Suffering: Is There an Answer?
One thing we can be certain about with regard to suffering is that there is a lot of it about. Scarcely a day passes but new images of appalling sufferings are presented to us in the media. We are aware of only a fraction of what is endured by souls. 'The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation', wrote Henry Thoreau, the American essayist and poet of last century.
There is not only a lot of it about, but also there appears to be great inequity. Some people in the world seem to be affected in a disproportionate manner by the sufferings from natural disasters, atrocities and diseases. We all know of families and individuals who have had horrendous calamities in their experience.
Why is there suffering in the world? Why, in particular, do 'the innocent' suffer? Why does God allow these things to happen? Why does God not do something about it?
This problem has been described as the Achilles' heel of Christianity. John Stuart Mill wrote:
If God desires there to be evil in the world, then he is not good. If he does not desire there to be evil, yet evil exists, then he is not omnipotent. Thus if God exists, God is either not loving or not all-powerful. Evil casts a shadow over God's love and power.
Even within the Judaeo-Christian tradition questions are raised. A Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner, lost his son, Aaron, through a rare disease. His grief drove him to question his traditional Jewish faith. He wrote the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. A conclusion he came to was:
I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who makes children suffer and die.
Is there an answer?
As Christians, we cannot claim to have a completely satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering. With the Bible as our guidebook we can take steps towards an answer even though there will always remain an element of mystery. We must always begin by building on things that are certain.
1. God is Not the Author of Evil or Suffering
'God is light and in him is no darkness at all' (1 John 1:5). If there were a speck of darkness in the character of God he would cease to be God.
2. All the Evil and Suffering which Exists in the World is the Result of Sin
It was the Fall of man that brought suffering into the world. We live on a fallen, sin-cursed earth. Pain and suffering are the inevitable consequences of being part of fallen humanity. There is no one who is wholly innocent. 'Man is born into trouble as the sparks fly upward' (Job 5:6-7).
3. God has Done Something about the Evil
Although God is not the author of evil he permitted it for high and holy ends. 'God judged it better', said Augustine, 'to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist'. Professor Paul Helm claims: 'In the permission of moral evil lies the prospect of God's own character being revealed in ways, but for evil, it would not'.
4. Christian Understanding about Suffering Comes from the Pattern of Redemption Demonstrated on the Cross
At Calvary ultimate evil was transformed into ultimate good. The pattern was set for the lives of the people of God. Unless we suffer with Christ on earth there is no prospect of our being glorified together with him.
As we seek to find the biblical perspectives, we need to make a distinction as to the kinds of sufferings which we as Christians endure.
1. Sufferings Endured for Christ's Sake
The true believer is united to Christ. There is an identification with the Lord Jesus in his death, resurrection and glorification. Disciples are those who are called to live as Jesus lived. In the delineation of Christian character which we have in the Beatitudes our Lord said,
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Matthew 5:10
In the following verse he says, 'Because of me', confirming that the righteousness of life which is in view is in imitation of Jesus.
Our Lord said to his disciples in his Farewell Discourse: 'Remember the words I spoke to you: "No servant is greater than his master". If they persecuted me they will persecute you also' (John 15:20). Paul reminds us that 'in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted' (2 Timothy 3:12). Christians are described in Revelation as 'they who have come out of great tribulation' (7:14).
Suffering for righteousness is a triumphant sign that we belong to the kingdom of God.
2. Suffering as Discipline
Peter, writing to the 'scattered strangers' in his first epistle, refers to suffering at least fifteen times and uses eight different Greek words to do so. Trials come in various forms (1 Peter 1:6-7). The word 'various' comes from a Greek word which means 'variegated' or 'many coloured'.
I. Testing and Purifying
Trials, says Peter, are God's refining fire in the life of his people. The variety of trials is like different temperature-settings on God's furnace. It is in the refining fire that the genuineness of our faith is revealed. It is there that the Lord burns off our cross. To change the image, our Lord speaks of his Father as the husbandman with the pruning knife in his hand to ensure that the fruitful branches bear more fruit (John 15:1-6).
Paul was given 'a thorn in the flesh' which he describes as 'the messenger of Satan'. Although he prayed earnestly for its removal God saw fit to leave it with him lest he should be 'exalted above measure' (2 Corinthians 10:1-10). Many Christians experience what Thomas Boston described as 'a crook in the lot' for the purpose of keeping them humble and dependent on grace.
The purpose of the various trials is that we may come forth purified as gold, bearing the shining likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ, to his 'praise and honour and glory' (1 Peter 1:7).
Some sufferings we bring upon ourselves because of our sins. David had many trials in his life, some brought on by the envy and jealousy of Saul. But he also experienced severe chastisements from the hand of his heavenly Father owing to his sins of adultery and murder. The rod of God was seen in his life and in his family. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that 'whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth' (Hebrews 12:6). Chastisement is the mark of our legitimacy (Hebrews 12:8). And the purpose of it all is that 'we might be partakers of his holiness' (v.10). Even the sins and failures of God's people are overruled by God for good (Romans 8:28).
3. Unexplained Sufferings
There are sufferings which cannot be accounted for in the previous categories. This is pre-eminently the case with the sufferings of Job. They came upon him with devastating ferocity and suddenness. They were not related to specific sins. They were not simply corrective. God said to Satan:
Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil. Job 1:8
Job's afflictions owed everything to the battle in the heaven lies between God and Satan. Satan's reply to God was: 'Doth Job fear God for nothing?' Neither at the beginning of the affliction nor at the end does God tell Job about Satan's challenge. God's intent was to show that a human being can love God, fear God and pursue righteousness without receiving any immediate reward. Satan's argument, that all religious interest is ultimately grounded in self-interest or, worse, in mercenary argument, was thus shown to be false. But Job himself is not permitted to see this dimension to his suffering. As far as he is concerned he faces inscrutable mystery.
1. Suffering in the Christian Lift is to be Expected
There can be no place for the present 'name it and claim it' philosophy. Typical of 'the health and wealth' outlook is a book by Kenneth Hagin with the astonishing title How to Write your own Ticket with God. We are nowhere in Scripture promised a smooth passage across the sea of life. 'It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed' (Lamentations 3:7). God will not be put in the dock. He does not owe us an explanation of why we suffer. Our duty is submission. We must leave ourselves in the hands of a sovereign God, who performs all things according to the counsel of his own will.
2. Sufferings can be of Great Benefit to the Christian
Dr JI Packer asserts that, 'Before there will be blessing there will be suffering somewhere'. It is manifested in the great work of redemption. Suffering has been blessed of God to turn sinners to the Saviour. 'Suffering', says Richard Baxter, 'so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word has easier entrance'. We can be so busy working, enjoying life, pursuing our careers, even 'serving' the Lord that we no longer reflect on his Word, or take time to pray, or sort out our priorities before him. He may use some sudden breakdown in health or some great loss to bring us back to himself. As one said, 'He washed my eyes with tears, that I might see'.
The teaching of the Bible does not focus on how to get suffering removed or why it came in the first place but rather on what good can possibly come from it. The men whose lives produced abundant spiritual fruit were great sufferers: Joseph, Moses, David and Paul are Scripture characters who come to mind. In subsequent history we think of men like Calvin, Rutherford, Bunyan, Boston, Brainerd and Spurgeon. We are not to forget the army of 'unheralded' saints who passed 'through fire and water' but were brought ultimately 'to a wealthy place' (Psalm 66:12).
3. Suffering Calls Us to Faith and Endurance
There is very often nothing in the events that befall a child of God to distinguish him from someone who is not in that position. Joseph's life seemed outwardly a shambles until he was re-united with his family. 'But as for you, ye thought evil against me but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive' (Genesis 50:20). Professor Paul Helm says: 'Often Christians are left to affirm that their lives are governed by divine providence while lacking the data to demonstrate this. This is part of the trial of faith'. We are called to hold on by faith and to endure to the end. James says: 'Ye have heard of the endurance of Job' (James 5:11). The path of suffering is marked out for us.
Let us run with endurance the race that is set out for us, looking unto Jesus.Hebrews 12:1-2