Suffering’s Limits

For men are not cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to the children of men.

To crush underfoot
all prisoners in the land,
to deny a man his rights
before the Most High,
to deprive a man of justice—
would not the Lord see such things?

Who can speak and have it happen
if the Lord has not decreed it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both calamities and good things come?
Why should any living man complain
when punished for his sins?

Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the Lord.
—Lamentations 3:31–40

In this single passage, only verses apart, we’re told God doesn’t willingly bring affliction or grief, and we’re told that both calamities and good things come from God. What can this mean?

Even though the statements seem contradictory, they are not. While God finds no pleasure in sending affliction or grief to us and He empathizes with our suffering, He can and does accomplish good purposes in our lives through them.

One reason the problem of evil and suffering can seem so acute to us is the cumulative weight we feel from media oversaturation. At most, people used to bear the sufferings of their own families, communities, or nations. Now, through instant access to global events, we witness the sufferings of an entire world. While a tiny percentage of the world’s inhabitants face a given crisis, the images each day of one disaster after another make it feel far more universal. This oversaturation desensitizes some to suffering while overwhelming others.

Despite the horror of disasters, we must understand that suffering does not have a cumulative nature. The terrible suffering of six million people may seem six million times worse than the suffering of one. But no one, except God, can experience the suffering of six million people. All of us remain limited to our own suffering. While our suffering may include an emotional burden for others who suffer, it cannot grow larger than we are. The limits of our finite beings dictate the limits of our suffering.

C. S. Lewis concluded, “There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain" (The Problem of Pain).

Consider that while our suffering can rise only to the level we individually can suffer, Jesus suffered for all of us. All the evils and suffering that we tell Him He never should have permitted, He willingly inflicted upon Himself, for us.

Think about that long and hard, and let it pierce your heart with wonder and praise.

Lord, if we understood the extent of your empathy for us and the extent of your suffering to make us your children, we would surely be embarrassed to express our displeasure with you when your plans turn out to be radically different from ours. While we tend to live for the pursuit of our happiness, you are committed to the pursuit of our holiness. Teach us that when we pursue only happiness we will lose it along with holiness, but when we find holiness, including the holiness that can come to us through difficulties, we will find the happiness of Heaven.

90 Days of God's GoodnessThis blog is excerpted from Randy's devotional 90 Days of God's Goodness
“This book is truly inspiring! Help for those going through deep water or who want to encourage others who are.” —Reader review

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Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries