The Temporal Nature of Suffering
Scripture has a lot to say about suffering, especially in relation to its temporal nature. When the term suffer is used in the New Testament, it comes from the Greek word pasco (πάσχω), which describes the idea of endurance. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term nassa (נָשָׂא )is used, which means, “to carry.” To suffer is not just to be in pain, but also to endure despite a “heavy weight” or load that one carries that may be caused by pain or discomfort.
Scripture makes it clear that suffering is inevitable, but it is not eternal. Suffering is a part of the plan of God for His people to suffer for a period of time. God’s people can be encouraged while going through suffering because suffering is being produced by God’s plan and is not incidental. Suffering is not haphazard. The pain of suffering is evidence of the working of God’s plans. Suffering is certainty that God is at work. Additionally, God’s past faithfulness gives full assurance that present pain will be relieved. The promise for God’s people is that just as God has intended, so it will be. Just as he has planned, so it will happen. When God’s people suffer, they must rest in God’s sovereignty. God is calling them to trust Him no matter the outcome, but God’s promises for the future provides hope for those who trust Him and endure.
Suffering in the Old Testament
Briefly, we can see that God has never expected his people to suffer (to endure) without providing a finish line to cross. In Genesis 3:15, God had cursed the earth. He had disciplined Adam and Eve for their sin. The consequences had been set and the pattern for suffering began. Yet, in Genesis 3:15, Scripture gives us the protoevangelion, the first “good news.” While disaster loomed in the consequence of sin, hope abounded all the more. God had chosen not to make mankind suffer forever. Instead, he provided the way for redemption and wholeness that would free man from his enduring state of suffering.
In the days of Noah, those who were faithful to Yahweh suffered in a world filled with wicked and violent people. Yet, when God promised to destroy the earth, and when Noah and his family would suffer in the Ark, God still confirmed his covenant with Noah and his family. Noah did all that God had commanded and trusted God despite enduring the pain at his present moment. His future hope gave strength for his present pain.
Abraham also endured great suffering for a future cause. In a time when it was unheard of for families to move, Abraham gathered his family and belongings in quest of divine blessing (Gen 12:2). On this journey, Abraham’s wife was taken to the household of Pharaoh because of her beauty. How must Abraham have felt? But God delivered Abraham’s wife. Abraham also experienced the horror of a family member, Lot, being abducted by rebels. Also, when Abraham faced infertility problems, he surely waded through the murky trenches of emotions: inadequacy, frustration, anger, denial, guilt, blame, self-pity. Not only that, the dread must have been exceedingly great as Abraham trusted God’s future grace when he led his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. Yet, Abraham’s suffering would not last for eternity.
The nation of Israel suffered, especially those who were faithful and lived in the midst of unfaithful contemporaries and unfaithful rulers. Even when God gave the Law to his people through Moses, God promised in his covenant with Israel that there would be a future suffering in a time of their rebellion. Yet, with that promise came another promise that God would reverse such suffering and restore his people. Generations of faithful citizens of God suffered under the rule of wicked kings, but they were living for the hope of the future promise that they would one day be a great nation in a great land filled with prosperity.
Suffering in the New Testament
If God’s people suffered in the Old Testament period, then it should be no surprise that his people would suffer in the New Testament period. Of all who suffered, the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, suffered the most. Jesus suffered for the sake of what was to come: to be the first to rise from the dead and to proclaim light to the Jews and Gentiles. Hebrews 12:2 indicates that Jesus in his humanity suffered for the sake of the joyful glory in his deity. Christ’s suffering was not eternal, though he still suffers for the sake of the world and for the sake of His glory. He is patient with us, not willing that any would perish but that all would come to repentance.
If Christ suffered, then why should God’s people not suffer? If Christ endured, then why should God’s people not endure? The apostle Paul, who suffered as greatly as any Christian in history understood this as he encouraged the believers in the midst of their persecution that it has been granted to them not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for him. John Piper puts it this way, “…. Suffering…[is]…preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond death, and he is working out his infallible purposes to gather all the elect from the nations of the world and bring in the consummation of his kingdom.” Thus, as James instructed, we believers are to wait patiently (suffer patiently) for the Lord’s return in the same way that a farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground.
Those faithful to the Lord must carry their load, and they must endure so that they will reign with Christ. After all the toiling, there is a promise of a harvest that will far outweigh the pain of planting. From the beginning until the present time, God has never asked or expected his people to endlessly endure a broken road that leads to nowhere. God promises a glorious inheritance where pain and suffering will forever be vanquished. Jesus cried on the cross. His people have cried throughout the centuries. But there is no tear that has been shed on account of His name that will not be wiped away. There is no mourning that will not be comforted. There is no child of His who died thirsty that will not be raised from the dead to a new life that is fully satisfied. God asks his people to suffer, but he only asks them to carry such a load for a time.