“In summary, the Book of Job nails a coffin lid over one idea – the idea that every time we suffer, it’s because God is punishing us or trying to tell us something specific. It just wasn’t true of Job. Nobody deserved suffering less than Job, and yet few have suffered more. Sometimes God does send suffering as punishment (as in the ten plagues of Egypt), but you cannot argue backwards, as Job’s friends tried to do, and assume that each incident of suffering can be linked to a specific failure. God Himself contradicted their accusations.”
excerpt from pages 70-71 of Where Is God When It Hurts? by Phillip Yancey
I believe there are times that God uses or sends suffering in order to teach us something specific. But I also believe that there are times that suffering comes to us simply because we inhabit a fallen, sin-filled world. Just as good fortune and blessings can fall upon those that are unrighteous, suffering and illness can come to those who seek to follow after God.
As Christians, the danger is when we try to interpret other people’s suffering for them. If I see someone struggling with an illness, it is not up to me to tell her what God is trying to teach her through this. It is also not my place to shower her with platitudes like, “All things work together for good for those who love God…” Yes, all things do work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. But often we cannot see that in the midst of what we are suffering. When we spout Scriptures to someone who is in the depths, we reduce God’s Word to cliche.
On the other hand, God’s Word is full of passages about God’s faithfulness and comfort. A well-thought-out note with a Scripture reference that shows that God is faithful in the midst can be a solace. Well-thought-out is the key. There have been times when I struggled that I was comforted by friends who quoted Scripture to me. During those same circumstances, there have been people in my life who made me want to scream when they spouted off Scripture without thinking about how it would sound to someone in the midst of true sorrow.
When a friend is burdened by an illness or a family situation, the best thing I can do is wrap my arms around her and be present. Sit with her. Pray with her. Listen to her. Tell her I love her. Offer to help in specific ways – and then follow through.
The worst thing I can do is start a conversation with, “So, what do you think God is trying to teach you through this?” or “Do you think there is an unconfessed sin you need to deal with that could be causing this?” or “Maybe if you just had more faith…” I do not want to be one of Job’s friends.