The question of human suffering and how it fits alongside a God who is at all times both loving and powerful is one that has troubled virtually anyone who has ever thought much about God. In simplest terms, the issue goes like this:
God clearly cannot be both loving and powerful, given the presence and degree of suffering in the world. Either this God is loving but not powerful enough to prevent the suffering of humanity, or He is powerful but not loving enough to care very much about that suffering. But this question is more than a class-room based hypothetical discussion – it’s the crucible of faith. In fact, I think you could make a strong argument that suffering is where the theological rubber meets the road; it’s when you find out what’s really inside you. When life closes in on you like a set of vice grips, squeezing you more and more day after day, something is going to come out. And whatever your response is at that time was not created by that suffering or those circumstances; it’s only revealed by that suffering or those circumstances.
Interestingly, though, the Bible seems to care much more about what happens next. The Bible, unlike us, has no trouble with the seeming tension between the power and love of God. Instead of devoting itself to trying and solve that riddle, Scripture gives much more emphasis to the response to inevitable suffering than it does to the why of that suffering. One such passage about the response is found in James 1:
“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Notice that James doesn’t bother engaging these high level questions of why; instead, he takes the issue of suffering as a “when” issue rather than an “if” issue. You are going to hurt. The question is what happens next. And the very first word of verse 2 gives us a good idea of both the natural and then unnatural response to suffering.
“Consider.” Some translations say “count.” And I love the realism of James at this point.
To “consider” or to “count” is a willful decision. It’s active rather than passive. It’s something that you’ve got to decide to do, and you have to decide to do it over and over again. The reason this is a willful, active, fight of a decision is because it’s completely unnatural for us to count anything that hurts as great joy.
No one ever bangs their finger with a hammer and immediately breaks out into a chorus of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” You know why not? Cause it stinking hurts to hit your finger with a hammer. The response to pain is not joy; it’s to feel the pain, and feel it deeply. Sometimes, in Christian circles, we rush passed and try and smother that feeling of pain. Problem is, though, you feel what you feel.
Whenever we experience pain, whether physical, emotional, or physical, we are going to feel the pain. It hurts to lose someone. It hurts to be worried about the future. It hurts when people around you make bad decisions. And all those things hurt deeply. You feel what you feel.
But even though you feel what you feel, you don’t have to live there. There is a moment, having felt what you have felt, that you can make the choice not to move past the pain, but to reframe it through the lens of faith. This is what counting is like. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky denial of your circumstances; it’s instead a willful refusal to let those circumstances dictate what you believe. So you count is as great joy. But in the spirit of realism, writing this is one thing, but actually doing it is another. What does it look like? If only we could look to someone who didn’t deny the reality of the pain, but still counted it as joy. If only we could see someone live in the middle of suffering and yet know there is still a loving and powerful God in the universe. If only we could witness the power of boldly pushing into those circumstances rather than denying them and doing so because of what they knew to be true about God.
“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus,the source and perfecterof our faith, who for the joy that lay before Himendured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3).