Childhood Suffering: Discovering its Purpose

Childhood Suffering

Discovering its Purpose

Part 2

Did you suffer as a child? And have you wasted your suffering? Has the suffering made you bitter or a better person?


God’s mysterious plan marks out certain young men and women to suffer early in childhood. I get it; that statement is easy to misunderstand.[1] But our sense of justice can be appeased by the confidence that a just God does hold people responsible for their crimes;[2] He holds the people responsible for the suffering you experienced. He held the people responsible for the death of his Son.[3] But that cross-suffering was designed, nonetheless, for redemptive purposes. It doesn’t have to be wasted.

I also concede that it is a mystery as to how both can be true; God’s sovereignty and human responsibility working in parallel.[4] But mysterious or not, your sufferings were designed with a redemptive purpose. Have you discovered it yet? Consider the case of a 17-year-old teenager who discovered God’s purpose for his suffering.

Joseph’s Suffering

Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, also suffered when his father sent him off--unwittingly--to a life-threatening situation (Gen 37). A father’s love marked him out[5] for suffering. But his suffering had purpose. His suffering was not wasted. But how severe was his suffering?

Joseph’s suffering wasn’t exactly mild; it was severe. As a teenager, he was hated, rejected, and sold into slavery—abandoned by his own flesh and blood; rejection by family. While in slavery, Joseph was falsely accused[6] and imprisoned as a criminal; innocent but treated as guilty. As a prisoner, he bore the shame and pain of an iron collar around his neck; he bore the indignity of having his feet clasped in shackles. Joseph suffered wrenching physical and emotional pain. Joseph, beloved son, was marked out for suffering by God. But his suffering was not wasted. He discovered that God had a purpose for his suffering. Have you? Consider Jesus.

Jesus’ Suffering

Jesus, beloved Son of the Father, was marked for suffering and death early in life--“This is my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11); “they took him--the beloved son--killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard” (Mark 12:8). At the cross, watching the way Jesus died, the Gentile Centurion exclaimed, “Surely, this is the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

Jesus, beloved Son of the Father, suffered as an innocent man, but he endured it because His suffering was designed for a redemptive purpose. His suffering was the means by which God would save many lives.

Wasted Suffering

Many men and women, though, never consider God’s purpose for their suffering, or they refuse to ponder it. Instead of forging them into better men and women, refined by suffering, past affliction enslaves them. They remain angry, or prickly, or hard to get along with. Their suffering is wasted. But it doesn’t have to be. Are you wasting your suffering?

Joseph didn’t waste his suffering. The hot fire of suffering he experienced refined his character, preparing him for effective leadership. The words which flowed from his heart[7] reveal the clue as to why he became better rather than bitter.

Joseph Didn’t Play God

When Joseph’s brothers, the ones responsible for selling him into slavery, knelt in fear before him, asking for forgiveness for their crimes against him, amazingly, he comforted them. Genesis 50:15-21

His brothers were guilty and vulnerable. Joseph could have played “king on the mountain” and exploited his power over them. He could have pursued justice. As a middle-eastern prime minister, Joseph could have extracted his pound of flesh and evened the score—no questions asked. But going against their fearful expectations and the cultural values of the day, Joseph did the unexpected: he reassured them. He asked them a revealing question that reflected his healthy perspective on suffering: “Am I in the place of God?”

The question reveals the key to his loving response. Joseph didn’t play God with his brothers. Joseph let God be God. Joseph learned that God has a right to do what he wants with us and does not need our permission for anything.

If God earmarked us out for suffering, then we can fight Him and try to wrestle control of our life away from Him. Or, by faith, we can accept His control. We can yield to Him or we can battle with Him. We can try to run our own life or we can surrender control to God.

Joseph had surrendered control of his life to God. This is reflected in his question, “Am I in the place of God?” Rather than becoming bitter because of his suffering, Joseph became better. Instead of fighting against God, he mentally shifted gears and surrendered to His purposes. Joseph didn’t try to play God.

Joseph unpacked God’s redemptive purpose for his sufferings: “You {his brothers} intended to harm me but God intended it for good[8]…to save many lives.” Joseph understood that God used his sufferings to save not only his own family from starvation but also thousands of Egyptians from the same fate.

Unseen to the human eye, but clear to Joseph’s vision, was that all of his sufferings were part of God’s unchanging plan for the benefit of other people. Joseph understood and accepted the hard truth that God was qualified to be the God of his life, even when that meant suffering. He let God be God. He surrendered control of his life to God rather than try to play God or fight Him for control.  He surrendered to His control rather than try to do His job.

Surrender to God’s control became the life-pivot for Joseph; a new direction, a new outlook, a new attitude, and a better Joseph, a leader who could comfort and empathize with men, women, and children who suffered.

Joseph Let God be God

Do you share the same perspective? Have you accepted the truth that God has the right to be the God of your life, even when that means suffering? Or are you trying to play God? Have you been wrestling with Him for control of your life since the years of your suffering? Do you resent Him for your suffering? Has your suffering made you bitter or better?

God’s sovereign plan in some way--it is a divine mystery-- incorporated the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers and used it as a means of bringing about good—benefits for people in danger. On the basis of his trust and confidence in the wisdom and sovereignty of God, Joseph was able to comfort his brothers rather than get even with them. He saved them from starvation. Suffering prepared Joseph to be a savior.

Joseph wasn’t prickly, vengeful, or spiteful. He wasn’t bitter or mean-spirited to those who hurt him. Instead, Joseph was kind, gracious, and loving to people who did him evil. Suffering made Joseph better. His attitude of surrender toward God made the difference. Joseph let God be God.

You Can Do the Same

It’s not too late for you to do the same. Instead of trying to control your life, let God do that. He’ll do a much better job. Yield control of your past—and its sufferings—your present, and your future to Him. Let Joseph’s God be the God of your life. Yield to Him in faith. Ask Him to drain out the bottled-up bitterness and replace it with kindness, gentleness, and a forgiving spirit.

It may take a while. Ask a counselor or spiritual director to help you on the journey. Once the attitudinal logjam is broken, God can use you—like He did Joseph—to save men, women, and children from misery, pain, and suffering. You could play a healing role in the lives of many hurting men, women, and children. You could, and I add, “You should.” Why waste your suffering?

God used the cross sufferings of His beloved Son to save many people from their sins. God also used the sufferings of Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, to save his own family and the nation of Egypt from starvation. God can also use your sufferings, His beloved daughter or son, to save others from pain and misery. Suffering, understood from God’s perspective, can transform you from being a prickly wall to a life-giving bridge to safety.

Run Up a New Flag

If you have wasted your suffering up to now, like the example of Joseph and Jesus, today, consciously lower the dark flag of control on the mast of your life. Once that flag has been lowered, run up the white flag of surrender.

Jesus, beloved Son of the Father, flew the flag of surrender. On the eve of his suffering on the cross, Jesus prayed to His Father: “Take this cup—of suffering– from me. Nevertheless, not my will,[9] but your will be done.”[10] Jesus surrendered to the Father’s plan of suffering. He flew the flag of surrender. He went to the cross and died a substitutionary death for sinners. So His suffering was not wasted. The flag He flew made the difference.

It can make the same difference in your life. So, why not lower that old, ragged flag and run up the new one, the flag of surrender, and say to God, “You’re God. I’m not. Forgive me for trying to do your job. You alone are God. I yield control of my life to you. Have Thine own way.”

Will I see you at the masthead? If you meet me there, I’ll help you run up the new flag and sing a duet with you.

“Have Thine Own Way, Lord.

Have Thine own way.

Thou are the Potter,

I am the clay.

Mold me and make me,

after Thy will.

While I am waiting,

yielded and still.”

Thank you for singing.




[1]For those sincere men and women who think that the presence of evil disproves God and presents insurmountable intellectual and emotional obstacles to His existence, let me suggest that the following question be considered: if it’s immoral to create beings in an environment that includes the possibility of serious suffering and evil, then is it immoral for human fathers and mothers to have a child? Let me suggest that the same reasons for thinking of having a child can be an act of love are also the reasons for believing divine creation can be an act of love, even when the people created will live in an environment punctuated by the presence of suffering and evil.
[2] See Jesus’ harsh warning in Matthew 18:6.
[3]See Peter’s speech in Acts 2:23; the death of Jesus occurred because of God’s foreordained purpose, yet the people who put him to death were still held responsible. Peter said: “…and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death.” God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are manifest together.
[4] I have no problem with people challenging me with the existence of a good God and the co-existence of evil. The apparent contradiction cannot be dismissed. It requires a sober assessment of the issues. So, I won’t dismiss the issue. But I do welcome the challenge. Here is why. We’re on the same side. We actually have a point of agreement, since they’re agreeing with me that when we look around our world there are some things that aren’t the way they’re supposed to be; there are some things and some people that are genuinely, objectively moral evil. Some atheists think this apparent contradiction shows that there is no God. But I think it manifests the exact opposite. Something is only truly evil if it is a violation of a fixed moral law. But how can there be a moral law if there is not a moral Lawgiver? Who made the law? If there is no overarching moral law or moral Lawgiver, how are we supposed to interpret what’s good and what’s evil? Are we supposed to make that call just by our subjective feelings or worse, by the cultural and ever-changing values of the day? The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested just that. But if we give up on God as a moral Lawgiver, it seems that’s all we are left with. I prefer my alternative to Russell’s.
[5] “Marked him out” does not mean “caused.” “Marked him out” is another way of saying that the phrase, “loved” in the narrative, becomes a literary device that the helps readers anticipate the upcoming events in a story. It occurred in Isaac’s story, Joseph’s story, and Jesus’ story.
[6] By his “employer”
[7] “Out of the overflow of his heart, a man speaks.” Matthew 12:34
[8] The word translated “good” is the Hebrew word “tov,” meaning “beneficial to people, advantageous for people, helpful” to people. The book of Genesis begins with God’s evaluation of the land He shaped as “good” (Tov); the land was beneficial and helpful for the people whom God would eventually place there--the expression of His love and power. So, the book of Genesis both begins and ends with “Tov,” God’s good purposes, beneficial purposes for His people. The Pentateuch begins with the shaping of the Promised Land with Adam—a type of Jesus--placed in it and concludes at the border of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy: preparing to enter the land) with Joshua, also a type of Jesus, charged to cross the river and take the land.
[9] The word “will” has the idea of one’s agenda. Jesus surrendered His own agenda for that of the Father’s, an agenda that required His suffering and death but meant forgiveness and salvation for sinful people. Jesus did not waste His suffering.
[10] Mark 14:36

Tim Cole