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Is There Purpose in Suffering?



By David Kowalski

When painful circumstances come our way most of us want to know why they have (provided we have already ruled out our own folly as the cause!). What we are usually looking for in response to our question is an understanding of just what higher purpose the painful circumstance serves. We are not wrong to suppose God uses these trying circumstances for a higher good. There are many indications in Scripture that God sovereignly reigns over His creation and as creatures we are subjects of that sovereign rule. "The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice" (Psalsm 97:1 NASB).

The good news is that all of our circumstances are infused with meaning as part of the grand design of God, who "causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28 NASB). The "bad news" is that we do not see that grand design from our earthly perspective as we pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

From where we are, unpleasant circumstances seem like nothing more than meaningless defacement of our lives. If we could just observe from a higher plane, we would see, as John did after being given a heavenly perspective in Revelation chapter four, there really is a larger purpose, and the unsightly, defacing wounds work together to form a beautiful design.

I believe we can find an apt illustration of this in the Nazca Lines (see photo) -- "scratches' in the otherwise pleasant-looking, rock, desert floor of the Nazca river region in Peru -- put there by ancient, indigenous people for reasons about which we can only speculate (no, they were not for alien astronauts to navigate by as some have claimed).

Nazca LinesStanding on the desert floor, the lines seem nothing more than meaningless, ancient graffiti which defaces the scenery. If, however, one obtains a higher perspective from a nearby hilltop, he or she can see that there is an overall, beautiful design in the lines. What looks ugly in the valley is beautiful from above.

One thing we will clearly see from the heavenly perspective is the particularity of just how the circumstances we endured help to shape our character:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4 NASB).

This knowledge is something we are told to rejoice in now as we know its truth in general terms. Specific understanding is more challenging.

In our heavenly home we really will "understand it better by and by." In the meantime, we must content ourselves with knowing there is a designer and we must trust Him. The answer that always applies clearly to our understanding with regard to each, particular trial in the valley is that the entire valley is located in the shadow of death.

This world is a fallen place that does not reflect God's original intent. People sin here and all creation lives under a curse. Even we ourselves, who have the down-payment of the Spirit live in bodies yet to experience the transformation of resurrection and glorification:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Romans 8:18-25 NASB)

From our perspective in the valley we can usually only see that bad things happen because this is a bad place. That is often the only real answer we have just yet that explains suffering to us with clear and understandable particularity. How these painful events fit exactly into God's higher plan remains to be seen from the heavenly perspective.

In the meantime, we trust God because we know He is trustworthy, and we simply console one another in our times of trial. Suffering is not good in itself, as Jesus showed by weeping at the scene of Lazarus' death (John 11:35). For now we don't always know why bad things happen but we do know Him, and that is enough.

You will never understand why God does what he does, but if you believe him, that is all that is necessary. Let us learn to trust him for who he is. – Elisabeth Elliot

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Written by David Kowalski

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One Response to “Is There Purpose in Suffering?”

  1. David Kowalski says:

    I appreciate your kind remarks about the post. I am just one contributor to Apologetics Index. Anton Hein runs the site and many fine authors have articles in its archives. I began writing articles for this site several years ago after reading most if not all of the articles in the alphabetical file. I had long been an admirer of the site before I wrote for it. If you subscribe to Apologetics Index, you will receive notifications of each new entry. If you wish to see a list of my particular posts, you may do so at http://www.apologeticsindex.org/david-kowalski (keep selecting "go back in time" to view earlier articles). That page contains a mix of material -- some short and devotional, some longer and more academic.

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This post was last updated: Feb. 7, 2013