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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

Suffering is for our good and for God's glory.

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Suffering is for our good and for God's glory.

I might as well have been holding the pieces of broken pottery in my hands. Turning them over again and again in my mind their jagged edges confused me. I was reminded of the verse from Isaiah, “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). What are we to do with the truth of a good God when there is so much suffering in the world. What do we do when we, as clay, are broken? I remember learning of an ancient Japanese art form called Kintsugi. The process involves taking a piece of pottery that has been broken and filling its cracks with gold. The new vase is something beautiful, it bore the marks of its traumatic breaking yet is clearly better than before. I had used this process as a metaphor to end a draft of a book on psychology and Christianity just weeks prior to beginning practice in psychiatry. I had stated “God can use your suffering and make something beautiful out of it.” But something didn’t sit well with my statement, and that’s why I held those pieces of broken pottery in my mind. A patient sat in front of me in my outpatient psychiatry office, their story unique in its pain and suffering yet similar to any of the others I had seen in the week. Each shared something in common, whether they knew it or not, they wanted an answer to explain their suffering. God using their suffering just didn’t fit.

In the same way I often misquoted the passage of scripture when Joseph met with his brothers after he had become second in command to all of Egypt’s wealth and power, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God used it for good...”. That isn’t what the verse says at all. When I discovered what it truly said my stomach knotted up. The second half reads, “but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). This meant that Joseph’s sale into slavery, his unjust imprisonment, his unfair treatment by the cup bearer and baker, all the lonely, rejected, persecuted times came directly from God’s hand. He purposed for Joseph to suffer in this way. So I sat with my patients, listening to their pain and I thought of it coming from God’s hand, and I thought of my own pain and imagined God handing it directly to me and I was angry, the broken pieces of pottery remained in my mind.

Then I read from Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of missionary and martyr Jim Elliot as she talked about suffering, “The deepest things I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering and out of the deepest waters and hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.” Time does not permit to tell of all the hardships Mrs. Elliot went through during her life, suffice to say she when she writes and publishes a book titled “Suffering is Not For Nothing” we can listen to what she has to say. Her perspective is one of surrender to God’s purpose and will, the good and the bad, much like Job did, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). This beautiful reformed perspective began to take shape in my mind and heart. Suffering is not simply allowed by a sovereign God, it is purposed and its purpose is good.

Later I read from Henri Nouwen, a catholic priest and author who was himself no stranger to suffering, especially of the psychological kind, and he had the strength to say, “The gifts of life are often hidden in the places that most hurt.” His perspective is one of seeing suffering not primarily as a hardship, though it most certainly is, but as a divine gift much like we read in James, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds...” (James 1:2). Only while resting in the truth of a loving Father can this make sense. Trials don’t just happen to you while your Heavenly Father sits idly by, he’s handed them to you himself and asks you trust his good purpose in it, and more than trust that you “count it joy”.

I thought about the pottery I held in my hands. It wasn’t pottery anymore, it was the parts of my patients’ lives that had been broken by trial and cracked by suffering, I held those pieces tightly and the harder I fought against them the more their sharp edges caused me pain. So I had to hand them over. In the hands of my savior I saw for the first time suffering from a new perspective. We so frequently see the world from our perspective as the clay and wonder how suffering could possibly be “used by God”. This is the limited view we might imagine as clay, we don’t see the design or purpose, but in the potters hands we realize it was part of his good will all along. There doesn’t exist a world in which myself or my patients as pottery remained unbroken and thank goodness for that, He saw the finished product, inlaid with gold, from the beginning. The breaking was part of his purpose for our good and His glory. In my book I asked the question, “is a fallen and redeemed world better than a world that never fell?” Now I see more clearly, a world that never fell does not and would never exist because this is the world where He receives the most glory as potter, and we receive the most good as clay.

Suffering has an answer:

The movement from anger to peace as I considered God’s sovereignty over suffering was freeing but not without other frustrating questions. How can God be good if he has willed such pain, even if it is for our good? Suffering requires an answer. It’s the same question asked in Dostoevsky’s Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, when considering the suffering of innocent children, “Why the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones” (Book V - Chapter 4). In response one of the brothers points to a day when he sees suffering answered, “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for...that in the world’s finale...something so precious will come to pass... that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

In my undergraduate training in a class on Christian Thought we continued this line of questioning. Our professor pointed us to another literary example from the book Night, written about the holocaust. In one gruesome chapter the guards hung a child as an example to the rest of the camp, one of the prisoners, Eliezer, asks “‘Where is God? Where is He?’... And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows...’”. This statement by Eliezer represents the death of his faith, he sees God hung from the gallows and cannot reconcile what he sees with a loving Heavenly Father. My professor paused to allow my class to take in the gravity of such a loss of faith. Finally he broke the silence, “God was on the gallows, he hung from a tree, was tortured and died because sin and suffering require an answer.”

We do not serve a God indifferent to suffering, but one who willingly entered into suffering alongside us. Your pain is not foreign to him. He does not have a cognitive understanding of your suffering but a real, visceral, felt knowledge of your pain. Suffering has an answer, it lies at the foot of a rugged cross.

Every incidence suffering will one day make sense:

Even if God’s purpose in our suffering is good and for His glory and it has an answer in the death and resurrection of our savior— we exist in a time when not all the purposes for suffering are revealed. Job, again, is a humbling example for us. After petitioning God and listening to his friends incorrect explanations for his suffering God speaks from a whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). God frequently, in his kindness, reveals to us the purposes behind our pain. Many times I have rejoiced with patients who have been able to point to concrete examples of God’s blessing as a result of their suffering, but far more frequently the suffering does not make sense. In these moments, sitting in the discomfort of not understanding must, if we are to have peace, give way to the acknowledgement that He is God and we are not.

This discomfort, of not understanding the purpose behind our pain, will not last forever. One day we will see as God does, not bound by time or our limited view of circumstances. Instead of seeing the world through the eyes of the broken pieces of clay we will see the world as the potter does. We will see that his purposes in suffering are for our good and for His glory, that in our suffering we had a faithful companion who willingly hung from a tree in our place and all will be made clear. My prayer for you is that you daily begin to see yourself not as broken pieces of pottery but that your turn your gaze upward to see the potter who sees you as you one day will be, “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4).

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