The suffering of children has been on my mind to varying degrees and at different periods for the past decade. I’ve had to deal with suffering children as a parent, as a pastor, as a pastor-parent combination (I’ll explain that in a later post), and now in the orphanage connected with my work in rural Kenya.

My wife and I have five children. Two were diagnosed with Type1 Diabetes (T1D) and two were diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis (CF). Two years ago, we wrestled through the prospect of taking our children to live in rural Africa, where we now live. Here in the bush, we see suffering every day.

The idea of children suffering, however, has been brought before me again more recently. Just this weekend I brought my own little boy home from a hospital in Nairobi after a week there suffering from a virus, which developed into a blood infection.

I have returned this afternoon from the funeral of one of the infant boys from the orphanage. I picked his little body up from the mortuary this morning and took it to his great-grandfather’s home place, where we buried him. His story is particularity sad. Fifteen distant relatives, who had never met the boy, gathered for a brief service. His mother is in prison and his grandfather has just recently been released after a twenty-year prison sentence.

So why do children suffer? Or, to phrase it in a way that many people put it, why does God allow children to suffer?

Let’s first consider suffering in a general context. W. G. T. Shedd, the American theologian identified three kinds of suffering—chastisement, punishment, and calamity. Chastisement comes to the believer from a heavenly Father, by way of discipline, instruction, and guidance (Hebrews 12:6). Punishment is judicial, it satisfies justice and is always associated with guilt. Calamity is more general, and it affects all humanity because of the fall. Calamity is the “thorns and thistles” of life, spoken of in Genesis 3:18. It is a law of nature in a fallen world, just as “sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

It is in this context that we must understand the suffering of children. It is important for Christians to understand that the suffering of a child is not a judgment on the parents (cf. Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3) and it is not necessarily chastisement. Many parents’ grief is intensified by the lingering lie that God is punishing them for some past sin. This is not so—the believer’s punishment has been completed in Christ.

As we look at the suffering of children in Scripture a number of aspects emerge to help us understand something of the mystery of suffering.

First, the suffering of children teaches us that sin is merciless. The suffering of a child more than anything else magnifies the cruelty of sin and amplifies the groans of creation. We see the brevity of life when the most vibrant become weakened with sickness and death. We see the uncertainty of life when those with the most potential are brought down, and when death takes advantage of the most vulnerable, we see the cruelty of sin. The Lord Jesus Himself was witness to this when he met the boy with the unclean spirit. The story in Mark 9:17-29 has a number of lessons, not the least of which is the cruelty of sin.

Spend some time in the pediatric ward of any hospital and you will understand something about this. Last week my wife spent a couple of nights in the ICU ward at Gertrude’s Hospital in Nairobi. On the first night there, the doctors worked to save the life of a little girl, as the mother fainted to the floor. She passed away, despite the attempts to save her and her mother lay for an hour talking to her lifeless little girl. Sin and Satan have no mercy.

Second, sickness and especially the death of a child provide an environment for the Gospel presentation—in the house of mourning “the living will lay it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Long-term suffering, like a chronic illness in a child, provides an early opportunity to speak to them of sin and the Great Physician. We have found in our home, that sickness gives perspective to life. In an environment of sickness and suffering, school and sports, careers and wealth are not the focus of life. The family is concentrated on the health of the child and, in a Christian home, with spiritual realities. The fall, sin, and sickness are visibly illustrated daily, and it becomes continually an opportunity to speak of the gospel, and of that place where there is no sickness or sorrow, where tears are wiped away and where everything is made perfect.

Very often a parent can look back and recognize the greater good in the calamities of life. There are testimonies throughout Scripture. Jacob said, “all these things are against me” but later understood as Joseph put it, “God meant it for good”(Genesis 50:20). Think also of the parents of Moses, who watched their little son was taken from them (Exodus 2:2f), but later saw the nation of Israel redeemed from Egypt. There is a hidden world in the ways and workings of God that we are not aware of. We will never know the wealth of spiritual activity that is worked in one who witnesses the sickness or the death of a child—“all things are working together for good.”

Third, the suffering of children is an instrument for the sanctification of parents. Sometimes as parents we can find more joy in our children than is spiritually healthy for us—we get our eyes off the giver and on the gift.

The Lord often then works with the parents through the children. The child is resilient, he/she does not ask the same questions and are generally more accepting of life.  In the uncomplicated mind of a child, suffering is not as mentally or emotionally torturous as it is in an adult. An adult has a lot more dots to connect, a lot more questions, and more angles to approach the problems from. It is often harder therefore for the parent watching the child suffer than it is for the child who is actually suffering. In other words, it is the parent and not the child who is being forced to exercise faith, to examine life, to seek answers and to find comfort.

As I thought of this I began to see, more and more, how that the Lord used children to develop the faith of the parent in the Scriptures. This seems to be a predominant feature of sickness and death among children in Scripture—the exercise of parental faith. We see this in the Syrophoenician women (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28), the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24), Jacob (Genesis 42:36 cf. 46:2-4) Job (Job 1:21 cf.42:5) and many others. It is also interesting, in the childhood sufferings of Jesus that Mary and Joseph are being exercised in faith (Luke 2:19).

Finally, the grace of God can sanctify an affliction and make us a blessing though, and because of, our affliction—we can become the “wounded healer.” The Bible tells us that Christ’s ability to comfort is grounded in his identity with the sufferer—“He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). The same is true on a human level. The Lord uses those whom he sanctifies through suffering to succor and encourage others in their suffering. Those who have felt the pain of death have been given a ministry to the bereaved. Those who have spent long dark nights at the bedside of a sick child have been given a gift that only grace can develop. Those whom the thorns and thistles of life have wounded are the best suited to be healers.

If through the deep waters He cause us to go,
The rivers of grief shall not overflow;
And He will be with us in troubles to bless,
And sanctify to us our deepest distress.