I have a problem with suffering. I am sure you do also. A couple of years ago I experienced some of the worst pain in my life and I ended up in hospital. I knew the medical reasons why I was suffering but that didn’t make it any easier. If God wasn’t going to answer my prayer and take the pain away, I wanted to die. When the pain had gone I changed my mind. We struggle to keep their faith when confronted with pain or illness or death.
The problem of suffering is therefore a question we have something in common with our friends. The answer to our question should therefore help them as much as ourselves. For some it is an intellectual and theoretical question about the existence of God and problem of evil. For others it is a present and personal experience. The answer we give will greatly depend on the context. Our culture finds the issue of suffering a huge problem. The presence of pain and evil in the world leads many to question the existence of God. David Hume, the philosopher put it like this:
“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (David Hulme)
Here is how C.S. Lewis framed the dilemma,
‘If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain in its simplest form.’ (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
When someone poses the issue in these terms I invite them to reflect on why it is they are asking the question. If there is no God, there is no meaning or purpose in anything, no right or wrong, no good or evil. There are no answers because there are no questions. The very fact that people view suffering as wrong indicates that God has put that thought in their minds. We have a deep seated conviction about what the world should be like even if we are short on solutions for putting it right.
Underlying our culture’s attitude to suffering is the implicit assumption that we somehow have the right to unbroken health, happiness and well-being throughout our lives. Anything that infringes this right must be God’s fault. We have dentists to deal with our toothache, medication to take away our pains, hospitals to cure our illnesses. In previous generations gruesome death was a familiar visitor to every home. Parents expected at least half their children to die in childhood. Today, however, people today live for decades without experiencing bereavement, and even when death comes it is generally carefully packaged to cover up its nastiness. Surprisingly, the Bible is rather counter cultural on the question of suffering. Suffering is not seen as a major intractable problem, but rather as something to which God has provided the answer, which we should accept in a positive way. On one occasion the disciples ask Jesus basically the same question,
“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1-3)
Underlying the Bible’s teaching on suffering are three profound truths.
1. God is Sovereign and His Creation is Good
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them… God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:26-27, 31)
God created a perfect universe where we could enjoy perfect relationships (with God and with each other) in a perfect environment (disease and disaster free).
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
In the last analysis we have to allow that God may do as he chooses. He is not required to shape his purposes according to what we might think will give us the maximum amount of happiness. Rather, he shapes the details of the universe, including what happens in our lives, according to his ultimate and perfect purposes. If in the short term these appear painful or unacceptable to us, it is we who have to give way and say as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but your will,” (Luke 22:42) not the other way round. God is God and before him we must bow in humble adoration. God is sovereign and good.
2. Free Will and the Consequence of the Fall
Two readings – one from Genesis and one from Romans.
“To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:18-22)
The Bible insists that suffering and pain are ultimately the result of our rebellion against our Creator. It is easy to trace the link between some suffering and free will, to acts of human greed and selfishness.
“When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men. It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
But some suffering is not always the direct result of any specific selfish action. It occurs because we live in a ‘fallen’ world. (i.e. a world that has in some way been negatively impacted by human rebellion.
“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:19-22)
The apostle Peter predicted the day when people would doubt and mock God because of suffering in the world.
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water… By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (1 Peter 3:3-9)
The Bible offers a third answer to suffering.
3. Suffering is Ultimately Answered at the Cross
The Cross is God’s gracious response to the problem of suffering– gracious beyond all imagining. We have to grasp the significance of God entering into time and space to deal with the problem of evil. Because Jesus suffered in our place, the power of evil is broken.
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
And as a result of what Christ accomplished on the cross, in the Book of Revelation we have a glorious picture of what the world will one day be like.
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
God is purposefully delaying that time so that people have an opportunity to turn back to him and receive his forgiveness through Jesus’ death in our place. God is demonstrating his patience and love in delaying that great moment because he does not want anyone to experience the suffering of being separated from him for ever.
4. God Fulfils His Purposes in Suffering
4.1 Suffering Helps us Repent
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:1-6)
‘We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
4.2 Suffering Helps us Empathise
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26-27)
4.3 Suffering Help us Mature
Here are some bible readings for reflection and meditation:
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
“there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, `My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
“…we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11).
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all….. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11)
“Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
C.S. Lewis concludes: ‘my conviction is that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.’ (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Preface)