Last Sunday evening we held a Guest Event looking at the perennial question- “Why does a loving God allow suffering?” You can listen to my talk plus a helpful interview with Helen here. I was conscious that the talk didn’t include much Bible- and rather a lot of CS Lewis! In preparation I had worked through the various Biblical responses to the issue of suffering and they shaped what I said but I decided it would be too much to try to demonstrate this in the talk. However, I thought I would show something of my working in this post. (And this is working- I am addressing the question more intellectually here rather than emotionally. I am probably more sensitive in the talk than in this post!)
It seems to me that the Bible doesn’t give one simple response to the question of suffering. There is no easy answer. In part that is because suffering comes in different forms to different people. For instance, the suffering of the Old Testament exiles in Babylon is clearly intended to be seen as judgement for sin. By contrast the suffering of Job is very definitely not judgement. So I decided in the talk to go for five reflections rather than one easy answer- acknowledging that each reflection may be more helpful than others in different circumstances. Here they are- with relevant biblical material.
1. God invites us to come to Him with questions.
The Bible doesn’t have its head in the sand when it comes to suffering. It engages with the issue deeply- indeed probably more deeply than we do at times. Those who ask questions about suffering are in good company- the biblical authors do as well. For instance, there are reasons why the book of Job is such a long book. It gives no trite or superficial answers but allows Job to ask God some robust questions- see his speech in chapter 3 as an example. The Lord’s response at the end of the book reminds us that we need to do more than simply ask questions (see point 3 below) but nevertheless Job is seen as superior to his friends with their trite theological simplicities. I have always found the Psalms of lament fascinating as well- see the beginning of Psalms 10 and 13 for instance. Psalm 88 is particularly bleak. Again, the journey that many of the Psalms make suggest that we must not be content simply to ask questions- but to do so is a natural starting point in relating to God in the midst of suffering. I suspect churches today (including us) don’t hit the note of lament to the extent that we should- perhaps because there are relatively few hymns or songs that strike it (though I’ve always appreciated this exception to that.) This piece from Carl Trueman is worth reflecting on.
2. We need to take seriously the reality of human evil.
Suffering should be no surprise to those who know the basic plotline of the Bible. It is as old as Genesis 3. God made the world good but human rebellion led to the whole of creation being cursed. Death, bringing with it the agonies of bereavement and emptiness, is now inevitable. The book of Ecclesiastes is an extended commentary on living with death in view (the word translated meaningless really means breath and implies the brevity of life) and should help us to have realistic expectations of life on this earth. Romans 8 talks about God subjecting creation to frustration- life here will always be broken and less than ideal.
In one sense, therefore, all suffering is down to the judgement of God. God has judged this fallen world because of human sin. This is hard for our culture to accept because of our basic assumption that humanity is essentially good (which, as I said on Sunday, explains why our culture stamps its feet at suffering more than cultures in the past which arguably suffered more.) This is not to say that suffering is shared out in proportion to sin- that was the heresy of Job’s friends. However, one of our responses as Christians to suffering is that it should remind us of the broken nature of this world owing to the collective sin of humanity. The Gospel- and the promise of a new creation- is our only hope.
3. We need to trust God’s good purposes in suffering
This is a major theme biblically and is, it seems to me, the essential answer to the question of how God can love and allow suffering. The reality is that he is doing good even in allowing the suffering. The essential summary of this position comes in Romans 8:28- in all things God is working for the good of those who love him.
The life of Joseph is a well known example of this. Having faced appalling mistreatment throughout his life, particularly from his brothers, he is nevertheless able to say to them at the end, “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20) Being sold into slavery and subsequently imprisoned put him in the position ultimately to take power in Egypt leading to the saving of many lives during their famine (including incidentally preserving the family line that would lead to Jesus.) Furthermore, as I said on Sunday, the death of Jesus on the cross clearly indicates the possibility of good emerging from evil intent.
Though he didn’t know it, Job’s suffering had the purpose of showing to Satan the reality of his faith- that he was interested in God not just the things God gave. 1 Peter applies the same principle to us- trials have come so that “your faith-of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1:7)
2 Corinthians is full of reflections on the purpose of suffering. In particular, 1:3-11, 4:1-18 and 11:16-12:10 would repay study. In short, the suffering that Paul faces causes him to depend on God (1:9), shows that God is powerful (4:7), keeps him from pride (12:7), enables him to be a comfort to others (1:4) and means that he has to rely on the prayerful support of the Corinthians (1:11). The reality is that there is always a certain lack in a Christian who has never suffered- virtues such as compassion, humility, perseverance and a deep faith only come through hardship.
As I said on Sunday, it is important to note that our sense of God’s good purposes in suffering may only occur to us over time. Pain hurts even when there is purpose in it- and often our first experience will simply be of agony. The benefits often come later- and take a while to become evident. Most of us will struggle to see good when the suffering is at its fiercest and we will probably need to learn patience. Some may have difficulty in recognising any good this side of heaven: eternity alone will reveal the kind wisdom of God’s plan.
For the world around us it seems to me that Lewis’ point is right- suffering is God’s megaphone for a deaf world. We all know that it can be much harder to explain the Gospel to people whose life is relatively smooth. Why do I need salvation or a new creation? Suffering is a gracious reminder by God that this world is not everything and that we do need rescuing.
4. We can trust a God who has suffered
This is really a point about the character of God. Why should we trust that God is doing good in the midst of suffering? Because God is like Jesus. God has willingly become man and faced the reality of suffering. Hebrews 1-2 are very interesting in this regard. In chapter 1 Jesus is clearly presented as the divine Son. Yet to be a faithful high priest he needs to be able to sympathise with us. And so- Jesus becomes perfect through suffering (2:10). Jesus cannot play the role He has been given by His Father without suffering for He has to be made like us in every way (2:17). It is because He suffered that He is able to help us in our suffering (2:18). There is a God in heaven who knows exactly what suffering is like. Indeed, I think you can argue that Jesus continues to know what suffering is like. When Jesus asks Saul of Tarsus, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), is there not a sense in which Jesus shows that he shares the pain of His church?
Those in the midst of suffering would do well to meditate on the real humanity of the God-man, Jesus Christ. A less well known verse in the hymn Crown Him with many Crowns that we should restore puts it like this:
Crown Him the Son of God, Before the worlds began: And ye, who tread where He hath trod, Crown Him the Son of Man: Who every grief hath known, That wrings the human breast, And takes and bears them for His own, That all in Him may rest.
5. One day suffering will end
In this world, there will always be injustice. Suffering will always be distributed unevenly. The evil will prosper. That’s why there is no full answer to suffering without the reality of judgement day when all wrongs will be righted. And this isn’t pie in the sky when you die- it is a solid hope grounded in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
The perspective of a new creation is vital for the Christian in the midst of suffering. Paul speaks of this when he says in Romans 8:18- “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (See also 2 Cor 4:16-18). Those of you who have listened to me often enough on this subject will be familiar with the quote from Octavius Winslow (pinched from Julian Hardyman)- “One second of glory will extinguish a lifetime of suffering.” And in doing work recently on John Newton I was fascinated to come across this comment from his sermon at the funeral of William Cowper who suffered grievously from sever mental illness for much of his life- “He suffered much here for twenty-seven years, but eternity is long enough to make amends for all. For what is all he endured in this life when compared with that rest which remaineth for the children of God.” Sufferers need to know that one day God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
I ended Sunday evening with a gentle challenge. How do you want to face suffering- with God or without God? I elaborated a bit more with reference to how CS Lewis’ perspective changed. But in this post I want to end by pointing us to how a Christian suffers according to 1 Peter 4:19- “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” The Christian who has begun to realise that God’s will can include suffering for our good will submit themselves to Him and keep seeking to serve Him- even through the pain.