Have you ever experienced suffering for no apparent reason? Not necessarily suffering without a cause, but suffering seemingly without a purpose?
Pointless suffering. Meaningless suffering. Wasted suffering.
Recently, I went through a bump in the road with my health that triggered some déjà vu back to my experience in 2018. This time, I didn’t end up in the hospital. But it was enough to make me feel like I was receiving a pop quiz on material I’d already mastered on a midterm exam.
God, we’ve been through this before. Was there a glitch in the testing system? Because I don’t see what You expect me to get out of this that I don’t already know or have.
I examined the situation from every angle, but no light bulbs clicked on. No soul-stirring epiphanies struck. No compelling blog-worthy truths surfaced. Just fatigue, anxiousness, and a throatful of gunk. And, deeper down, the dogged conviction that if I slogged along far enough, a light would dawn.
Well, I did get through, and am still trudging along on this earth almost as though nothing had happened. And I did get some benefit from the experience. I’m even managing to make a blog post out of it.
But even now, after the fact, I’m still not 100% sure why it happened. And back then, during the fact, I was 100% not sure why it was happening.
Suffering when you can see the point is hard. Suffering when you can’t see the point is harder. We humans tend to glean comfort, or at least guidance, in finding meaning to our suffering.
So what should you do when you don’t know why you or someone you care about is going through hard or painful times?
Here’s what helped me through my recent experience:
Review God’s Basic Truths
When you’re not sure what new thing God wants to teach you, look to the old. Not only do old, basic lessons offer a foundation for new things and a compass for next steps, they can be an anchor in the midst of a wild, unknown sea.
In fact, sometimes a return to the basics is a revival in itself.
When I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to learn from my latest health glitch, I simply brought out some old treasures and hung on to those. Old, elementary truths – God’s constant love, His faithful care, His praiseworthiness, His power to deliver, and the certainty of His promises. They held me together and made me feel able to go through whatever my Leader was about to take me through.
Sure, it’s exciting and enriching to discover new things in unfamiliar Scripture passages, or hear fresh words from a godly sage. I firmly believe we should always seek to grow our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word.
But don’t underestimate the timelessness and power of Scriptures you already know, or even of some time-honored Christian songs and literature. No matter how used, no matter how simple – when you hit a wall, these familiar certainties might be just the things you need until new light breaks through.
Keep Doing What You Know Is Right
Likewise, when you’re struggling to discern your next steps in the dark, turn to habits and actions you know are always the right steps. When you don’t know the answer to a question you sense God is asking, try answers you know are always correct.
I wasn’t sure what new step God wanted me to take, or whether He even wanted me to take one at all. So I did things I knew He always approves of. Not to bribe Him into ending the hardship (though I sure hoped He would), but to draw as close to Him as possible, so that when and if the next step became clear, I’d be ready.
I kept reading my Bible regularly. I prayed more and used Bible verses to pray. I tried harder to be still and trust Him. I tried to interrupt anxious thoughts with His truth and hope. And I reached out to others for prayer.
I never did find out what radically new thing I was “supposed” to do in response to my trials. But I did deepen my “old” habits and refreshed a few that were flagging. And on this occasion, that was revival enough.
Remember It’s Not All About You
I credit this one to my mom. One day, as I sat telling her how I’d always found purpose to my trials but couldn’t seem to figure out what I was supposed to get out of this one, she gently reminded me that sometimes our suffering isn’t for us; it’s for other people.
That makes sense. If suffering has purpose – value – then that makes it an asset. And like our other assets we’re given by God, it’s not meant only to bless us.
I’m reminded of a friend of mine who’s been through a lot in his life and who, a few years ago, was hospitalized following a car accident. As he tells it, he was sitting in his hospital room telling a nurse how sad he was and asking why God let him go through this latest trial. The nurse listened and then said, “God says you need a new testimony. Your old one is getting worn out.”
And then there’s the man in John 9 who had been born blind and later became a bold follower of Jesus after being healed. When Jesus’s disciples asked Him why the man was born blind, Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3, CSB)
In other words, our suffering is more than a classroom or training ground for us – it’s a stage for God to display His faithful love and redeeming power to a world that desperately needs Him. Whether He rescues us from our hardship or bears us lovingly through it, He’s at work in our trials, and His work is meant to be seen and to bless all who see it.
Sharing our suffering connects us to others in profound ways. It can build trust, empathy, graciousness, humility, and gratitude. What we learn can help others through their own difficulties, either practically or simply by showing them they’re not alone. The stories of God’s faithfulness in suffering can provide hope and light. And sometimes the people who suffer alongside us learn their own lessons and grow in ways we never know about.
This doesn’t mean we have to share every detail with everyone. In fact, we probably shouldn’t. But we should thoughtfully and prayerfully consider how to employ our experiences to bless others in meaningful, appropriate, helpful ways.
Sometimes our pain shrinks our world and inverts our perspective. But remember: You’re not alone. And what happens in your life holds gifts for not just you but other hurting, hope-seeking humans. Don’t throw those gifts away or shove them in the attic just because you can’t yet read the names on them.
Accept That You Might Never Know Why
Sometimes the meaning of our suffering becomes clearer in hindsight. Sometimes it doesn’t.
In the latter case, we just have to trust God and move on. No matter how life-changing the event, it’s still only one stepping stone on our path to eternity. Until we reach that Door, there will always be another step to take, more life to live.
It’s okay if we take that next step not knowing everything about the place we just passed through. Knowing everything isn’t our job – it’s God’s. Our job is to trust His knowledge and design and follow Him wherever He leads. We don’t need omniscience to do that; we just need a willingness to trust.
I’ve heard some people conclude, after surveying this world’s pain and complexity, that everything does not in fact happen for a reason. I believe it does – we just don’t always know the reason.
And that’s okay. Because we can know the One who knows the reason and all other things.
The famous longsuffering Job never found out why he lost his children, wealth, and health in rapid succession. He knew only that “the LORD gives, and the LORD takes away” (Job 1:21). And he learned that God answers people in their suffering – not always the way they’d expect or like, but in a way that satisfies their need for connection rather than their craving for knowledge. God answers them, not with reasons, but with who He is.
That was enough for Job. And it can be enough for you and me.
So when you don’t understand something happening to you or a loved one, trust the One who understands everything. Hold on to His truths, keep walking in His ways, and look for His work in the midst of the pain.
He loves you. And He is enough.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (CSB)