A Study Guide on a Recurring Theme in Dialogue
The Christian world view has a great deal more to say about suffering than any other religion or philosophy. It gives substantial (albeit incomplete) answers to our questions. The Bible is a practical book, not satisfying our idle intellectual curiosity (Mt 11:25) but giving us enough information to live by. Certain truths seem clear:
- God is good and everything he created was 'very good'.
Ps 100:5; Mt 5:48; Gn 1:4,10,12,18,21,25,31.
- God whose nature is love (1 Jn 4:8) made man in his own image, capable of responding to his love or rejecting it. Man is not a programmed machine, but was created with a free-will. Gn 1:26,27.
- Man's deliberate disobedience caused evil to be set loose in the world.
Gn 3:1-19; Rom 5:12.
- The Fall affected every part of our nature, including the mind, conscience and free-will. 2 Cor 4:2-4; Tit 1:15; Rom 7:15-24.
- The vast majority of the world's suffering is directly or indirectly due to man.
- Some suffering is due just to the way the world is. So Jesus tells us not to lay up treasures on earth 'where moth and rust corrupt'. Presumably, the dietary habits of moths and the oxidation of iron are morally neutral in themselves, as opposed to the thieves who 'break in and steal' (Mt 6:19).
- However, the whole creation was affected by the Fall.
Gn 3:17,18; Rom 8:20-22.
- There are spiritual forces of wickedness 'in high places'.
Gn 3:1; Rev 20:2; Eph 6:12.
- No-one is innocent. Mk10:18; Rom 3:23.
- Our suffering is not directly related to our sins. Lk 13:2-5.
- Judgement can begin now. Acts 5:4,5; Rom 1:18ff.
- God will eventually wipe out evil, but delays judgement out of mercy. 2 Pet 3:9.
- Out of his love, the Judge has become the Rescuer. Jn 3:16.
- He drank the cup of suffering to the dregs in order to save us.
Is 53:3ff; Mt 26:38; Lk 22:44; Mt 27:46.
- He is calling out a mighty army of disciples to do battle with evil and suffering wherever they find it. Mt 25:31-46; Jn 17:18.
- God has revealed all that we need to know (Jn 20:31) but not everything we might like to know. Mt 24:36; 1 Cor 13:12.
- One day suffering will end. Rev 21:1-5.
They include 'the secret things' which 'belong to the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.' Dt 29:29.
For further reading: 'The Problem of Pain' by C S Lewis.
Footnote1. The question of suffering is not just an academic issue. The questioner may well have in mind some bitter personal experience - all the more reason to handle the subject 'with gentleness and respect' (1 Pet 3:15).
2. It should be possible in any attempted answer to bring the discussion to central issues of the Gospel in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Bible ReadingMt 11v25
At that time Jesus said, 'I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
For the Lord is good and his love endures for ever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
... And God saw that it was good.
1 Jn 4v8
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.
2 Cor 4v2-4
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
To Adam he said, 'Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' 'Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
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 glorious freedom 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.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?'
Rev 20v2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
'Why do you call me good?' Jesus answered. 'No one is good - except God alone.
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
'You have not lied to men but to God.' When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
2 Pet 3v9
He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.'
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Then he said to them, 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.'
And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' - which means, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?'
'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat..'
As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
'No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.'
1 Cor 13v12
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
'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.'
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.