Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The problem of suffering


I want to start this series today, by addressing one of the most difficult questions that as Christians we have to face. It is a question which has been asked a great deal during the last few weeks following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. It is the question of suffering. If there is a good and loving God, why does he allow suffering in our world?

I am asked this question more than any other question. Why would a good God allow suffering, especially if we believe in an all powerful God, who presumably has the power to stop these things from happening? The reality is that for many people the problem of suffering is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to believing in the existence of God.

The problem of suffering, and God’s role in it is not a new thing, it is as old as humanity. For example some of the most repeated prayers of the psalmist are ‘Why?’ ‘How long?’ and ‘Where have you gone?’ Just as the psalmist was not afraid to express his feelings to God and Jacob was prepared to wrestle with God in Genesis, so I think we need to wrestle with God over these difficult questions, and express honestly our feelings of frustration, anger, confusion and also doubt.

To ask the tough questions of God is not a sign of doubt, but of faith. It shows we believe there is one who can help.

Of course, we may not always get the answers we are searching for. And this is one of the challenges of living the Christian faith. It is not always clear why certain things should happen the way they do. Sometimes if someone asks me, ‘Why did God allow this to happen?’ or ‘Where is God in this the only answer I can give is ‘I don’t know’. You see faith is not a refuge from reality. It is a demand that we face reality, with all its difficulties, opportunities and implications.


But before we go further, we need to stop and ask ourselves the question, is suffering always bad? The answer is no.

Although none of us like to experience suffering or pain, it can serve a purpose. For example when you burn you hand by touching something which is very hot, the pain actually serves as a warning to your body to remove your hand from that hot object before it gets damaged. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is not right. So pain & suffering can serve a purpose. It can act as a warning to us, or as a wake up call that something is not right.

Another form of pain or suffering that we experience comes when we lose people we love. The pain we feel after experiencing bereavement is a direct result of the love we feel towards that person. The greater the love, the greater the sense of loss we feel. CS Lewis in his book ‘The Four Loves’ said this, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. He goes on to say, the only way to avoid that pain is to avoid loving. I personally would rather experience the joy of love, and with it the experience of pain that we feel when we lose those we love, than not to love at all.

So not all suffering is necessarily bad, it can serve a purpose.


This leads me onto the next point, which is that is suffering always God’s fault?

People sometimes view God as if he were a puppet master, pulling all the strings, controlling all the events that take place here on earth. But is this correct? Where does free will fit into this view of God?

I would argue that much of the suffering that we see in the world is not caused by God but by ourselves. For example if you are a heavy smoker and develop lung cancer, God is not the one to blame, but yourself. Some of the natural disasters, which are often described as being acts of God, also have more to do with us that with God. For example scientists have established a clear link between human activity and global warming, which is causing sea levels to rise, resulting in flooding in many low lying countries. It is also changing our global weather pattern causing drought and famine in other parts of the world –the countries that are affected by these natural disasters are often the ones least able to cope with such tragedies.

God is not responsible for everything that happens on the planet. It is not God’s will that little girls are used as prostitutes in India, that evil dictators crush the poor beneath their heels & that terrible atrocities are committed in the wars that rage today around the world. Jesus taught us to pray: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done?’ (Mt 6:10). When we believe that everything that happens is because it is God’s will, we engage in Christian fatalism. Heaven is the realm where God’s sphere of rule is currently perfect – and we pray that perfect rule to be seen here on the earth.

Of course there are tragedies which we have little or no control over such as earthquakes. Whilst we can ask the question why God would allow these natural disasters to happen, we have to bear in mind that these forces that result in earthquakes, although destructive, also bring life to our planet. Without it, life would never have started or been sustained on our planet.


So where is God when disaster strikes? This is what Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize community in France, has to say on this subject:

Some people wonder: if God existed, surely he would not allow wars, injustice, and the sickness or the oppression of even one single person on earth. If God existed, surely he would keep people from doing wrong.

Nearly three thousand years ago, the prophet Elijah went out into the desert one day to listen to God. A hurricane came roaring by, then an earthquake, then a violent fire. But Elijah realised that God was not in these violent outbursts of nature. Then everything became quiet and Elijah heard God in the murmur of a gentle breeze. And an astonishing fact dawned upon him: often, the voice of God comes to us in a breath of silence.

It was one of the first times in history that this purest of intuitions was written down: God does not terrorize anyone by violent means. God is never the author of evil, or earthquakes, of war or of natural disasters.

Neither suffering nor human distress is willed by God.

God never imposes himself. God leaves us free to love or not to love, to forgive or to refuse forgiveness. But God is never an indifferent witness to human affliction; God suffers with the innocent victim of incomprehensible trials; God suffers with each person. There is a pain that God experiences, a suffering felt by Christ.

Where is God when suffering occurs? He is in the midst of it. Through Jesus, God has immersed himself into the world’s struggles. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died we are told that Jesus stood at Lazarus’ tomb and wept. But there were others there who said, ‘He cured others, why couldn’t he keep this man from dying?’ In other words, could Jesus have not done something? Or where was God when this disaster struck? But as Christians we believe God was right there, in the person of Jesus, shedding tears of sadness over the death of a friend, and over the grief of others.

Ultimately when I am faced by the problem of suffering, I am always led back to the cross of Christ. Because the cross reminds me that God loves me even in the midst of pain and suffering. The cross also reminds us that God has the power to transform suffering and pain, evil and injustice into something good. And so the cross is a symbol of victory. When Jesus died on the cross, he died with a cry of triumph on his lips; triumph over pain and hatred, suffering and death. On the cross God showed that he cared about pain and suffering, shared it, and overcame it. Following the earthquake in Haiti, you might have thought it would have shaken the faith of Christians living in that country. But in a CNN report last week this is what one Haitian Christian said ‘A lot of people who never prayed or believed – now they believe.’ The people don’t feel abandoned by God and they ‘don't blame Jesus for all these things... They believe that Jesus saved them and are thankful for that.’

Where was God when the earthquake struck Haiti? I believe God was there and is there in the midst of the suffering. If the church is doing its job—binding wounds, comforting the grieving, offering food to the hungry—I don’t think people will wonder so much where God is when it hurts. They’ll know where God is: in the presence of his people on earth.


This leads me onto my final point, although I don’t believe God ever wills or causes us to suffering, He can use those experiences to help shape and change us. The suffering we sometimes experience in life can provide us with new opportunities we never thought possible. For example, I have met parents who through the tragedy of losing their children, have been able to support other parents going through similar situations. Suffering can also teach us to rely not upon ourselves, and our own strength or resources, but upon God. Malcolm Muggeridge, journalist, author and satirist said “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”

Another aspect of suffering is that it often moves us into action. There is a well known poem which says:

Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work today
He has no feet but our feet to lead men in the way
He has no tongue but our tongue to tell men how He died
He has no help but our help to bring them to His side.

I believe as Christians we can only start to begin to answer the question of the problem of suffering, by looking to the suffering God, who calls us into partnership with him, to build a better world, so that in the midst of suffering and pain we can proclaim message of hope for all people. That God loves us, does not abandon us, but suffers alongside us, and has the power to transform these situations into something new. Amen.

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