By Martin Murphy


Human suffering is evident from afar off such as in the annals of recorded history. However, human suffering is evident in our daily lives among friends and family. These are my notes, edited of course, from a class I taught on human suffering.


Among the parables that Chinese teachers use is the story of a woman who lost an only son. She was grief stricken out of all reason. She made her sorrow a wailing wall.  Finally she went to a wise old philosopher. He said to her, “I will give you back your son if you will bring me some mustard seed. However, the seed must come from a home where there has never been any sorrow.” Eagerly she started her search, and went from house to house.  In every case she learned that a loved one had been lost. “How selfish I have been in my grief,” she said, “sorrow is common to all.”


Christians have the advantage over unbelievers when it comes to understanding human suffering. Sorrow, suffering, and adversity do not escape the watchful eye of God. Christians can lay claim to the promise given in Scripture: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). Even so, Christians are humans with a sinful nature and they sometimes ask the questions: Why? Why me? Why my family?  What is the meaning of this sorrow and suffering I am experiencing? The answers are not easy, but Scripture will help untangle the web of confusion.


The first mistake Christians make in asking those questions is the assumption of the unfulfilled promise.  When we ask the question “why me?” etc., the assumption is that God promised there would be no suffering for the Christian.  Scripture never indicates that Christians are excused from suffering.  Quite on the contrary, Scripture assumes that Christians will suffer for the sake of Christ. "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12).


Sin is inseparably related to suffering and even has generational effects.  "Our fathers sinned and are no more, but we bear their iniquities" (Lamentations 5:7). The relationship between sin and suffering is inseparable, but you must never equate a person’s suffering to a specific sin absolutely and exclusively.  Some people may suffer a specific illness, but had not sinned to cause that illness.  For example I knew a godly lady who gave up every convenience to raise and take care of her children.  Her husband was a drunken alcoholic.  She died at a relatively young age of a liver disease generally associated with excessive alcohol consumption.  Her alcoholic husband lived to an old age.


Often times our suffering does not equate immediately, personally, and directly to a violation of God’s law, but there certainly is a reason for the suffering.  Suffering may be directly or indirectly a result of the sin of the human race (John 9:1-5).


God uses suffering for the sanctification (growing in holiness) of the believer. John Wesley had a terrible wife.  She tormented him beyond measure. But he said he attributed most of his success to his wife – that she kept him on his knees and because he was kept on his knees, he had the victory.


The Apostle Peter was right at home with suffering, because to him (and it should be to us) it was a symbol of God’s blessing (1 Peter 2:20;  1 Peter 3:13).


According to Romans 8:17, what is the end of our sufferings? Paul explains: "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together" (Romans 8:16-17).


Part of the process of growing up involves discipline.  It shapes the character and sets a course to follow throughout life.  In the Christian life God will also discipline His children, (the church) which may be interpreted as suffering to the human mind. The writer of Hebrews explains;


For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:

“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives."

If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?  But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. (Hebrews 12:4-7)


Has God disciplined you? Has it caused suffering, but for your own good?


We can attempt to understand all the reasons for suffering, but understanding those reasons will not necessarily help us endure suffering.  We are creatures of suffering and should never forget our humanness. Jesus, in his human nature, without sin, grieved at the death of Lazarus.  It is not a sin to grieve, but it is a sin to question God’s motive and demonstrate bitterness toward God. 


There is an abundance of Scripture to guide us to comfort in the time of suffering.  Read John 16:33 and explain how this verse can comfort you during grief, sorrow, and suffering.  Read Isaiah chapter 40 and reflect on God’s comforting words.


Suffering should provoke Bible study. Spend time in the Scriptures searching for God’s wisdom. Go to a Christian friend who has spiritual insight and wisdom. Pray for God to reveal His glory in the midst of your suffering!