Before you read any further, let me ask whether you are personally having to deal with suffering at the moment. If you are, let me tell you some of the message the Bible has for suffering people, then we can look at this question is a more detached way.
1. It is quite in order to be angry
The Psalms are full of anger at injustice in the world, full of pleading, questioning and even complaint. Anger is often our first word to God, but if we are willing to be transformed by his mercy, then faith is often our last word. This is because we discover.
2. God is close to those who suffer
As Psalm 34 says, “The Lord is close to the broken hearted.”
3. God himself knows what suffering is
He, himself, suffered on the Cross, and triumphed over it. He is with us in the suffering and because he has had that experience, he is able to help us in our time of need. The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament particularly develops this theme.
4. God himself knows the experience of forsakenness and bereavement
When Jesus hung on the Cross, God the Father was losing his and the Son his Father. On the Cross, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
5. You can have faith while suffering
This is the conclusion of the books of Job, and many of the Psalms I referred to above. Another thing Jesus said on the Cross, even though he felt the experience of forsakenness by God, was “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” He knew he could trust his Heavenly Father.
6. You can have hope while suffering
This was something Jesus constantly encouraged in the people he met. “Don’t cry,” he said, pointing people to look forward to a day when there will be no more tears and no more crying.
You may feel no need or desire to read any further on this subject. But if you would like to consider some further points from a slightly more detached point of view, here they are. They will not necessarily help the suffering heart, but they may go some way towards giving an explanation for the mind.
The answer to this question has been debated time and again for thousands of years. Clearly we cannot do it justice on one page. But this handful of considerations will hopefully stimulate your thinking, and maybe help you to draw closer to God even if this question weighs heavy in your heart and mind.
1. Pain teaches us
Pain is part of God’s good creation: it teaches us to beware of the things that endanger life. Some of these are physical dangers – fire, poison, wounds etc., some of them are emotional dangers: hatred, abuse, mistrust etc. Pain also teaches us compassion: it teaches us to care for one another. Because I feel pain, I can begin to enter your pain and care for you. Pain is therefore part of the fabric of human relationships.
2. God’s world is created beautiful, but fragile
I think dandelions are very beautiful – especially when they are held up to the sunlight. Yet they are so fragile – a simple puff and their beauty is destroyed. Beauty is often fragile. Some of the most beautiful poetry is written by people who also suffer greatly, either physically or emotionally or both. If not, they certainly have the capacity to enter others’ suffering. The fragile or sensitive elements of God’s creation are particularly vulnerable to suffering. It may seem hard – but that’s the way it is.
3. God’s world is tremendous but dangerous
The world is also tremendous, but dangerous – and perhaps we need to recover some of our awe at creation. The same basic geological factors that caused the great mountain ranges to come into being are the same as those that cause earthquakes. We may enjoy the thrill of seeing the Alps – or even skiing down them – but our heart goes out to the victims of earthquakes. Yet we can’t have one without the other. Maybe God could stick great signposts in the ground saying, “Don’t build here” yet since human beings have ignored just about every other piece of advice he’s given, it seems unlikely that it would make any real difference.
4. God’s world is created on a knife-edge
The world is extremely finely balanced. There is a fine line between sanity and madness, genius and psychopathic conditions. The same factors that cause life and growth – i.e. cell multiplication – also cause the growth of cancer. Or to quote a well-known gardener’s phrase: “a weed is simply a flower in the wrong place.” Of course we wish with all our hearts that that person we know wasn’t afflicted in that way, but something has happened in God’s creation to upset the fine balance
5. Sin has upset the balance
The Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, described the world as a chessboard. “All the pieces are there,” he said, “but the board has been knocked and now they’re all out of place.” The Bible describes the same fact by telling a story – the story of Adam and Eve. The world was indeed finely balanced, but the balance was upset when human beings disobeyed the first great signpost God put up, and ate of the forbidden fruit. From that moment, they would never enjoy a perfect world and a perfect relationship with God: everything in all creation would be out of kilter. The Bible teaches that, in a mysterious way, all creation including the earth itself has been affected by the first human sin. It is not just affected through our actions now, (e.g. global warming) but through the original sin of the first humans. We are part of God’s creation, and through our fall all creation fell with us.
6. Sin has put us outside the safe place
The Biblical story of Adam and Eve ends with them being banished from the Garden. God is still with them on the outside, because he is everywhere, but they are now on the outside, and all the more vulnerable for it. The banishment was not due to God’s malice, but as a consequence of human beings disobeying the one rule of the Garden. The world we find ourselves in, therefore, is much harder, and more painful. The story is trying to convey a mystical truth. It is difficult to picture in a literal or historical way, but it certainly conveys our real experience of being vulnerable to the chances and changes of a damaged world. It is sometimes as if we are small insects living precariously on the back of some large, wounded, and unpredictable animal. And it is our primal sinful action which has put us here.
7. There is pain also in the heart of God
You can be sure, that if we know how to suffer pain, then God also knows what suffering is. We are after all made in his image. Reading the gospels – particularly that of Matthew – we become very aware the compassion and empathy of Jesus toward those suffering around him. The Old Testament paints the same picture as well: “The Lord is close to the broken hearted,” we read in Psalm 34, “and he saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Often those who are going through suffering themselves are far more aware of God’s presence with them than those who are looking on. God’s primary will is not for innocent people to suffer. He does not enjoy it. But the fact that Jesus came to this earth, toiled among us, and suffered and died on the cross, shows that the Christian God does not stay aloof, and this is a pattern of response to pain that for Christians to follow.
8. God’s power is demonstrated in restraint
We assume that if God is all-powerful, then he will ‘intervene.’ In fact, however, God is exercising just as much power in self-restraint. When Jesus gave up his life in self-sacrifice on the cross, his mockers challenged him to save himself if he was the Son of God. His reply was that although he could call upon the power of an army of angels, he chose not to – for it was to this suffering and death he came.
Self-restraint is a legitimate exercise of power. We may wonder why God uses his power in this way, but he is certainly using it. When we consider the pain in his heart – countless times that within our own hearts; when we consider the anger in his heart countless times that within our own; the impulse to simply destroy the world and start again must be enormous. The impulse to ‘intervene’ and change all the laws of freedom, the way the world is, the manner in which it has evolved, the possibility of human free will – that impulse must be absolutely awesome in power.
Just imagine a really big dam. Just imagine the power to turn a space rocket around. Surely the impulse for God the Creator to throw our world away and start again must be thousands of times stronger than these. When we consider these ‘only natural’ impulses of the Creator God we can begin to appreciate how his power is used in self-restraint, and we can praise him for it with grateful hearts.
9. Who are we to know?
The answers to such questions as why the world is as it is are, by definition, absolutely enormous, and so I’d like to ask, “Why do we feel we have the right to know?” Why do you think you have the right to know? What makes you so special that you should know the answer to this mystery? What makes you so different that God should tell you what the reason is? Have you followed all the things that he has told you so far?
These kinds of questions may seem a little aggressive, but they are worth thinking about. We assume that we have the right to know, and that until we do know, we shall suspend judgement on our opinion of God. But when you think about it, doesn’t that attitude seem a little bizarre – just a touch arrogant?
God has given us enquiring minds, but they function at their best when they are tempered by the humility that comes from worship of the One who created them.
I hope your mind has been stimulated by some of the points raised in answer to this question, but for a more satisfying answer I would suggest that you come to God in worship, laying your questions at his feet and leaving them there. Bring him the pain you feel and the anger. Let it resonate with his pain and his anger. Bring to him the failure of human kind – the fact that we have consistently disregarded his instructions – and consider your own failures. His vision is to make all things new – and it starts with the cleansing and renewal of each of our hearts.
Part of the material contained within this page is copyright © 2003 Richard Dormandy