A few weeks ago I went to the London 'Confident Christianity 93' Day conference. Part of the day involved looking at the questions our non-Christian friends most commonly ask, and coming up with some points to make in response. I reported this event to my church housegroup and we decided to look at those questions in greater depth, starting with one of the commonest, 'why suffering?' In preparing for that housegroup I read a few books that touched on the subject and this article is the result of the compilation of some of the ideas gleaned from them.
I haven't discovered any new magic answers, but in looking at the question(s) in component parts, my thinking has been helped. Of course, all this does nothing to address the pastoral question of how we actually help others in their suffering. I would not like to be thought of as trivialising suffering by appearing to turn it into a purely intellectual problem. C S Lewis, when writing his book on the subject, 'The Problem of Pain', sensed the same difficulty and began with these excellent words, 'I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of God's love more than all'.
I think that there are two slightly different questions commonly asked, and it helps to separate them. They both come dressed up in different ways but are essentially, 'How could a God of love create a universe that contains suffering?' and secondly, 'If God is good and powerful he would be willing and able to end suffering, but he hasn't. Why not?'
The origin of suffering
The first question is the easier of the two, I think, as a quick look at the creation account shows that in fact, God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. He didn't create suffering at all. As an example, consider that 'God is light; in him there is no darkness at all'. 'If the first sinner had constructed a box inside which it was dark, this does not mean that he went and gathered up some darkness from somewhere to box up. He only had to shut out the light.'
So, if God did not create suffering, from where did it come? Lewis gives an intellectual argument for the essential existence of a 'medium' in which we can interact, plus a 'will' with which we may choose to love God and behave in the way for which he designed and created us. The very existence of the 'will' plus the 'medium' means that we can use the two to produce suffering. We will have created it by exclusion, rather like the example with the darkness in the box. Our choice to use our wills in a way contrary to that way which God would like is called sin, and its origin is described in the doctrine of the fall of man'. Of course the Genesis story also introduces a third ingredient into the recipe for sin, the serpent (Satan) a created being who fell and then assisted in the corruption of the good creation. His destructive role and that of his agents continues today.
The consequences of the fall are well known, and were spelt out by God to Adam and Eve. Our very natures are sinful and produce evil acts, even when we want to do good. Consciences are corrupted and even the reality of God becomes lost. The result of sin does not stop there however, the whole of creation is somehow affected. The ground was cursed and food production was made difficult, creation itself being put in bondage to decay. Here is the origin of suffering - our sin.
A classification of causes
I have found it helpful to think about the causes of sin under a number of artificial headings, whilst remembering that God is sovereign over all of them. Sometimes we can clearly see a cause - often when the direct result of our sin or another's. Other times though, it just seems to happen randomly.
a. No-one's sin (an 'innocent' mistake)
For example, slipping on ice and breaking a leg, or driving a bit too fast and hitting a tree. There was an example brought to Jesus when a tower fell and killed some bystanders. (Lk 13: 1-5) It seems that things 'just happen' in a world corrupted by sin.
b. Our fault (a consequence of our sin)
This includes the suffering we bring on ourselves as a result of our own sin, as individuals, or a nation or group. The suffering can be administered by various agents:
- The law - I am sent to prison for committing a crime
- Others - My parents smack me
- 'Nature' - I fracture my skull when falling down drunk
- God - He judges sin and this results in suffering. There are many examples in the Old Testament including curses for disobedience,[13} and the judgments on Israel and her neighbours in the prophecy of Amos. The New Testament also includes examples, like Jesus' pronouncements on unrepentant cities and the impending 'day of judgment' itself. God, although he does act in this category, also delays judgment out of mercy. Peter explains that this is to give more people a chance to repent.
c. Others' fault (evil things happen)
This includes the suffering brought about by the sin of others. Examples from this category can be found in the news stories each evening; murders, rapes and the like.
The spiritual forces of evil, introduced in Genesis, also cause suffering which can be included in this category. Sometimes this is overt spiritual attack with little physical disease, like with the man described in Mark 5, or with more physical results, such as the demon-possessed boy who had convulsions, described in Luke 9.
Although it may be easier to think of the spiritual and physical causes of suffering as separate, this is an oversimplification because, as Genesis explains, humans are created as a combination of both spiritual and physical. As disease only exists as a result of the corruption of the creation (which involved the spiritual), even diseases which seem purely physical contain at least this minimum spiritual component.
d. The Gospel
Christians are to expect suffering as a result of the Gospel and it will probably be brought about by the evil of others. Paul's life contained many examples, including his eventual death.
As Christians, part of our relationship with God, as his children, is that we're disciplined through hardships. These, endured in the right way, actually produce a 'harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it'. It is in suffering that God's power is displayed and we are actually strongest. We can share in the fellowship of Christ's suffering as we will share in his resurrection.
Having dealt with the first question - where suffering does, and does not originate, we must then deal with the follow-up question of 'why doesn't God do something about it then?' My answer is that he has, and he hasn't.
Well, why hasn't he stopped all suffering? C S Lewis gives a most eloquent answer: 'We can perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of abuse of this free will...; a wooden beam would become as soft as grass when it became a weapon, and the air would refuse to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry insults. But such a world would become one in which wrong actions would be impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void... All matter in the neighbourhood of an evil man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce miracles is part of the Christian faith; but the very conception of a... stable world demands that these occasions should be extremely rare'.
CH Spurgeon preached a sermon in 1878 just after a ship, the Princess Alice, had sunk with a large loss of life. He spoke on 'Divine Interpositions' and set forward some points addressing the apparent inactivity of God in saving people from suffering.
He pointed out the need for a stable world, as did Lewis, and then went on to argue the idea that without suffering there would be no 'mark of divine displeasure for man's revolt'. Paul expressed the same idea in his letter to the church in Rome (chapter 1). Another argument was that constant intervention on God's part would lead to more evil. If evil acts had no bad consequences then evil acts would increase. The root problem would not be solved. He went on to ask if suffering is always purely bad (as I discussed above). Even death is not the worst possible scenario. Finally, as Lewis points out, 'God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world'.
It is under conditions of persecution and suffering that churches seem to have flourished, and as Malachi reminded the Israelites, the absence of suffering can result in complacency and loss of sight of God.
What if God were to wipe out evil on the earth? 'Have you ever thought, 'Why doesn't God do something about it - why doesn't he just wipe out evil at a stroke?' He certainly could. But suppose for a moment that he did, say at midnight tonight. Would you be left at five past? If he's going to wipe out every trace of evil then in all honesty we'd have to admit that he'd have to deal with us too.'
So, I think that it is clear where suffering has come from and who is to blame. God's apparent inaction seems to be for our ultimate benefit, yet in case God still seems hard and uncaring, let's look at what he has done.
Unlike many other religions and philosophies our God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has transformed suffering by entering into it with us.
Lazarus's death and the accompanying grief moved Jesus to tears even though he must have known the eventual outcome. He is described as the suffering servant, he is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, and he cares for us. Like David, we can call to the Lord to be saved and when we humble ourselves before God he will lift us up. We can cast all our anxiety onto him because he cares for us.
The ultimate response
Finally, God deals with suffering in the defeat of evil and the creation of a new, suffering-free, world. From the beginning of time God has been sovereign; even the serpent in the garden of Eden was a created being. There has never been a point at which that sovereignty has been in doubt. But evil still occurs. Our situation is a bit like the one in a chess match in which the outcome is certain. Even the defeated opponent who refuses to resign may continue to play, moving pieces here and there, maybe even capturing the odd piece; but it is all to no avail in the end. The victory is won. God has always been superior to the Devil: Jesus' death and resurrection displayed that for all to see. 'Check-mate' is guaranteed, but the Devil somehow plays on.
Ultimately, God will be seen to have dealt the final blow to suffering by creating a new heaven and a new earth, and then he will wipe away every tear; there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.
If that's not dealing with suffering, I don't know what is.