel was ridiculed and despised for eating bread cooked over dung and prophesying disaster. The apostle Paul was within an inch of his life many times, spent months in prison, and survived shipwreck. He wrote, referencing a psalm written by the sons of Korah: “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered’” (Rom. 8:36).
Paul was one among the many who knew what it was to suffer countless hardships. Time would fail me to tell of Martin Luther, Corrie ten Boom, C. S. Lewis, Elisabeth Elliot, Joni Eareckson Tada, Jackie Hill Perry—who all suffered loss, illness, loneliness, death—yet who all can say with Paul, “No, in all these things [various trials] we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).
How is that possible? How can these people call themselves more than conquerors? Isn’t suffering defeat?
In order to answer that we need to look back to something Paul said earlier in the same passage: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:28–30).
Here Paul is telling us that everyone who loves God—because, and only because, God first loved us—can know with certainty that God will orchestrate everything in their lives for their good. That good is ultimately our glorification. As suffering is part of the “everything,” God will use it too for our good. “It is for this reason that [Paul] states that in connection with [various hardships and forces] we are more than conquerors.” For we (or rather the Holy Spirit working in us) have not only defeated the enemy, but actually made it our helper.1
So we see that in the midst of suffering, we are better than conquerers because God uses suffering to bring about good in our lives.
But what good could come from suffering? What good can come from losing a child to cancer? What good can come from filing bankruptcy? What good can come from a fire destroying your home?
Consider the words of Paul: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3–5). Paul makes it clear that suffering brings with it many good things. It builds endurance, character, and hope. Even people completely anti-Christian admit that hard times make them stronger. As Kelly Clarkson sang, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” But without Christ, these hard times may give us a thicker skin, but they don’t produce any real and lasting hope.
For we who believe in Jesus, however, suffering strengthens our hope. It brings hope because Jesus suffered. Jesus was beaten beyond recognition, publicly humiliated, abused, spat upon, hung by bloodied nails to a cross, forsaken by the Father. He ran the rocky race before us so that we may one day live with him in glory (Heb. 12:2). Because our lives are united to his, we can know for certain that as he suffered and rose again to glory, so will suffer and rise to glory (Rom. 6:4). This hope is not based on our own faulty efforts or wishful thinking. This hope stands solidly on our unchanging and promise-keeping God (Ps. 145:13b). Therefore, sufferings show us that no matter what trials we face, no matter how ugly and painful life gets, our life is hidden with our Savior with whom we will live forever—nothing can change that (Rom. 8:38–39).2
Through suffering, this reality takes root. Because through suffering God speaks to us most audibly and shows himself most clearly. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”3 When God has our attention he shows us himself. “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.”4
It is in seeing and hearing God more closely and clearly that our hope is renewed. Thus, suffering produces the greatest good: a deeper knowledge of God. Yes, God the Father hears our groans and sees our tears (even as he did those of his own Son, Jesus). God the Son knows what heartache feels like as much as the lashes of a whip. And God the Holy Spirit is near to us in the midst of suffering. So lift up your eyes to the hills, to God, from where comes your help, on whom your hope rests. And as you look, worship this God who can make something indescribably beautiful out of suffering.
Suffering is my gain; I bow To my heavenly Father’s will, And receive it hushed and still: Suffering is my worship now. (Johann Richter)
1. Much of this paragraph was inspired by William Hendriksen, Romans, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981).
2. I also owe some of my thinking on suffering to Ryan Cavanaugh, Mission Church (https://www.missionchurchopc.org/).
3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, rev. ed. (New York : HarperOne, 2015).
4. Elisabeth Elliot, Suffering Is Never for Nothing (Nashville : B&H Books, 2019)
Mrs. Elisabeth Bloechl a member of Orthodox Presbyterian Church Hammond, is a house cleaner and aspiring writer in Griffith, IN.