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Does suffering in this life really matter?

How can suffering from natural causes be reconciled with an omnimax god?

Both answers above contain the major theme of God refining us, making us more like Him, so that after the period of suffering, the person is better than before. Now, both assume there is a period after suffering, where the person can use the lessons learned (and for many that is true).

However, there are many cases of people who suffer terribly in the world (for some, almost analogous as if they were in Hell on earth) and do not get a chance to use their "refinement".

There suffering appears pointless, sad and for many people - goes on until there last day here on earth.

In the second question, @MasonWheeler answers that it is in "preparation for the eternal world" (assuming the person is a Christian, I guess....)

This answer makes it sounds almost as if this life here on earth is completely irrelevant. (To me that sounds very dangerous way to view life but would be for another question.)

In any event, how does Christianity explain suffering that ends in death?

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related: Related: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/11250/… –  Mike Mar 17 '13 at 3:05
    
I hope I didn't give that impression. Life on earth is extremely relevant, but not for its own sake. It's important because it is the fulcrum on which our eternity turns. –  Mason Wheeler Mar 17 '13 at 3:36

2 Answers 2

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Having buried my mother last week after seeing her go through progressively worse interventions due to complications from her pneumonia, I can only say that I wish more people would ask this question. Any Christianity that ignores the question of suffering neither addresses the reality of the Sin nor the biblical witness.

The question of suffering is central to Scripture. It is both a sign of God at work in us for our edification, and a result of the Fall.

But most importantly, and I say this with all sincerity, it is a light and transitory thing.

Paul says in Romans 8:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

He goes on to say:

19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

This is a substantial claim to @MasonWheeler's answer that death is preparation for the next.

The concept that this world is bent and fallen is pretty standard in just about every form of Christianity. That this world is not what God intended it to be is the starting port. But the hope of the Gospel is that this suffering is not the end.

That "death is swallowed up in victory" is central to our hope. If, as Paul points out, there is no resurrection, then we above all men are most to be to be pitied. Without the resurrection, then indeed, such suffering would be pointless.

Paul continues, pointing out:

24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Thus, we see that all suffering produces:

  1. Hope (a theme picked up from Romans 5) and
  2. A Dependence on the Spirit (and this is a good thing)

Thus, Paul can with no guile say:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

This suffering conforms and shapes us. It justifies us, and it glorifies.

Finally, as Christians, we know that this life is simply preparation for God's glory. If it were not, Paul could not say

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If death were the end, then death could separate us from the love of God. But it doesn't. It just brings us closer to Him in the end.

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Sorry to hear about your mother, I'll pray for her and your family. –  Peter Turner Mar 17 '13 at 3:01
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+1 Encouraging to see God is comforting you in your trial. –  Mike Mar 17 '13 at 3:11
    
@Affable Geek: the timing of this question and your experience gives it much weight, thank you. I agree it produces dependence on the Spirit, but I struggle to see how it produces Hope... –  Greg McNulty Mar 19 '13 at 23:06

When considering a Christian who suffers terribly, I think the only real answer given in the Bible is the lesson learned by Job. One can talk the tough talk about how our faith will grow from our suffering and it is true. For various minor difficulties this really helps and if our faith is great virtually every difficulty seems minor. However, for many people, at some point in their life a sudden much heavier suffering falls upon them and their faith is tested in a very uncomfortable way. This does not happen to everyone and sometimes is brought about merely be the disproportionate size of our own faith compared to the intensity of the pain, but we all know and struggle with fears over falling ourselves into such a situation. In fact our daily prayer includes a desire that we would not be led into temptation, which a sudden introduction of suffering obviously is.

In Job we see the basis for the answer ‘trust me’. It means we can’t fully understand why and trying to figure it out will never work. So instead know that God loves us and trust him with our suffering, even if we know he could take it away in an instant: it is not easy at all, it takes great faith. We see this in Job.

Basically Job and his advisers have a problem in their logic. They think God is just and powerful, therefore suffering is a result of sin. However, Job has a lot of problems here as he knows he is more righteous than most?! He therefore bitterly concludes that God has no rhyme or reason in the way he manages the universe:

21 I am blameless; I regard not myself; I loathe my life. 22 It is all one; therefore I say, ‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’ 23 When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent. 24 The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; he covers the faces of its judges— if it is not he, who then is it? (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Job 9:21–24). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.)

How does God respond to this claim (we all feel like making when we suffer)? Well at the end of Job in Chapter 41 God basically compares himself to Job showing Job that Job can’t understand anything about what God does, even in much less complicated matters. Then in Chapter 42, Job repents and learns to accept his suffering without explanation and trusts God. He gets it!

When we consider that God is so caring that he even cares for the sparrow (Matthew 10:29) we add an extra dimension to trust. God is our Father who is full of love and we can never understand how much it hurts him to see us suffer. He cares for us and makes our bed in our sickness and kisses us on the forehead as we fall asleep. How can it be? How can God care and allows us to suffer at the same time? The answer is there is no answer. We are not God, we can’t understand his ways, and we can only trust him.

I am not saying we should not allow many Bible verse that indicate the value of suffering and the fact that our sufferings are indeed light compared to the glory of heaven, which is our possession now, only saying that when faith is really tested our minds can't reach fully upon these comforts in a full understanding and acceptance of them. We can only believe them by faith, transversing into a place of knolwedge that our minds can't really pierce. Under great suffering, faith makes darkness in our minds, sorrow in our life, to be gladness to our hearts. In sorrow we can have comfrot and joy. We will never fully understand how God's grace does this. There are no 'pat answers'.

The second case is where a sinner suffers a great deal as he enters into hell. God does not delight in this suffering in any sense as he is a loving God (Ezekiel 18:23) but by rejecting his love right to the end, suffering is only an introduction into everlasting suffering. This suffering is under the wrath of God’s holy law which can’t look upon sin but with wrath and which poured its wrath upon Christ when he died on the cross for our sin. If we would receive God’s love in Christ’s death for our sins; not suffering, not Devil, not our own doubts, not a religious supposed leader, not and angel, not a prophet, not an apostle or all combined, can prevent the eternal joys that await us after we suffer in this world. Let us declare that if any give us a different gospel than that, which alone saves sinners, let them be eternally condemned. (Galatians 1:8).

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this is really, really good, thank you. –  Greg McNulty Mar 19 '13 at 23:13

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