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Does Suffering Have a Purpose?

June 22, 2008

Romans 8:17-27; 5:3-5; II Corinthians 1: 3-5; 12:7; Galatians 2:20

The music we have heard in this service is so appropriate for our sermon today entitled “Does Suffering Have a Purpose?” The beautiful solo “Rest,” the offertory music, “It Is Well with My Soul,” and the anthem “Bow the Knee” all fit so well with today’s particular topic.

Many of you know I am starting tonight a discipleship training series on the life and letters of the Apostle Paul. I have been reading in preparation for this series for several weeks, actually since I finished the discipleship sessions entitled Seven @ Seven. As I was preparing this sermon, I realized that a number of the messages recently have all come from the letters of Paul. The meditation on the day we observed the Lord’s Supper, “Self-examination at the Table of Grace,” “The Secret of Contentment,” and the Father’s Day message “To Be a Good Provider” came from the Apostle Paul’s writing. It is not quite accurate to say that we are beginning a new series today. We are actually continuing a series I had not realized I had started. Our future sermons for a while will come from the letters of Paul. To use a good old Baptist term, I have been truly immersed in Paul’s commentary.

Today, we are going to consider an issue Paul raises, though he does not actually pose the question: Does suffering have a purpose?

There are three great truths in life. First, God is omnipotent or all-powerful, and God is omniscient or all-knowing. The second major truth is that God is a God of love, a God of compassion, a God of mercy, a God of grace. Third, terrible situations happen on this earth to the children of God.

It is very difficult to make sense of all three of these truths. You can take any two of them and actually make what seems to be a rock-solid religion. You have seen this happen. Take, for example, the two truths that God is all-powerful and all-knowing and that some terrible things happen to people. You may get a religion that focuses on the wrath of God. With an event such as Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast, people may say, “This is God’s wrath, His judgment against the sin of the city of New Orleans.” That statement seems to be a pat answer. It even follows the model of some of the prophets of the Old Testament, but it does not convey the spirit of Jesus.

Take, for example, the two truths that God is all-loving and that some terrible things happen. Look at a serious problem like the hundreds of thousands of people that have died in places like the Darfur region of the Sudan, people who have died from world hunger. You come to a conclusion that God certainly loves His children and cares about them, but He seems helpless to do anything about the problem. I do not buy that interpretation for one moment.

Consider the combination that God is all-powerful and all-loving. Put those truths in a prayer, “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food and ignore all of the suffering in the world.” If we believe in this combination, we can put our head in the sand and think that suffering is just a figment of our imagination, something with which we do not really need to be bothered.

Not one of these three approaches is really satisfactory to a thinking Christian, a concerned Christian, a prayerful Christian. All three truths must be taken seriously, and we need to find a way for them to come together in the life of faith that is ours in Christ Jesus.

We have spent billions of dollars putting a landing module on Mars, the red planet. I have heard a comedienne say this week that its surface has ice and salt on it. I can go to the Mini-Mart within walking distance of my home and buy ice and salt. I am not opposed to scientific research, but I sometimes wonder if placing so much emphasis on a project such as this represents our best sense of priority. We need to address so many other problems.

I watch television, as you do, but I honestly try to limit myself the news to a half-hour of news a day. We see suffering in the faces of those who have been so affected by the floods in Iowa. My heart goes out to those people. We see suffering in the faces of people in the country of Iraq. My heart goes out to them and to so many others around the globe.

The face of suffering is not just in places like Iowa and Iraq. The face of suffering appears in every single room on any day of the week at Mary Black Hospital or Spartanburg Regional Hospital. We can look into the face of suffering in the waiting rooms of the numerous intensive care units.

Let me caution you by saying that I do not pretend to understand the suffering in this world. I cannot pretend to understand its magnitude and purpose. Suffering, which is global in nature, is certainly overwhelming, especially when we look at some of the places where people suffer so terribly. The suffering I want to talk with you about today, though, is not so much global. I want to talk to you about your personal suffering, the suffering of those you know and love.

Is there any purpose in suffering? We hope to find an answer to this question by looking at the writings of the Apostle Paul. Personal suffering was obviously a concern for him as we see in his letter to the Romans. Most people would agree that this particular letter is a masterpiece because it is written so eloquently. Some of Paul’s letters sound as if his thoughts are pouring out like water over a waterfall. The first chapter of Ephesians, for example, is one continuous sentence. Translators have great difficulty in knowing where to punctuate that long, long passage. In the book of Romans, you see Paul using skills he gained from Greek philosophy. You see his understanding of how to frame and present an argument, how to deal with certain propositions. He introduces a subject and then several chapters later actually comes to his discourse on that particular topic.

If you study Romans, you see that this book fits like a hand in a glove at a particular period in Christian history and in the history of the Roman Empire. The emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome. Because of some Jewish riots, that expulsion included Jews who had become Christian. After the expulsion, the church in Rome was Gentile Christian. When Nero became the emperor and allowed the Jews to return to Rome, the church had a unique problem. Jewish Christians were returning to be a part of this fellowship. Paul writes the Roman letter against that backdrop, trying to help this church in the crisis of incorporating Gentile and Jewish Christians into the same fellowship, the same body of Christ. Paul had never been to Rome before he writes this letter about suffering.

These people had already gotten a taste of suffering, but so much more was to come. In the year 64 A.D., most of the slum area, the ghetto area, of Rome burned. Many think that Nero himself ordered those fires set even though he was out of town at the time. He probably orchestrated that urban renewal, simply through the fires that burned the slum areas. Under much criticism for the destruction, Nero blamed the fires on the Christians. As a result, Christians experienced intense persecution, the worst in the church until that time. In the Roman letter, Paul anticipates that persecution, in a sense.

I want us to look together at some passages in the books of Romans and II Corinthians to see if we can discern the purpose of suffering. First, I invite your attention to Romans 5:3-5. Paul writes, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings.” Now, if you want to slam your Bible closed and dismiss this man for making such a comment, that would be fine. It would put you in good company. Many people simply stop at that point and do not want to continue reading any further. “We also rejoice in our suffering” sounds like the most improbable comment Paul would make.

We need to stick with him for a minute and listen to what he says: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Paul establishes here that suffering is the beginning of the process of spiritual growth. We can expect that suffering will increase our faith because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance creates character, and character results in hope of the love of God, fully expressed in Christ Jesus. This passage is his teaser, the place he introduces the subject of suffering.

Paul does not address the topic of affliction again until Romans 8:18-21: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation…” That phrase actually means the creation stands on tiptoe. The Apostle Paul is talking about this waiting with hope, waiting with a sense of anticipation. Think of the eagerness of a young groom waiting for his bride to come down the aisle. You can see this kind of anticipation in a person’s face or body movements.

The creation waits…for the sons of God (the children of God) to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Paul uses the expression “groaning” three times in Romans 8. This “groaning” is in reference to the pain of childbirth. He is talking about suffering that is creative, suffering that produces truth, suffering that is not a waste of time.

Verse 22: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning…Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, (those who are Christians, anyone who has accepted Christ) as we wait eagerly (standing on tiptoe) for our adoption as sons, (children of God) the redemption of our bodies.”

I read a story this week about an American soldier who adopted an Iraqi child. While in service, the soldier walked inside an Iraqi orphanage. A little boy there in his crib, holding onto the rail, was literally standing on tiptoe. The child was bouncing up and down, just hoping to see a smiling face walk through the door. The soldier did not know this little Iraqi boy. The little boy did not know the soldier, but the boy was so eager to have somebody love him that he greeted this soldier with a smile. The soldier commented, “I knew from that moment I would have to adopt him.”

Paul says the same about Christians. We are waiting, waiting for our relationship to God to come to fruition, waiting for our adoption, waiting for our redemption.

Verse 26: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The Holy Spirit joins us in this creative groaning, this creative process, and interprets our prayers to God so that we can live according to God’s will. According to Paul, suffering has a creative purpose. I have a wise old saying I invented: Don’t ever waste a good experience of suffering. It can lead to something positive. It can lead to something good.

All of us, some of you this week, have suffered terribly. Some of you have been suffering for several weeks or months. More suffering will occur this week, suffering we know nothing about yet. Everybody will experience this; there are no exemptions. The key to understanding suffering as a Christian is to see that God will use it for a good purpose. Look at Verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” That does not mean that God causes our suffering. Sometimes He allows it. Once it happens, God begins to use it for some good purpose. God does not necessarily use this suffering for our purpose. He uses it for His purpose.

Turn with me to II Corinthians 1, beginning at Verse 3.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.

What is Paul saying here?

A young pastor who was well educated, well trained, was doing a good job leading a church. He seemed to have all the gifts necessary to be an effective pastor and preacher. He appeared to get along with everybody, but he told one of his older mentors, “I just am not connecting with the people. Something is wrong, and I do not know what it is.”

This old mentor answered him, “The thing missing in your life is that you have never had a broken heart. Until your heart is broken and until you learn to hurt, you are not going to really connect with the people you serve.” The mentor’s statement has much truth to it.

Henri Nouwen, in the book The Wounded Healer, talks about the reason we find so much comfort in Christ. Christ himself suffered. Nouwen refers to Isaiah 53:3: “He was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief.” Think of that passage. Surely, Jesus can carry our sorrows and bear our grief. He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. It is by his stripes that we are healed. Jesus himself was a wounded healer. So, too, are Christians.

Please permit me to use a personal example here. The little grief book I wrote, When Grief Comes, is now in its third printing. That book would not have been written if Clare and I had not lost our son Erik. It was through our grief that I was able, then, to write that book, which has now become a way to minister to so many people I do not even know. It has gone way beyond the walls of this church. God did not cause the death of our son so that I would write that book. I do not believe that for a moment, but I do believe God said, “Look, Kirk, let’s not waste this experience of suffering. Let’s find a way to use it.”

We comfort other people with the same comfort we ourselves have received. Go back to those intensive care units at the hospital. Behind those sealed doors are people who are receiving care from a skilled nursing staff, from wonderful physicians. The waiting room itself is another intensive care unit. People are caring for each other. They develop a kind of community because they are all there suffering together.

II Corinthians 12:7 reads, “To keep me from becoming conceited…” One of the purposes of suffering is to nurture humility within our soul. Nothing will bring a patient to the point of humility any quicker than a hospital gown. It is like a good sermon – long enough to cover the subject and skimpy enough to keep the interest. The very first quality patients learn when admitted into the hospital is humility. Paul has learned that humility. He writes, “To keep me from being conceited because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh.” Paul goes on to say that he had prayed three times fervently that this affliction would be removed from him. God’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9).

Paul continues with that thought, “Therefore, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, and in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” One of the purposes of suffering is to learn that we do not have what it takes to endure in our own strength. Paul has learned that we are forced to depend on the strength of Christ. We must learn that lesson, too.

In 1978, I broke my neck trying to teach my children the game “Skin the Cat.” The bar I was hanging from broke, and I fractured the sixth cervical vertebra. That injury forced me to lie flat on my back in traction from April through August. When you are forced to lie down and look up, God gets your attention. I do not think He caused my broken neck so that I would be forced to look up; but after it happened, He certainly did not waste the experience. I was pinned to the mat, in a sense, and it was then that He taught me to pray. I had some sweet hours of prayer. I doubt I had ever prayed for a solid hour in my life before then. I learned to pray for one hour, then two, three, and four. I learned how to pray for an extended amount of time because of my circumstances.

In Romans 8, Verse 17, Paul writes about how we become children of God, co-heirs with Christ. We share in the suffering of Christ. That is a uniquely Christian concept. Paul would say in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ.” Sharing Christ’s suffering means that our suffering has a redemptive purpose.

How can we connect the fact that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving but that some terrible things happen? How do we make sense out of those three truths? We must come to a place called Golgotha. We must come to the cross. There we can see the power and love of God. There we can see something terrible happening to God’s own Son. We see that this all-powerful and all-loving God by choice, gave His Son, a suffering servant, a suffering messiah, so that we may have life. That is how the three truths make sense. That is where we begin to make sense out of our suffering. If our suffering is wasted, it serves no good purpose at all. God’s purpose in our suffering is that it helps us identify with Christ Jesus. Suffering brings us right back to the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Paul finishes this great chapter to the Romans by saying that nothing in the world will ever separate us from the love of Christ.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely

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