The quick escalation of the current medical crisis has witnessed no shortage of helpful and encouraging blog posts to read and digest in our time of social isolation. Articles ranging from practical wisdom on how to navigate the new social and work challenges we now face to articles reminding us where we are to anchor our hearts and minds when fears threaten to overwhelm us.
I hope the following adds to this collective wisdom the church is providing by focusing on what the Bible has to say about different types of suffering, as well as how we should respond when these instances occur in our own lives.
Different Types of Suffering
When it comes to the issue of suffering it is important to take a step back and see how the Bible distinguishes between the different kinds of suffering one might experience.
For starters, the Bible speaks to the type of suffering that results from simple wrongdoing. This type of suffering comes about in someone’s life as the consequence for doing what is evil and wrong. As Peter warns the early church in 1 Peter 4:15, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or a meddler.”
In other words, there’s a direct correlation between committing a moral evil and experiencing the consequences. If one steals or commits murder, then he can at least expect to suffer by being caught and sent to prison (if not worse).
A second way the Bible talks about suffering is the type of suffering that comes as a result of suffering for the sake of the gospel. This type of suffering doesn’t come as a result of doing something morally wrong or evil, but quite the opposite—it happens to those standing firm in their Christian beliefs.
Examples of this type of suffering can be seen throughout the centuries as Christian martyrs and missionaries have faced tremendous persecution because of their faith, as well as seen in Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
Finally, the Bible talks about the type of suffering that simply comes as a result of living in a fallen and broken world. Ever since sin entered the world through human rebellion, humanity has experienced the effects of this brokenness on a universal scale. People suffer as a result of natural disasters or disease, living in a world in which bad things just happen. It is the type of suffering associated with unforeseeable and uncontrollable accidents, or with the spread of a virus pandemic.
The text most often associated with this type of biblical suffering is Luke 13:1-5, where some come to Jesus and ask Him about the connection between sin and some specific cases of suffering: “At that time, some people came and reported to him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And he responded to them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all the other Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well. Or those eighteen that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed—do you think they were more sinful than all the other people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.’”
How Should We Respond to Suffering?
Since not all suffering is the same, the response to suffering should also be guided by the type of suffering one is experiencing. So, if one is suffering as an evildoer, then the Bible is clear that they should repent of their sins and seek forgiveness from God during their suffering.
On the other hand, if they are suffering for righteousness’ sake (i.e. for the gospel), then their response should be one of joy according to the Bible, knowing that there is a special promise of blessing with this type of suffering.
Finally, if they are suffering for the simple reason of living in a broken and sin-ridden world, then they should yield to the grace of God knowing, as Paul did, that His grace is sufficient in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Again, let me stress that this is a flyby over the Scriptures that seeks to summarize a deep and weighty topic. And like all flybys, the view from 30,000 feet can seem pretty distant from everyday life. After all, we are talking about real lives with real pain and suffering. How is charting out the different types of suffering and our responses to them going to help us in our current crisis?
I’m not going to pretend to know exhaustively what God’s motives are in allowing the spread of this virus across the globe. I think I can say, from a biblical perspective, that the suffering we are experiencing from this pandemic falls under that third category though, much like a lot of other sufferings we experience in life. We live in a fallen and broken world. In fact, even those with little to no theological commitment would affirm on the surface that things aren’t the way they should be.
Whatever the reason, the important thing to note is how we respond in these days of suffering. Does it offer us a chance to repent and reprioritize our focus on God? Absolutely. But it also allows us to draw near to a good and gracious Father who knows exactly what we need to go through in order for us to look more like Jesus. It allows us to draw near to Him, trusting in His grace to hold onto us in the coming days and weeks. And as we do that, then we will find, as did Paul and others, the comfort and strength to persevere through our total dependence upon Him (2 Corinthians 12:9).