Updated: Jun 8
Working as a staff chaplain in a large medical center, I get plenty of opportunities to talk to people who are going through hard times. Indeed, some of them are experiencing intense suffering. Inevitably some of these people will ask me why it is that God lets them experience so much pain. As I listen to their concerns I often hear a similar theme being expressed.
Suffering patients typically see their pain and discomfort as stemming from God. They view their misery as either an assignment of punishment originating directly from the Lord, or an absence of protection where God doesn't care that they are hurting. While the Bible indicates that we can experience hardships as a result of God's displeasure with us, there are at least four other explanations for why we experience pain and distress.
For this post, I will list these five reasons, provide an illustration from Scripture to highlight each cause, and then propose an example of how a specific disease like cancer could come about in each situation. At the end of this post, I will explain why it's important for hurting people to consider all of the potential reasons they may be experiencing suffering rather than just focusing on one or two options. I will conclude by summarizing three ways God provides purpose in our pain.
(The reasons listed below are not exhaustive and are not provided in any particular order. )
Why Do We Experience Suffering?
God is Directly Punishing Us! This is the conclusion that many patients settle on. Most are convinced that God gave his approval for their illness or injury; yet in my experience, the vast majority of this group also believes that their suffering is unjustified. It's true the Bible teaches that God often punishes those who sin (Hosea 4:9). Indeed, we all die because we all sin against God (Romans 6:23). A sobering example of God punishing sinners is when Ananias and Sapphira are struck down for deceptively claiming they had given the church all the money they had received from selling a piece of property (Acts 5:1-10). Just as God punished King Uzziah with leprosy (2 Chronicles 26:16-21), it's possible that God may use cancer as a punishment for our sinfulness. Nevertheless, there are many other reasons why a person may experience cancer.
The Devil is Attacking Us! The story of Job teaches us that the Devil can harm believers. Moreover, Peter warns us in 1 Peter 5:8 that Satan "prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour." He harbors no good intentions for God's people. We are told that Satan struck Job with skin boils (Job 2:7). Paul also reminds us that a big part of our struggle in this world is against evil spirits (Ephesians 6:12). Given this reality, the Devil could be the the source of one's cancer.
Our Hardships Stem from the Foolish Mistakes and Selfish Motives of Other People! There is no doubt that other human beings can make choices that negatively impact us. Because King David's adultery with Bathsheba resulted in an unexplained pregnancy, David decided to kill her husband, Uriah, and take Bathsheba as his wife. But notice the report of Uriah's death in 2 Samuel 11:22-24. Uriah wasn't the only soldier that lost his life in the deathtrap that David ordered his army commander to carry out. Other men, who had nothing to do with the scandal, lost their lives as a result. They were the collateral damage of David's sin. We too can suffer because of the incompetence or bad behavior of those around us. How many workers across the years have gotten cancer because their employers failed to provide them with the proper protection equipment to safely perform their jobs?
Our Own Bad Decisions Create Problems for Us! When we make selfish or foolish choices we often experience the direct consequences of those actions. Case in point, King Ahaziah traversed the latticework of one of his upper rooms and fell through it, seriously injuring himself (2 Kings1:2). Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:7-8 that we reap what we sow. According to the American Cancer Society, smoking is the leading cause of cancer in the United States. Many deaths due to cancer are a direct result of individuals choosing to smoke cigarettes or using other carcinogenic products.
Pain and Disease Entered the World Due to the Fall of Humankind! Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and took from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because they rebelled against God and ate of the forbidden fruit, all of humanity became selfish and was doomed to die (Romans 5:12-21). What's more, the fall of humanity resulted in the natural world becoming broken as well. Thorns began to spring up across the land and childbirth became painful for women (Genesis 3:16-19). Romans 8:20-23 reveals that our planet is cursed and in a state of decay because sin entered into the world. What this means is that many people are experiencing cancer today as a result of the fall of Adam and Eve. For example, they may have inherited a mutated gene that initiates an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells. Or they may have developed a skin cancer because the ozone layer is not able to block solar radiation the way it was originally designed to do.
As one can see from the list above, there are many sources for suffering. Yet unfortunately, many individuals going through hard times oversimplify the explanation for their pain. They start with the assumption that God wants them to be healthy and happy. Since they are neither of these things, they then conclude that God has changed his plan and now wants them to suffer. And since they don't believe that their suffering is justified, they find themselves in a quandary. Why is God making them suffer when they don't deserve it?
They have now arrived at the testing of their faith and they have little reason to stay positive or remain hopeful. They begin to wonder, is there really a God? And even if he does exist, do I really want to follow a God who is so unkind and unfair to me? Anger, depression, and resignation often follow.
It's always possible that the patient is being punished by God and that they need to confess their sins. They also may be suffering because they have been making bad choices that have directly led to physical consequences. Such possibilities should be soberly considered and not dismissed offhand. The sufferer may indeed play a role in the pain they are experiencing. But that's not always the case.
It's also possible that these people are innocent victims within a larger struggle. What if the sufferer could see their trial in a wider, more biblical way? The actions of others, demonic forces, or the greater brokenness of our world may be pressing down upon them. The Bible teaches that the cause of suffering is often multifaceted and unclear. There is more than one source for our troubles, it's not always God punishing us.
I've found it helpful for my patients to be aware of this reality. Seeing that there are several possible causes for their circumstances allows them to reflect more thoughtfully on each option. I don't tell them what the reason for their pain is, as I frankly do not know. But when they realize there are a few possibilities for their suffering, they often take the time to consider what's going on in their life. And this is a much healthier approach than simply resigning themselves to being attacked by God.
But the conversation shouldn't end there. It's not enough to recognize that the cause of their pain may be due to the bad actions of others or the general brokenness of this world. Now the question becomes, what purpose does this suffering serve? Is God doing something meaningful in the midst of this hardship? Fortunately, the Scriptures provide some insights into this area as well. The Bible tells us that God may allow us to suffer in order to accomplish three positive goals.
Our Suffering is Intended to Help Others! Part of the benefit derived from Job's ordeal is that those who are aware of his story are now better educated about the complexities of suffering. For example, because of that book, we learn that physical ailments can be due to attacks by spiritual forces. Moreover, we discover that people can experience hardships even when they have done nothing to deserve them. Paradoxically, we benefit because Job suffered. Paul writes in Philippians 1:12-14 that his own personal imprisonment helped spread the Gospel and enabled others to grow in their faith. Returning to our real-world example above, God may allow us to undergo painful surgeries and debilitating chemotherapy treatments in order to bring others to Christ or to strengthen the faith of fellow believers.
God is Using a Hardship to Grow Our Faith! James 1:2-4 encourages believers to rejoice when they experience difficulties because these challenges give us an opportunity to mature in our relationship with God. (See similar admonishments in Romans 5:3-4 and 1 Peter 1:7.) Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and incarcerated for a crime he did not commit (Genesis 39:6-20). We are told later in 50:20 that God allowed Joseph to suffer in order to preserve Jacob's family. The writer of Psalm 105 also informs us that these difficulties happened to Joseph so that his character would be tested and subsequently improved. Hence, we see that these hardships were intended not only to bless others, but also to prepare Joseph for greater ministry. It's possible that God allows an individual to go through the trial of cancer in order to strengthen their trust in Him and to make them better followers of Jesus Christ.
God Moves Us Through Suffering in Order to Get Us to Blessing! Sometimes the only way to get to the wildflower meadow is to travel through the mosquito-infested swamp. Daniel was a young man who was taken captive and marched away from his home by the cruel Babylonians (Daniel 1:1-3). Surely this was a difficult and frightening experience for Daniel. Yet we read on that God had a better plan for Daniel's life. The Lord intended to make Daniel a high ranking leader in the Babylonian empire, but to do that required Daniel to travel through a dark time. This concept reminds me of a patient I once met who had been in a somewhat serious car crash. While this man was in the hospital recovering from the collision, the doctors ordered various test to be run on him. One of the tests revealed a cancer that had not been previously diagnosed. The doctors indicated that because they were able to catch the cancer so early, it could be treated fairly easily, and they were right. The man ultimately regained his health. What's insightful in this situation is that the patient was originally distressed that the Lord had allowed him to be in an accident. Yet later, this same patient told me that he was fortunate to be in the accident, because God used it to reveal his cancer. So we see that this man journeyed through suffering in order for God to make him completely whole.
I believe these three points are critically important for a hurting person to understand. What if those who are suffering viewed the purpose for their pain as a means to bless others, to grow in their own faith, or to experience a greater blessing? Would they approach their difficulty from a healthier perspective?
From my experience, they will. When patients see their suffering in this manner, their courage is strengthened and they view God in a new way. He is no longer an uncaring and distant sovereign, but rather a heavenly father walking with them on a difficult journey. Indeed, it is more than a journey, it is a mission to reach a holy destination--to bring others to faith and to become more like Jesus Christ, our suffering savior.
(Photo credit: Joice Kelly via Unsplash)