In late October, four children and their mother died in a house fire in Essex. The blaze ripped through the two-storey property at around 1:45am. The two boys, aged 13 and six, and a girl, aged 11, were declared dead at the scene along with their mother.
On the same day, a United Nations report declared that the civilian death toll from the war in Syria now stands at more than 9,000. Violence on the ground continues unabated.
Such stories are so commonplace that we can easily become desensitised to the horror which happens around us every day. But when we do stop and reflect, it’s difficult to reconcile this with the Christian faith. German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the term ‘theodicy’ to refer to the conundrum of how a good and all-powerful God could allow suffering.
Often this question has been seen as a mathematical puzzle. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in 1776: ‘Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’
Fortunately, the Christian tradition has more to say on this issue than any other belief system or ideology. It’s not about providing one killer argument that will solve the problem once and for all – philosophers and theologians have been trying to do that for centuries. But I suggest that there are 12 things we can say about suffering. Rather than a mathematical puzzle (2+2=4), try to see these 12 as different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. They won’t solve the conundrum once and for all, but hopefully will complete the picture enough that we are able to live with the enigma.
1. Faith makes sense of suffering
The Judeo-Christian tradition meets the issue of suffering head on. There is a whole book in the canon of scripture, the book of Job, which is dedicated to it. The different so-called comforters of Job come up with their homespun philosophies as to why Job is experiencing distress, but the message of the book is that Job keeps faith with God; he still believes and trusts in God no matter what adverse circumstances come his way. ‘Suffering’ is mentioned more than 100 times in the New Testament alone. Christians are told to expect it, and the central symbol of Christianity is an image of suffering.
When we ask how much God cares about the problem of suffering, Christianity is the only creed that can point to the cross, and say ‘this much’.
2. Suffering is linked to the Fall
The doctrine of the Fall is that God created the universe and humankind in a state of perfection, but through the deception of Adam and Eve, humankind rebelled and caused sin to enter into the cosmos. One of the things we need to recognise as Christians is how far we fell. Sometimes we are good at emphasising personal sin. But the story in Genesis suggests that the fall of man wasn’t just personal but cosmic as well. In Romans 8:22 Paul writes: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.’ Here Paul uses the earthly image of a woman in labour to represent creation’s yearning for liberation. The Fall severed three things: humanity’s relationship to God, humanity’s relationship with itself (our fellow human beings), and humanity’s relationship with the earth.
3. Jesus thought suffering and God could co-exist
For Jesus, the presence of suffering was not mutually exclusive to a belief in the presence of God, and a God who could answer prayer. Jesus was not immune from suffering during his earthly life – he saw suffering on all different levels. A particular example is Luke 13:1-5: ‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 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. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’
In this instance Jesus scotches a view which has been widely held, as we see in Job’s comforters and among some of us today – that when personal suffering happens, it is the direct fault of the person afflicted.
Jesus refutes this view in highlighting two different types of suffering: man-made (Pilate murdering a group of believers), and natural disasters (the collapse of the tower in Siloam).
Many Christians can cope with the former kind, but not the latter. They can cope with the suffering that is the result of sin (such as homicide) but they can’t cope with natural disasters (such as the Haitian earthquake) because they think they are, in the words of the insurance companies, ‘acts of God’.
Both kinds happened in the life of Jesus, and this did not change his faith in the Father’s power to heal and answer prayer. The two can co-exist – and what is good enough for Jesus should be good enough for us.
4. It reminds us of our mortality
Suffering is a reminder that all of us are frail and mortal. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 12: ‘most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’ (NKJV).
We are all impacted by the effect of the Fall: we are subject to aging, death and decay. Suffering can remind us of that mortality. It also points us to God’s immortality – God does not die; we might be mortal but God is immortal.
5. Evil is the work of the enemy
Evil is not the result of divine volition, but the direct and indirect work of the devil. When evil things happen, it is never as a result of God’s will. God does not directly cause evil; in fact, he is incapable of causing evil. The Bible tells us in 1 John 1:5 that ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’.
Evil is the result of the work of the Evil One. Revelation 12:12 says this: ‘Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time’ (NKJV).
The presence of suffering and evil does not mean God is not sovereign. Romans 8:28 reassures us: ‘…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ In God’s providence, he can orchestrate every event in our lives – even suffering – to bring about his good purposes.
6. God is sympathetic to our suffering
The Christian doctrine of the incarnation reveals God as one who is empathetic with our suffering. Sympathy means to identify with people’s feelings. To feel empathy is to go further, to know what it is really like to be in someone else’s shoes. The NIV translation of Hebrews 4:15 states: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.’
Perhaps ‘empathise’ would be a good paraphrase here, as this is exactly what God, in Christ, does.
7. God suffered
The doctrine of the cross reveals a God who experiences our suffering. Christ has experienced human suffering on every level. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says, ‘in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation’ (ESV). God in Christ experienced all kinds of suffering – physical, emotional, social and spiritual.
God in Christ is not immune to human suffering, but rather he entered this fragile and broken world and knows exactly what it is like.
8. Suffering can be redemptive
When the great patriarch Joseph was speaking to his brothers, extending forgiveness to them even though they had sought to murder him, he made this amazing statement: ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good’ (Genesis 50:20, ESV, italics mine).
God was able to bring good out of that dark situation.
This concept is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Islam has a phrase in Arabic, ‘In sha’Allah’ which means ‘God willing’– there is such an overarching view of divine sovereignty that suffering is seen as his will. Within Hinduism and Buddhism there is a Sanskrit word that is used about suffering – ‘Maya’. Suffering is seen as an illusion that the real (spiritual) world can transcend. How different from Christianity. The suffering of Jesus was no illusion. Suffering is very real, but can be redemptive if we offer it to the Lord.
Only God can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony, a trial into a triumph and a victim into a victory.
9. Natural disasters confirm the Bible
The increase in natural disasters we see today actually confirms the biblical worldview. It was Jesus who said: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains’ (Matthew 24:6-8).
Some humanists vainly hope humanity will head into a glorious utopian future where society constantly improves and natural disasters and human evil are diminished. If this proved to be the case, it would refute the Bible and the words of Jesus. It is not a comforting message, but the increase of these things is actually a proof of the truth of scripture.
10. Christians must alleviate suffering
The reason for suffering may be debatable, but the Christian response is unequivocal: to alleviate as much of it as possible. Matthew 4:23 says: ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.’
John Wesley once said: ‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.’
11. In the future, there will be no more suffering
Christianity offers a future hope when suffering will be no more, to which Christ’s miracles and present-day healing bears witness. As Christians we are promised that there will be a day when the effects of the Fall will be banished. Revelation 21:4 says: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’ (ESV).
Until then, we live in a time when God can and does break in, such as when we pray for the sick and someone is healed. The theological term for this is an ‘eschatological in-breaking’ – where the perfect future world order breaks through into the imperfect present. The reasons why we see this sometimes but not always are complex, but surely one reason is that for many of us in the cynical West this is not something we even believe in, let alone pray for.
12. There’s room for mystery
Before I went to theological college I worked for the theologian John Stott, who quoted to me Deuteronomy 29:29: ‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever…’ He advised me to remember to be agnostic in what the Bible is agnostic about, and dogmatic in what the Bible is dogmatic about.
Some Christians are agnostic in what the Bible is dogmatic about (which can lead to liberalism), and other Christians are dogmatic about what the Bible is agnostic about (leading them into obscurantism).
All the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle won’t be in place – while the Bible says much about suffering, it does not give us the neat dogmatic formula many of us would like. My hope is that these principles will have added some more pieces, and the picture is a little clearer. For the bits still missing? We need to learn to celebrate the mystery.