Perhaps the most important question within religious discussions is the question of suffering. When we discuss this with non-theists, we can engage in a why would discussion. As in, “why would an all-powerful all-loving God allow his people to suffer?” And while these conversations do happen amongst Christians, the more pertinent question for Christians is a what question, mainly, “What should a Christian do in the face of great suffering?” To answer this question properly, we have to turn to Scripture.
One of my favorite Scriptural explorations on the topic of suffering and evil is the book of Habakkuk. I would strongly suggest reading the whole book, but for our purposes, I’ll summarize it.
The prophet Habakkuk is distressed over the amount of sin he sees amongst God’s people. He’s not only upset with Judah’s sin, but at the fact that it doesn’t - to him - seem to concern God. So, here’s how their conversation goes (in a very abbreviated form):
Habakkuk: Look at all the wickedness, when are you going to stop it?”
God: “I see it and I’m going to punish it through the Babylonians.”
Habakkuk: “Wait, we have a lot of wickedness, in our midst, but the Babylonians are so much worse! Would you really use them to punish us??”
God: “Even if I explained my ways to you, you wouldn’t understand it. I’m working something incredible.”
So, this is where we are in the story. Imagine the horror of the most powerful nation in the world coming in to completely destroy your people. Not only did they posses military might, but the Babylonians were unforgiving and unmerciful. How would you respond to God if you were to receive this news?
Habakkuk, though a small, obscure, and somewhat unpopular book, provides a profound answer to the question of suffering: joy.
Here’s Habakkuk’s response:
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer's; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19a)
Habakkuk’s response to this terrifying news is that even if everything is taken from them, God is still the source of their joy and this joy is so amazing and so powerful, that he will be like a deer prancing in the high places.
This is yet another thing that makes Christianity different. In the face of intense suffering, we don’t ignore it, complain about it, or even merely accept it. We receive it with a joy so incomparable that it almost makes us sound crazy.
The gift of suffering is that it provides us with an opportunity for joy in the trusting of our incredible God.
What about you? What suffering (mild or severe) are you experiencing that you might need to view as a gift this week? List it and pray about every day so that you might connect with God and experience the joy he has for you.