This is without doubt one of the most common questions believers in God face in both the private and public spheres. I can certainly understand why. From the global to the personal, from the physical to the emotional to the relational, and from the bearable to the unbearable, suffering permeates so many people’s lives in so many ways. In an introduction of a blog article, it’s almost impossible to give an adequate articulation of the reality of suffering in the world. Even within just the people who are reading this blog article, I can't begin to imagine the kinds of suffering people are going or have gone through.
And in a world shot through with suffering almost everywhere we turn, how can people believe in the existence of a good God?
I think this is an important question to tackle as Christians. This question is often quoted as the strongest piece of evidence against the existence of God (or at least, the allegedly all-powerful and all-loving God of the bible), and Christians often find themselves struggling with the compatibility of God with suffering when the realities of suffering hit.
So I begin my attempt at tackling this vast and very difficult topic with some trepidation.
For me, the question of God and suffering can be seen as having 4 broad dimensions: the philosophical, experiential, existential, and spiritual.
The philosophical approach asks “How is it logically possible for a perfect God to make such a messed up world?”. The experiential approach asks “If He can, why doesn’t God intervene?”. The existential approach asks “Is there meaning in suffering?”. And the spiritual approach asks “Where are you, God?” and “Why does God seem so far away?”.
Although very closely linked, these 4 angles require, in my view, quite different answers and approaches. This does mean that I definitely won’t be able to give a neat, concise, sound-bite answer to suffering that many (including myself) often look for. All I’m going to be able to do is sketch out some thoughts about how I've tried to reconcile that reality of suffering in my life and the lives of people I know and meet, with my belief and trust in the God of the bible.
1. The Philosophical Problem: How is this Logically Possible?
The first approach we can take is to look at the issue from a philosophical perspective, and ask “is it even logically possible for a perfect God to make such a messed up world?”.
The Christian answer to this question is surprisingly simple; He didn’t. The Christian claim is that God is all-powerful, all-loving, and a perfect, sovereign being, who made the world perfect. That means that God created a world with no suffering, no pain, no evil and not even human death. The Christian narrative goes on to say that God man mankind, and gave us a “framework” by which, if we lived, life would be perfect and without suffering. However, God also loved us enough to give us free-will, which allowed us the capacity to accept God’s framework if we so wished, or to reject it and live life our own way, if we so wished. Underpinning Christianity is the belief that we, as the human race, chose to reject God’s framework for life on Earth; we turned our back on God and His way of life, and chose to do it our own way. The bible calls this “sin”. This means we rejected the perfect way of living, and went for a, by definition, less-than-perfect way: a way that led to suffering. Here’s a little analogy that I found helpful…
Imagine a fish trying to convince its owner that it wants to live outside the fish tank. The conversation goes something like this:
Fish: “I want to live outside the tank” Owner: “Don’t be silly, you won’t survive for long. You’re meant to live in water, not in the air” Fish: “But I really want to live outside the tank.” Owner: “But you’ll flop around, dry up and die really fast. It’ll be really painful for you” Fish: “But I don’t like the tank. I want to live outside it” Owner: “Ok fine, I’ll take you out the tank” …1 minute later… Owner: “What, you’re suffering…?”
It’s a silly example, but the point is, Christianity says that God didn’t create a world full of suffering. Rather, human suffering is a result of us turning our back on God’s framework- a framework that would have led to a suffering-free life. We’re now like that fish voluntarily trying to live outside the tank.
Obviously, this still leaves a lot of unanswered questions, such as “What about the suffering that isn’t caused by human wrong-doing?” and “If God can intervene to stop suffering, why doesn’t He?”. This brings us on to the next dimension of the question of suffering- the experiential approach.
2. The Experiential Problem: Why Doesn’t God Intervene?
If we say that human sin is the root of suffering, a lot of questions follow suit. Sin doesn’t seem to be able to explain natural disasters, diseases, and other causes of suffering that are not obviously caused by human actions. Sin also doesn’t explain why God doesn’t intervene now, rather than seemingly stepping back and letting human suffering roll on endlessly. And furthermore, what about those who want to “live inside the tank” and live life God’s way; why do they still suffer?
For me, the answer to those three questions can be, to a greater or lesser degree, found in a little famous verse of the bible: Romans 8:28, which says this: “…in all things, God works for the good of those who love him” (NIV). The bible says that no matter what life throws at you, whether good or bad, joyful or painful, if you love God, He’ll be working through it for your good. Here’s another analogy which goes a little way to explaining what I mean.
Imagine a 4-year old boy who is discovering that he rather enjoys running around. One day, on a family day-out, he finds himself running towards a busy road, not realising the dangers of fast-moving cars. His dad realises, grabs the child’s hand just before he sets foot in the road, and pulls him forcefully back. The child feels a sharp pain in his arm as his dad pulls him back, and thinks “Ah Dad! That hurt! What did you do that for?”, not knowing that his dad had just saved his life. But the dad knows the bigger picture.
The reality of suffering can be seen as a little bit like that. When we suffer, we’re in that moment of “Ah Dad! That hurt! What did you do that for?”. However, I genuinely believe that when I suffer, God knows the bigger picture, and is working through my suffering for my good, even if the suffering seems meaningless at the time and from my perspective.
However, the question inevitably follows “What possible good could come from *insert horrible case of suffering here*?”. What possible good could come from a baby being born with a neurodegenerative disease? What possible good could come from an Earthquake killing thousands? What possible good could come from a child contracting meningitis? The list is very long. This brings us on to the third dimension of the question of suffering- the existential question.
3. The Existential Problem: What Good Could Possibly Come?
As we have already seen, there are many possible examples of people going through immense suffering through no fault of their own, and with what seems like no meaning or benefit to come from their pain. And so the question must be asked: if God works through all things for the good of those who love Him, what about the suffering that seems so meaningless?
The bible deals with the topic of suffering a lot more than some realise. And within the biblical narrative, there is a plethora of examples given of seemingly meaningless suffering that God works through for the good of those who love Him. Here’s one example. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul goes on a fairly lengthy rant about how awful his life is. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 (NIV) then reads:
"We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”
Here’s a little example of how God worked through Paul’s suffering that caused him to “despair of life itself” to teach Paul to rely on God and not on Paul’s own strength. In other words, God used suffering to draw his child closer to Him.
Now don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying this applies to all suffering in all circumstances. However, I think this is a good example of seemingly meaningless suffering that God really used for the good of a man who loved Him. As a Christian, I know that I may never come to a knowledge of the meaning of all my suffering (at least not in this life). However, I do trust that God is faithful and is working for my good in all my suffering, whether I know it or not.
4. The Spiritual Problem: Where are you God?
The final dimension of suffering to unpack is the spiritual question. Even though I know my philosophical arguments and can look into the bible to see what it says about suffering, it still doesn’t stop me sometimes asking “Why do you seem so distant, God?” Ultimately, when suffering hits- where do you turn?
This is where, in my opinion, the Christian faith is at its most amazing and beautiful. The thing that separates Christianity from the majority of other major world religions is this: the God of the bible is not just a God who creates, or loves, or speaks, or cares. I believe He is a God who does all of those things. However, the God of the bible is also a God who empathises- He feels our pain.
How does God feel our pain? Well the central Christian claim is that c.2000 years ago, God took on human form in the man of Jesus, who was subsequently publicly crucified for the sins of humanity. Roman crucifixion was a barbaric ordeal, in which the cruellest implements and the most effective execution techniques came together to produce that highest level of pain and highest certainty of death. If Jesus really was God in human form, and Jesus really did die by crucifixion, then we can be sure that God knows what it is like to suffer- He went through it Himself.
So where is God when it hurts? The bible's answer is: He is right beside us, feeling our pain, empathising with our sorrows and promising a day is coming when: “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.” (Revelation 21:4, NIV)
Can a Good God Really Allow Suffering?
As we draw this brief exploration of the issue of suffering to a close, I end with some often quoted words from Scottish preacher James Stewart who summarised the suffering of Jesus powerfully:
It is a glorious phrase – “He [Jesus] led captivity captive.” The very triumphs of His foes, it means, He used for their defeat. He compelled their dark achievements to subserve His end, not theirs. They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to His feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King come in. They thought to root out His doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had defeated God with His back the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated: they did not know that it was God Himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.
Conquering not in spite of, but through, the darkness of our lives is what Jesus promises to do. How do we know? We know because He did it on the cross.