STUDY FIVE: SUFFERING – THE WAY LIFE IS

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020

If you read through the Bible with the concept of ‘suffering’ in mind, you find that suffering permeates the whole Bible. Since Genesis 3, suffering is the way life is. So much so that, even though we do not like it, we see suffering as ‘normal’. It is in this context of suffering that both the Old and New Testaments challenge us to believe in God. We are not called to faith in a context where everything is always okay. Rather, we are called to faith in a context where there is usually something that is not okay. Sometimes it feels like there is nothing that actually is okay.

To look at everything the Bible has to say about suffering is far too big a task. Because of this, most of our focus is on what the New Testament says about suffering. In this study we will look at the suffering that was part and parcel of human life in the New Testament era. Although science has, since then, found ways to overcome many aspects of human suffering, it seems that overall there has been very little change. Those same areas of life that were characterized by suffering then are still characterized by suffering today.

We still suffer from natural hazards and disasters.
We still suffer physical illness and disability.
We still suffer poverty and want.
We still suffer because of the intentions, words and actions of our fellow human beings.
We still suffer the pain of tense or broken relationships.
We still suffer the emotional, mental and spiritual pain caused by twisted religious perceptions and expectations.
We still suffer physical death.

 

A. SUFFERING CAUSED BY ‘NATURAL HAZARDS’

They used to be called ‘acts of God’, but it seems that this phrase is no longer politically correct; so now we have ‘nature events’ or ‘natural hazards’.

Identify the ‘natural hazards’ in these verses. Indicate whether or not you have personally experienced or observed any of them.
Matthew 7:24-27

Mark 4:37

Luke 21:11

Acts 11:28

Acts 27:14

2Corinthians 11:25b, 26b

Revelation 6:8

 

B. PHYSICAL SICKNESS AND DISABILITY

Sickness and disability were common in the New Testament. They are still common today. Our hospitals are full. Our emergency rooms cannot cope. Although many infant diseases have been eradicated on the one hand, many other conditions, almost unheard of in earlier generations, are afflicting people in every age group, and ‘degenerative’ diseases cause great suffering to many in the latter half of their lives.

Identify the sickness or disability in these verses. What similar pain/illness have you either personally experienced or observed?
Matthew 4:23,24

Matthew 9:20

Mark 10:46

Acts 3:2

Galatians 4:13

Philippians 2:25 – 27

1Timothy 5:23

James 5:14

 

C. POVERTY AND NEED

Jesus said ‘You will always have the poor among you’ (John 12:8). The number of charity organizations seems to constantly increase, as do their requests for funding. The poor and needy around the world seem to grow in number, regardless of how much money is committed by governments and relief organizations. Some are poor and needy because of natural disasters, family issues, inability to work or political events. Some are poor and needy because of the sin of others. Some are poor and needy because they were born into poverty. Some are poor and needy because of their own laziness or foolishness (the book of Proverbs draws repeated attention to this).

(In many countries today government social services address the problem of poverty, playing much the same role as a portion of the Old Testament tithes administered by the Levites. Even so, poverty remains.)

Check these verses relating to poverty. What caused the poverty? What parallels this today?
Luke 16:20

2Corinthians 11:27

Philippians 4:12

1Timothy 5:3,5

James 2:1-6

Revelation 6:6

 

D. SUFFERING DIRECTLY CAUSED BY HUMAN SIN

Because we are sinners who sin we all cause suffering to others. Every time we say ‘yes’ to some attitude, word or action that God has said ‘no’ to, that God has outlawed, we cause suffering. Sometimes we hurt ourselves by our sinful, godless choices; and most of the time we hurt others by our sinful, godless choices. This aspect of human suffering is the direct cause/effect consequence of our individual sins. This kind of suffering is observable everywhere, and is found throughout the Bible.

From these verses in James, as examples, consider the human suffering directly caused by the sin of others:
James 2:6

James 3:5-10

James 4:1, 2

James 5:4 – 6

James 5:9

God has given us a list of seven things that he hates in Proverbs 6:16 – 19. Note that each of them is one way or another causes humans to suffer:

Haughty eyes.
A lying tongue.
Hands that shed innocent blood.
A heart that devises wicked schemes.
Feet that are quick to rush into evil.
A false witness.
A man who stirs up dissension among brothers.

Some of these human actions and attitudes cause physical pain, even death; others cause emotional, psychological and relational pain. And that is, for most of us, a deeper and more permanent pain than physical pain. Sadly, although we do not usually see Christians causing physical suffering to their fellow believers, it is quite common in churches to find Christians who are suffering deeply because of the godless attitudes, words and actions of their fellow Christians.

What suffering have you experienced because of your fellow believers’ attitudes, words and actions?

 

 

 

 

[In this study we will look at the utter inappropriateness of believers causing each other to suffer.]

 

E. SUFFERING CAUSED BY ERRONEOUS HUMAN BELIEFS

This section is a particular expression of the previous section.

Many of us are aware of the damage done to people by various ‘cults’. This suffering includes physical, emotional and psychological abuse. It also includes spiritual abuse. Sadly again, this cause of suffering is not limited to extreme cults, but can and does occur in churches that have lost touch with the real Jesus and the real grace of the Gospel. Key abusive elements to look for in churches that abuse are:

Law replacing grace as the basis of gaining and/or maintaining salvation.
Dictatorial leadership.
Mandatory accountability or discipling structure.
Manipulation and intimidation.
Excessive discipline.

[For an extended analysis of this suffering, read Churches That Abuse, by Ronald M. Enroth, Zondervan, 1992.]

In Study 9 the entire focus will be on the harm and suffering caused by the message of false teachers and by other distorted religious perceptions and expectations.

 

F. DEATH

Death comes. That is the way life is between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20.

Just as suffering is the context in which God commands us to believe in him, so death is the final suffering in which we are challenged to believe in him: do we trust him even here where we eventually can do nothing at all, where we are finally unable to support or sustain ourselves, and where not even the best of medical procedures can restore life?

Here in death we are confronted with our own powerlessness and fragility. Here in death we realize that we are dependent creatures.

Do we trust God to take us safely through death?

Look at these verses. What insight do they give to the attitude to death that should be ours as people of faith?
Job 13:15

Psalm 116:15

John 11:25,26

2Corinthians 5:1-7

Philippians 1:20-23

Hebrews 2:14,15