In their book The Diamond of Adversity, Robert C. Palmer and Heather Palmer Welesko (father & daughter) explain that suffering is complex; it is much more than a 1-dimensional problem. To effectively deal with suffering, it is better to look at suffering from a number of different aspects (imagine a cut diamond and its many gleaming facets).
Palmer explains that well-meaning people try to encourage those who are going through suffering or adversity by giving them 1-dimensional answers which are overly simplistic. He calls these “maddening theologies”, because they cause more frustration for the one who is undergoing suffering.
“God is punishing me”
This explanation may be self-inflicted: a person connects a particular sin or wrong behavior in their life to the fact that he or she is suffering. For sure, people often suffer the natural consequences of their sins (the scriptures teach that a person reaps what he sows). But more often than not, we are unable to connect our experience of suffering with any particular sin. Palmer reminds us that “Job did nothing wrong in the eyes of God” (Job 1:8, 2:4) and that his suffering was not tied to sin. His friends tried to explain ad nauseum that he was doing something wrong to deserve God’s punishment, but in the end they were mistaken. Palmer gives this insight:
“Sadly however, this [‘God is punishing me’] explanation not only leaves us dissatisfied, it also redefines and belittles Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Indeed, if we begin to think of suffering as God’s punitive measures towards us in our sins, we inadvertently cancel out and insult the great work of Christ in the cross, doing so [dying for us] in order that we wouldn’t be punished for sins.” (page 28)
Are you suffering? God may be using difficult circumstances to discipline you or teach you (Hebrew 12:6), but consider the fact that punishment and discipline are two different methods brought about by two different motives. God disciplines “those he loves”. When you are going through suffering, remind yourself that your loving, heavenly Father does not punish his children.
“God must be testing me”
This explanation seems appealing because it gives an answer that is consistent with biblical teaching. The book of James makes clear that God tests us in trials, but he does not tempt us. But Palmer identifies two problems with this answer when it is used to explain ALL of a person’s suffering. First, the words “God is testing me” leaves the sufferer asking what might be the actual purpose of the testing! For example- is this a test of obedience, where God wants me to follow Him in a particular decision? Is this a test of my heart, which is prone to greed, coveting, or idolatry? Is this a test of my faithfulness to my family or my children? Is this a test of my commitment and devotion to Jesus? Secondly, using this explanation to help someone who is suffering can be detrimental in the future. If–the next time they are suffering–the person continues asking, “Is this another test?” he or she may end up on a repetitive cycle of bewilderment.
“Everything happens for a reason”
This is an explanation that Christians and non-Christians often use. Sadly, this kind of thinking is reinforced by most Hallmark Channel movies, where all the coincidences and random events line up for a happy ending. People yearn to know that there are “greater forces at work” in our lives, and that in time, we will have explanations for the suffering we endure. Palmer says the explanation “Everything happens for a reason” is silly and insulting because it does not give any answer as to what the reason actually is! If I were to say “Everything happens for a reason” to a person who just found out she did not get the job she really wanted, would that ease her disappointment? Wouldn’t it be better to simply say, “Wow–that is disappointing, I know you had your heart set on getting that job. Is there anything I can do to help?” The “everything happens for a reason” explanation tries to give the feeling of an answer without giving an actual answer. We often do not receive the answers we are hoping for right now. To make it through suffering and do well, we must surrender our desire for reasons and answers in the short term.