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The problem of suffering

The problem of pain, evil, and suffering is difficult to understand. Suffering wreaks havoc on the tidy bundles of theology and philosophy into which we organize life.

We ask many questions about suffering. Why does suffering exist? If God is good, why does he either permit or inflict suffering? Why do some people suffer a great deal and others suffer very little? “Why are the innocent victimized? Is there purpose in pain? Is there any escape?”1Bob and Gretchen Passantino, “If God is Good, Why is There So Much Suffering in the World?” Answers.org.

Suffering comes in the forms of sickness, slow death, grief, mockery, ostracism, hatred, abuse, and mental distress, just to name a few. We often think of suffering in relation to death. Disease is a common struggle for many. Deaths from suicide and homicide bring suffering from behavioral sources.

What does suffering accomplish? Analysis of human struggles seems to only raise more questions. What is the Christian response to suffering?

Biblical Examples

Dozens of accounts of human suffering are described in the Scripture. The Hebrews suffered under bondage to the Egyptians; Hezekiah suffered illness; Christ suffered crucifixion; the Church suffered persecution.

Job was a man faithful to God, but he was subjected to the extremes of suffering. Job was a man of integrity and piety. He was concerned about living righteously. He was not a man of deep mischief or waywardness from God. Yet, he was stricken by disaster.

The Bible describes the deaths of Job’s children, the destruction of his cattle, and the physical afflictions he endured. Everything Job had was affected by his suffering. But there was something peculiar about Job’s suffering. It occurred with God’s approval.2Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7.

Does God approve of suffering? Why would God approve of suffering? In this case, God used suffering to test Job.3Job 1:8, 12; 2:3, 6. Job’s trust in God was tested. By his refusal to give up trust in God, Job was able to glorify God.

In thinking about biblical suffering, we cannot overlook Jesus’ suffering. Indeed, if anyone has ever suffered greatly without deserving, it was Christ. He was not only ridiculed by the people of his own community and faith but he was brutally beaten and killed.

Jesus was mocked because he suffered. The people believed that if he was truly God, he wouldn’t suffer. This is an example of the belief that righteous people do not suffer but only sinners do. The Roman custom of public crucifixion was intended to produce mockery. The people mocked Jesus because he claimed to be the Son of God.4J. B. Green, “Death of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 151.

Christ is described in the Scriptures as the “Suffering Servant” whose “suffering results in redemption.”5William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 413. Isaiah 53 points to Christ as the ultimate sufferer:

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not…  Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted… He was oppressed, and he was afflicted… By oppression and judgment he was taken away… Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him… Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied…6Isaiah 53:3, 4b, 7a, 8a, 10a, 11a, ESV.

Faith and Suffering

From the toil of childbirth to terrorist strikes, suffering is a common human condition. Of particular pain, the death of our family members brings suffering. Such loss is a troubling trial. The lives of those whose loved ones die are changed forever.

Whether suffering comes in the form of personal pain, the suffering of family members, or persecution for our faith such as the early church experienced,7Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1993), 25. it will be with us throughout life. We must find ways to cope and to respond to those who experience it.

Christianity teaches that some suffering is the result of sin. That is, because mankind sins, we are subjected to reactionary forces which are the consequences of those sins.

Penalty or punishment is the just result of sin inflicted by an authority on sinners predicated on their guilt. Natural punishment refers to the natural evil (indirectly from God) incurred by sinful acts (such as the venereal disease brought on by sexual sin and the physical and mental deterioration brought on by substance abuse). Positive punishment refers to the direct supernatural infliction of God: the sinner is struck dead, etc.8Bruce R. Marino, “The Origin, Nature, and Consequences of Sin,” Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Springfield, MO, 1995), 286.

Sin results in suffering. Some suffering is the direct effect of human behavior. Other suffering is a punishment from God.

Some non-Christians attempt to disprove Christianity by an argument based on suffering. They argue that, if suffering exists, then God must not exist because he, in his goodness, would rid the world of suffering. Or, they say, if God does exist, then he must not be good because he allows suffering. These arguments are frail.

“If God does not exist, then all of existence, including our suffering, has no enduring value, purpose, or goal.”9Passantino. If our very existence has no value, then neither does our pain. If we have no purpose, then neither does pain. The idea that God does not exist fails to satisfy the problem of suffering.

Recalling the biblical example of Job may be helpful. While God approved of Job’s inflictions, God did not cause them. God spoke to Job in response to Job’s suffering, using the experience to teach Job. God’s blessing of Job after his affliction was eased suggests that God had a purpose for good to result from the test.

Some pain does not result in our harm, though it may clearly result in our discomfort. The pain we experienced may alert us to the possibility of greater pain and allow us to avoid it. We might say that such pain is not true suffering. That is, though we feel pain, there are no harmful effects—instead, there may be beneficial effects. Though such pains are not pleasurable, they are not of the same sort as those pains that we wish to totally eradicate.

We may conclude, therefore, that pain can benefit humanity.

Responding to Pain

In thinking about the meaning of suffering, we must be careful that we follow Christ. What was Christ’s response to suffering? He tried to alleviate it.10Matthew 9:20-22. He inflicted it through punishment.11Matthew 21:12-13. He took it upon himself.12Isaiah 53. We must do all these things, as the circumstances of life require.

In some cases, we can alleviate suffering. We can feed the hungry and care for the sick. In some cases, we inflict pain. We must punish lawbreakers, for example. In some cases, we should bear suffering. For example, when persecuted, we must remain faithful to Christ.

How do we respond to others when they question us about pain? We can note that (1) pain is temporary; (2) Christ is with us in our pain; (3) our pain will be relieved in a new form of life after this one; (4) some pain can be relieved in this present life; (5) pain can draw us closer to God; (6) some pain purifies us and makes us better disciples; and (7) we can bring glory to God through our suffering.

Responding to the experience of pain requires compassion, tact, and gentleness. Illness, death, or persecution are not enjoyable moments. However, we should recognize they have a greater purpose—they may be endured for some future good result. No matter how much suffering we encounter, God is our comfort and aid.

The God of Suffering

“‘We are born broken,’ wrote Eugene O’Neill. ‘We live by mending. The grace of God is the glue.’”13Quoted by Ray Anderson, The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 213. Humanity is not in a state of perfection. Our suffering is common to mankind.

As Christians, our lives are not our own. The apostle James said, “‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves, then, to God… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”14James 4:6b-7a, 10, ESV.

The suffering taken by Christ was not his own. His suffering was the suffering we deserve. He bore the effects of our sins; his suffering was deliberate.15Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 334. Does this mean that men should no longer suffer?

George McDonald wrote, “The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.”16George MacDonald quoted by C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, front matter. Does this mean that we can suffer vicariously for the sins of others? No. Instead, we may suffer for the benefit of our souls, as Christ’s suffering was for the benefit of our souls. We do not purchase our salvation through suffering, but through suffering, we may decrease through suffering and Christ may increase.17John 3:30.

Some suffering is the result of our own sin. Some suffering is the result of the sins of others. Some suffering comes through no fault of any person. Some suffering is the result of the natural order having been impacted by human sin. No matter the source of suffering, it is not in vain. Though it may seem meaningless, suffering can bring the purification of our souls. It is not always an infliction by God, but it can be a tool whereby he works his will in us.

Does this make God a monster? No, in fact, we see his love more dearly expressed through the tearing of our souls. He is the potter, laying his hands around the clay. His pressure cause our lives to respond. He picks up a tool with which to smooth us. As the blind man who washed in the pool of Siloam,18John 9. we may have our eyes opened to the majesty of God.

As Job said, we may say, “… I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”19Job 19:25-26, ESV. The Christian hope is that, despite suffering, we will rest in the presence of God, satisfied in him.

Our existence is defined by something far greater than transitory pain. If God’s purposes may be served by our suffering, then, may we become the chief sufferers. If he may be exalted through our endurance, then may we ever endure. We may endure by the pleasure of his Spirit.


Works Consulted

  • Anderson, Ray. The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
  • Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.
  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
  • Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church, rev. ed. The Penguin History of the Church, vol. 1. New York: Penguin, 1993.
  • Claypool, John R. Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing Through Grief. New Orleans: Insight, 1995.
  • Feinberg, J. S. “Theodicy.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001. 1184-1187.
  • Green, J. B. “Death of Jesus.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992. 146-163.
  • Lasor, William Sanford, David Allan Hubbad, and Frederic Wm. Bush. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, 2nd. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
  • Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
  • Marino, Bruce R. “The Origin, Nature, and Consequences of Sin.” Systematic Theology, rev. ed. Edited by Stanley Horton. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1995. 255-290.
  • Motyer, J. Alec. Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999.
  • Passatino, Bob and Gretchen. “If God is Good, Why is There So Much Suffering in the World?” Available from https://www.answers.org/theology/suffering.html.
  • Webb, W. J. “Suffering.” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997. 1135-1141.

Author note: Revised from the 2002 original.

About the Author

  • An Anglican minister, teacher, speaker, and writer, Daniel has served as a parish pastor, military chaplain, and hospital chaplain. He is editor of Confessing Anglicans.

Notes

Notes
1 Bob and Gretchen Passantino, “If God is Good, Why is There So Much Suffering in the World?” Answers.org.
2 Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7.
3 Job 1:8, 12; 2:3, 6.
4 J. B. Green, “Death of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 151.
5 William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 413.
6 Isaiah 53:3, 4b, 7a, 8a, 10a, 11a, ESV.
7 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1993), 25.
8 Bruce R. Marino, “The Origin, Nature, and Consequences of Sin,” Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Springfield, MO, 1995), 286.
9 Passantino.
10 Matthew 9:20-22.
11 Matthew 21:12-13.
12 Isaiah 53.
13 Quoted by Ray Anderson, The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders for God’s People (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 213.
14 James 4:6b-7a, 10, ESV.
15 Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 334.
16 George MacDonald quoted by C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, front matter.
17 John 3:30.
18 John 9.
19 Job 19:25-26, ESV.
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