I'd just finished the first section, about God's character - his joy, his suffering, his sovereignty - and how these relate to the horror of suffering. I loved this, with only a slight qualification: the language about God's sovereignty isn't always as strong as the Bible demands.
I've now finished the second section, about the "why" of suffering. It took me a little longer to get my head around it. Joni's strong, emotional language is both a strength and weakness: it moves and shocks and comforts, but at times clouds logic and touches on the mystical. But I read and re-read and re-re-read it, and ultimately found it a very helpful summary of some of the "why"s of suffering.*
What are the "why"s of suffering? I like the way Joni divides her answer into 3 parts:
- Suffering is for others. The answer to "Why does God still want me here?" is "For the sake of others" (Phil 1:22-24). As others watch us trust God through suffering, they are inspired to endure patiently, challenged to take God seriously, and moved to love those who suffer. Our suffering also brings glory to God as we praise him in the midst of pain (I would have liked to hear more about this one!).
- Suffering is for me, to grow my character. Just as Jesus "learned obedience" through suffering and was fitted to be our Saviour (Heb 2:10; 5:8), so God uses suffering, individually tailored to me, to chisel away sin and pride and to make me holy. I can bemoan or boast or bitterly resign myself to suffering, or I can submit to the Sculptor's hand as he remakes me into the beautiful image of his Son.
But knowing these things is not enough. A list of answers may help when you're not suffering, but in the midst of suffering, you don't just want answers: you want a Someone. And so Joni comes to her third reason:
- Suffering increases our intimacy with God. As we share in Christ's suffering, we experience fellowship with him and come to know him more deeply (Phil 3:8-10). Suffering brings us to the foot of the cross. It helps us die to self. It strips us of sin and ambition and pride. It empties us of ourselves, that we may be filled with Christ. "The greatest good suffering can do for me is to increase my capacity for God." Like Joni, I wouldn't swap this for anything!
I'd love to bring you a quote that makes this last point better than I can, but this post is long enough, so I'll leave that for next week.
In the meantime, I encourage you to read When God Weeps if you have questions about suffering.
* With a few cautious qualifications over Joni's discussion of angels and demons, and the mysticism of some of her language about union with God.