One of the great privileges of ministry is when people share their struggles with you. It's heartbreaking to see someone battling through a hard time but it's also an unspeakably high honor for them to ask you to help carry that burden. It also brings up the question of why God allows them (and anyone else) to go through hard times.
That's a tough one, and one that has been kicked around as long as people have been on the earth. Why does God allow suffering? Epicurus is credited with the following postulation: If God is unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent; if God is not willing to prevent evil, he is not good; God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil? The implied answer, which is stated by many, is that God is either not good or doesn't exist. Followers of Jesus wrestle with this question as well. Why does God, who loves us and wants to bless us, who has all power is able to do whatever pleases Himself, why does He allow evil? Why are we sometimes made to walk through the valley of the shadow of death? There are no easy answers to these questions, and to be perfectly frank, scripture doesn't give us a definitive answer. But the Bible does give us some insight into this difficult question.
1. Because of Sin. God allows suffering because of sin. I don't mean in a disciplinary way--although that's certainly a possibility, and we'll consider that in just a moment. But we have to understand that since we live in a sinful world, sinful things will happen. Or said another way, bad things happen in a bad place. And this world is a bad place. Sin has ruined everything. Death entered the world through sin. Disease entered the world through sin. Sadness entered the world through sin. Everything bad that happens is ultimately a result of sin. So living in a sinful, cursed world we must naturally expect sinful, cursed things to happen. God is gracious and restrains much of that from people, whether they follow Him or not. But He doesn't always restrain the effects of sin. Romans 8 tells us that creation is groaning for the revelation of the sons of God; the whole earth is cursed and as a result, suffering will sometimes result.
2. To Discipline. Hardship isn't always a sign of God's discipline. But it sometimes is. In I Corinthians 11 Paul is instructing the church regarding a proper observance of the Lord's Supper. And he say that because of their flippant observance and sinful behavior God was visiting that church with sickness and even death. I Jon 5:16 speaks of a sin unto death. Now we don't know what that sin is--and by the way, never assume you know why someone is facing a hard time. Don't tell them they must have some secret sin they need to repent of. You don't know that because God hasn't told you that. To make that claim is to align yourself with Job's friends. Remember those guys? "Job, you must have some wickedness because God won't allow bad things to happen to good people." That was bad theology then and it's bad theology now. God does sometimes allow suffering in our lives to discipline us.
3. To Grow Us. Michelangelo was asked how he sculpted his incredible statue of David. He said that he took a chisel and removed everything that didn't look like David. Scripture tells us that we are being conformed to the image of Christ; the point of your salvation is to make you like Jesus. What that means in very practical terms is that sometimes the suffering we face is God taking the chisel of suffering and removing everything that doesn't look like Jesus.
4. For the sake of others. This is one that I've wrestled with because it just doesn't seem fair. Why would God allow me to go through hardship for the sake of others? An example of this is found in Ezekiel 24. God tells the prophet that He's going to take away his wife, who God calls 'the delight of your eyes'; even more, Ezekiel wasn't to mourn her. The reason? So that Ezekiel could model to the people of Israel how to deal with the coming judgment of God. Now why would God do that? Why would He use Ezekiel in this way? Why does He use me in this way? Scripture doesn't specify but I think part of it is to cause to look to Jesus who is the ultimate example of one who suffered for the sake of others. It's by His stripes that we are healed. So when I suffer for the sake of others I can glory in the fact that God is pleased to allow me to share in the image of His Son!
5. We Don't Know. Finally, we must remember that no matter what ideas we have, we ultimately don't know why God allows suffering. We don't know every reason and every possible explanation. The story of Job reminds us of this, in that he was never told why he suffered like he did. God never explained to him why he lost his wealth and his family. But Job's faith never wavered--he held steadfastly to God, affirming that even if God took his life, he would trust Him.
When we face hardship, may our faith be like that of Job. May we hold fast to our Great King, and rest in the promise that He can take everything we face, even the most intense suffering, and use it for His glory.