What does the Bible really say about suffering? Are supposed to be joyful about it? What does being joyful entail? What about Jesus’ example, was he joyful in His suffering? Let me tell you all, that I write this with inherit bias. I don’t buy the idea that mature Christians (another matter to discuss entirely) deal with suffering joyfully, while immature Christians suffer. As someone who works in the mental health field and a child of someone with depression, that would cause my relationship with God to suffer. Imagining that my mother couldn’t reach mature Christian status, or that some people who struggle with depression in trying times are not or cannot be mature Christians, is quite troubling. So, please help me out as I try to find what the Bible says about it and curb my bias with your dialogue.
Job is the quintessential example of suffering. My mother in law and I were talking about Job once and she was glowing telling me how the Lord blessed Job with this whole new family and new home. I just sat there and stared at her. Seriously, you think that’s a huge blessing? I don’t know about you guys, but my family is not replaceable. They would be gone. But I think that often the story of Job is talked about in the wrong way. Many people talk about it as though God was teaching Job a lesson. But I think that God was using Job to teach a lesson. Just because you’re suffering, that doesn’t mean you’re not in God’s will. We can’t look at someone and say they are suffering and they must deserve it after Job. That’s what I believe the true message of Job is to us. Job does give a good example for a way to handle suffering though, so I wouldn’t roll it out completely.
My difficulty with studying suffering solely from the Old Testament is this: God dealt with people in a very different way before God’s son was sent to suffer and die. Though I don’t feel quite at ease with the phrasing, God seems to have shifted to a greater show of empathy after Christ. It’s not unlike the way I see people dealing with homosexuality today. many deal very harshly with it until they face the idea or reality of their children or a family member they love dearly being homosexual. Having a personal relationship with the affected group of people makes us and even God more sympathetic in some ways. To me, it makes the God of the New Testament quite different in many ways from the God of the Old Testament.
I’ve looked before at how Christ dealt with suffering. It was no excuse for escapeism (turn the stones to bread), or fall to temptation, (much the same example), or to encouraged retaliation (forgive them Father); it was however, reason to call out in pain and anguish (My God, my God why have you forsaken me?). We see from Christ several ways to handle suffering and not to handle suffering. It seems to me that those ways should be sufficient for us. But what about all this “Count it all joy” (James 1:2) and “glory in tribulations” (Romans 5:3) stuff? What does Christ have to say about that? I only found one verse that Christ actually talks about any level of cheer during suffering is John 16:33 “In this world you will have suffering, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” To me, this verse is not that we should glory in suffering or count it a joy, but to look forward to it’s end. Take heart in the idea that suffering will end, because that is the only cheerful thought about suffering.
Many people romanticize suffering as if it’s something to look forward to like the more we suffer, the more we must be: blessed, close to God, like Christ. I reject these ideas. Redemptive suffering can make us forget what Christ’s point was. We aren’t supposed to rejoice in suffering, but to rejoice in it’s end. We are not supposed to labor under the idea that suffering is inevitable and thus not rise up against it. But I believe that we, like Christ, are to rise up and heal from the least up. Feed the hungry, heal the sick and reduce the amount of suffering as much as we a re able. I would encourage Christians not to be excited about the idea that the worse things get the closer we are to the end but to focus on the people that are here with us right now.