4 Things to Stop Believing about Suffering

Suffering is one of the most opportune times for false theology to pop out. Well-meaning people’s palms sweat with fear of what to say, and tears fill their eyes as they listen to us share our painful story. I am thankful that more often than not I’ve received abundant kindness and encouragement from others in my suffering. But we all also have those experiences where we are on the receiving end of words that only poke at our fresh wound.

Or perhaps it’s not other people feeding you a bad, discouraging theology. Maybe all the false teaching is coming from your own aching, deceitful heart—the lies float through your head every day, though no one is saying them to you.

We’re all going to face suffering in this life—it’s sadly inevitable. Yet, what is also inevitable are the lies. Sometimes we aren’t given the option of ignoring them, but we can choose whether or not to believe them. In the midst of suffering, we can set our minds on truth, what the Bible actually says about our pain. Here are four misconceptions about suffering and the truth to which we can cling.

1. It could be worse! You need to put a positive spin on it.

I remember the pain this statement struck in my heart when someone said it to me after my first miscarriage. A positive spin? How do I put a positive spin on losing a baby? They tried to comfort me that “There was probably something wrong with the baby” and “At least you’re young.” Yes, this suffering could have been much worse, but that doesn’t negate that it is still a tragedy.

As I read the Psalms, I don’t see them saying, “It could always be worse than everyone hating me” or “At least they haven’t killed me yet!” Instead, the psalmist acknowledges and pours out his grief to God. The psalmists don’t seek comfort in thinking on how their situation could be worse. They don’t try to think of their suffering in a “positive light.” Some psalms never get to a positive point—some simply cry out in pain. The other psalms of lament take courage in what they know to be true about God. They refer back to God’s faithfulness of the past and trust that he will be faithful to them now. Consider Psalm 42. Here we see sorrow and hope in harmony, not pitted against one another:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. (Ps. 42:5-8)

We want to totally eradicate the pain of suffering. We want the mourning process to go quickly. But grief and suffering aren’t scheduled. It’s not wrong to be sad, nor is it sinful to grieve. God gave us emotions, and we should acknowledge them. God doesn’t rush our mourning but instead comes near and comforts us.

2. There is something greater just around the corner.

“A rainstorm always leads to a rainbow,” so they say. I understand the sentiment and the desire to encourage others that a difficult time is on the heels of something greater. Yet, I think of Paul—he suffered shipwrecks, beatings, arrest, stoning, slander, and much more, and at the end of his life was martyred. I wonder what he would say to the statement “Something greater is just around the corner.” Many of the apostles endured immense suffering and persecution, and it only got worse as time went on. And this continues to be the case for believers all over the world.

Thomas Boston takes a much more practical look at this in his book, The Crook in the Lot. He writes, There is a crook made by a train of cross dispensation, whether of the same or different kinds, following hard on one another, and leaving lasting effects behind them. Thus, in the case of Job, while one messenger of evil tidings was yet speaking, another came. Cross events coming one on the neck of another, deep calling to deep, make a sore crook.[1]

As much as we want to be assured that we have something joyful in the days ahead, we are promised something better—perfect eternal life with God himself, which is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:4-5). This is a real promise to cling to in suffering.

3. Perhaps God is punishing you for your sin.

As we face trial after trial, we may find ourselves looking around every corner, wondering what’s next. We begin to analyze our lives, searching for some kind of cause or reason. What have I done to deserve or provoke this? Job’s friends continually pressed their thumbs into his wounded heart and said, “God doesn’t do this to just people! What have you done? Repent and God will relent” (see Job 4:7-11 and 8:1-22). Maybe you don’t have friends saying this to you, but your own heart may be hissing these words.

This is a distortion of the gospel and a misunderstanding of God’s discipline and wrath. Our punishment for sin, God’s righteous wrath, was already endured on the cross by Christ. Christ drank the full cup of wrath that we deserved, every last drop of it. There’s not even a sprinkle of God’s wrath left for his children:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1)

God does discipline his children, but he does so in love, not in anger or vengeance. He wants our ultimate good, which is holiness (Rom. 8:28-30); therefore, he disciplines us to lead us away from sin and to sanctify us (Heb. 12:7-11). Still, not every ounce of suffering is for discipline.

It is true that sin has brought corruption and misery into God’s good creation, and we suffer as a result. The error of Job’s friends though, was that they reversed the order and said, “If you are suffering it must be because you sinned.” Jesus said, “No.” When asked about the man who was blind from birth, Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). The point is there are times when suffering may be for reasons other than sin, so we shouldn’t break our hearts trying to figure out what sin has brought on our suffering. We do know that God doesn’t inflict punishment on his redeemed children, and he doesn’t abandon them; rather, he comes near to those who are brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18).

4. You’re not over that yet?

We’re impatient, especially in suffering. We try to speed up the healing process and put high expectations on our recovery. Boston notes, [Suffering] made by a cross dispensation, which, however in itself passing, yet has lasting effects. Such a crook did Herod’s cruelty make in the lot of the mothers in Bethlehem, who by the murderers were left weeping for their slain children, and would not be comforted, because they were not. A slip of the foot may soon be made, which will make a man go limping ever after.[2]

The effects of suffering don’t have a time limit. Some soreness may always remain with us, especially in loss. Healing may never come on earth, but this where we once again fix our eyes on eternity:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)

In heaven, mourning will finally be done away with, but until then we rightly grieve a world that is not as it should be and groan with the earth waiting for redemption (Rom. 8:19-23).

Right Theology Matters, Even in Suffering.

While wrong theology can condemn and cause heartache, right theology can lift up weary pilgrims. This is why we must saturate ourselves with truth and surround ourselves with brothers and sisters in Christ who know the truth. When difficult times come, we then can ground ourselves not in that which brings more sorrow but rather in life-giving hope from God’s word.

[1] Thomas Boston, The Crook in the Lot (East Peoria: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 7.

[2] Boston, Crook, 6.

This article by Lara d’ Entremont was originally published at beautifulchristianlife.com and is used with permission; https://www.beautifulchristianlife.com/blog/4-things-to-stop-believing-about-suffering.

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