Thoughts on Suffering
When one arrives into the world we are quite helpless, small without much thought to the whens, whys or wheres of our existence. As we grow and learn we realize that the world is a puzzling place. It is filled with great joys and goodness, kindness and love. It is also filled with great pain and evil, malevolence and suffering. Our world is quite mingled with good and evil and any worldview or philosophy which does not deal with this is either forgetting to smell the roses or has their head buried deep in proverbial sands. In this essay I want to address the issue of suffering in a few ways. First, as a human being traveling life and wrestling with this question. Second, as a follower of Jesus looking to the Scriptures for teaching about suffering. Finally, I want to write as a pastor who has seen much and walked through suffering with many over the years. The structure of the essay will proceed along these lines. I will first treat the experiential and existential nature of suffering. I will then mention various theological and philosophical ways of dealing with suffering. Then we will look, in an abbreviated fashion, at the teaching of the Bible regarding this. Finally, we will look at our own hearts and give some counsel in walking with God through a suffering world on the way to his Kingdom.
A Universal Experience
Chronic pain wracks someone’s body day after day. A young woman has her heart mistreated by a selfish little boy masquerading as a man. A young family goes into the nursery of their fragile new born only to find out their precious one is not breathing. A family watching a loved one decay to a painful disease. An aging parent looses their mental faculty as the erosion of time destroys the body. A storm of nature arises suddenly dismembering lives and property. A young girl is kidnapped and abused in the most unimaginable ways by other human beings. A mob murders a young pastor and then terrorizes his family. Warring nations and their powerful rulers create realities that destroy the lives of millions. Whether small or large suffering is a part of our world. It is at times minor, at times severe and always constant. While we must never overlook the massive floods of goodness, grace, kindness, love and beauty abounding every day, suffering will visit our lives and it does need an answer. When the sun remains shining upon us we may not fully come to terms with the storms raging upon the seas of someone else’s life. Yet the harsh realities of our world will bring the darker specter of suffering upon us and they bring with them seeking answers. Many different answers are given and they are not all created equal.
Philosophical and Theological Answers
The amount of reasoning and philosophizing given around the reality of suffering is quite astounding and the answers are variegated. Some say suffering is because of ignorance and lack of enlightenment . Some may ignorantly accuse God of sleeping on the job. Others see it arise for the evil and sin of human beings. Others say that it, like poo, just happens. Most who wrestle with this question deal with three things: God, humanity and the reality of suffering. What follows is but a small sample of what some major worldviews teach about suffering.1
Pantheistic views of life teach all is one and all is divine or ultimate. Furthermore, any distinctions seen in reality between things is called maya, or illusion. You and me are not different beings, but part of one great being or reality. As such, good and evil are simply illusory as well, two sides of the same coin as it were. Various flavors of eastern philosophy share this view (flavors of Buddhism, Hinduism) and many represent these ideas with the yin/yang symbol. You have probably seen it in tattoos. Pantheism solution is to say that enlightenment comes when you realize all suffering is illusion and you escape it through various paths of meditation. You realize that you are part of the one reality and suffering no longer holds mastery over you. So Pantheism, in effect, denies the reality of suffering. This is puzzling to me for several reasons. First, suffering seems very real to me and not something we can meditate away. Second, it can lead to a passive acceptance of suffering particularly when coupled with doctrines such as reincarnation and karma. If someone is suffering in this life, they have “earned it” through bad karma in a previous life and as such deserve to be in the position assigned to them.2
Rather than removing the reality of suffering there are those who in the face of human suffering deny the existence of the divine. It is not uncommon for certain atheists to rant against God for the suffering he allows while anger is aimed at the idea of a God they do not think is real.3 Agnosticism is the position that finds no good reason to believe in God but cannot state definitively that God does not exist. Most in the face of suffering get more specific and deny the existence of a good and powerful God as described in the Bible. I have always been a bit puzzled by agnostics who claim that others cannot know things about God while stating to not know for sure themselves. It is like stating everyone is NOT right even though you yourself claim to not know. To me this is not a humble position but rather arrogant. In any fashion, atheists and agnostics typically deal with the problem of suffering by saying God does not exist. In the denial of God what then is left of reality? In western unbelief matter is supreme and all that is. Our lives and the entire universe are simply the result of a blind and amoral universe where time, chance and the laws of physics are sovereign. There is no answer to suffering in this view and even more tragic good/evil are simply arbitrary assignments by arbitrary bits of matter called you and me. CS Lewis made the classic argument here that in claiming something to be “evil, wrong” with suffering we are assuming there is standard by which to really judge such things.4 Atheism has no such standard to offer yet uses it to critique God. I find empathy with people who have such objections about life and suffering; suffering is real and it is pervasive. What I do understand is the intellectual inconsistency in this point of view.
There are various points of view which hold God, humanity and suffering in tension. The three large monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all treated the subject of suffering in various ways. Islam teaches that suffering is according to the will of God, is the result of disobedience, lack of submission to God’s purposes or divine judgment. Judaism teaches that suffering is mysterious and at times is God’s discipline of his people for breaking covenant. In some cases it is taught that God is unable to do anything about the suffering in the world.5 Various Christian teachings see suffering as the result of sin, God’s judgment/discipline of people, existing for redemptive purposes and only represent a temporary state. In a moment we will look at a summary of this from Old and New Testaments but for now let us just say that flavors of theism hold in tension belief in a good God and the reality of human suffering.
Much more can be said about dealing with the philosophical compatibility of evil, suffering and the existence of a good and loving creator God. Philosophers and Theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, Ron Nash, CS Lewis and John Feinberg have provided excellent work in this area which are compatible with various Christian theological points of view.6 Yet as Christians we stand in the biblical as well as a philosophical tradition. In fact, the Scripture has much to say about suffering God’s relationship to his creatures.
The Biblical Narrative
The question “Why is there suffering?” is not a simple issue in the Bible and we have many writings which speak to us about the mystery of evil and suffering. One thing that must be done is to see suffering and evil in the larger biblical story line of a good creation, human sin and the fall, God’s redemption in Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God/Heaven. Seeing and understanding suffering must happen within this story. The biblical literature provides many reasons for suffering. The writings compliment one another and provide a broad panoramic view of the purposes of God. God creates all good things and allows suffering in the world and the reasons are many.
The ultimate origins of suffering is in volitional creatures (beings that can choose following God or otherwise) both angels and human beings. Scripture and Christian teachings hold that God created angels, many of which became evil in rebellion against God. The foremost being called Satan, the accuser. In the initial teachings of the Bible, Satan is a being intent on evil who calls humanity away from joyful fellowship with God into their own disobedience and sin (Genesis 3). As a result of human rebellion the world is quite literally cursed and not the way it is supposed to be.7 We now live in a world that the late British author GK Chesterton once described as a shipwreck.8 It has great good strewn about but very much in the midst of a wreckage. Ultimately all suffering and evil is the result of sin and rebellion. The creation itself is in a state that is both beautiful and chaotic displaying to us the condition of our world (See Romans 8:18-25). It is in the context that the goodness of God and the evil of this world must be understood. A very quick and necessarily abbreviated summary of the biblical teaching regarding suffering is as follows:
- Suffering can be the direct result of human choices. This is self evident to all and taught throughout Scripture.
- God speaks to us in our suffering. He is not uninvolved and it is not without purposes even when unknown to us. Our call is faithfulness to God whether in times of ease or times of extreme difficulty. The book of Job teaches us this.
- Some suffering is the result of the discipline and judgment of God. This is the message of the Prophets and sections of the book of Hebrews, particularly chapter 12.
- Suffering plays a part in God redeeming us from the curse of sin and death. God has purposes for suffering and uses it for good ends. See Romans 8 and the latter part of 2 Corinthians chapter 4.
- Suffering gets our attention and creates in us a longing for redemption and for God to act. Many of the Psalms and the Prophets show this, we see this particularly in the biblical cry “How Long O Lord.”9 CS Lewis said this well: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”10
- Suffering is also used by God to shape and transform us and help us identify with Jesus himself. The early part of James and 1 Peter 2 teach us this.
- Suffering exists temporarily to glorify God for his work to overcome it through Jesus—John 9 teaches us that some situations exist so that God would be glorified. Further, as we will see in a moment, the suffering of God himself in Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of the glory of God.
Due to the fact that Scripture does not give “one reason” for each instance of human pain, some have declared the Bible gives contradictory reasons for suffering. Most recently, Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem11 comes to mind. In reading Ehrman, it seems he fails to see that there could be many possible biblical reasons for a particular instance suffering. The precise point we must remember is that God knows the true reason behind each instance while we, at times, do not. As such because of unbelief, some people stumble to understand and explain every bit of suffering while others believe and relate deeply to God in the midst of it. I like to say it this way: Suffering does not always lead to unbelief, but unbelief will find no answer in the face of suffering.
We desire love, relationship, peace, safety and permanence yet in this present age these elude us and result in our suffering. Sin has racked life, separated relationships, created calamity and death and we wander the earth fearful and longing for a home. The truth is that in dealing with our suffering love and relationship are central. A truthful system of intellectual answers is important but is incomplete without love. In the gospel of Jesus Christ we find both truth and relationship, hope in the midst of suffering through the love of God.
In the story of Scripture, the suffering of the world is taken on by God himself. Jesus, who is God become man, actually bears suffering on behalf of suffering people. Immanuel, God with us, is also God suffering with and for us. Jesus’ death for sin is the ultimate sacrifice where God himself takes the sting of sin and death to forgive us and transform us. Jesus’ resurrection displays that the ultimate enemy and bringing of pain, death itself, is and will be defeated by Jesus. The cross reflects God’s judgment upon sin and his reconciliation of people to himself. In Jesus we find grace, love and relationship. In relationship with Jesus we have one that is familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53), who can sympathize with his people (Hebrews 4) and who is present with us in our grief (John 11). The gospel places Jesus in the middle of suffering to redeem a broken world through his own sacrifice and pain.
The first chapter of Peter’s first epistle summarizes the gospel view of suffering in light of the bigger picture. I will allow the Scriptures the last word for our encouragement:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
- See discussion in chapter four of Randy Alcorn, If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil (Sisters, Multnomah Books, 2009). Alcorn’s book is popularly accessible yet handles the issue of suffering biblically, faithfully , intellectually and practically.
- For more on the idea of Karma, see my A Comparison of Karma and Divine Judgment
- Case in point are the recent writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens
- See C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity, 25. “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.”
- The classic popular work here is from Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
- See Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil; Ron Nash, Faith and Reason; CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain; John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil.
- An excellent book on the Scriptures teaching on sin goes by this name. See Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be : A Breviary of Sin for a good treatment on the doctrine of sin.
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Image Books ed. (New York: Image Books, 1959), 80.
- CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 83.
- DA Carson’s excellent work How Long O Lord, Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) has this phrase as its title
- Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem, How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question-Why we Suffer, (New York: HarperOne, 2008)
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