Bible in 5: Five biblical perspectives on suffering
by Amy Ekeh
Why do we suffer? Why does God allow it? Am I being punished? Does suffering have a purpose?
The Bible acknowledges and explores these tough questions with honesty — and with a variety of perspectives. Reflecting on some of these biblically rooted ideas can help us better understand and accept suffering as a place of God’s presence rather than an obstacle to our relationship with him.
1. Suffering is a natural consequence of sin.
Although this may not be our favorite biblical takeaway, sometimes we bring suffering upon ourselves. We don’t need to look any further than Genesis 3 — the fateful choice of Adam and Eve — for a clear example. That freely made decision to disobey God’s one prohibition led to all kinds of consequences: expulsion from the Garden of Eden, toiling for food, hostility between the sexes, pain in childbirth, fear of snakes, and more. The lesson is painful but practical: Choices have consequences, and bad choices cause us pain. Here’s another way of saying it: Sin doesn’t hurt God; it hurts us.
2. Suffering can teach and strengthen us.
When I graduated from high school, my godfather gave me a laminated piece of paper with this Old Testament passage printed on it:
My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. … Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation.
(Sirach 2:1, 4-5, NRSVCE)
These words became an interpretive lens for me in the years to come. Challenges and pain were not just things that happened to me; rather, they were things that were shaping me, strengthening me, and molding me. While it’s true that suffering can at times crush us entirely, it is also true that suffering can gift us with new perspectives or a steely resolve (think of Jonah in the belly of the fish or Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane).
3. Suffering is a part of life.
Biblical figures such as Job or biblical authors such as “the Preacher” who wrote Ecclesiastes are quite frank in their appraisal of life: It’s hard being human. Life is fine one day and disastrous the next. We are healthy one day and sick the next. We never know what’s coming, and while God may protect us from calamity at times, he certainly doesn’t all the time!
So what is a person to do? Both Job and the author of Ecclesiastes — even while boldly proclaiming the realities of human pain — make the same choice. They remain faithful and choose to trust and even praise God. As Job admirably declares: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). To paraphrase: “This life you’ve given me is not easy, God, but I won’t stop loving you!”
4. Suffering is unity with Christ.
The New Testament assures us that suffering does not mean that God is far from us. Rather, when we suffer, we can most closely identify with Christ crucified, who is not only our divine Savior but also the prime example of what it means to be human. Jesus’ death declares once and for all that suffering is never meaningless — it can always be offered as a gift of self for the sake of another.
This perspective is what allows St. Paul to say unexpected things like “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Colossians 1:24) and “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). As we know, the cross has changed everything. It has harnessed the power, purpose, and meaning of suffering and given us a share in it.
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.
5. Suffering allows us to surrender completely.
Although we don’t go looking for suffering, it will inevitably find us. And when it does, at some level we must accept it. But the gift of faith means that we don’t simply accept or endure suffering. Instead we experience suffering as an opportunity to put every ounce of trust we have in our God, who has told us that he knows and cherishes us and that he will never leave us nor forsake us.
Every painful experience is a chance for us to say with Christ, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42) and with the psalmist, “In God I trust, I do not fear” (Psalm 56:12).
Being human isn’t easy, but according to the Bible, it is a sacred surrender to the God who made us, who loves us, and who will be with us forever.