by Dr. Wade Paschal
Arguably suffering causes more questions about faith than any other single topic. The question is usually phrased like this: How can a good God allow evil and suffering to exist?
Let me sketch three possibilities on the question of suffering that we find people offering:
1. There is no God—-suffering is just the by-product of being in a universe where things happen.
This line of thinking basically urges us to give up asking, “Why?” when we face suffering. We live in a materialistic universe in which things happen that we find painful or helpful, but which have no purpose or end goal.
The best we can do in the face of suffering is to choose bravely to do something for the overall good. We have to make our own meaning in suffering, because there is no God moving us toward some purpose or larger meaning to the story we live in.
It is easier, however, to say this than to live it. It’s all right to say that we have to “make our own meaning”—but how do we decide what “meaning” exists if the larger story has no meaning? You can find people who rejected God because they could not square some personal story of suffering with the idea of God and then coming back later to faith in God because they could not find a way to define their own meaning without God.
2. Suffering comes as a result of our own actions: you get what you deserve.
We call this the “karma” view of the universe—we ultimately get what we deserve. The Book of Job argues this idea through Jobs’ so-called friends who tell him he must have done something to deserve his suffering.
We know that this is simply not always true. Some suffering we bring on ourselves. But some people suffer far more than they could possibly “deserve.” And some people seem to suffer very little and we are not sure why they are so lucky.
We would like to think that we can avoid suffering by controlling what we do in life—if we are good enough and careful enough, life will always be good.
The truth is that we cannot control life through our actions—at least not control it enough to keep us and the ones we love safe from all suffering.
3. Suffering comes to teach us and help us grow.
There is some truth here. Many people find that suffering brings perspective to life. Suffering can build character and depth.
Or suffering can crush us. Some suffering is so painful that even though we may learn from it, the lessons we learn hardly seem to justify the pain we experience.
What does a Christian say to all this?
Christianity has one thing to offer the question of suffering that no other religion can really present: a God who enters our suffering. Christ on the cross embraces our suffering, enters our world, and dies our death. And, according to scripture, Jesus does this for us, not because he deserves it or needs it.
To quote Timothy Keller:
Yes, we do not know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not. It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he does not care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.
(Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering).
In Christ God enters into suffering and not only endures it, but transforms it.
If I were talking to a person going through (or having just gone through) a time of suffering, I would encourage the following:
People—find a group of people who will care for you and encourage you.
Purpose—find something to do that helps someone else. Giving even in the midst of loss will be healing.
Prayer—spend time connecting with God, even if God seems far away. It may take time, but keep on doing the things that connect you with God, and the Spirit of God will break through your sorrow and give you a sense of love and joy again.
Here are some books to read on the subject in addition to the Keller book listed above:
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering
For the more philosophical of mind, Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil.
Dr. R. Wade Paschal, Jr. is the Senior Pastor of First United Methodist
Church. Educated at Princeton University, Asbury Theological Seminary, and Cambridge University, Dr. Paschal has written two books and a number of articles on the Bible and on ministry. He is married to Sandi and they have three children and two grandchildren.