The Challenges Suffering Presents to Christian Leaders


We tend to think that our suffering might be easier to bear if we knew the reason behind it. How often we have said or heard, "If I only knew why God took my son so early or why so many innocents must die so horribly, then it would be easier to bear." I don't think this knowledge would ease our pain. In fact, I think the example of Jesus in Gethsemane shows us that it would create even more angst in us. The more we know, the deeper we go into the mind of God until we lose our way in his ways, which are higher than ours, beyond our comprehension. That is why in the end, Job just shut up.[1]

Christian leaders have the burden of explaining the general cause of suffering, why things are the way they are. Scripture, of course, tells us the foundational cause of all suffering: the curse. Before the Fall, man and woman were without sin and suffering. Life could have continued on that course, but it didn't. Adam, our representative, fell, and we all fell with him. The earth and all its inhabitants, even the creepers on the earth and the soil itself, were cursed, and sin and suffering entered into human existence.

I recently hosted Pastor Alfred Komagum from the war-torn region of northern Uganda. Alfred lives in Kitgum, a region near the Sudanese border that was terrorized for many years by a war between the Ugandan government and rebels who sought to overthrow the government. The horror was made worse by Sudan's war and famines. Many children were abducted. Boys were forced to become soldiers and girls were raped repeatedly or forced to become wives of the rebels.

Do you want to become a disciple-making leader but lack adequate training? Welcome to the club! Many leaders (yes, even pastors) need training on this. That's what we offer. Join a cohort—a year-long leadership development community—and become a disciple-making leader. Learn more and apply here.

We have a lot of helicopters in my part of town, and when Alfred heard them he said they reminded him of war. Alfred benefited from the remarkable work of Dame Irene Gleeson, who asked God to send her to where people were suffering the most. She sold her beach house in Sydney, Australia, and moved to Kitgum. For over twenty years Irene led an elementary school of ten thousand students, many of them orphans. Fifteen years ago, Alfred worked for Irene as a carpenter; now he pastors a church of well over a thousand in Kitgum. He also leads a vocational college of fifteen hundred and represents the future of the gospel movement in that region of Uganda.

Alfred is innocent of many of our American ways. He can't believe all the food and goods that are available here. But one thing Alfred does know is suffering and death; it has been with him most of his life. Westerners struggle with suffering and evil because our culture, especially our church culture, has not faced it as normative.

Not only must leaders explain the general cause of suffering, we must also give an answer to those who accuse God of being brutal, unfair, and horribly arrogant for creating the world when he knew humankind would fall and be separated from him. I heard one skeptic ask who would want to worship a God who created man and then let him wallow in misery one hundred thousand years before intervening to help him. In a similar vein, a friend recently said this concerning her husband's illness: "I don't know if I believe in God anymore considering what he has done to me."

Are we as Christian leaders ready to lead for a God who created a world like this? Are we ready to trust him, even though he hasn't given us the answers to our questions? For me, the most challenging part of leading has been my inability to take away the trouble in people's lives. I recall a steely cold day many a winter ago when I walked with a young couple through a deserted graveyard behind an undertaker who was carrying a small casket to a gravesite. There we stood, a young couple holding hands, a young pastor holding a Bible, praying, confused, and numb as we laid their infant to rest.

Christian leaders always seem to end up in situations in which suffering people ask them questions and depend on them for guidance. We don't struggle only with the sudden and obscene loss of those we love through war, disease, famine, and accidents; we also have struggles and troubles in our living. Leaders spend a great deal of their time dealing with dysfunctions, factions, discord, sexual deviance, and addictions. Even more challenging is the criticism sometimes levied at us because we are trying to help. What I am getting at here is that Christian leaders must come to terms not only with the suffering of others, but also the trials, temptations, sufferings, and enemies that are peculiar to themselves. We must come to terms with the nature of the people we lead and with the God who calls us to live in that environment.


[1] See Job 42:1-6. In summary, Job said, "I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance."

 Written by Bill Hull

 Taken from The Christian Leader by Bill Hull. Copyright © 2016 by Robert W. Hull. Used by permission of Zondervan.

 Photo by Benny Jackson on Unsplash