Sweet Pea, one of my mom’s horses, looked on with a placid stare as I growled, hissed and spat in the moments after a large, mahogany-colored paper wasp rammed its stinger into my lower eyelid. I was cleaning out the horse’s trough so I could feed her when the dive-bomb attack occurred. It was sudden, unprovoked and, all things considered, a dirty, sucker punch orchestrated in a brain the size of a pinhead.
The pain, though short-lived, was nearly audible.
Within minutes, my face was terribly swollen. By the next day, my eye had disappeared beneath the puffiness, and the swelling extended across the side of my face down to my mouth. After a few rounds of antihistamines and numerous icepacks, the condition improved, although I did opt to preach with an eyepatch in place on the Sunday after the sting to avoid scaring the children of the church.
Thinking I was on the mend, I was surprised to find, three days after the sting, a sudden fever coupled with a fast-spreading swelling in my face. Blood vessels became visible under my skin, and a redness moved down my neck with each passing minute. An infection had set in. Ears ringing from the fever and growing dizzier by the second, I staggered into the urgent care clinic, received a steroid shot (which made me feel both highly energetic and totally bulletproof – a story for another time) and a prescription for antibiotics. The doctor told me, “You were about to be in very serious trouble.” I can only imagine what could have happened had medical attention been delayed.
That night, propped up in the darkness in a nest of pillows with the steroid-induced, perceived physical energy to stop a coal train, the age-old question crossed my mind…
Why does God allow suffering?
Now I know that in the grand scheme of things a wasp sting is on a much lower level than most types of pain and suffering. Some would say that it is an event unworthy of such a weighty question. It was not the sting itself, but the cascade effect of the consequences that brought on the question. And I also wondered about who the first person was after the fall of humans into sin and the entrance of suffering into the world to receive the first insect sting.
Now understand, I realize that certain types of suffering are brought on by our own mistakes. There are years the locusts have eaten but also years I fed to them. But I am speaking more specifically of those times when you are just minding your own business, doing exactly what you should be doing, and the paper wasp of life appears without warning in your line of vision only to blind you a moment later.
Paul knew about that kind of suffering.
In the book of Acts, Luke records this incident: But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (14:19-22).
Earlier, Paul and Barnabas meet with resistance in Iconium and are threatened with stoning. They escape to Lystra which is about 18 miles away (Acts 14:1-7). But the mob is not satisfied, so they follow the apostles to Lystra and attempt to kill Paul. He is pelted with rocks until the assailants assume him to be dead and then dispose of his unbeknownst-to-them-still-alive body. His enemies believe him to be down for the count. Permanently.
But Paul, with a likely mix of willpower, stubbornness and the Holy Spirit, gets up and goes back into town, then travels with Barnabas the next day 40 miles to the city of Derbe. After preaching there for a time, he goes back to the same town populated by the same people who tried to kill him to encourage the followers of Christ living in the area, “saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (v. 22).
That is the Biblical norm: we suffer toward sanctification.
There will be stings on the upward path.
But how on earth can pain be a such a tool? Consider the best example: Jesus.
Ultimately Jesus’ torture and death point toward bringing glory to God. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing that the time has arrived that He would go to the Cross, Jesus prays, “‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You’” (John 17:1). In suffering and dying, Jesus reveals God the Father’s perfect plan for the redemption of sinners. In death, Jesus is glorified, and by His death, He brings glory and honor to His Father. In the case of Jesus, the greatest of suffering has a greater purpose than humankind could imagine.
James Spiegal relates, “If one can fail to identify the highest goods achieved through the most heinous evil (the divine reasons for the cross were not clear to anyone until God revealed them), then even more so one may fail to recognize lesser goods attained through lesser evils.” We miss the good in the bad and the better in the worse. At the Cross, the worst act of all, we find the purest redemption and see the clearest revelation of the mercy and justice of God.
Similarly, our personal suffering can exalt the power and character of God, even if the result is physical death. Paul tells the Philippians, “So now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (1:20). Regardless of the outcome of Paul’s life, whether he lives longer or dies in prison, God will receive the glory and will use the situation to magnify His name. Suppose the Iconium crowd had succeeded in killing Paul? God would have been glorified as Paul would have died serving and standing for Him.
But since they failed? God was glorified in Paul’s life as he continued to preach. He was restored in body and mind to go back and let everyone know that a near-death experience only serves to validate the message that the kingdom of God is entered only by brokenness.
To the followers of Christ, pain serves as a reminder of where we are but also where we are going because suffering points the human mind and heart toward the expectation of a restoration. The very fact that the world is “gone wrong” in sin shows the need for a restoration, an expansive healing coupled with a divine reckoning through which all things are set aright and made anew. Jesus speaks of just such an event in Matthew; “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones” (Matthew 19:28). Jesus makes the statement regarding the “regeneration,” that is, when all things will be made perfect at His return to earth. Creation itself will be restored to a glorious state, and He will reign with perfect justice. In Revelation 21:4, John relays a promise of that future: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” The presence of suffering in our lives now highlights not only human sinfulness and depravity, but also the hope presented in the sacrifice of Christ made upon behalf of that very sinfulness and the rest found in Him. An already-won victory is offered to us; “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). Full redemption awaits.
All the pain we face, all the sad goodbyes and broken hearts, all the hospital vigils and fitful deathbeds, all the tears in the night and fears by day’s light, from the lost dog to the lost job, the soul-crushing losses and the too-costly desires, and all the Iconium crowds with their rocks and every irate paper wasp – all will be redeemed.
C. S. Lewis writes, “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” Heaven will make it all worth it.
We groan now, yes, but we point to Christ. The world is sinful, we are born into sin, and each and every one of us is guilty before Him if we have not asked His forgiveness and repented of sin, but He restores us and uses us to bring the message of the hope found in Him to the world that needs restoration by His power.
The people of rebellion can be the people of restoration. We are not perfect, so we should be able to easily share and relate to those who do not know God, yet being in a struggle with the flesh, we long greatly for the redemption offered by Christ. We wait for Him to return and restore us and to restore all things. God possesses the ability to turn even the most desperate situation into a glorious final outcome.
So face your pain. Better still, don’t just face it; embrace it. Let it work its worst. Enter into it knowing that in the journey to the kingdom, only the battle-hardened, fire-tempered and war-scarred people can truly become tenderhearted, deeply relatable and enduringly strong people.
Why would God allow suffering?
Maybe that is the wrong question to ask. Perhaps we should ask another…
Will not God use anything possible to reveal Himself to His children?