Thinking About Suffering

A biblical theology of suffering equips missionaries—and all believers—to face life’s hardships.

From Message magazine issue "Hardship & Harvest: New Missionaries in a Changing World"

Since I was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, I’ve been reminded that no missionary—and no Christian—is exempt from suffering.

David Brainerd (1718–1747), the American missionary to the Delaware Indians of New Jersey, dealt with serious bouts of depression before he suffered and died of tuberculosis. Robert Jermain Thomas (1839–1866), a Welsh missionary who lost his wife and child to miscarriage a mere months after arriving in China, was later martyred in Korea. Suffice to say, missionaries experience suffering.

We must be equipped with a biblical theology of suffering. These four reminders have greatly comforted me in my battle with cancer.

1. God has ordained our suffering.

He proclaims in Isaiah 46:9-10, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (ESV). The Second London Confession of Faith explains: “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass.” Suffering is not by accident but is ordained by God.

2. God has a purpose for our suffering.

Isaiah 46 again illustrates that everything God decrees is to accomplish his purpose. Sometimes we can recognize that purpose. Joseph, for example, recognized that the evil actions of his brothers were ordained by God to save “many people” (Genesis 50:20). But more often, as was the case with Job, we may never understand God’s purpose for our suffering this side of heaven. Yet God always knows the purpose of our suffering. It is never in vain.

3. God comforts us in our suffering.

Paul describes God as a compassionate Father who “comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Charles Spurgeon commented, “If there are any comforts to be found by God’s people in sickness, in prison, in want, in depression, the God of all comfort will deal them out to you according as you have need of them.” God doesn’t promise to remove our suffering, but he does promise to comfort us.

4. God has taken the worst of our suffering.

Peter writes, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18a).” Our afflictions are light compared to Jesus’ enduring the wrath of God for us on the cross (Romans 5:9). Christ has already rescued us from eternal suffering, and he knows what it’s like to suffer, too.

My cancer has taught me that, no matter what, we can trust God in our pain. With Job, may we say: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10b), and, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15a). To God be the glory.

Nahum O'Brien

Nahum O’Brien was appointed as a missionary to Norway with ABWE in 2015. He began serving there with his wife, Arin, in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @nahumobrien.