God wants us to have joy in this life, but many people allow the problems of life to block the joy they would love to experience. We each need to understand—really “get”—that the Bible says we will have hardships and suffering in life.[1] Between the evil the Devil instigates, the fallen state of the world, and our own mistakes and sins, we all suffer. The late Christian psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, opened his book, The Road Less Traveled, in this way: “Life is difficult.” But having said that, Dr. Peck made a very important observation: once a person truly sees that life is difficult, it becomes less difficult. That almost sounds nonsensical, but it is perfectly true.

Life is less difficult once we realize it is difficult because much of the difficulty of life is due to our state of mind. If we think something will be easy, but it turns out to be hard, then it seems harder than it actually is. On the other hand, if we think something will be hard, and it is, we are not surprised, and we just do what we need to do to get through the problem.

In an honest evaluation of mankind, Dr. Peck goes on to say that most people act as if life should be easy, and they moan and complain when it is not. Christians often grumble about life too, in spite of the fact that the Bible says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” (Phil. 2:14 ESV). Why is that?

Often Christians have an expectation that because God loves them, or because they have faith, their life will be easy, or at least easier than other people’s lives. Many Christians expect a “blessed” life, but what they usually mean by that is a “problem-free life,” something that the Bible never promises. Actually, it is just the opposite. God promises us there will be problems in this life, and not to be surprised by that. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12 ESV).[2]

No one has had a problem-free life
Many Christians wrongly believe that God’s grace or their faith will allow them to have a fairly problem-free life, and so that is what they “see” in the Bible. However, it will help us to read the Bible more accurately if we realize that what we believe influences what we think the Bible says. If we have a pre-conceived idea of how things are, it can be extremely hard to see the truth—no matter how obvious it should be. Religion is full of examples of how our pre-conceived ideas color our experiences. For example, most Christians have been taught that two of each kind of animal got on Noah’s ark. So when they read in Genesis chapter seven, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals,the male and his mate…and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female…” (Gen. 7:2, 3 ESV), they do not “see” the “seven” at all, and still continue to believe that two of each animal got on the ark.[3] Similarly, Jesus’ apostles were so convinced about their pre-conceived idea that the Messiah would conquer the earth and reign as king that they could not understand his straightforward teachings that he would suffer and die (Luke 18:34).[4]

In a similar way, the belief that obedient, faith-filled Christians will have wonderful, problem-free lives blinds people to what the Bible says about personal suffering. It takes great humility and often the help of others to see what the Bible is really saying about a subject. When we take time to think about it, the fact that no one since Adam and Eve has had an easy life makes it pretty clear that our lives will not be some kind of cosmic exception. We, just like everyone else, will have problems.

Three serious consequences
The false belief about a “blessed” life free of serious problems or suffering has at least three serious consequences. One is that it means there are hundreds of verses in the Bible that are being misread, and the truth God is trying to teach in those verses is being misunderstood. Another is that it sets people up to be confused and troubled about their own lives. It can lead to dishonestly hiding or denying problems, or living in shame and condemnation because of them. For example, some people who deny their physical problems and wait for God to heal them end up seriously hurt, and some people have even died from failure to honestly deal with their problems. Faith can help in times of trouble, but we always must walk in the wisdom of God, knowing what He will and will not do.

A third serious consequence of people thinking that Christianity or faith will keep them problem-free is that it predisposes them to wrongfully condemn other Christians who have difficulties. It is easy for a person in a “faith-solves-everything” mindset to blame others for not having enough faith to easily overcome their problems. Such a person can become like Job’s miserable comforters who, when Job had problem after problem, wrongly condemned him instead of helping him. That made God angry, so He spoke to one of them and said, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Job had been correctly stating that he did not deserve the problems he had, and that is true with many of us.

What the Bible says about suffering
The Bible makes it clear that we live in a fallen world, that our bodies are weak and mortal, and that we are surrounded by enemies, so suffering is inevitable and it comes in many different ways. There are mental and physical sicknesses or weaknesses, problems of poverty and hunger, and problems caused by others, including persecution for our faith. Beyond that, we also suffer when others suffer. The Bible says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26), and all of us know people who are suffering and we ache for them.

The Bible teaches us about suffering the same way it teaches us about many other subjects. It teaches us by direct doctrinal statements, and it teaches us through the lives of the men and women in the Bible. We will start by looking at doctrinal statements on the subject, and then examine the lives of some of the great people of the Bible. What we will see is that suffering is an unavoidable part of life, and that one of the things that will make the new heaven and earth so wonderful is that, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4 ESV). What a wonderful promise to look forward to!

Human suffering started right after Adam and Eve sinned. God told them they would suffer, and they and their descendants have suffered ever since then (Gen. 3:16-19). It is important to notice that God never said that having faith would keep people from suffering, and people of great faith, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, all suffered. Jesus and Paul both told their followers that they would suffer. Jesus said: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33 ESV) and Paul told his followers that it was “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 ESV).

Romans reveals that it is not just people who suffer, but actually all of creation suffers as if in childbirth.

Romans 8:18 and 22
(18) I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
(22) We know that the whole creation has been groaningas in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

The suffering that Christians experience is intensified by their stand for Christ. Often we in the United States are protected from much of the suffering of persecution, but we should not be ignorant of our brothers and sisters in non-Christian countries who suffer horribly and even die just because they stand for Christ.

2 Timothy 3:12
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

What Christians need to take to heart is that faith does not keep us from suffering. By faith we can avoid or stop some suffering, but not all of it. Nevertheless, faith allows us to persevere and be a great example to others in spite of what we suffer.

Lessons about suffering from the great men and women of faith
When it comes to learning about suffering from studying the lives of the people in the Bible, one thing we have to keep in mind is that, because suffering is a part of life, God does not tell us much about the “ordinary problems” that the people of the Bible had. In the Bible we usually see the “big problems” of war, famine, pestilence, earthquakes, and floods. We also see family feuds and the oppression of the weak. But we also know that every person had other problems too–all those “ordinary problems” that make life challenging. Thankfully, sometimes the Bible and other ancient writings give us a glimpse of the ordinary suffering in life.

We are not told when Abraham had a cold and lions attacked his flock, Sarah had a headache and the tent blew over in a hard wind, or baby Isaac had a fever or dragged a stick from the fire onto their best rug. Nevertheless, from many ancient texts and sources we know that people throughout history had common problems, much like we do today. A very common problem has been illness, and many of the great promises of the future Messianic kingdom are related to health. For example: “And no inhabitant will say, ‘I am sick’” (Isa. 33:24 ESV). The Messianic Kingdom will be a wonderful time when the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the mute will talk, the lame will walk, the person who stammers will speak fluently, and “the mind of the rash will know and understand” (Isa. 32:4; 35:5, 6).

If our faith in God kept us from suffering, then that would be clear in the Bible. We could read about the great men and women of faith and see how God blessed them and protected them from suffering. Instead, we see pretty much the opposite. The great men and women of the Bible, rather than being examples of people whose faith kept them from suffering, are actually examples of people whose faith allowed them to suffer well and endure in spite of their problems.

Please understand this: we are not saying that God does not bless and deliver His people. He does, and we see God’s blessing and deliverance in many ways. However, even in the majority of God’s great victories many people still suffered. For example, in the conquest of the Promised Land, warriors still suffered wounds and even death, and families and friends suffered from the loss of loved ones. In fact, most of the great miracles in the Bible are in the context of suffering.

The Exodus and parting of the Red Sea were a notable miracles, but they were in the context of millions of people suffering in Egypt for multiple generations. Another wonderful miracle was Elisha multiplying the oil of an Israelite woman, but why was she in need? Her husband had recently died and the person to whom the family owed money had come to take her sons as slaves to pay the debt (2 Kings 4:1-7). We should not minimize the miracle of the oil that paid her debts, but no doubt she would rather have had her husband alive. One of the better known miracles in the Bible is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but that occurred against the backdrop of Lazarus getting sick and dying, and the grief of his family—a grief that was so palpable that Jesus was “troubled” and eventually even “Jesus wept” (John 11:33, 35).

The lesson of Hebrews 11
If God was trying to tell us that great faith prevented or greatly reduced suffering, then a good place for Him to showcase that would be in Hebrews chapter 11, where many heroes of faith are mentioned. We see in Hebrews 11 that the men and women listed suffered greatly. Abel was murdered, Sarah was barren, Joseph was unjustly sold into slavery, Moses was so burdened by the murmuring Israelites he asked God to kill him (Num. 11:15), and the others suffered as well.

Hebrews 11:36-39 (ESV)
(36) Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
(37) They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—
(38) of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
(39) And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,

The book of James gives us basically the same lesson as Hebrews 11: “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10 ESV).

The faith of the people listed in Hebrews 11 and the prophets mentioned in James did not keep them from suffering. The prophets and the men and women in Hebrews chapter 11 suffered greatly but, because of their faith, persevered and stayed faithful to God. That, in fact, is the “take home” lesson of Hebrews 11. The lesson is not that our faith will prevent suffering, but rather that our faith allows us to suffer well, and have joy and hope even though we are in pain. Hebrews 12:1 says that we have the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11 as witnesses, so we too should throw off the weights and sins that hinder us and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We are to “run the race” day after day in spite of problems.

God provided us with the examples in Hebrews 11 so we could see the kind of faith that He commends, (Heb. 11:2). God is looking for faith in Him that does not waver in the heat of battle or disappear when life gets tough. It is very helpful in difficult times to know that other people have experienced what we have, and have endured.

New Testament examples of suffering
The example of people of faith in Hebrews 11 come from the Old Testament, but the New Testament also has examples of people with great faith who had problems. Stephen was a man “full of faith” (Acts 6:5), yet he was the first martyr of the Church. The persecution of the early church was so severe that many Christians had to leave Jerusalem, and many were imprisoned or killed (Acts 8:1, 3; 26:10). Paul suffered horribly, often because of his stand for Christ (2 Cor. 4:8-10; 6:4-10; 11:23-29). The Apostle James was imprisoned and then killed, (Acts 12:2). Paul’s fellow worker Epaphroditus almost died from a sickness, (Phil. 2:27), and Trophimus became so sick in Miletus that Paul had to leave him behind (2 Tim. 4:20). Furthermore, the book of James mentions that it is often the people who are poor who are “rich in faith;” their faith gives them the strength and vision to endure their difficult circumstances, (James 2:5). The lesson of the Bible is consistent from cover to cover: in this life we will have troubles and hardships, which is why God wants everyone to get saved and thus have life in the age to come that will be truly wonderful.

In conclusion: suffering well
God promises blessings to those who have faith in Him, and Christians, especially those who take their Christianity seriously and work to build their faith in God, see His hand in their lives almost daily. However, God never promises us a problem-free life, which is one of the reasons that people in the world often say they see no value in being a Christian. Both Christians and unbelievers have problems, sickness, and heartbreak, and Christians often face persecution that unbelievers never face. Nevertheless, we can believe that what the Bible says is true, which is that our faith is “more precious than gold” because it gets us saved, helps us to endure, and will result in honor and glory when Jesus Christ appears, (1 Peter 1:3-9).

Dr. Peck is quite correct: life is difficult, but when we understand that, it will not be as difficult. Christians will much more easily be able to look beyond their problems and experience joy in their lives when they stop being surprised by trials and troubles, and rely on their faith to help them endure this life, and joyfully look forward to the future Messianic Age.

Endnotes

[1] This may seem obvious to some Christians, but many believe that if a person just has faith, he will be able to overcome all, or almost all, of his problems.
[2] It would have been better if the ESV said “tempt” instead of “test.” The burning trials are not from God, and although they do “test” us, that translation makes it seem like they are the will of God. The trials are evil and they “tempt” us to sin and abandon our faith in God. Also, although the ESV translates the present participle “coming” as “when it comes,” the point is the same: the fiery temptations are unavoidable.
[3] Versions like the KJV and NIV just read “seven,” not “seven pairs,” but even “seven” should tell us it is not “two.”
[4] For more information on this, see the REV commentary on Luke 18:34 at www.STFonline.org/REV

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4 comments

  1. Great article. This makes me realize when I do suffer it isn’t always, something I’ve done due to a mistake. There is plenty of suffering that comes with our mistakes or bad choices, but not always. Great read, and so important to teach our young people.
    I love love the new bible. I haven’t ordered mine but I keep stealing my daughters and I just get lost in it looking up so many verses. I am so grateful for your work.
    Betsy

  2. This was well written and makes sence!!

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  4. Yes, in the end, when the problems and difficulties and failures and dangers of this life become unbearable we, as opposed to the unbelievers, can “look unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our Faith” and longingly await his coming. Though it would be awesome if he’d come yesterday:-)

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