On a hot summer day in 1967, Joni and her sister Kathy dove into the murky water of Chesapeake Bay. Joni noticed a raft floating maybe 50 yards offshore and swam toward it.
“When I reached the raft, I climbed on it and quickly dove off the side, almost without thinking. I first felt the familiar drag of the water, and then a stunning jolt—my head crashed into a rock on the bottom…
“I couldn’t move! My face pressed hard into the grinding sand on the bottom, but I couldn’t pull away. My brain was directing my muscles to make swimming motions, but none of them responded.”
Kathy made it to her just in time to save her from drowning, but nothing Kathy or the doctors could do could reverse the paralysis. “You’ll never walk again, and your arms will have limited use,” the doctor told her after surgery.
“I was devastated. My life had been so full… [Now] I couldn’t even feed myself. I could sleep and breathe; everything else someone did for me.”
Two friends visiting her in the hospital were shocked at what this vivacious teen had become. They stared then ran out of the room. She could hear one vomiting and the other sobbing. She finally convinced another friend to let her see herself in a mirror, then begged the friend to help her end it all. When the friend declined, Joni realized she couldn’t even end her life herself.
Bedsores, bitterness toward God, grueling therapy even to be able to sit in a wheelchair—and through it all, the haunting question: Why?
Postscript: As everyone familiar with Joni Eareckson Tada’s story knows, she has turned her bitterness into belief and her disabilities into amazing talents. She sings, speaks, writes and even paints with a paintbrush held in her teeth. She is one who has found meaning in her suffering. (Source: Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? 1990, pp. 127-138.)
Where Does Suffering Come From?
We all have stories of suffering, and they come in many different types. There are sudden accidents, like Joni’s. There are lifelong disabilities. There are chronic illnesses, emotional losses, financial disasters—sorrow, pain and suffering of all kinds. Whether we’re innocent victims or we bear partial responsibility, we still naturally wonder why. To begin to explore this big subject, let’s start with the foundational background from God’s Word, the Bible.
What does our loving God want for His human children?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”
You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
1 John 3:1
Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.
Many scriptures show that God wants only the best for us. He wants us to enjoy the joyous benefits of being His children forever!
In contrast, how does the Bible describe the intentions of the enemy of God?
“How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, you who weakened the nations! For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit.”
“You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.”
“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I [Jesus Christ] have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
Revelation 12:9-10, 12
So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down…
“Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.”
The Bible describes one of God’s angels, Lucifer, rising in rebellious pride against God and choosing evil rather than God’s good way. (For a detailed study of this, see our booklet Is There Really a Devil?) Satan’s momentous choice was the starting point of evil and the suffering that comes with it. Sin is the ultimate cause of suffering. Now Satan wants nothing more than to thwart God’s plan and destroy our trust in God’s goodness.
How did Satan influence our first parents?
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned…
Satan has been deceiving humanity from the beginning, and he got Eve and Adam to mimic his own wrong choice. By choosing to decide for themselves what they thought was good and what they thought was evil, they were ignoring the only true source of that knowledge. Satan has helped us build a society that too often redefines sin as acceptable. But even when men don’t realize something is wrong, it still brings the automatic consequences of suffering and death.
Even though God gives us free will, does He tell us what choice He wants us to make?
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. But if your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live…”
By giving us the chance to choose, God gives us the opportunity to develop His righteous character, something we couldn’t develop if He always forced us to make the right choice.
Since sin causes suffering, does that mean the person who is suffering is always responsible for his or her own suffering?
And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
Sadly, sins have consequences that often affect not just the sinner, but those around him or her as well (see Deuteronomy 28:15-20). In a world that has told God to keep His hands off (Matthew 23:37), Satan is pulling the strings, allowing trials and suffering to come on innocent victims and God’s people as well. So we should never judge the victims of suffering, but should be aware of our personal responsibility to repent and turn to God. In addition, the Bible refers to some troubles as random acts of “time and chance” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
How Should God’s People Respond to Suffering?
What is suffering good for?
1 Peter 1:6-7
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ…
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
Many scriptures point out the end results of trusting God and enduring through difficulties. Like the refining process for precious metals, the heat of trials produces beautiful, godly character that can be achieved in no other way. The Bible tells us that even Jesus Christ learned through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:8-9).
What does God promise His people?
1 Corinthians 10:13
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
1 Peter 5:7
…casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
Romans 8:18, 28
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us…
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
Read and meditate on these fantastic promises and take them to God in prayer. Ask for the way of escape, the rest, the lightening of the load and the perspective that He promises. He has all power and His thinking is far above our thinking, so He can make seemingly hopeless situations work out for our good in the long run.
What does God want us to do for others who are suffering?
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Jesus Christ was willing to suffer the trials of His human life in order to help us (Hebrews 2:17-18). He wants us to follow His example of loving service to those facing trials. (See “Apply Now” for more on comforting others.)
When will all suffering end?
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
What a wonderful time to look forward to!