What do Christians Believe about Suffering?
Every other month, Friends International Guildford hosts a meal and a talk in a local home. The talk is about what Christians believe about a certain topic and this often leads to an open discussion with students about the topic, their questions and their views from different faiths and cultures. The evenings are always relaxed and there is no question of limits. We hope that through these evenings we can highlight how we can share our beliefs and even disagree whilst developing strong friendships. This is the script from one of these talks, given by Rob Rattee.
Setting the Scene
The question of suffering is one of the biggest challenges faced by people of faith and particularly Christians, why?
We say we believe in a God who is fundamentally good. A God of Love. In fact the Bible says, “God is Love” and it tells us “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good and his love endures forever.”
We say that God is the all-powerful creator of the world and everything in it – including us.
If these things are the case why does this good God, this God of Love, allow his creation, particularly us humans, to suffer? Why is there pain in the world?
We can put the case against God like this: If God is all loving and all powerful then there should be no suffering in the world. Because: If He loves us then He clearly is not all-powerful as He would want to remove pain and suffering and He cannot. If He is all-powerful He clearly does not love us as He doesn’t remove our suffering. God cannot be both loving and all powerful.
This question comes into sharpest focus when we think about suffering which we regard as no one’s fault and when it happens to those we regard as totally innocent. If you do not believe in a creator God but believe that the world is some form of cosmic accident then suffering is no big deal really – it is just part of the natural order of things – part of the process of natural selection.
Steven Fry – British Comedian, voice of the Harry Potter books on Audible – was asked what he would say if he ever met God. This was his answer,
“How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It's not right, it's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That's what I would say”.
He then used the example of a young child born with bone cancer as an example of what he meant. You will not be surprised to hear that I think Stephen Fry is wrong – Yes suffering is a bad, indeed sometimes terrible, thing but as a Christian its existence does not make me believe in God less it simply helps me understand much more clearly the world in which we live and the wonderful thing that God has done for us. More of that later.
What I want to do in setting the scene for our discussion is to look at three things:
What do we mean by suffering?
What is God’s big picture of the world to give us a context for answering the question.
What is God’s response to suffering.
One final observation; I do not claim that this is easy and I have all the answers – it is not and I do not. But here goes.
What is Suffering?
Suffering comes in many different forms. At one extreme there is the annoyance of having to wait for a late train, the disappointment of your favourite football team not winning or hitting your toe on a table leg. At the other extreme we have those who spend years with chronic pain from arthritis or degenerative diseases such as MS or those who spend their whole lives in extreme poverty without enough to eat. Suffering is a spectrum.
Indeed, some suffering is actually beneficial – the fact that we feel pain helps keep us safe as we learn not go near fires or sharp objects. Other pain is an inevitable part of a world where we have choices – two people supporting different football teams in the cup final cannot both avoid the disappointment of losing. So when we talk about suffering we do need to draw a line on the spectrum and then focus our questioning on the suffering that seems, to us, unjust. In doing that it is important to realise that some suffering is beneficial and some is really inconsequential. We have to be careful about making sweeping statements.
Having drawn that line then we need to understand the causes of the suffering that give us the ability to doubt God is good.
Some suffering is caused by our own decision. If I decide to jump off a building and break a leg in the process then that really is my own fault and says nothing about God other than whether he should be so controlling that I cannot operate with free will.
Some suffering, in fact I would argue, the vast majority of suffering in the world results from the bad behaviour of human beings – either as individuals or in groups as society.
As individuals there is, again, a spectrum – everything from being rude, to using verbal insults, to theft, to physical abuse, to slavery, to bodily harm, to murder and at the extreme, a psychopathic mass-murderer.
As society it gets even worse; racism, poverty, starvation (there are enough food resources in the world to feed everyone), war, genocide and, now, global warming.
We cannot blame God directly for any of that suffering other than to question why he allows bad people to exist. Once you have bad people then there will be suffering.
So, in these first two areas of suffering the same issue arises – why does God allow me or other people to choose to behave badly? We will come back to that.
Now we move on to human suffering that is caused by the natural world. Again there are many forms: Old age, disease, pests, extreme weather or earthquakes/volcanoes/tsunamis. We can even get more extreme –what about if an asteroid hit the earth?
Again, some of this is about the bad choices we make as individuals or societies – where we choose or force people to live. Millions live in California even though they know there will be a serious earthquake there in the next few years. Millions impacted by serious weather events in the developing world could be protected by the wealthy countries sharing resources. But again, even if we could protect ourselves, why has God created a world where these things happen?
Ultimately we come to the area of suffering that the hardest to understand. To quote Stephen Fry, “You have to account for bone cancer in children.” A new-born child must, we say, be wholly innocent. How can God allow them to suffer so awfully and randomly with a painful, debilitating disease?
So we have, apparently, a God who creates a world where:
bad things happen;
where bad people can do bad things; and
I can do stupid things that cause me suffering.
What do I, as a Christian make of that? How can I say in all honesty that I give thanks to the Lord for he is good and his love endures forever?
The Big Picture
To understand this we need to look at the big picture of God and His purposes. As a Christian I believe that God is all powerful and He created everything. When He created the universe at the beginning of time it was, indeed, good because God is good. The pinnacle of His creation was us humans and he created us to have a relationship with Him. It was, however, to be a relationship based on love because God is love. Here is the problem, for us to be able to genuinely love God we have to have to be able to decide to love Him. If I am forced by God to love him that is not love at all – I become a robot following commands.
Now, as soon as I have that choice to love or not to love then I have introduced the possibility of evil, of something that is not love is not good. In fact, if you think about it, I cannot know what good is even if I cannot compare it to something that is not good. So the existence of evil in the world is a natural consequence of God giving us choice.
None of us are perfect – we have all chosen to a greater or lesser degree to do bad things as well as good. If we are honest with ourselves we know that is true.
So, if were to ask God to take away all evil and badness from the world He would have to take away every one of us - so that is no solution.
Whilst this might help us understand why there is suffering caused by human beings what about natural causes? What Christians believe is that whilst creation was created good, when we as the pinnacle of that creation decided to follow a path of evil that evil entered the whole created world and is what causes the natural world to sometimes do bad things to us (be it earthquakes or diseases). So the suffering we endure from the natural world is an indirect result of the evil that we have brought into the world by deciding not to go God’s way. Whilst it may pain us greatly, this is as true of the new-born child with its bone cancer as it is of us and our old age.
The Rescue Plan
That explanation of why we suffer could leave us in despair?! I guess it could do but we need to finish by understanding how God reacts to all this. When God sees us choose evil things he could decide to have nothing more to do with us but he does not. From the beginning of time He had a plan to rescue us from our own stupidity. As Christians we understand that God sent His son, Jesus, into the world to experience the same suffering that we do (he cried, he went hungry, he went thirsty, people mocked him and told lies about him, they whipped him severely and, ultimately, of course, they killed him). One thing we can be sure about, Jesus understood what it is like to suffer in this world. But God, His father, raised Jesus to life again and it is through that death and resurrection that we can be given new lives ourselves which will, ultimately, be pain and suffering free. God’s promise is that He will restore the whole world – His whole creation - to its original good state and as believers we will live in it with Him. The Bible says that
“God so loved the world…”
As those who have put their trust in Jesus, Christians have eternal life. But, yes, we have to live a short part of it here on an earth where evil and suffering abound in us and around us. God never promises in the Bible that those who believe in Him will be free from suffering in this world but the ultimate promise is an eternal, pain free, suffering free life with God for ever.
That is God’s answer to the suffering that we all experience in the world today. Not to take suffering away but to rescue us from it.
1. Suffering comes in many forms, some are, in fact, beneficial but there is a lot that is not. That fact of suffering is very painful indeed and appears to be very unfair.
2. Some suffering comes from our own stupidity. Some from the evil actions of individuals. Some from the evil actions of societies and countries. Some suffering comes from the natural world around us.
3. God created us to be able to respond to His goodness and love. To be able to do that we have to have choice and the existence of that choice inevitably means we can go against what God wants, we go against goodness and love, we can and do choose evil.
4. That evil is not only in individuals but permeates the whole world in which we live and is the source of all suffering.
5. God has not abandoned us to that suffering. He has sent Jesus, who experienced that same suffering, but lived a perfect life and died for us, giving us a way back to God. Providing a way for God to see us as the perfect people He created and not see the evil we have done.
6. As Christians, we have the gift of eternal, suffering free life with God for ever. We are not immune from suffering that the evil in this world creates but we know that this is temporary and that throughout our time in this world God loves us and has a much better future in store for us.
Why do you think there is suffering in the world?
In your experience does the fact there is suffering in the world make it harder to believe in God?
Do you think suffering and pain are bad things?
Do you agree that to remove suffering God would have to remove everyone?
What do you think of the Christian claim that God sent His Son to suffer and die for us – does that make sense to you?
Do you believe that God is both loving and all-powerful?
Published with thanks to Rob Rattee.