This is a tricky one! The question of suffering has been asked for thousands of years and there doesn’t seem to be a neat, concise answer. Perhaps that is part of the mystery of God that we cannot completely work him out. All I can offer is a few pointers that might help to understand this issue a little.
Suffering raises questions for people of all faiths and even of no faith at all. For example, if we assume there is no God and no after life, that also means there is no ultimate justice. The events that happen in the world are just random coincidences and we’re left asking – where is the meaning in all this? Somehow that’s not very satisfying to us.
But if God is real, where is the meaning? Why does life seem so unfair? Why do horrible things happen to innocent people yet, as one man in the Bible puts it, “the way of the wicked prospers”?
Here are seven thoughts to help understand this paradox. They all handily begin with the letter “F”.
A key to understanding this question is to understand the concept of free will. A lot of suffering that takes place on this earth is caused by human action. Why doesn’t God override a human’s choice? It can be difficult to understand but God seems to place a very high value on our individual choice and freedom. Christians believe in a God who loves his people and wants a relationship with them; a relationship based not on fear, nor control, but on love. You cannot force someone to love you - they must have a free choice. God may guide, warn, challenge, encourage us; he may intervene from time to time as he chooses; but God still allows us free will to choose. Sometimes the choices we make cause others to suffer.
Another question to consider is: who is in charge of the world? The creation story in the Bible tells how God made the world perfectly good. It’s his creation. It’s God’s world. But God gave authority to humankind to rule over the earth. So it’s our world too. And we used our free will to rebel and go our own way. We were tricked by an enemy into giving our authority to him. So the Devil is called the 'prince' of this world.
When humankind rebelled, Earth became a battleground. It’s a fallen world. It’s broken. The Bible describes creation itself as being in anguish, eagerly expecting the time when things will be made right again. When I consider natural disasters, I remember that creation now is not as it was meant to be. God didn’t design natural disasters, they are a part of a broken creation longing to be made whole once more.
Another symptom of our rebellion as humankind was to give ground to the enemy. Not all Christians have strong beliefs about the existence of Satan, but for some, part of the answer for suffering is the work of the Devil. It’s difficult to understand why God would allow Satan to have power in the world but Christians believe that God has the ultimate victory through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Until the end of the age, the Devil has a limited time and sphere of influence.
Some Christians see suffering as a call to action. Jesus spoke often about the Kingdom of Heaven and invited his followers to join him on the mission of bringing his kingdom to Earth. This means we should bring love, wherever there is hate; peace, wherever there is disunity; friendship, wherever there is loneliness; healing, wherever there is pain. Perhaps part of God’s answer to suffering is to use His Church to bring restoration.
Although it doesn’t completely answer the question of why people suffer now, Christians find comfort knowing that God will one day bring justice. They believe each person will stand before the judgement seat of Christ. God will act justly. The actions of those who have caused suffering will not be ignored. And God promises to wipe away every tear from our eyes in Heaven.
Some Christians even see suffering as a good thing! This is hard to understand but perhaps we’ve all had difficult experiences that have in the end been of benefit to us, because they’ve made us stronger. We might not have wanted to go through them at the time, but looking back we know they did us good. One passage in the Bible speaks about suffering producing perseverance, perseverance producing character, and character producing hope. There are many stories of Christians gladly embracing suffering and persecution – particularly for their faith.
Ultimately, Christians believe in a God who entered into our suffering through Jesus. Jesus walked the earth as a man. He faced hunger, rejection, loneliness and pain. He died a horrible death on a cross. A Christian can be comforted by knowing that they don’t face suffering alone. They can pray to a God who has experienced suffering himself and deeply cares for them. This brings them comfort.
The ideas above may sound interesting in theory, but many of us have experienced suffering personally and are left with unanswered questions. If you are struggling to understand something that has happened in your life, or to someone you know, you might find answers in unexpected places. You could pray to God about it, or talk to a friend, or perhaps tell the Step worker at your school.
In the Bible, the book of Psalms contains many songs which express the range of emotions we feel when suffering, including anger, disappointment and confusion. Many people have found comfort through reading them and discovered that they give a voice to their own feelings.
Another book in the Bible is the book of Job (which sounds like “Joe-b”). It’s a story about a man who goes from great wealth and prosperity to absolute calamity, for seemingly no reason at all. Job seeks an audience with God to understand why he is experiencing such suffering. But when God speaks, Job begins to see things differently.
Whatever the reason you are wrestling with the question, I want to encourage you that I believe in a God who cares deeply about you. When I read in the Bible how Jesus responded to suffering, he was always moved with compassion. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus broke down in tears.
What if God weeps when he sees suffering, much like we do?
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