The Application of the Church’s Suffering to the Suffering of the World

by Daniel L. Sonnenberg


It is common for Christians to ask in times of personal suffering questions such as, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this? Does God really love me if he is allowing this to happen to me? How long, O Lord?” Not only these but perhaps deeper questions are asked by believers and unbelievers alike: “If there is a God and he is said to be good and all-powerful, then why does he allow suffering in the world?” This is the so-called problem of evil.[1] As human beings, we ask questions and seek answers in an effort to understand the causes of evil and suffering and the proper response for the individual, the family, and the community affected. As Christian leaders, we seek to help others understand their suffering and to respond properly to it.

Popular stories of triumph and comfort in suffering such as that of Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic in a diving accident as a young person, and Horatio Spafford, the author of the beloved hymn “It is Well With My Soul,” who lost much of his family in a shipwreck at sea, encourage Christians to turn to the Lord and one another for comfort and strength in times of pain. Numerous books address the question of understanding the causes and meaning of suffering. Many address primarily how one might recover a sense of balance in life after suffering times of trial or pain. Many seem to treat the subject primarily in relation only to the person himself, how he might understand his own experience of suffering.[2] But I suggest this does not go far enough.

What the Scripture Says About Suffering

In the beginning, God created all things in heaven and earth and pronounced them “good.” The culmination of his creation, man and woman, God pronounced “very good” (Gen. 1, 2). He created man in his own image and purposed to have eternal unbroken fellowship with mankind in holiness and righteousness. However, we are told in Genesis 3 that Adam, as a result of his and Eve’s conversation with Satan, chose to disobey God in the Garden of Eden and the result was that sin reigned in mankind and in the entire creation.[3] Evil and pain entered into the lives of men and they suffered the effects of sin and death.

In the fullness of time, God sent his Son to live a perfect life and to die a sinner’s death in Adam’s place to redeem mankind and all of creation, all that had been condemned to decay under the law of God (Gal. 4:4). We live now in the time between the inauguration of the kingdom (his birth, death, resurrection and ascension), and the consummation of the kingdom when Christ will return and establish the new heavens and the new earth in which God will dwell with men and wipe away every tear, banish all death, mourning, crying and pain, and make all things new. Those who have overcome, who have persevered to the end of their lives with faith in Christ, will inherit these things (Rev. 21). Clearly, when Christ returns for his own, all that we call suffering, pain and affliction will be separated from those who are in Christ by faith.

However, until then, we live in the continuation of Christ’s kingdom, in the “already” and the “not yet,” where sin and pain and death still dwell among us. Jesus affirmed the tension and hope of this in-between period when said to his disciples, “’I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’” (Jn. 16:33).

Though Christians are righteous in the sight of God through faith in Jesus’ death, we remain in a fallen world and struggle with, first of all, sin and evil in our own lives. “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members” (Rom. 7:22-23).

Second, we suffer because of other people. “The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright” (Ps. 37:4).

Third, we suffer because of political, social, and economic oppression such as that in Mt. 20:25, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” (cf. Mar. 10:42; Luke 13.1ff).[4]

Fourth, we suffer from illness and death, such as the woman with the issue of blood in Mark 5:25, the man born blind in John 9, the Gerasene demoniac in Luke 8:26ff and Lazarus in John 12. Fifth, suffering is manifest in the lives of widows and orphans (James 1:27), in grief (1Thess. 4:13) and weeping (Luke 7:13) and the fear of death (Heb 2:15).[5] Sixth, Satan brings suffering in temptation (Gen. 3:16), deception (2 Cor. 11:3,14), accusing (Rev. 2:10) and devouring (1 Pet. 5:8).[6] Finally, God brings suffering for several primary reasons: as fellowship with Christ’s suffering (Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 4:13; Col. 1:24); as testimony to unbelievers (1 Pet. 5:1; 1 Pet. 3:18-22), ourselves (1 Pet. 1:7) and other believers  (1 Cor. 12:26); as training in righteousness (Ps. 32:3-5; Ps. 139:23-24; 2 Cor. 12:7-10); and in preparation for glory (1 Pet. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 4:17-18).[7] Suffering is a reality in a fallen world.

We should respond to suffering in two ways. First, to our own suffering we should respond in faith to God, crying out for his help and trusting in his promise. Over and over in Scripture, he promises to deliver the afflicted (Ps. 18:29; 34:19; 72:4; 119; 147:6; 149:4) though at times he makes them wait for that deliverance (Ps. 44:24) and wonder if he will afflict them beyond measure (Ps. 64:2). But this is not enough. The next step is also necessary.

Second, Scripture tells us we should reach out with comfort and aid to others who are afflicted. Let us begin by looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, the God-Man. Isaiah foretold that the Christ himself would suffer in order to relieve the suffering of others.

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering… Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet…he did not open his mouth.”

Isa. 53:3-7

Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross was for the benefit of others. As God and Man he suffered to bring deliverance from sin and death to his own, and therefore, eternal comfort in heaven. Though other men cannot suffer in a substitutionary sense as Jesus did for all mankind, our suffering can nevertheless can bring us into solidarity with the suffering of others. This is the second sense in which Jesus suffered, one that brings him into solidarity with other sufferers in order to provide help. Since his resurrection and ascension, he serves as our great high priest in heaven, offering to us consolation in our earthly trials: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18).  His own suffering permits him to help fellow sufferers. He “sympathizes” with our weaknesses because he suffered the same, and offers mercy and grace to help in our time of need (Heb 4:15-16).

In a broader sense, God joins in suffering with those who suffer and in so doing, brings comfort by carrying them through times of affliction: “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Isa 63:9).

As God’s image bearers, Christians are to do likewise when we “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). This is illustrated in the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians.

3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer”

2 Cor. 1:3-6

Four points of interest may be found in this passage. First, God’s purpose in comforting us is so that we might be able to comfort others in their distress. Notice the purpose statement in the middle of verse 4 – “so that.” This indicates God’s intention. He does “A” for the purpose of “B.” Here, he comforts us for the purpose of our comforting others. It is his way of working through us to accomplish his purpose in others who need comfort.

Second, we are able to comfort others who are suffering. The word “can” in verse 4 tells us that we have the ability to comfort others based on our experience in being comforted by the Lord in our own troubles. When we doubt our ability to comfort others, we understand from this that God has enabled us to do so through our own sufferings.

Third, God intends for our lives to be a kind of conduit through which comfort flows to others. Notice the comparison in verse 5, “just as – so also.” Just as Christ’s sufferings flow over into our lives, so also Christ’s comfort flows from our lives into the lives of others. We are God’s instrument, through suffering, for the comfort of Christ to be administered to others.

Fourth, we are enabled to comfort all those whom God gives us the opportunity to comfort. Verse 4 says “comfort those in any trouble…” It may be pressing the point too much to say that we are enabled to minister to all needs, but the same Greek word is used when it says that God comforts us in “all” our affliction so that we may comfort those in “any” trouble. There is a definitely a parallel between the two indicating a sense of comprehensive comfort in both cases. It may be fairly said that we, as the complete body of Christ, are able to comfort others to the degree and in the manner in which we ourselves have received comfort. To summarize, because of our sufferings in Christ, we are enabled to comfort others comprehensively as God’s conduit to fulfill God’s purpose.

 This (ideally) comprehensive comfort and aid we are to offer others includes those inside and outside of the community of faith. There is a distinction between the two, yet not an exclusivity. We offer ministry to all but most of all to believers “[W]hile we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10) just as God in Christ offers himself to all mankind but most of all to believers: “the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (1 Tim 4:10). Believers are members of one body so that when one member suffers, all the members suffer together (1 Cor. 12:26). We are to suffer hardship with one another (1 Tim 2:3) We are to contribute to the needs of the saints as well as to give food and drink to our enemies who are hungry and thirsty (Rom 12:13, 20). We are to share in and with the sufferings of other Christians. “[Y]ou endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated” (Heb 10:32-33). Moreover, we are to comfort other Christians regarding their believing loved ones who have died. “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him…  Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thes 4:14, 18).

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus declared that he “was anointed to preach good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed…(Luk 4:18; cf. Is 61:1). Jesus’ ministry was holistic in that he relieved temporal suffering as well as bringing eternal salvation to mankind and the cosmos. Similarly, we are to minister broadly. In Isaiah 58 we are commanded to “loose the bonds of wickedness…undo the bands of the yoke…let the oppressed go free… break every yoke…divide your bread with the hungry…bring the homeless poor into the house…cover the naked…[and] satisfy the desire of the afflicted.”  In the resurrection, true believers will be affirmed because they fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, invited the stranger to come in, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned (Mat 25:37-40).

The Scripture is clear that just as simply understanding the meaning of life is not enough, neither is simply understanding the meaning of suffering. Just as we must apply life’s meaning to the living of it, so we must apply the meaning of suffering to the application of it in comfort to others in their distress.

Resources That Shed Light On The Challenges Presented By Our Contemporary Cultural Setting

As in Biblical times, our contemporary cultural setting reveals a wide variety of issues regarding suffering. The modern project, for all its idealism, may have reduced the scope of suffering only a little if any. Modern suffering includes various forms of child abuse including battering, sexual abuse and child slavery; women’s issues such as spousal abuse, forced prostitution, widowhood and single motherhood; pain and suffering through accidents and illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS; religious and political persecution and unjust imprisonment; refugees fleeing war and famine; racism; and unjust treatment and death of the unborn and the elderly and infirm through abortion, abuse and euthanasia.

Modern efforts to stem the suffering of others includes a variety of groups and individuals, both Christian and non-Christian. The American Pain Society and others are discovering ways to minimize chronic physical pain. The American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine assists people and their families through the final stages of life into death. Childhelp USA and Parents Anonymous investigate and prevent child abuse. The National Catholic AIDS Network assists patients with AIDS. The Human Rights Watch serves as a watchdog on global issues of children’s rights, international justice, prisons, refugees, women’s rights, and racism. International Christian Concern intervenes in issues of religious persecution, especially for Christians. Life Line Pregnancy Centers counsel and prevent abortion. Habitat for Humanity builds homes for the needy. The Church and many parachurch organizations meet the needs of those who are spiritually hungry and thirsty in every locale. These and many other organizations and individuals serve the needs of the afflicted, the needy, the weak, the poor, the orphan, the fatherless, the widow, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the persecuted, the homeless, the alien, and the downtrodden of our own day.

Consideration of Ways Other Thoughtful Christians Have Answered This Question

Suffering results in a sense of solidarity with, sympathy and practical help for others’ pain. Schaeffer refers to our suffering as God’s “school for comforters” in which he allows us to experience suffering so that we might be able to comfort others.[8] As we learn “what comfort is all about ….time after time and instance after instance…we are meant to be learning…how to comfort other people who are going through similar difficulties.”[9] Gerstenberger and Schrage point out that as Christians we are responsible not only to comfort, but to combat the suffering of others. They say that Jesus’ implication in his teachings about healing on the Sabbath (Mark 2:25-27; 3:3-5) [and the story of the benevolent Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)] is that it is the obligation of God’s people to oppose suffering in the lives of others, even in the face of cultural taboos, and to fail to do so is morally wrong.[10] Therefore, Christians’ response to suffering is to overcome the sufferings of others or to share in them, motivated by the commandment of love and one’s own experience of suffering, both in the community of faith and outside of it.[11] This ministry of comfort and aid includes not only solidarity and sympathy, but also material assistance (1 John 3:17; James 2:15-16), healing of the sick (Mk 3:15; 6:7,13; Mat. 10:8), and prayer and supplication (Acts 8:15; Acts 4:29; Acts 12:15; James 5:14-15).[12]

With suffering comes the power to minister to the needs of others. Elizabeth Elliot, whose husband was murdered as a missionary to Ecuador, points to suffering as a gift from God not only to us, but through us to others.[13] She notes numerous Scriptural examples that demonstrate that suffering serves others: the seed fallen to the earth that dies and brings forth fruit, the light that is shed abroad when the vessel is broken, the widow of Zarapheth giving out of her poverty to sustain the prophet, God giving power to Joseph through his sufferings to save the lives of the brothers who hated him, Paul’s thorn in the flesh giving him joy in service to others, and Jesus’ ministry to others through his own suffering on the cross.[14] All these illustrate God’s power in weakness.

Comfort comes best from those who themselves have suffered. Schaeffer is convinced that experiencing comfort from God oneself is essential. “No one can really comfort anyone else unless there has been a measure of the same kind of affliction or some kind of suffering which has brought about an understanding and in which we have ourselves experienced the Lord’s comfort.”[15]

Relationship is vital in ministering to the needs of others. As a result of a study on medical nursing care, Hitchens and Snow conclude that “[r]elationship is what differentiates caring fidelity and promise-keeping from an approach based solely on principles, which tend to produce decisions made at a distance. Caring at its heart happens in the context of relationship.”[16] They emphasize the importance of the caregiver entering into the world of the sufferer just as Jesus did when he “saw the crowd harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd, he felt with them in the center of his being (Mt. 9:36)… saw the blind, the paralyzed, and the deaf being brought to him from all directions, he…experienced their pains in his own heart (Mt. 4:14)…[likewise, when he saw] the two blind men who called after him (Mt. 9:27)…and the widow of Nain who was burying her own son (Lk. 7:13).”[17]

In this study, four basic elements of caring were identified: 1) “attending to others with respect; 2) knowing them well enough to understand what to do; 3) doing for them what they need; and, 4) simply being with them, without any particular agenda.”[18]  The importance of valuing the sufferer without judgment is emphasized as well as the necessity of self-care for the provider to prevent burn-out. But most important, in our “bottom line” based society, is to beware of the trap of doing for without attending to the person, knowing the person in the context of his community. This type of care is incomplete and leads to devaluation in the sufferer.[19]

Triumphalism is a modern problem in the Church that causes believers to feel confused, lonely and not comforted. This is the mistaken belief that in the present age we are to be living in perfect health and prosperity and an implicit denial of the fallen nature of ourselves and the world in which we live. This attitude goes back as far as the Corinthian church who were “already filled…already become rich…have become kings.” This leads to the modern fear of discussing depression among Christians because it is antithetical to “victorious living” of triumphalism.[20] What is needed is to understand that periods of depression are not to be unexpected in a fallen world and that even Jesus experienced depression in the Garden of Gethsemane and none of his companions advised him to “claim the victory.”[21] Akin echoes this idea saying that weakness is God’s modus operandus. Christ was crucified in weakness and made alive by the power of God (2 Co 13:4). Similarly, when servants of the Lord humble themselves and acknowledge their weakness, the power of Christ can flow through them and make itself evident in service, humility, conviction and spiritual depth.[22]


To be true to Scripture in our life as the Church in the world, we must press on past the immediate questions of the meaning of suffering “for me” to discover how God intends us to use the suffering we have experienced for the benefit of others. Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Mt. 20:28), so we too should serve others even in our suffering, perhaps especially in our suffering. God revealed his power through the weakness of Jesus Christ in his earthly suffering and especially on the  cross. So too, he reveals his power in his Church through our weakness in suffering. Our suffering brings us into solidarity, into fellowship with the suffering of Christ. Thus we receive his comfort. The Father enabled the Son to suffer for the benefit of others. We in turn are enabled by the Son through our suffering, to bring comfort and aid to others from the overflow of that which we have received from Christ. Just as Jesus, our high priest, is able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 5:15), we are able to sympathize with the weaknesses of others to the degree and manner that we have suffered as they have. In so doing, we accomplish God’s purpose in the world to comfort the afflicted, give justice to the needy, vindicate the weak and fatherless, satisfy the hungry, and visit the lonely.

The world around us contains no shortage of suffering to which we may apply ourselves, but we should not become overwhelmed. The experience of our own suffering should prompt us to look, to listen and to discover the downtrodden, the afflicted, the needy, the hungry, the thirsty, the storm-tossed, the orphan, the widow, the alien, the homeless, the sick, the prisoner, the lost, the grieving, the dying, the poor, the lowly, the overcome, the oppressed, the distressed, the troubled, those who are treated unjustly, the helpless, and the lonely of our own day. We should not be overwhelmed by the size of the task for it is Christ’s task. He is the exalted Lord and Redeemer of his creation and the head of the Church. We should simply be his body, doing what we can do according to the grace he has given us through our own suffering. We should begin with those closest to us, in the body of Christ itself and then extend ourselves to those beyond. In so doing, we should remember that caring is most effective in the context of relationship. May we be found faithful stewards of all that he has entrusted to us, especially our sufferings and their application in the lives of others, until that great day when he comes again to right every wrong, heal every wound and wipe every tear of those who belong to him.

[1] Margaret Clarkson, Destined for Glory: The Meaning of Suffering (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 6.

[2] Excellent examples include Dan McCartney, Why Does It Have to Hurt? The Meaning of Christian Suffering; Margaret Clarkson, Destined for Glory: The Meaning of Suffering; Charles Ohlrich, The Suffering God: Hope and Comfort for Those Who Hurt; and D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil.

[3] Clarkson, 11.

[4] E.S. Gerstenberger and W. Schrage, Suffering, trans. John E. Steely, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977), 157-58.

[5] Gerstenberger and Schrage, 162-63.

[6] Clarkson, 44-46.

[7] Dan McCartney, Why Does It Have to Hurt? The Meaning of Christian Suffering (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998), 59-60, 71-77, 82-89, 97.

[8] Edith Schaeffer, Affliction (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1978), 169-170.

[9] Ibid., 170.

[10] Gerstenberger and Schrage, 252.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gerstenberger and Schrage, 259-268.

[13] Elizabeth Elliot, A Path Through Suffering (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1990), 170-71.

[14] Ibid, 170.

[15] Schaeffer, 175.

[16] Emily Hitchens and Lilyan Jane Stewart Snow, “The Ethic of Caring: The Moral Response to Suffering,” Christian Scholar’s Review 23, no 3 (1994), 308.

[17] D.P. McNeil, D.A. Morrison, and H.J.M. Nouwen, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1982), p. 17 in Hitchens and Snow, 308.

[18] Hitchens and Snow, 312.

[19] Ibid., 316.

[20] Virginia Stem Owens, “Naming the Darkness: To Banish Forever Easy Triumphalism,” Christianity Today (January, 19, 1979), 23.

[21] Ibid., 23, 25.

[22] Daniel L. Akin, Triumphalism, “Suffering, and Spiritual Maturity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 In Its Literary, Theological, and Historical Context,” Criswell Theological Review, 4.1 (1989), 140-43.

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