The following is a rough transcript of a session I’ve done a few times on the subject of suffering.
We all know suffering exists. You only have to turn on the news or pick up a newspaper to see that suffering is all around us. Disease, death, rape, abortion, disappointment, depression, failure, loneliness, the list goes on. It’s everywhere. Well, the first thing I want to say is that the Bible doesn’t pretend suffering doesn’t exist or try to shy away from it. Just look at what Paul says in Romans 8:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time – Romans 8:22
The bible acknowledges that something isn’t right with the world and that creation itself is groaning as a result of this. Suffering is very much a part of the Bible’s world.
In a recent survey done in Eastbourne, people were asked what one question they would ask God. The top question was “How can God allow so much suffering?” or some variation on it. In fact, the question was more popular than the next 3 topics put together. Here are some of the kinds of things people asked:
- Why is life so rubbish sometimes?
- Why did my friend die?
- Why was my baby taken from me before I even got to hold her?
- Why is my life so hard that it drives me to cutting? If you were real you would help me?
- Why do you allow all the suffering, especially all the little children?
- If you control everything, why do we have tsunamis and earthquakes?
- When I’m in alcoholism and hurting in my own self, are you with me?
- Why don’t you help all the starving children in the world?
- Why don’t you sort Syria out?
- If you are real, why did you make bad people?
- Why do so many children die? Why do they starve and die of poverty?
- Why is their war and hatred?
- Why is our country such a mess?
- Why is there so much bad in the world?
Although all the questions are slightly different, they’re all basically asking the same thing:
How can God allow so much suffering?
When trying to answer this question, the first thing we need to work out is where the question is being asked from. Is it an academic question or is it a personal one? Do people just need some answers because they want to know the answers or do they want to know because they themselves are suffering. Depending on which it is, our answer will be slightly different. And I think that Jesus shows us that’s how it should be.
In John 11, Jesus’ friend Lazarus falls ill and his sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus, clearly hoping that he will come and heal Lazarus. But Jesus doesn’t go immediately and instead delays his visit for two days, during which Lazarus dies. When Jesus eventually goes to the village of Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead for four days. Upon his arrival, both Mary and Martha come to Jesus and use exactly the same words – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v21+32).
It’s really a question – why did you let my brother die? Why didn’t you save him? Its’s the same question but they both get a different response. The first to ask is Martha and she gets a bible study:
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” – John 11:23-27
Martha gets the theology, the bible understanding that she needs to hear. But look at what Mary gets:
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. – John 11:33-35
Martha gets a bible study but Mary gets tears. Some people need the answers but some people just need someone who cares and will cry with them.
I don’t know where you’re asking this question from tonight but hopefully what I’m going to talk about will address people in both those camps.
The issue of suffering can lead people to ask a number of questions. Firstly:
Doesn’t suffering disprove God?
I would want to respond to that by saying “which God?” because people often don’t make a distinction between the god of Philosophy and the Christian God. You see, philosophers will say, “God is supposed to be all powerful (omnipotent), all present (omnipresent) and all knowing (omniscient) – a perfect being. A perfect being couldn’t create or allow an imperfect world. The world is imperfect, so therefore there is no God. For God and suffering to exist is a contradiction.”
But is that the God of Christianity and the Bible? The bible says that God is all those things, but yet how do we as Christians know what God is really like? It’s through Jesus. God primarily reveals himself to us in Jesus and Jesus shows us what God is like. Look at some of the things the Bible claims about Jesus:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. – Colossians 1:15
I and the Father are one.” – John 10:30
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? – John 14:9
Jesus shows us what God is like. So what do we see when we look at Jesus? We see someone who wept, someone who was hurt emotionally and physically. He suffered as he went to the cross. Jesus is a suffering God. The God of Christianity is a suffering God. Suffering disproves many gods that the world has created but it can’t disprove the God who suffered. Suffering is not alien to the God of the Bible.
But let’s imagine for a moment that God really isn’t there. Let’s take God completely out of the picture, as some people would like to suggest is the only possible option in the face of suffering. Does it help? Well the problem is, getting rid of God doesn’t get rid of the problem of suffering. Richard Dawkins says:
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” – Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
If what Dawkins says is true, if there really is no design to the universe and no designer, then suffering isn’t wrong. It can’t be, there is no evil and no good. If an atheistic view is to be consistent it has to say that suffering isn’t wrong, suffering is just natural. It might be unpleasant or painful, red in tooth and claw but it’s not wrong. We shouldn’t be outraged by it, it’s nature, it’s what we should expect. It’s normal.
But that’s not our experience of suffering is it? Every time we’ve suffered or we’ve see someone else suffering, we don’t think, “that’s a bit unpleasant, but hey that’s life.” When we see the bodies of the 77 people, many of them teenagers, killed by Anders Breivik in Norway last year or the images of starving children in the third world, we don’t just think “hey it happens.” We feel angry, because we know inside that this it’s wrong. It’s evil. We know that suffering is not natural.
And don’t we see that in Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb? When Mary comes to speak to him we’re told that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” (v33) and that he wept. The word translated as “deeply moved,” doesn’t just mean Jesus was sad but it has the sense of someone snorting with anger. Jesus is angry at death. He doesn’t just go, “hey, it’s the circle of life, it moves us all, Lazarus is dead and he’ll become compost for the worms and the whole process will continue on.” Jesus reacts to suffering in the way we react to suffering. He’s angry, even though he knows that in a few minutes he’ll raise Lazarus back to life. For Jesus, even a few minutes of death is wrong, it’s unnatural, it’s evil. Our own experience of grief tells us that’s true.
If we take God out of the picture, we’re still angry about suffering. Without God all we’re left with is senseless, hopeless suffering. Getting rid of God is not the answer to the problem of suffering.
So God and suffering are not incompatible. Our God is a God who has suffered and suffering is clearly something that angers God. It’s not natural and it’s something that God is grieved by. So the question is:
Why doesn’t God do something about it?
Why doesn’t God just get rid of all the suffering in the world now? I think to answer that question it’s helpful to ask another question first and that question is:
Where does suffering coming from or where does evil come from?
A lot of people would say that if God created everything then he must have created evil and therefore God is directly responsible for evil. But that’s not what the Bible tells us.
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. – Romans 5:12
The one man referred to in Romans 5 is Adam. The passage shows us that evil came into the world because of our sin. God is not the author of evil. We are. Before the fall everything was good. But man turned away from God, the source of all good. Sin came into the world and with it came suffering. And the people responsible for it, are us.
And sometimes that’s easy to see isn’t it? When a mother and child are knocked down by a drunk driver, killing them both and leaving their friends and family mourning, it’s easy to see that all that suffering was caused by the sin of the driver. Not God. When a girl is bullied at school and dreads going in each day, her self esteem and confidence crippled, it’s clear that her suffering is because of the sin of her bullies. So much of the suffering and evil we see in the world today can easily be traced back to man’s inhumanity to man.
But what about natural disasters? Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes etc. It’s not so easy to see how that could be our fault. Perhaps in some cases it could be argued that the way we’ve treated the environment has caused some of these disasters, but that’s certainly not true in all cases. Disasters have been occurring for centuries, long before man made any real impact on the environment. Or have they? Look at what God says to Adam immediately after the fall:
…“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life. – Genesis 3:17
The fall, our sin, not only broke our relationship with God but it broke creation itself. It’s like the whole universe is cracked and broken. There were no natural disasters before the fall but now the whole of creation is out of balance because of our rebellion against God. So even natural disasters are a result of our sin.
When the Times Newspaper set an essay competition with the title, “What’s Wrong With The World?”, the English writer G.K. Chesterton wrote the shortest entry, just two words;
I am what’s wrong with the world. Humanity are the reason for the evil and suffering in our world and that’s important for us to realise if we’re going to answer the question:
Why doesn’t God do something about it?
For starters, we might wonder why God didn’t stop us from sinning in the first place? Why did he let it happen? Well the bible never explicitly tells us why God allowed it. All we know is that he did. God allowed us the integrity to make a choice, even if it was the wrong one. And what kind of God would he be, what kind of relationship would we have with him, if he didn’t give us a choice? Is that really a God you would want in your life?
But why doesn’t God do something about suffering now? Surely, if God really loved us then he would stop all the suffering? But as it’s our sin that is the root of suffering and evil, asking God to remove all suffering is to ask him to destroy every single living being immediately. To completely get rid of suffering, God would have to completely get rid of us. And that isn’t what God wants. Look at this verse from 2 Peter:
…the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. – 2 Peter 3:7-10
These verses shows us that God is going to do something about it. A day of judgement is going to come and all evil and suffering will be dealt with completely and justly. All wrongs will be put right and justice will be done. But look at what Peter says in verse 9:
He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
The reason God isn’t completely removing suffering and evil right now is because he is being patient with us. He doesn’t want anyone to perish but wants people to turn back to him and be saved. It’s not that God isn’t stopping all suffering because he doesn’t love us. It’s the other way round. God isn’t stopping all suffering because he does love us. His patience is an expression of his love for us, as he gives us a chance to repent.
But what about those people who have repented? They’ve chosen to follow God and bad stuff still happens to them. Why doesn’t God stop that? Well we need to look at Jesus to understand why even those who love him still suffer. Let’s look back at John 11 and the death of Lazarus. In verses 5-6 we’re told:
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. – John 11:5-6
We know Jesus can heal Lazarus, we’ve seen him heal lots of others. And we know he loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. So why not save Lazarus? Why let him die and let his sisters go through that suffering? Why? Well look at what Jesus says in verse 4:
“…it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” – John 11:4
Jesus declines to bring a healing because he wants to bring a resurrection. Why? Because it is more glorious that way. You see, Jesus didn’t just come to patch up the world. He’s not concerned with prettifying a perishing world. Instead through death and judgement, he’s going to raise it. He’s going to bring all of creation through suffering and death and then into glory, into new life. In Mark 13:8, Jesus says:
There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
See how Jesus refers to those disasters – birth pains. Not death throes. A woman goes through the pain of childbirth and at the end there is new life. First comes the pain, then the new life. That’s what it’s like for the world and that’s what it is like for us because that’s what it was like for Jesus. Jesus experienced suffering, then glory. The cross before the crown. That was his path and if we follow Jesus then that will be our path too.
The world is filled with suffering now, it’s in its birth pains, but when Jesus returns there will be a rebirth, a new life. And we know this will happen because on Good Friday, Jesus experienced the full force of God’s wrath against sin. The greatest suffering was inflicted on the greatest person. But then on Easter Sunday there was new life, a new birth, a resurrection. The greatest suffering brought the greatest glory. On the cross, Jesus took all the suffering of this world and transformed it into glory.
So whatever suffering you face, look to the cross and ask whether you can trust this suffering God and then look to the empty tomb and ask if you can trust this risen Lord.
I think all of this is beautifully summed up in this moving clip from the Lord of the Rings. In it, Sam asks the question, “How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? The real answer is shouted by King Theoden on the battlefield of Helm’s Deep: “Victory, we have Victory.” Our world will go back to the way it was because of the victory we have in Christ. (stop video at 1.53)
So in the face of all the suffering in the world, what are we holding onto?
Jesus said…, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11:25-26
Do you believe this?