One of the hardest things human beings have to come to terms with in this world is the problem of suffering. We don’t like to think about it, we don’t like to hear about it, and we sure don’t like to go through it.
For the Christian, the question of suffering can be a hurdle it’s hard to get over. A few see it as judgment; most are simply baffled by it. For the unbeliever, the suffering of the innocent is often cited as proof that God either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care.
None of us has a God’s-eye-view, so we don’t have all the answers to the question of suffering. But the Bible provides some important insights into the nature and role of suffering.
We don’t get far into Scripture before we find out that suffering came into the world as the consequence of a choice. God created man and woman to live in perfect communion with nature, with each other, and with Him. All they had to do was to put their complete trust in God.
That trust was broken when the first humans tried to be equal with God; when the creatures thought they could be like their Creator. The sin of disobedience and self-exaltation introduced suffering and death into the world, just as God had warned. Because of that sin, future generations would suffer, because they were born into a fallen world.
Self is always at the root of sin. The world urges us to put ourselves first, to consume more and more, to indulge ourselves, to blame others, to demand our rights. We sin out a desire for prestige, self-gratification, power, revenge, wealth, love, pity, or to escape from pain. Sin always produces suffering for the sinner, but it also causes the innocent to suffer.
Because he is focused on his own pain, the man who has tried to drown his sorrows will get into his car and end up killing someone else. The focus on self-indulgence will lead the embezzler to ignore the disgrace she will bring on her husband and children. The drive for self-gratification will cause the adulterer to destroy a family. The desire for self-righteousness can fuel gossip that will tear down a reputation and tear families and friends apart.
Where does God fit in all this? Why didn’t He just create people who wouldn’t sin; who would always do the right thing? Why does He allow the innocent to suffer?
God created men and women for relationship with Him and with each other. He could have created human robots, pre-programmed to do everything He asked them to. But think about that for a minute. How can you have a relationship with a robot? What value would there be in hearing a robot say, “I love you,” when it has no other choice? What joy would there be in sharing your life with a robot, who has no curiosity, no capacity to learn, no thoughts or feelings? It would be a little like trying to have a meaningful relationship with your microwave.
We have the technology to build robots, and no doubt they could be made to look quite human. Suppose you were about to start a family. Would you choose to have a baby, or would you buy a child-sized robot, programmed to your own specifications? Any battle-scarred parent would at times be tempted to opt for the robot, but that would be short-lived. A simple, “I love you, Mum,” or “You’re the best Dad in the world” cancels hours of frustration and fatigue.
God our Father wants that same childlike love from us. So He created people with minds of their own who could make choices. He gave them enough evidence of His love and enough information about the consequences of sin to allow them to make the right choices. They didn’t. We still don’t. Suffering has been the result.
The innocent also suffer because of relationship. Families are ordained by God for mutual love and support. Because of that close relationship, when one member of the family sins, every member suffers. Communities are ordained by God for relationships of co-operation, economic prosperity, and spiritual growth. When one part of the community sins, the other parts suffer.
Because we are in relationship to God, we have choices. Because we are in relationship to others, we are affected by their choices.
Where is God when we suffer? He’s in the same place as He is when we’re rejoicing – working all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. We can usually see only the tragedy in a bad situation, but God can bring victory and blessing from the worst the world has to offer.
The story of Joseph is a good example. When his jealous brothers sold Joseph into slavery, no one would have said, “Oh, aren’t you fortunate, Joseph! This is really a step in the right direction.”
When Joseph was thrown into prison for something he hadn’t done, no one would have told him it was a great way to advance his career. He had worked hard, been faithful to his Egyptian master and to God, and all it got him was years in prison.
But because God enabled him to interpret the dreams of his cell-mates accurately, Joseph eventually came to Pharaoh’s attention. His years of slavery had taught him a great deal about Egyptian life and given him important managerial skills. Most of all, Joseph had learned humility and total dependence on God, no matter what the circumstances.
All the seemingly bad things in Joseph’s life actually prepared him to bring Egypt – and his own people – through prolonged famine. Without the years of slavery and imprisonment, Joseph would not have been prime minister of Egypt, and the Israelites would have been wiped out in the seven years of famine.
The ultimate example of bringing good out of suffering is the torture, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus was crucified, none of His disciples could see anything positive happening. They were devastated; their world had been pulled out from under them. Was this what the three years of leaving everything, following, learning, witnessing – was this what it was all for? So He could die the most humiliating death possible? So they could be reduced to hiding out in fear of the same fate? What possible good could come out of this?
It’s a sober reminder to us that we’re very near-sighted. We see what’s right in front of us, but not much further. The truth is that God knows what He’s doing, no matter how much we question and flounder and agonize. The truth we need to hold onto is that God can be trusted to accomplish good through everything. We will do well to remember the cross and what it accomplished when suffering overtakes us, and trust ourselves to God’s perfect vision and not our own myopia.