Why do we suffer?
Why does an all good and all loving God allow it?
Why God allows suffering is an eternal mystery for which we will only have full answers in the next life. However, in Romans 8, Paul gives us several clues to a partial answer.First, notice line 3 and 4:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
The phrase, “and for sin” is a reference to the OT sacrifices and could be translated, “as a sin offering”. (This is why Paul also references the “just requirement of the law”). In other words, what Paul is saying here is the Jesus came to be the perfect sin offering. In Jewish practice the sin offering was usually a goat – hence the term “scapegoat”. In Jewish theology the sin offering took on the sins of the people and then it was cast out of the city, taking the sins of the people with it. Think of it as if the person took off a dirty cloak and put it on the animal (or perhaps more correctly as if taking the dirt directly out of a cloak and putting onto the animal, leaving behind a pure white cloak). Thus, Jesus can be said to “take away the sins of the world” and it can be said that Jesus “became sin”, and the redemption can be thought of as placing all the sin of the world onto Jesus who then carries it out of the world.
And sin is what causes suffering. Thus, Paul is indirectly making the point that when we suffer, we do not suffer alone. Jesus has already borne all our suffering in his passion. See what Paul says next:
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
Paul is about to go to explain suffering but before he does he makes clear. This is your choice. You must choose to “set your mind” to the way of God. You can choose the flesh or the spirit. One choice causes suffering to be valueless and leads to death. The choice of the Spirit leads to the Lord and to life.
Paul goes on:
When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Here Paul is saying that when we cry out in suffering we do not do it alone, the Holy Spirit cries out with us, bearing witness with us that we are heirs to the kingdom BUT NOTICE, this is contingent. The passage says that PROVIDED we suffer with him, then we may be glorified with him. This goes back to the first quote above where Paul says the law called for sacrifice and Paul says it is a JUST requirement of the law. Thus, something about sin REQUIRES suffering and sacrifice. One can imagine sin bending or twisting the fabric of creation thereby disordering our relationship w/ God. Suffering is required to untwist it and make it straight again. Also notice, Paul is saying this as being under the old law. He’s comparing it to the old law and saying that it still works in a similar manner. In other words, while it is absolutely true that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is sufficient to make reparations for all sin and while the sacrifice of the cross was once and for all this principle that our suffering bring about our glorification is still in effect in the new covenant. This goes back to and sheds light on Paul’s statement that “we are truly God’s co-workers”. That is a real state on affairs not a metaphor.
But this painful process is worth it. Paul says,
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
In other words, heaven will make the suffering of this world look like a pin prick. In fact, even that metaphor does the comparison injustice. There will be an infinite gulf between the limited and finite suffering of this world and the eternal happiness of the next. But this is a process. It will not be completed until the end of the world, when creation itself will be healed. Paul continues:
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Thus, although the sacrifice of Christ is sufficient to redeem the entire world it does not do so immediately. We and all of creation groan as we wait for adoption as sons. We exist in this state “until now”, meaning at present and will until “the redemption of our bodies”, which we know from elsewhere is the last day.
Next is one of my absolutely favorite verses in the bible:
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
Wow! Think about what this passage says. We don’t know how to pray but when great suffering comes the Holy Spirit helps us pray the right way with “sighs too deep for words.” Literally, those breathless agonizing moments when we first learn of a great loss, a tragedy or a sickness and you break down and cry and are so distraught that you cannot even form any words. Then, at that moment, when your soul cries out uncensored and unfiltered to God, that is the Holy Spirit, moving in you, turning your souls, your very being, and your essence to God, in wordless perfect prayer.
Finally, Paul reassures us that nothing can separate us from God once we “set our mind” to him. (The only thing that could is what Paul already told us, “setting our mind to the flesh”).
38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So not even death separates us from the love of God. So suffering is awful but if we are conformed to Christ it is beneficial and necessary element of our salvation. I don’t want to suffer but I pray that when I do that I can remember Romans 8!