#WCSK Episode 0.4a: Why Suffering?

What Christians Should Know (#WCSK): Volume Zero takes a step back and investigates basic ideas about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith. This series provides crucial answers to critical questions about belief.

 

“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” (Romans 5:3–5, KJV)

“But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” (I Peter 5:10, KJV)

“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (James 1:2–4, KJV)

“Why suffering?” is a fundamental question that begs for ultimate truth in the form of an ultimate answer.

Why? Because we live in a world filled with suffering and our conscience tells us that suffering is a deviation from the norm. We contract diseases, feel ill, and desire to be healthy again, and then we recover. We injure ourselves and long to return to normal, and then our pain disappears and our wounds heal. We look at the world around us and ask questions like, “Why did those innocent children have to die?” and “Why did that building have to burn down?” Asking why presupposes a reason and a purpose behind circumstances. We search for an answer and come up empty, yet we still have a sense that an answer exists somewhere. We are forced to deal with the striking paradox that while we—human beings—stand above and have dominion over the rest of creation, we also have the heightened ability to reflect on our own misery. Because of our grandeur, we experience the greatest suffering.

Explaining why suffering exists would in fact be effortless if God did not claim to be good. We could then say that suffering is the result of a cruel and heartless deity. Similarly, providing reasons for the existence of suffering would be effortless if God did not claim to be omnipotent. Then we could simply say, “There’s nothing God could do because it was beyond His control.” The answer to this lesson’s central question would also be basic if evil was an illusion or if real people didn’t have to endure so much grief. The Bible tells us that God is both good and all-powerful, so we must reconcile these revelations with the brutal facts about our reality.

What I hope to convey is that while the Bible may not give everyone specific answers regarding why they suffer in unique situations, it does abound in general principles that equip us to deal with our perilous situations and to grow our faith by directing us to the only legitimate source of eternal hope, Jesus Christ. If nothing else, He is the one who perfectly demonstrated that suffering has meaning, that it is not for nothing, and that the path to new life by the power of the resurrection always goes directly through the pain, anguish, and torment of the Cross. One of the unique truth claims of the Christians faith—and what separates it from other false religions and fad ideologies—is that it tells us the story of our real-life Savior, who dealt with real-life suffering and who now forever stands as a shining tower of real-life hope. What the model of Jesus and God’s revelation to us in the Bible demonstrates is that truly, we will never have a comprehensive answer for all of life’s trials, but what we do have matters more: an empathetic God who will stand by our side in time of strife,[1] never allowing us to experience more than we can handle.[2] In the end, what matters more for a weary mother mourning the loss of her child and the broken husband who must watch his wife endure grueling pain? A scientific or causal explanation for present circumstances or the felt presence of an Almightily God who will extend His hand to comfort them and pick them up when their bones are crushed and their souls have dropped into the depths of the abyss?

#WCSK Suffering Free Will Evil Love Jesus

In this section (Part I), I begin by examining how evil and free will give us some clarity when it comes to suffering. Next, I look at common arguments skeptics use against God because of suffering and debunk said arguments. The bulk of WCSK episode 0.4 (Part II) focuses on what I believe is the most important response to “Why suffering?” and that is how to deal with it when we are afflicted. I conclude this episode (Part III) with an analysis of the Book of Job, and I extract meaningful answers and actionable advice for today. Within each part, there is some overlap of general themes so that each can stand on its own for targeted Bible study.

Throughout this episode, I touch upon suffering from many different angles, including some that are extremely analytical and therefore removed from many personal experiences. In doing so, as a disclaimer, I in no way, shape, or form intend to belittle or minimize anyone’s trials, tribulations or felt needs during times of pain. The content in this section attempts to challenge and reconstruct what you believe so that you will be well equipped, mature in sound doctrine, and grow in your faith.

Definition

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “suffering” as “a state of undergoing distress, pain, or hardship.” It defines “suffer” as “experience or be subjected to something bad or unpleasant.” The only problem I have with these definitions is that they tend to suggest that for suffering to be properly dealt with, it has to be removed. This subconsciously directs a person away from suffering to find a substitution, an escape, or something to cover it up. As will be explained later, how we cope with suffering Biblically speaking does not necessarily entail removal of the suffering. The Greek word for suffering is thlipsis, which means “pressure, affliction, persecution, or trouble.” The Hebrew word for suffering is ra, which means “evil, adversity, calamity, or distress.”

Evil and Free Will

How does evil relate to suffering? In many cases, evil is the direct cause of suffering. Evil is the agent that starts a reaction, and people experience the consequences of that reaction as suffering. So, for the remainder of this section, when you read “evil,” keep in mind that this is the first step in a process that invariably produces suffering.

Thousands of years ago, the ancient theologian Augustine helped us to clarify what evil is. In On the Morals of the Manicheans,[3] he wrote that evil is corruption and lacks any substance in and of itself. So, everything God created is good, and God did not create evil. Still, evil is that which is a lack and perverts something that is good. Something that is not pure cannot be corrupted, and evil is what taints something that is pure, making it corrupt. Hence, evil is the lack of good, and it is, “in reality, a parasite that cannot exist except as a hole in something that should be solid.”[4] Evil also extends to taint the relationships between things so that the relationships become deficient and, therefore, things don’t operate as they should. For example, a relationship between a man and his wife may lack love, thus opening the door for abuse. A relationship between a man and wine may lack self-control and thus lead to drunkenness. There is nothing inherently evil about men, women, or wine, but the lack of good in these relationships is evil.

So where did evil come from? If God is sovereign and the creator of everything, doesn’t this mean God had to create evil? May it never be! God is not evil, and the fear of The Lord means hatred of evil.[5] When God made our world and life, He declared His creations “good” at the end of each day at the beginning of Genesis.[6] In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve fell into sin because of one simple phenomenon: free will. God made free creatures, which means they have the unforced ability to decide between options. Yes, people have emotional desires, but a conscious act of the will compels a person to choose one thing over another. Interestingly, it becomes clear from this definition of free will (the unforced ability to choose) that a lack of freedom does not mean fewer alternatives. It simply means being coerced to choose instead of being free to choose. Hence, the opposite of freedom is not scarcity of options—it’s compulsion. This is a point worth making because in modernity many associate freedom with having a number of options, which is incorrect. One could be compelled, for example, to “choose” one specific alternative from a menu of thousands.

Therefore, because God did not want to create robots who were forced to love and obey Him, He made free creatures who could freely choose Him. This is the existential risk of love: that those whom you love and give yourself to will not respond positively to that love. The unfortunate side effect is that these free creatures are also free to not choose God, and when they do so, evil results—that is, lack of obedience and lack of worship. This does assign the blame for evil to God. Rather, “He created the fact of freedom; we perform the acts of freedom. He made evil possible; we make evil actual.”[7]

The Bible reveals repeatedly that God is a wooer and not a puppet master. Hence, in Genesis 3, the serpent never put a gun to Eve’s head and commanded her to choose. Instead, given the option of choosing God or doing what the serpent suggested, she freely chose to disobey The Lord. Pay attention to what the text says about Eve in Genesis 3:6 (KJV):

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.”

Eve weighed her options, she herself saw what she thought was the wiser path and took it, and Adam subsequently followed. When free creatures freely choose to not obey God, the result is evil, sin (violating God’s law), and inevitably suffering.

What I hope I have now made clear is one response to this lesson’s central question.

That is, free beings choose evil, evil causes suffering, and, therefore, free beings are the cause of suffering.

For example, when a murderer targets a victim, he freely chooses to take the life of another person by force. Through this uncoerced selection between alternatives (kill and not kill), the murderer chooses an option that is devoid of any good and distorts a relationship between two people. Thus, when the murderer kills, suffering ensues. Hence, whenever we ask, “Why suffering?” we cannot dismiss the pervasive power of sin and people who freely choose to do what is wrong and directly cause misery.

Indeed, God could have created a world without evil, sin, and suffering, but this would be a world without free will—a world full of robots or flowers and rocks. Consider also that the things we consider the most good in our lives are traits that excel in the midst of their direct opposite. For example, if bravery means persisting in the midst of fear, then if fear did not exist, nor would bravery because there would be nothing to overcome. Faith means trusting in and believing God despite alternatives like wealth and power. If these alternatives did not exist, that would devalue legitimate Biblical faith. The point I am trying to make is that those things that are the most virtuous are so because of the existence of opposites. In a reality that was devoid of free will, yes, there would be no evil and suffering, but neither would there be love and faith. As a former personal trainer of mine always says, “extraordinary results require extraordinary effort.” If you aren’t working against resistance, then you simply won’t get bigger, faster, or stronger. Faith can flourish only in the midst of evil idolatry, and without faith in Christ, suffering would be an obstacle that would swallow up believers.

Astonishingly, if God were to swipe away all evil from the face of the world, then this means He would have to swipe away the cause of evil: free will. If this is destroyed, then so is love, and in a world devoid of love, there would be no Jesus and no salvation. For love to exist, freedom must exist. After all, God, who is love,[8] freely chose to create our world and sent Jesus because of love.[9] Even when Jesus relayed to us what the two greatest commandments are, they were commandments that involved the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:36–37). The good news for us is that God is so loving that He freely chose a reality in which human beings would freely disobey Him over a reality in which no one exists. On top of all of that, God safeguards us from evil by defining it for us,[10] implanting a sense of right and wrong in our consciences,[11] enabling us by the power of the Spirit to do what is good,[12] and assuring us that through Christ,[13] evil will actually be defeated in the future.[14] The prescription for salvation requires a healthy dose of free will (and by implication, suffering), yet a recognized side effect of free will is evil. This simply means that God, as our treating physician, is fully aware and in complete control of our treatment plan. Evil and its resultant consequences are accepted side effects in the treatment aimed at redemption. What this means in contemplating the evil done to Jesus is quite clear: the Cross without a greater purpose is divine child abuse. The truth is that the Cross had a greater good purpose: “For even the Son of man came … to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, KJV).[15] The Cross did not catch God by surprise, and the suffering of Jesus at Golgotha had positive, eternal results: the redemption of the elect.

So, our world is not free from suffering nor is it ideal. Yet in his book If God, Why Evil? Norman Geisler makes the case that our world may not be the most ideal, but it is the ideal path to get to the ideal. In this paradigm, the number of people who will be saved is maximized,[16] and those who reject God will be without an excuse[17] when final judgment comes.

C. S. Lewis famously wrote that, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[18] Lack of pain gives us no reason or compulsion to pay attention. In fact, contentment does a great job of encouraging complacency. Suffering alerts us that something needs to change, and if God allows us to suffer so that we turn to Him, what loss is it to you in the end if you temporarily “lose” in the present but gain eternity?

Suffering is not evidence against God

When it comes to suffering in the world, many will pose the question, “Where is God?” when they bear witness to unjust sorrow. When children go hungry and are starving, when natural disaster strikes, and when unarmed citizens are shot, we want to know where a presumably all-powerful God is in times of dire need. William Lane Craig often recites the maxim that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”[19] Therefore, the logical argument being made here is that just because there is a lack of tangible proof that God is present in times of suffering, this does not equal positive evidence that He is not there. At a crime scene, for example, just because a detective can’t find evidence pointing to a suspect, this doesn’t mean that the suspect is not in fact the culprit. Silence does not equal absence, and although we many feel alone in times of suffering, this personal feeling does not transcend to the supernatural and make impossible a divine presence.

Admittedly, the simple fact is that at the most basic human level it is difficult to hold on to the idea that God and suffering are compatible. Many people tend to project that God is the ultimate safety net and should ideally deliver us unconditionally from misfortune, whether temporary (like cancer) or eternal (like hell). The brutal fact is that God is not made in our image, but we are made in His image. The psalmist doesn’t marvel at our creation but at the heavens that declare God’s glory (Psalm 19:1). Human beings are made to glorify God.[20] If the elect are therefore chosen to be glorified[21] and glorify God in heaven for eternity, is it reasonable or unreasonable to assume that God’s ultimate purpose in people’s earthly life is their happiness and, thus, to minimize suffering? Or perhaps, does God have something bigger (eternity) in mind, where all things will ultimately come together to fulfill His purposes?[22]

Logically speaking, it is not impossible for suffering and an all-powerful and all-loving God to co-exist. As discussed, an all-powerful God chose to make a world in which people have free will, and in the exercise of their free will, people cause the suffering of others.

On the other hand, neither must it necessarily be true that an all-loving God prefers a world that lacks suffering. When my wife was in labor, I, her Ob/Gyn and a nurse—people who had a stake in her well-being—preferred that she endure suffering to reach the result of a baby. Parents all over the world allow pediatricians to give their children vaccines—with the threat of high fevers, irritability, decreased feeding and virus-like symptoms—to serve a greater good. In all of these examples, everyone has good reasons to allow suffering, and we may use our natural experiences to serve as a small glimpse into the mind of the Divine. After all, God Himself suffered on the Cross. The point is that an all-loving God could certainly have reasons that transcend our understanding that bring all things together for good. Life informs us that pain is sometimes beneficial and keeps us away from worse danger. This is why children quickly pull their hands away from the scorching heat of a flame, or why pain in the right lower side of a young man’s abdomen alerts him to the fact that his appendix is flaring up and he needs to see a doctor immediately. As Joseph famously said to his brothers years after they sold him into slavery, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Genesis 50:20, KJV). In due course, in some instances, God allowing some suffering actually enables a greater good to come forth that overcomes suffering and defeats evil. The Cross is the perfect testimony to this fact.

This reasoning still holds true even if from our perspective suffering appears to be for no reason. If a butterfly flapping its wings in Central Park can cause a monsoon in India,[23] likely the city dweller would not be able to see the relevance of a butterfly in the grand scheme of things because the observer’s frame of reference is limited both in space and in time. Now imagine what happens when we take an incident of suffering and try to clarify its meaning in the context of all of human history. This recognition is further emphasized by the fact that God is eternal and His purposes are fulfilled in eternity. People may contemplate God in the context of temporal circumstances, but the promise of Scripture of eternal life cannot be forced onto our fleeting reality. Hence, when we endure suffering in the present time, it is “not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed” (Romans 8:18, KJV). Our momentary afflictions that last but a moment “worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (II Corinthians 4:17, KJV). Please take note that I am not minimizing anyone’s current afflictions nor was the author of these verses, the apostle Paul—after all, he was the one who suffered and had a messenger of Satan tormenting him with a thorn in his side.[24] The point is that forever is forever, and when we compare a small blip on the radar of time to all of time, the weight that afflicts us now is no match for an “eternal weight of glory.”

Furthermore, the Biblical view of suffering is one of future redemption. Not only will every bad thing that happened be undone and mended, but also, we will receive a timeless and infinite depth of joy that is incomprehensible. This will turn all present agonies into a distant memory that pales in comparison.[25]

A skeptical critique remains—a sentiment expressed by the title character in the 1958 play by Archibald MacLeish, J.B.: “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God.” What this statement means is that with all the suffering in the world, if God is really God, then he cannot possibly be good. On the other hand, if God is in fact a “good guy,” with so much suffering in the world, He can’t possibility have enough control to be labeled a deity.

We have to pay special attention to the subliminal assumption that supports J.B.’s statement and, by extension, the modern revolt against God: that because I can’t see a reason for suffering, a good reason cannot exist. This is simply not true, and to be perfectly honest, the only way a person can say something is pointless is if that person possesses omniscience that spans past, present, and future. The philosopher Alvin Platinga made this case in Warranted Christian Belief when he described the analogy of the “no-see-um,” a tiny insect that cannot be seen with the naked eye.[26] If you look inside a tent in search for a bear and don’t see one, then it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that a bear is not in your tent. If, however, you look inside your tent and do not see a “no-see-um,” it is not reasonable to conclude that the insect is not in your tent because, after all, you can’t see a “no-see-um.” The point here is that just because something isn’t readily accessible to our understanding (like a reason for suffering), it does not mean that one does not exist. There is a huge difference between a human knowing or understanding why something bad happens and God having an ultimate purpose for the event. Truly, it is perfectly compatible to have a transcendent God that a person can rail against and at the same time have a God that has legitimate reasons to allow bad things to happen.

Hence, suffering certainty is not sufficient evidence against The Lord. In fact, suffering actually points us to The Lord. How can I say this? Well, take for example the horrors of injustice and all the suffering it causes. Everyone can identify injustice, but where do our formulations of “justice” and “injustice” come from? What are we comparing the world to when we call it, or something that happens within it, unjust? C. S. Lewis contemplated these questions when making an argument against God for making a world so cruel.[27] In the end, he came to the conclusion that recognizing “injustice” depends on knowing what justice is, and that idea must come from a transcendent standard by which everything is judged. If not, what you are left with is no standard at all, and the argument against injustice collapses.

In the end, people may reject the notion of a God that rules over an unpleasant reality, but this assertion is critical without any substantive content. That is, examining why suffering exists pales in comparison to the more meaningful response to how we deal with suffering. Therefore, while suffering may be one of the greatest objections to God, what we will learn is that our greatest problem finds its greatest solution in The Lord.

What the Christian faith does not do is attempt to scientifically explain why suffering happens in each unique case. Rather, it provides a deep well of resources for those who endure pain and suffering and equips believers with hope and courage so that they may become mature and grow in their faith and not become burdened with angst to respond with bitterness and hostility. If the Cross shows us anything, it is that Jesus tackled his pain head-on and never shied away from this reality. Further, in His death, Jesus suffered; He identifies with those who feel abandoned and forsaken by God. God loves His Son, Jesus, who endured the Cross. Hence, God is not detached and removed from our human experiences of pain. As Timothy Keller writes, “God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”[28]

Now that we know God takes human suffering so seriously, how does He equip us to deal with suffering?

Join me in one week for answers to this question in Part II.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

[1] Psalm 23:4, 37:28, 94:14; Hebrews 13:5

[2] See I Corinthians 10:13

[3] See section 5.7

[4] Norman L. Geisler, When Skeptics Ask (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 55.

[5] Proverbs 8:13; cf. Psalm 5:4, Isaiah 5:20

[6] See Genesis 1:1–31. Moreover, because what God made was good, making something was better than not making anything. This addresses the existential question as to why God made something rather than nothing. An existent good is always better than neutral nonexistence.

[7] Geisler, Skeptics, 56.

[8] I John 4:8

[9] John 3:16

[10] For example, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17) and more generally speaking, the Mosaic Law.

[11] Romans 2:12–15

[12] Romans 8:2–4

[13] Colossians 2:14–16; Hebrews 2:14–15

[14] See Revelation 19–22

[15] See also John 15:13; Hebrews 12:2

[16] I Timothy 2:4

[17] Romans 1:20, 3:19

[18] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1967) 106–107.

[19] William Lane Craig, On Guard (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 149.

[20] Isaiah 43:7

[21] Romans 8:30

[22] Romans 8:28

[23] This is called the butterfly effect, or more formally in mathematics, chaos theory. The basic idea is that huge, dynamic systems (like global weather patterns) can be extremely sensitive to initial conditions, like the flap of a butterfly’s wings.

[24] See II Corinthians 12:7

[25] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 64.

[26] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 466–67.

[27] See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 31.

[28] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 31.

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