The ugly reality of suffering
I once met a guy who was suffering greatly from a deadly disease. He asked me this exact question, "why did God let this happen?" To be honest I didn’t really know what to say. That was six years ago, and even though I’ve read heaps of helpful books, spoken to people who have been through tough stuff, and thought lots about it, I still don’t know the full answer. The more I get to know God, the more I trust him. But I still don’t always totally understand him.
Jesus’ close friends got to know him well – they ate with him, spoke with him, laughed with him – but they didn’t always understand him. John tells the heart-breaking story of Martha and her brother Lazarus. Jesus really loved both of them. Jesus heard that Lazarus had a deadly disease, and travelled to his house. But he came too late. Lazarus was already dead. Martha was a mess: “Lord, if you’d been here my brother would not have died!” It must have seemed totally wrong – she knew Jesus was powerful enough to heal any disease, and loving enough to help any person. If Jesus is so powerful, and so loving, why didn’t he get here sooner?! Why didn’t he do something?! She must have found it hard to understand.
The Bible never gives us the whole answer about the suffering and evil in this world. Some religions have neat philosophical answers which make the problem of evil go away. But not the Bible. The Bible just starts with a perfect creation, a wicked creature (the talking snake) and a choice: will our first parents Adam and Eve choose to trust God, or will they listen to the evil snake and know for themselves what a world with evil in it is like?
The Bible doesn’t tell us where the snake came from, and where evil ultimately came from. It is just there: an unwelcome intruder, nowhere equal to God, leeching off the good in God’s good world. But as hard as it is to wait until Jesus comes again to find out what we want to know, for now Christians must take comfort that the Bible only tells us everything we need to know.
What we know about suffering
1) First, we do know that suffering is real, it is bad, and the right response is to cry out to God about it. If you think suffering is not how the world should be, then God agrees with you (or you agree with God!). God loves us, and he weeps over suffering – literally, when Jesus saw Martha and all Lazarus’ friends at his funeral he ‘burst into tears’ (John 11:35).
2) Second, we do know that God is good and powerful and has a plan to deal with evil once and for all. Evil was not part of the world God made (Genesis 1:31). God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). So darkness (evil and suffering) is incompatible with God – which means darkness has a very limited shelf life! God has resolved once and for all to SMASH all evil and suffering. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
3) But foolishly, and third, we got ourselves caught up on the wrong side of the light and dark thing. When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, they sided with the snake – and every time we sin we prove that we’re on board with that decision. It’s not God who is responsible for suffering entering this world: it’s humans. We made this mess. And as much as we try, we can’t clean it up even if we wanted to. Thanks to our sin, the line between light and dark, good and evil, now goes through the middle of each of us.
4) Fourth, we know that God’s plan is to fix up the mess we’ve made, while still rescuing all of us who are responsible for it. This is where God’s plan gets amazing. How can he possibly deal with sin, but save sinners? The twist in the story is Jesus – he took responsibility for our mess, died in our place, and defeated death for us by rising again. He’s going to restore us, not destroy us!
5) Fifth, we do know that suffering continues for good reasons. These aren’t all clear to us, but we are told, for instance, that God has decided to offer mercy rather than deal with evil in swift and final justice just yet. "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance". (2 Peter 3:9)
What we don’t know about suffering
There is plenty we aren’t told. "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever..." (Deuteronomy 29:29) We don’t know where evil came from originally, or exactly how God will use suffering to bring about good (Genesis 50:20), or why some people suffer more than others (Luke 13:2-3), or precisely when God will finally end the suffering in this world (Matthew 24:36).
But even though the Bible never gives us the whole answer, I think it does give us enough to trust God to fill in the blanks. I take comfort in knowing that God feels our pain (Jesus was a “man of sorrows”, and “familiar with suffering”: Isaiah 53:3). And so when he delays in bringing an end to suffering it is for good reason. You might be angry with God because he hasn’t stopped something bad from happening. Did you know the Bible is full of people like you? The right response to suffering, according to the bible, is to cry out ‘How Long, O Lord?’ (Psalm 13:1). An atheist has nobody to complain to, stuff just happens – we have a God who promises to listen.
And as hard as it is to believe, if you are a Christian then the Bible says “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). In the meantime, God is using suffering to grow and refine us to be the people he wants us to be (Romans 5:3; 1 Peter 4).
When Jesus saw Martha in tears because he brother was dead, he didn’t give her a total explanation. He just asked whether she trusted him. And then Jesus did something amazing – he called Lazarus out of his tomb. What’s more amazing is this: Lazarus came out!
I don’t quite understand God. But I know enough about him to trust him with suffering – that he is scary powerful, mega loving, and has a plan already in motion to make suffering disappear forever.
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose". (Romans 8:28)