My previous post explored human suffering in the light of four non-Christian worldviews. All of them are fundamentally flawed because they are untrue to our deepest intuitions about life. In this post, I turn to the Christian Scriptures. The Bible’s teaching on suffering is broad and multi-faceted, so all I can do is present a few of its more important concepts.
I must begin with a disclaimer. The Bible will not tell you why you are afflicted with cancer, poverty, or loneliness. It will not tell you why God allows a human monster to push a lighted cigarette repeatedly into the flesh of his girlfriend’s baby before he drowns it in the toilet. Only an infinite mind is capable of encompassing all the individual horrors that human beings have experienced in all the days of earth’s long history.
The Bible is clear that human sin brought suffering into the human race, but it is equally clear that many of those who suffer horribly are relatively innocent compared to those who torment them. How can we begin to make sense of these things? The Bible alone can help us.
Suffering is real, and it is wrong. It is not an illusion of the mortal mind as much eastern thought insists. Disease, disaster, mayhem, and murder are not natural, at least for human beings. Something is wrong with the world. There is such a thing as injustice and our hearts cry out for the crooked to be set straight. God Himself is outraged by man’s inhumanity to man, and He will see justice done. See Amos 1:1-2:8 for a sample.
God is sovereign. Some people, in an effort to get God off the hook, limit God’s control over the world. They attribute all suffering to the devil, to evil men, and to nature. “God didn’t cause you to suffer,” they say. “This pain did not come from Him.” To save God from Himself, they propose to un-god God. Certainly, the Bible recognizes these secondary causes of suffering. It insists that God Himself does not do evil, but He permits it, and He is able to stop it if He wills.
Lamentations is a lament (what else could it be) over the destruction of Jerusalem. The men were slaughtered, the girls were raped, the pregnant women were ripped up with the sword, and the survivors were driven away like cattle to become slaves. In these pages, the prophet weeps because all he has known and loved is gone. Strangely, he does not blame the Babylonian warriors. Neither does He blame God. He blames his people for their sins, and he ascribes the disaster to God’s hand.
The Lord has done what He purposed;
He has accomplished His word
Which He commanded from days of old.
He has thrown down without sparing,
And He has caused the enemy to rejoice over you;
He has exalted the might of your adversaries (Lamentations 2:17).
God is passionately involved with His creation.
He is not a distant deity, aloof and uninvolved with His creatures. His wrath is passionate, but so is His love. He sings and shouts and celebrates with joy over people who repent and come back to Him (Isaiah 62:5; Zephaniah 3:17; Luke 15:7, 10).
God grieves over human suffering—even when it is deserved.
Say to them, “As I live!” declares the Lord GOD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:11)?
My heart cries out for Moab [one of Israel’s enemies];
His fugitives are as far as Zoar and Eglath-shelishiyah,
For they go up the ascent of Luhith weeping;
Surely on the road to Horonaim they raise a cry of distress over their ruin….
Therefore I will weep bitterly for Jazer, for the vine of Sibmah;
I will drench you with my tears, O Heshbon and Elealeh [places in Moab];
For the shouting over your summer fruits and your harvest has fallen away (Isaiah 15:5, 16:9).
When He [Jesus] approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41).
Every Surah (chapter) in the Qur’an (except Surah 9) begins with the phrase, “In the name of God [Allah], the Compassionate, the Merciful,” but according to Muslim theologians, Allah cannot be touched with our infirmities. Furthermore, He has done nothing to inspire our confidence in His compassion. He has not revealed Himself as a pardoning God (compare Micah 7:18), but as one who weighs good and bad deeds (Qur’an 23.102-103).
The big question: Is it conceivable that an infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, infinitely holy, infinitely loving God might have a plan in which horrendous suffering has a good and just place? If you say no, you are left with the hopelessness of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Materialism. If you respond with a tentative “yes,” you may properly ask what God has done to justify our trusting in Him. The answer in a word is Jesus.
The claims of Jesus are outrageous (if they are not true). Here is a sampling. He claimed divine power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). Although He scathingly denounced the Pharisees for evading God’s commandment to honor our parents (Matthew 15:1-9), He said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). The Old Testament prophets pointed the people to God where they might find rest, but Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). After God gave the Sabbath commandment to the Jews, the first recorded Sabbath-breaker was stoned (Numbers 15:32-36), but when the Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus with breaking the Sabbath, He claimed that He was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). As His earthly ministry was drawing to a close, He repeatedly predicted His death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). Not only that, but He said that He was going to “give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). To top it all off, He claimed that after His death and resurrection, He would eventually come again with power and great glory to rescue His people and to judge the earth (Matthew 24:30-31, 37-39).
The Buddha never made such claims; neither did Muhammad or any other major religious teacher or philosopher. Certainly, no one else in history has predicted his own death and resurrection and then pulled it off. Such a thing has never even been claimed for any other historical figure. The disciples of Jesus claimed that they saw Him after His death in several widely separated locations and that on one occasion more than 500 people saw Him at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6).
Now set aside for the moment the question of whether the Bible is inspired by God. Set aside for the moment the question of the general historical reliability of the New Testament (for which there is ample evidence). If the gospels are only works of fiction produced by a believing community, the world has not seen another creative genius—much less a group of men—audacious enough to make such claims within the living memory of a well-known teacher. (And, by the way, most of the apostles gave their lives, not for preaching a noble ideal, but for claiming the Jesus rose from the dead.)
So what has this to do with suffering? In the death of Jesus as a ransom for many, we see exactly what we need in order to trust God in the face of horrendous suffering. Jesus, according to His own testimony, was more than a man. He was the Son of God. No one can make God suffer, so Jesus insisted that no one was going to take His life from Him, but that He would lay it down voluntarily (Matthew 26:52-54; John 10:14-18).
As the apostle Paul summarized Jesus’ teaching about Himself, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In the cross of Christ, we see God’s passionate hatred of sin and His passionate love for people. God was willing to become a man for the specific purpose of suffering to redeem sinners from His own wrath. Furthermore, the resurrection of Christ is God’s answer to our plea for evidence that He is able to defeat death, decay, and despair.
What Christianity offers to a suffering world is a God willing to suffer with and for His suffering creatures, a God who does not make light of suffering, a God who is powerful enough to end suffering when His plans are complete, and a God who calls us to trust in His goodness when we cannot see it.
Only in the God of the Bible do we find the ultimate reality that makes human life anything but a bit of flotsam cast up on the vast impersonal shore of the universe. Only in Jesus Christ do we find adequate evidence that this God exists. Suffering presents us with mysteries that seem insoluble, but we can live with mysteries if we have enough evidence to warrant accepting them. We cannot live humanly with an ultimate reality that dehumanizes us.
My heart can rest in the mysterious will of a personal, powerful, just, and compassionate God. It cannot find rest anywhere else.