“You know why we suffer, don’t you?”
I sat across the table from my friend. We’ve known each other for decades now. He was the cool kid in our teens; I wasn’t. Our paths diverged and crossed again. We watched each other go through good and bad times. We’re both acquainted with hardship — another way of saying both of us are in our 50s. Few of us get to this age without suffering.
I looked down at my avocado toast and coffee. I didn’t know if my friend was about to give me a theodicy, an explanation of how to reconcile suffering with God’s sovereignty. I hoped not. In the middle of suffering, theology is helpful, even essential, but we need more. We need to know that God and others care.
“Here’s why we suffer,” he continued. “We suffer so that we learn that God is all we have. We suffer so God draws us closer to himself.”
Here’s why we suffer. We suffer so that we learn that God is all we have. We suffer so God draws us closer to himself.
My friend wasn’t offering a theodicy. He didn’t try to reconcile all the difficulties and tensions surrounding God’s will and the existence of evil. Instead, he was reflecting on his own recent experience of suffering, and sharing hope with a friend experiencing a different but potent form of suffering.
He wasn’t giving me a theological abstraction. He was giving his testimony.
At a certain age, you expect that life will go well. You project into the future and it looks a little like a video game: avoid the hazards, grab the coins, and make it to the next level unscathed.
Life’s not like that. As my friend and I talked about our own suffering, we also talked about how good we have it. Some have it far worse. Nobody escapes, though. Everyone suffers, and some of that suffering is unbearable.
“The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away,” wrote Moses (Psalm 90:10). “This reflects a pre-gospel perspective,” I once heard a preacher say. “I can’t imagine a Christian echoing these words.” I can. Life beats you up. If you haven’t suffered to the point of despair, you just haven’t lived long enough yet.
“No amount of money, power, and planning can prevent bereavement, dire illness, relationship betrayal, financial disaster, or a host of other troubles from entering your life,” says Tim Keller. “Human life is fatally fragile and subject to forces beyond our power to manage. Life is tragic.”
Everybody suffers. Nobody escapes.
The Sweetness of Suffering
Somehow, though, in suffering, God does his work. God weans us from lesser comforts. God breaks in us parts that needed to be broken. He creates a longing for the age to come. He offers us something better than answers: he offers us himself.
My heroes aren’t strong. My heroes struggled with depression, like Spurgeon. Some were dismissed from churches, like Jonathan Edwards. Some had wayward children. All of my heroes became sweeter through suffering.
“We suffer so that we learn that God is all we have. We suffer so God draws us closer to himself,” my friend said. “And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Me either. God does even more than that through our suffering, but if that’s all he did it would be enough.
I understand quite a bit of doctrine about why we suffer, and it helps. But I also understand something even more beautiful: that God does something beautiful through our suffering, and that I have God himself. I long for the end of suffering, but in the meantime, Jesus is enough.