How to Live the Bible — Finding Purpose Beyond Suffering
This is the ninety-eighth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
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One question people ask all the time is whether there is any purpose in our sufferings.
If we have to suffer, is it all for nothing? Must we pay such a high price for no apparent benefit? How can God expect us to lose—just lose?
The Bible teaches that there is indeed a higher purpose above and beyond suffering. But the way we get there is not by calling a bad thing good. We don’t have to do the mental gymnastics that somehow calls a car crash that kills a teenager a good thing; or cancer cells, which violate all the rules of how healthy cells are supposed to behave; or a virus that is resulting in widespread casualties. If we don’t keep the moral and spiritual clarity in our thinking that sees evil for evil and good for good, then we’ve entered a confusing fog.
God is almighty, and good is what it is, just as evil and sin and disease are what they are. But here is the hope: God works through the bad, bringing us inexorably to a better place. How could it be any other way? He is a God of construction and repair, of putting pieces together and putting pieces back together.
We should never blithely tell someone who is in the middle of the agony of their suffering that “it is all for the good.” But when the time is right, we can say with sensitivity that the God who is always good is never absent or indifferent. He holds all the pieces of our lives together into a whole that can never be calculated as a negative, but always a positive.
Some people have to endure severe suffering—those wearing tattered clothes in a refugee camp, the people who are physically or sexually abused by a parent or priest, the people with chronic severe pain, the multitudes who never have enough to eat on any day, those who are unjustly imprisoned. Yet we hear the personal testimony of so many who have suffered so much and who have seen the math, and who believe that the sum of life is still positive. This is not to say that if you write the Bad Things in one column and the Good Things in a second column that the second will be longer than the first. It’s more mysterious than that. Somehow God is able to keep the heart beating, the spiritual breath flowing. He brings light into even the darkest corners.
It is that promise we hold onto: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Not that all things are good (they’re not). Not that all things add up to a positive sum (life is not about accounting). Not that all things become good things (that’s just not true). Rather, God is at work amid “all things,” which means all days and every chapter of life, even the dark ones. He is at work. He doesn’t sleep, and he doesn’t leave. Any work that God does is good, because he is God.
That is why “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26), why we can believe “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (8:18), why we can live knowing that “if God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (8:31-32).
Through it all, God remains the creator of Good Things, and Lord and Master over all humanity, even when we so often choose the Bad Things.
God, there are many things that are hard for me to understand, and one of them is the hard times and sufferings that we go through, especially when we have not brought them on ourselves. Help me to trust in your goodness, and to know that nothing that happens in this world changes that. Help me to understand your distress at evil, and to know that bad things do not compromise your goodness. When I am going through dark days, help me to persevere until the light dawns again. I pray for people I know right now who need to be aware of your steady presence because of the battles they are going through.
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s teaching pastor. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.
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