Is Suffering Spiritual?

We Christians have an unhealthy relationship with suffering. If suffering itself weren’t awful enough, because of our screwed up ideas about it, our pride is often stabbed in the process. We either can’t imagine that any ill would come to we generally good and gentle folks, or that God would allow us, specifically, to suffer in a world obviously chock full of suffering. We, whether we would be able to admit or not, see suffering as the result of moral failure; as punishment.

And that’s just not true. In John 9, the disciples lean over, clucking their tongues, as they ask Jesus who sinned to make this poor fellow they were looking at blind. There’s such arrogance in the question. Such faux spiritual maturity and ignorance pretending to be knowledge. “Was it this man or his family, Jesus?” 

“Neither,” said Jesus.

Suffering is Normal

If a parent dies, I receive a Cancer diagnosis, or my car won’t start when I have an important meeting, I scour my conscience for why God might be punishing me. I believe that if I can figure it out, perhaps I can make amends and make life work again; that the flow of good things will rush back into my life. Because, in our minds, the world is always a place of order, and if there’s disorder, it’s because we or someone else (“Was it this man or his family, Jesus?”) have done something wrong. We think that if we can somehow put things back in moral order, the suffering will stop. 

For us, pain is always seen as the cattle prod of God. But, sometimes, pain and suffering is just the consequence of living in a fallen world.

Physical and psychological suffering is a sad given. You can’t even be a name-it-and-claim-it theologian with a million dollar jet and two houses and not somehow suffer. You have to carry around a foxhole of denial to duck into when bad things happen; to explain them away. “I just had a, um, moment of weakness in my faith. That’s all it was.”


My Foxhole

I avoided suffering (still do, I’m just aware of my avoidance) as best I could (which was not at all) for years. I just avoided thinking about suffering. I was tired of it. I’d done quite enough of it, thank you very much, God. And I’d kept it to myself, too! Not burdening anyone else with it. And that had to count for something, right? But all that did was make me angry at God. 

If suffering were always a form of punishment, then God was obviously one mean sucker. Because I suffered a lot.

Birds & Eternal Love

That’s not to say God doesn’t use our suffering to make us more like him, or that our sin doesn’t have real-world consequences, or even that God never brings about suffering. I’m just saying that every stubbed toe, psychological breakdown, and personal loss isn’t some reason for us to feel shame and guilt. Suffering is a result of living in a fallen world. 

Knowing that, it’s important to also understand that God says he cares when a single bird falls out of the sky, and you’re much more important than birds (Mt 10:29-31). As our Father, He cares deeply about us and our suffering. While suffering isn’t necessarily spiritual, it’s an inevitability of life, as is God’s love. The difference is that suffering will someday disappear for good. Death will die. But God’s love, well, that’s forever.


-Chad West

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