What does it mean to “cooperate with God when sufferings come”?

Q. I have just finished reading God Mingled With Us, an inspiring little book about a wife’s difficult journey caring for her terminally ill husband. It reminded me a lot of the extended blog your wrote about your own journey. (Sorry, I can’t recall the name, and I couldn’t find it on your home page. Is it still available?) At one point the author writes, “There is a transformation process that occurs, making us more like Him as we cooperate with His divine life in us. This is ultimately what God is after in the process. The question is, will we cooperate with Him when sufferings come?” My question is, if you agree with this statement, what do you think cooperating with Him when sufferings come looks like?

Thank you for your question. First, let me say that Endless Mercies is the name of the story I have told of God’s faithfulness to my late wife and me during the four years when she battled ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) with unfailing faith, joy, and courage. As you noted, I told this story in an extended blog format, and you can still read it here. (I have also added a link to this blog in the sidebar.)

I have not yet read the book God Mingled With Us, but it sounds very interesting. It does seem that the author and her late husband experienced God’s presence and help during his illness in many ways similar to the ones in which my late wife and I experienced those things. Let me share some thoughts in response to your specific question about what it means to cooperate with God when sufferings come.

My wife would often say to people about her illness, “This is something that God is trusting me to trust him with.” She felt that God was giving her the opportunity to believe by faith that her sufferings had meaning and purpose, even if she never found out in this life what the meaning and purpose were. She also felt that God was giving her the opportunity to rely on him for grace and strength for each day, no matter what challenges came. That does sound to me like cooperating with God.

My wife also talked about “peace through acceptance.” (That was a phrase she learned from Amy Carmichael, who became a historical mentor to her through her books.) If we do not question the wisdom, goodness, or love of God, but instead accept that God has allowed these sufferings for reasons that must be wise and good, even though beyond our understanding, we can experience peace and even joy in the midst of sufferings.

Someone once asked my wife, “Don’t you ever wonder, ‘Why me?'” She responded, “Why not me?” She explained that this is currently a broken world in which people experience sufferings, and we shouldn’t expect that just because we have faith in God, we will be exempt from them. Instead, she resolved to live each day of the illness as someone who loved and trusted God and who wanted to honor him by the way she conducted herself.

Those are some thoughts in response to your question. But I think the best thing I can do in reply is to invite you to read Endless Mercies. Having learned the phrase “cooperating with God in sufferings,” I do believe that you will see that modeled and illustrated throughout the story. Thanks again for your question.

Was the apostle Paul executed by being boiled in hot oil?

Q. Is there any historical evidence that Apostle Paul was boiled in hot oil?

The Bible doesn’t tell us about the means or circumstances of Paul’s death. But it does preserve this statement in his second letter to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.” Most interpreters understand this to mean that Paul expected to be executed for his faith at the conclusion of his trial in Rome under emperor Nero in the AD 60s.

Some traditional accounts provide further details. The Acts of Paul, an apocryphal work written around the middle of the second century, says that Nero condemned him to death by beheading. A lively legend makes this detail seem accurate: One ancient story about why a certain location in Rome is called the “Three Fountains” is that when Paul was beheaded, his head bounced on the ground three times and a fountain sprang up from each spot. Though the story is fanciful, it would probably never have gotten into circulation if it were known that Paul had been executed some other way, and so it suggests that Paul indeed was beheaded. We can have greater confidence in the work of Eusebius, a very careful researcher, who wrote early in the fourth century in his Ecclesiastical History, “It is … recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself … during Nero’s reign.”

There is a tradition that associates a different apostle with boiling in oil, however. Likely around the end of the second century, Tertullian wrote in The Prescription of Heretics that the apostle John was thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil in the Colosseum, but he suffered no ill effects from what would otherwise have been a gruesome method of execution, and so his sentence was commuted to banishment. We cannot corroborate Tertullian’s report. But it does show, along with the accounts of the sufferings and executions of the other apostles, that the first followers of Jesus stayed loyal to him right to the death, even if this meant enduring the worst tortures that the Romans might inflict.

Why does God allow religious wars and persecutions?

Q. I firmly believe that God created Heaven and Earth, and is still in control! It troubles me, however, when you look back through history and see all of the people unjustly killed and persecuted in the name of religion. Not only do these wars and persecutions seem unbiblical, they have done harm in promoting the kingdom and bringing people to Christ. Why has God allowed these events when in fact they seem counterproductive, in our eyes anyway, to His plans? Thank you.

This question is another specific case of a general issue that I address in an earlier post on this blog entitled, “Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?” In that post I suggest that “without freedom there can be no love. But freedom creates the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of suffering, as freedom can be, and is, misused. I believe that God knows, in a way that we cannot know, that a world with both love and suffering is infinitely better than a world with neither love nor suffering, and that those are the only two possibilities.”

Religious wars and persecutions are a very disturbing example of the misuse of freedom, since, as you note, in the name of Christ they actually undermine the cause and reputation of Christ (when they are carried out by Christian people). When we see the devastation that they bring, it can be a real challenge for us to continue to affirm the things I say just above. Those things can seem abstract, while the pain of the world is very real. But I think that if we respond to that pain through persistent faith in God and love for others, then we fill find that this response is just as real. If there is to be love in the world at the price of suffering, then let us do all that we can to overcome that suffering through love.

Why does God allow his people to suffer while worldly people prosper?

Q. Why does God allow his people to suffer while worldly people prosper?

Your question is exactly the same one that’s asked in Psalm 73:

I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

The psalmist eventually gets an answer to this difficulty, and I’ll discuss it in a moment. But first I’d like to observe that the perception that God’s people suffer while worldly people prosper actually represents a snapshot from a particular moment in life. If we think back over our whole lives, and if we look at the people all around us, we realize that God’s people actually go through seasons of prosperity and seasons of suffering over the course of their whole lives, and so do people who live without any particular devotion for God. If we took the snapshot at a different time, it might show the godly people we know prospering and the worldly people we know suffering.

But I think the perception nevertheless points to an important issue. We would expect, everything else being equal, that God would bless those who live in devotion to him, that God would protect them from misfortunes, and for that matter that they wouldn’t create so much suffering for themselves as those who live without regard to God. In other words, we would expect a positive correlation between godliness and prosperity, and a positive correlation between ungodliness and suffering. But we don’t see this in our world. I think that’s the real concern, and it is indeed borne out by experience.

So what’s the explanation? The author of Psalm 73 finds one part of it by taking a longer-term view. He sees that in the end, the wicked will not prosper. “How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” People who pursue a path of ruthless selfishness in this life are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. God has set up the moral universe that way. And even if these consequences are not experienced in this life, they will be experienced ultimately, when God finally judges the world. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not obvious cannot remain hidden forever.

However, even this assurance may be small consolation to a person who’s faithfully trying to serve God in this life but who is struggling with suffering, persecution, and failure. The psalmist has a further insight that addresses this concern. He describes going into the temple, encountering God there, receiving reassuring insights, and finally saying to God,

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing I desire on earth besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

The psalmist realizes that what matters most, in this life and the next, is knowing God and loving God. In a mysterious way that we cannot understand, God works through all of the events and circumstances of our lives to help us know and love Him better. This includes allowing suffering at times. In those times, we need to trust God and cling to him all the more.

I’ve written another post that you might find helpful. It’s entitled, “Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?” In that post I observe that Amy Carmichael often said, “The love of God is very courageous.” She meant that God will courageously trust us to accept difficult situations as a part of His plan that we will only understand in the end, when we can see everything clearly. I think we have a hint of this in the middle of Psalm 73:

When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

It may not be until we enter the heavenly sanctuary of God that we are no longer troubled deeply by the problem of human suffering and the fact that it seems to affect godly people as well as ungodly ones. But when we do come into that sanctuary, we will understand not only the final destiny of the wicked, but the glorious destiny that God has been preparing us for all along, even through suffering.

“This,” as the book of Revelation says, “calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.”

Why couldn’t God just change things on his own?

Q. Why couldn’t God just change things on his own? I mean, as powerful as he is to create the universe and mankind, living plants and mammals, I really don’t understand this part.

I understand you to be asking why God doesn’t act to end all the evil and suffering in the world, since He is omnipotent and no one can resist His power. I believe that this other post on my blog largely addresses your concerns:

Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?

Even though that post is written in response to a different question, it gets at the same issues you’re asking about. It explains that God created a world in which there was genuine moral freedom so that there could be the possibility of love. But at the same time, this freedom allowed for the possibility of destructive choices that would lead to suffering. Rather than act in all of His power to end that suffering (which would require taking away moral freedom), God chooses to work through the suffering to bring about His purposes in the end. He asks us to trust Him as he does this. And God Himself was willing to suffer, in the person of Jesus on the cross, setting an example for all of us to follow.

I hope this is helpful.

Does God not care about me being in pain?

Q. Hello Christopher,
I am sorry but this is in regards to suicide. Specifically, will I be damned to hell if I have received Christ yet choose to take my own life?
I am suffering from several physical ailments. I have been seeing doctors, going for tests etc, but nothing has helped or would help. I was even denied an operation. In short, I would have to be in physical pain constantly. The pain is killing me. I feel so tired of being in pain I am considering taking my own life. I have been praying to God, to take me home, or to take away the pain, but not much has happened in regards to that. The pain has resulted in the worst of me surfacing, I find it hard to be kind and patient to others. I also wonder why does God allow me to be in constant pain when He loves me. I believe in Him and His powers but I do not know if he is willing to heal me. Some times I feel that my well being is not of any priority to him as compared to His plans. I find that hard to accept. Like I (or my pain) am a tool, for him to use in His purpose. I really do not want to think like that. Are you able to shed some light on this so that I can stop thinking of God as some one who does not care about me being in pain?

Thank you for your heartfelt questions. I do believe I can help you. My wife went through a similar experience of unrelenting suffering. She went home to heaven last year after suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for 4 1/2 years. She basically spent the last six months of her life suffocating to death. This was so painful for me to watch that I literally got down on my knees every night before bed and begged God to take her home and end her suffering. She lived much longer than anyone expected and so had to endure a greater progression of symptoms than many patients do. At the end the only muscles she could move were in her face.

But she was still using those muscles to smile. This was because, throughout her entire illness, we continually saw evidences that God loved her and cared very deeply about her suffering. I’ve written up our story in another blog entitled Endless Mercies. It begins with this post. The tag line to the blog is, “God’s mercies to you don’t end when you get an untreatable fatal disease.” We certainly found that to be true. My hope and prayer is that you would be encouraged by reading our story and that it would help you recognize in your own story the ways in which God has been showing how deeply he cares about you and your pain and suffering.

I’d also invite you to read and meditate on Psalm 88. That psalm seems to be so filled with suffering and despair that I’ve actually heard some people wonder why it’s even in the Bible:

Why, Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.

But I believe this psalm was made part of Scripture in order to give a voice to situations like yours, where there is no sudden deliverance and we don’t find out in this life how it was all worthwhile. And because God has heard that voice and enshrined it within the Bible, we know that he does love and care for everyone in such a situation.

I don’t want to presume anything about personal circumstances that I’m not familiar with, so forgive me if I’m off base here, but what I’m hearing from you is not really a question about suicide, but about meaning and purpose in life. I think what you’re really after is a reason to continue living, not necessarily permission to die. And as someone who has seen firsthand a situation of desperate, unrelenting suffering, I can testify that God’s personal love and care can be experienced in such a situation. May God open all of our eyes to see where and how his hand has been at work in our lives to help us.

The purpose of your life is not somehow to display certain attributes of God’s character, or of Christian deportment, through uncomplaining suffering. You are not a “tool” in that way. The purpose of your life is to love and be loved, by God and by those closest to you. And I must say, from my own experience, that no amount of suffering can keep us from being loved by God and from loving God in return. No amount of suffering can keep us from receiving the love of those people who care for us and want to help us, and from loving them back. I believe that God has already placed some such people in your life. I pray that you will be able to recognize them and receive what they want to give you. When you do, you will be giving them a great gift in return.

Let me close with the blessing from the Bible that my wife and I used to say to one another every evening before bed. On the last night of her life, she only had enough breath to whisper out the first line, so I finished the rest:

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.


Wouldn’t the sufferings of people eternally separated from God outweigh the sufferings of Jesus on the cross?

Q. We know the price that Jesus paid for sin. He experienced horrible physical suffering and rejection by His own people. But that pales in comparison to Jesus’ separation from the Father as He became sin for us. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If those without Christ will spend eternity separated from a loving God, and if one could measure this eternal suffering for millions of lost souls (such a horrible thought), would it really be less than the suffering of our dying Savior on the cross? (I realize that these lost souls would not be paying for sin—Jesus paid it all—but they would be left out of heaven because of their unforgiven sins, the greatest sin being rejecting Christ.) This comparison leads me to believe that those who say we either accept God’s offer in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins or pay for our sins in eternal torment are wrong. What do you think?

Thank you for this heartfelt and compassionate question. I’ve shared some reflections on the issue of eternal torment earlier on this blog, in a three-part series entitled, “Is hell a place of never-ending punishment?” I’d invite you to read it to help answer your question; it starts with this post. But you’re also raising a further issue that I don’t address in that series, so let me speak to it here, after briefly summarizing how I leave things there.

What I explain in my series is that people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God hold different opinions about what happens after this life to those who accept or reject God’s gracious offer of reconciliation through Jesus. Some believe that all are raised to everlasting life, and that those who have accepted God’s offer will live forever in his presence, while those who have rejected this offer will live forever away from his presence.  Others believe instead in what’s sometimes called “conditional immortality.”  You only live forever if you accept God; if you don’t, your punishment is annihilation: you cease to exist.

My conclusion at the end of the series is that the biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God.  The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue. In these posts, I try to provide useful good background to these terms and ideas to help people in their reflections.

But your question, as I’ve already observed, raises a further issue. If the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is supposed to be sufficient to pay for all the sins of the world, then wouldn’t we expect the sufferings of Jesus on the cross also to be greater than the sufferings of the world, in some such way as to overcome them as well? Jesus’ sufferings were certainly of a unique intensity. Crucifixion was specifically developed by the Persians and the Romans to be the most agonizing death possible. And as you said, for the Son to be separated from the Father after enjoying unbroken eternal fellowship was probably a level of emotional, relational, and spiritual suffering greater than we can imagine.

Still, would these sufferings outweigh the eternal torment of millions of souls? Since we can’t imagine that they would, shouldn’t we conclude that there will actually not be eternal torments?

Let me say first that I don’t picture God deriving any satisfaction or pleasure from the sufferings of people who reject his gracious offer of salvation. Instead, I envision God deeply grieved to see people experiencing the consequences of their choice against him.

I’d also add that we don’t get a consistent picture from the Bible of people suffering specific physical torments in hell. It’s sometimes called “outer darkness” and sometimes called a place where “the fire is never quenched.” It’s hard to see how it can be both at the same time, literally. So I believe that these are actually word pictures that point to the spiritual reality of hell: it’s a place where separation from God leads to isolation, disorientation, confusion, decay, disintegration, and the like—everything opposite to the order, harmony, clarity, and growth that characterize life in fellowship with God.

In other words, as you also observe, the worst thing about hell is what it represents by definition: separation from God. However, ironically, I don’t believe that this will constitute suffering for the people who are their by their own choice. If you’ve decided that you don’t want to be with God, then you don’t mind not being with God. But this only means, tragically, that you don’t know what you’re missing. You think that looking out only for yourself in a world of broken relationships is normal. You think you’re just fine—in fact, you’re one of the best people who’s ever lived—just the way you are, and so you miss out on the transformation you could experience through personal and spiritual growth. And so forth.

One corollary of my understanding of this issue is this: “No one will be in hell who doesn’t want to be there.” I simply can’t imagine God keeping a repentant person forever out of his presence by saying, “Sorry, you had your chance on earth and you didn’t take it, too late now. I realize you would have accepted me if you’d known then what you know now, but too bad, that’s just how it works.” I can’t give you all the details for how God might extend a welcome to someone after their death, because I don’t believe the Bible tells us enough about that for us to come to any firm conclusion. But I think we have hints of it in passages like the one in 1 Peter that says Jesus “went and preached to the spirits who were in prison” and the one in Ephesians that says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives.”

(I should specify that I’m not necessarily a universalist; I don’t assume that everybody will sooner or later accept God’s salvation. I think human freedom is so radical that the possibility always remains open that some will continue to choose against God. But I do believe that God’s offer of salvation is universal, open to everybody. As Peter writes in his second letter, God is “not willing that any should perish,” and so I don’t think that God ever gives up on anybody.)

But my final observation has to be most directly about your main point: I don’t actually think that Jesus’ sufferings on the cross need to outweigh all human sufferings, the way his sacrifice needed to be great enough to pay for all human sin. Instead, the Bible encourages Jesus’ followers themselves to “fill up . . . what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (in other words, for those who already believe in him and for those who will come to believe in him). The reign of God—the sphere in which God’s will is done without resistance—advances in the world through suffering. Jesus’ followers, who now constitute his body on earth, are called to join in his sufferings so that God’s reign can continue to spread.

In other words, while Jesus’ sacrifice was indeed once-for-all (“Jesus paid it all,” as you say), Jesus’ sufferings continue to this day through his body (the community of his followers) and as they do, the effects of what he accomplished on the cross become a reality in more and more people’s lives. We who are his followers are not “saving” others ourselves through our sufferings, but we are serving as channels through which Jesus’ salvation spreads.

I hope this is helpful!

Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?

Q.  My question has to do with suffering and the fairness of God. Why do some people suffer, even terribly, while others do not?  Judging from the stories of Job and Peter, Satan was given permission to cause suffering in their lives.  It seems even worse that God would allow some people to suffer by this means.

I’ll do my best to answer your question, although it’s one that people of faith have struggled with for all of human history without definitively resolving.

Without freedom there can be no love.  But freedom creates the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of suffering, as freedom can be, and is, misused.  I believe that God knows, in a way that we cannot know, that a world with both love and suffering is infinitely better than a world with neither love nor suffering, and that those are the only two possibilities.  Love is worth what has to be for it to be.

But I don’t think this means that certain individuals are singled out for suffering. Every individual is liable to the possibility of suffering.  But precisely because suffering is the result of freedom (misused), the “free” (undetermined) nature of the world means that some will likely suffer more than others.  While the Bible does say that Satan specifically asked for and received permission to torment Job, and that Jesus warned Peter, “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,” this is actually what Satan wants to do to everybody, with or without permission.  If God granted permission in those two cases, it was because God knew He could bring a result out of the suffering that would advance His own purposes and defeat Satan’s—turning Satan’s own weapons against him.

But this means that all of us must be willing to suffer if that will advance God’s purposes through our own lives.  The difficulty is that we see such a small part of the big picture that usually we can’t understand why we are suffering.  It feels pointless and useless.  But God is trusting us to trust Him, that He indeed is at work in the situation (that He has chosen to work in it, given the nature of the world He created, not that He directly caused the suffering) to bring about a purpose that is so positive and redemptive, that in the end, when we do understand, we will rejoice in this work of God.

Not that any of us should seek out situations of suffering.  But we should know that, as Amy Carmichael often said, “The love of God is very courageous,” and that God will therefore trust us to accept difficult situations as a part of His plan that we will only understand in the end, when we can see everything clearly.

Giaquinto, “Satan Before the Lord” c. 1750, Vatican Museum. The painting depicts the scene from the book of Job in which Satan requests, and receives, permission to torment Job.

Why doesn’t God intervene to relieve suffering?

Q. If God is all-loving, why does God not intervene in times of great physical suffering when people are asking for his intervention? There is evidence that God can intervene and has done so in the past.

You’re right, the Bible tells us about many times when God has intervened to relieve suffering—for example, on those occasions when Jesus healed every single sick person who came to him for help.  Today when we pray for the sick and suffering, sometimes relief is granted, but not always, and we don’t really know why.

We do know that God is always pleased when we pray for the sick and suffering because, as Jesus showed us, God has great compassion for them.  (Jesus had such great compassion for Lazarus, for example, that he wept over his death, even though he was about to raise him from the dead!)  So the problem isn’t that God isn’t loving.

I think it’s helpful to recognize instead that God might answer us in different ways and still be glorified when we ask for His intervention (for example, when we pray for someone’s healing).  Prayer is really all about seeking God’s glory and reputation, that these might be known and upheld throughout the world, even in the face of the mystery of suffering.

God can be glorified when someone is healed or delivered.  But God can also be glorified when someone shows great courage because of their faith, even though they continue to be sick or to suffer, and when the community of faith cares for them with loving compassion.  Finally, God can also be glorified even if a person dies, if that person’s faith in God enables them to face death with strength and the hope of being with God forever.

Recognizing all the different ways God can answer prayers (that is, requests that He intervene in situations of suffering) can take us some small way towards understanding the great mystery you’re asking about, which thoughtful people of faith have wondered about in all ages.  But in the end I think this mystery is simply something that invites us to trust God, even though we don’t fully understand, as we seek to be His agents of compassion in this world, knowing that we are carrying out His loving and compassionate intentions as we do this.

I have shared some thoughts on a similar question in my post entitled, “Should we try to heal people today the way the apostles did?

El Greco, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”