In answer to suffering

Many of us have this nagging question: How can we believe in a loving God when the world God created is pervaded by suffering, evil, pain, brokenness, injustice?

We ask this as interpreters of Scripture and as theologians, seeking to form coherent picture of God’s character and his ways in the world . We ask this as those who have seen the suffering in the world, the evil that constantly deals out death and destruction, and through empathy have felt the pain and grief of others. We ask this as those who are experiencing pain and loss ourselves, asking God, ‘why?’ We have ask this as those who seek to discredit belief in a loving God.

Its not a question that we should silence or ignore, and we should certainly not bury any doubts that it creates.  I have asked this question as a believer in the love of God. I have sought answers to this question because of the apparent theological problem it creates for my own understanding of God. I have sought answers to this question for those for whom it is an obstacle for belief in a loving God. In these cases the question came to me from others, it was something I read and heard.

But this question has also emerged freshly for myself, having observed suffering and pain from a distance, mediated through television screens and depicted in film, and having heard of and experienced evil and brokenness closer to home. Human brokeness, suffering, and unrepentant evil, are causes for both anger and sorrow. At every moment countless people are suffering immeasurably; physically and emotionally, millions live in fear, millions are abused, exploited, killed. Yet in living our own sometimes blissful lives, we can often get so caught up in the persuit of our own happiness that we ignore the brokenness of the lives around us. Charles Durham expresses this matter well :

Of course this life here is not all battle, blood and sorrow. The colours and sounds of the earth are very sweet… Human relationships bring satisfaction and pleasure beyond words. There are times when I feel that I never want to leave this place, no matter how beautiful and good heaven may be. But on the other hand, when I see more clearly the suffering of the race… then the other side of the picture comes flooding in upon me. I realize that we have deep enjoyment only when we are successful in forgetting that even in our best moments countless others are suffering immeasurably.[1]

But for the Christian, these are not only a cause for grief but also for longing, and give rise to another question: ’Why, Lord, have you not returned to put this to an end? Why does it continue for millenia?’

What is there to do in answer to this question? I am compelled to do two things. I am compelled to pray. Along with the first generation of Christians, “come, O Lord.” A righting or wrongs and an end to suffering and evil is what God has promised and this is what God will deliver. And I am compelled to not live my life either ignoring this plight or offering only sympathy. I am going to do something about it.

So lets ask the question and attempt to answer it, but lets not forget that it is only an intellectual problem because it is first a very real practical problem. Even if we cannot solve the intellectual conundrum, we can still be those who embody God’s love–the love we have seen in Jesus–in and amongst suffering and against evil and injustice.

Footnotes

[1] Charles Durham, Temptation (Scipture Unioin, 1984), 157

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Suggested Reading: Suffering Followed by Glory

Tim Chester has kindly made chapter 12 from his latest book The Ordinary Hero available on his blog. The chapter is entitled ‘Suffering Followed by Glory – The Pattern for Disciples’, and as this suggests, outlines the pattern of present suffering in the hope of future glory which emerges throughout the NT.

He opens the chapter by quoting Joel Osteen‘s [1] message of ‘total victory’ in this life, and goes on to rightly identify at least part of the problem with this perspective as a miss-shaped eschatology. I have called it an over-realized eschatology, which while posessing a sound logic does not fit with ‘already but not yet’ framework of NT teaching. [2]

His chapter provides a good read, I recommend it, and look forward to getting my sticky hands on the book at some point in the future.

[1] I think the quotation is from this sermon on youtube.

[2] See my post The Language(s) and Logic of “Prosperity”