SUFFERING is a problem in life that
comes home to everyone. A child is born blind, deformed or
mentally afflicted; and the question comes: Why? The child has
done no harm.
A man or woman of fine character
and in the prime of life is racked with pain in a hopeless disease
that can only end in death. Why him? Why her? These are the people
who can least be spared.
Millions in the world are suffering
semi-starvation and disease in countries with vast populations and
little fertility. Others perish or are made homeless in floods and
earthquakes. Why should they suffer?
Pain, torture and death have been
imposed on helpless millions by the tyranny of man and the
destructiveness of modern war. Countless lives are lost in acts of
terrorism, by brutality and hijacking. Accidents there have always
been, but the scale of today's disasters and natural calamities is
often overwhelming: a passenger aircraft crashes; an oil rig blows
up; fire traps hundreds in an underground train. People ask: Why
does God allow it?
The questions readily rise to mind
and on the surface seem reasonable: yet a candid look at them
shows that they carry certain implications. They imply that
suffering in human life is inconsistent either with the power or
with the love of God: that as a God of love either He has not the
power to prevent the suffering, or if He has the power then He has
not the will, and is not a God of love. It is assumed that the
prevention of suffering as it now affects the apparently innocent
is something we should expect from a God of love who is also
Almighty. Are these assumptions justified?
Facts of Life
Some facts about life must be taken into account before we try to
form a judgement:
- Man lives in a universe of cause
and effect and the consequences of certain causes are
inescapable. Fire burns, water drowns, disease germs destroy.
These facts have moral implications. Men live in a universe in
which the consequences of what they do are inescapable, and
therefore their responsibility for what they do is equally
inescapable. Without this burden of 'natural law' man could do
as he liked with impunity, and there would be no responsibility.
God made the universe this way because He is a moral God who
makes men responsible beings with freewill to choose how they
- Man's neglect and misuse of his
own life has corrupted the stream of human life itself, and left
evils which fall on succeeding generations. These, again as part
of natural law, may manifest themselves as hereditary weaknesses
and tendencies to disease. The very stuff of life may be
affected as it is passed on from generation to generation.
- The consequences of man's acts
are not only directly physical. The social and political evils
which they have created throughout history have left a gathering
burden on the generations following. People today are caught in
a net of the consequences of past history, and even when they
try to right one evil, another is brought to bear: "The whole
creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now"
Should People be
Saved from Themselves?
Taking such facts as these into account, it must be asked, What is
it we are really doing when we require God to remove suffering?
Are we not asking that God should (a) suspend natural law, (b)
divert the consequences of heredity, and (c) turn aside the
effects of man's inhumanity to man? Have we the right to expect
God to save men from the consequences of human acts? Would it be a
moral universe if He did?
These questions can only be asked
of situations when the hand of man is involved. Earthquakes,
tempests, famines and floods are called 'acts of God' because
usually there is no other explanation for their occurrence. So if
we look beyond human acts to natural disaster, we find that it
falls upon all, innocent and guilty alike. As soon as we begin to
question the suffering of innocent victims of these disasters
another dilemma is raised. Are we saying that the calamities
should be selective in their working, searching out only those who
deserve to suffer'?
An Evil or a
Underlying all the loose thinking on the subject which has been
surveyed so far is one basic assumption: it is that suffering is
evil in itself. It is this belief that suffering is the essential
evil that lies at the root of Buddhism. The Bible view is
radically different: suffering is not evil in itself, but a
symptom of a deeper evil. The Scriptures portray suffering as a
consequence of sin: not necessarily the sin of the individual who
suffers, but sin in the history of man and in human society. Its
origin is succinctly put by the Apostle Paul:
"Wherefore, as by one man sin
entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all
men, for that all have sinned" (Romans 5:12).
The sentence upon the woman after
the disobedience in Eden says:
"I will greatly
multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring
forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he
shall rule over thee."
To the man God says:
"In the sweat of thy
face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for
out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt
thou return" (Genesis 3:16,19).
The teaching is simple. With man's
disobedience there came a dislocation in the relationship between
the Creator and the created; the relation between God and man is
out of joint. The first sin brought a fundamental change which
affects all with the evils which are common to man. Death is
universal: God does not modify it for the particular individual.
The Bible teaching is that men are left to their own ways and the
working of natural law, though there may be times when natural
disaster is divinely directed as a judgement upon man and for the
cleansing of the earth. The outstanding example is the flood in
the days of Noah.
At the same time it is true that in
the Bible, for those who seek to serve God, suffering takes on new
meaning; they are in a new relationship to the Creator, and will
learn to see tragedy in a new light. What is it?
A Godly Man's
The answer may be seen in the example of Job. Here is a devout man
who meets with disaster in the loss of his flocks and herds-the
source of his wealth; with terrible bereavement in the loss of all
his children at one stroke; and then is stricken with a tormenting
disease which separates him from men. Yet he says: "What? Shall we
receive good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive
evil?" (Job 2:10). He recognises the important principle that he
cannot claim good as a right: it is not for him to decide what God
The time comes, however, when the suffering is so unbearable that
death seems preferable. In agony and bewilderment he asks, in
effect: Why should a man live if it is only to suffer? Can God,
who has made man, destroy him like a discarded plaything?
Job's friends argue that there is a
direct connection between a man's sin and his suffering and they
therefore contend that to suffer so greatly Job must have greatly
sinned. Job is convinced of his own integrity: he is human, but he
knows that he is not guilty of the sins they try to fasten upon
him. Yet he has enough of his friends' philosophy to feel now that
he suffers unjustly. Has God chosen him to be set up as a mark to
shoot at? Because, compared with others, his sufferings seem
wholly disproportionate to any faults he can confess. To him it
seems that his affliction can only mean that God has turned
against him, and this moral problem adds to his bitterness. The
"tents of robbers" prosper: why should the righteous suffer? If
God is judging him, is it right that he should be judged by a
standard human nature cannot reach?
The friends utterly fail to shake
Job's conviction in his own righteousness, and at last they cease
to argue. But underlying Job's contention is an ultimate faith in
God, in spite of all the questionings, and a belief in God's
justice; and so Job reaches out to the hope that in another life,
if not now, God as his Redeemer will vindicate him and be on his
side. And so he introduces a new element in the argument when he
looks beyond the grave to resurrection and reconciliation. That
belief, hinted at in Job, is fully declared elsewhere in both the
Old and New Testaments, and it gives a new perspective to the
problem. Yet it does not in itself explain why men and women
should suffer in this life.
God Speaking to Man
When the friends are silenced and Job has made his final speech,
the young man Elihu comes into the argument. He shows that Job in
his extremity has impugned the righteousness of God, but he also
throws a new light on the problem. God speaks to men (a) through
revelation, and (b) through suffering. God, by His own means, is
communicating with men and women and bringing them to Himself
(read Job 33:14-18).
God speaks to men, says Elihu, for
their spiritual education, their guidance in life and their
preservation from destruction. He "withdraws man from his purpose,
and hides pride" from him, leading him away from his own
self-assertive course of life, for pride is the source of sin. As
to the other means of communication, Elihu says:
"He is chastened also
with pain upon his bed, and the multitude of his bones with strong
pain: so that his life abhorreth bread, and his soul dainty meat.
His flesh is consumed away, that it cannot be seen; and his bones
that were not seen stick out. Yea, his soul draweth near unto the
grave, and his life to the destroyers" (Job 33:19-22).
The description of suffering
perfectly fits Job, and Elihu is saying that even he needs the
chastening, reproof, discipline of the Lord-not for the specific
sins alleged by his friends, for Elihu does not mention them, but
for a more subtle fault. Elihu has already hinted at it, for it is
the sin of spiritual pride, and only the experience of suffering
can bring it to light so as to convict him of it.
God's Working with
Suffering can, therefore, be part of the ways of God's working
with men for their own development and to bring them to a
knowledge of Himself; and the outcome for Job was a new and
intimate knowledge of God. He could say:
"I have heard of thee
with the hearing of the ear: But now mine eye seeth thee.
Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job
This working of God with man must
in its nature be individual: only the man who suffers can gain
this as a personal experience. The larger problem of suffering
remains, and the only answer to be extracted from the Book of Job
is that man cannot question the majesty and wisdom of God: He is
the Creator and Sustainer of all life, and His works are beyond
man's knowledge. It is this answer which is elaborated with such
power and beauty by the Voice from the whirlwind in chapters
38-41. Man can only accept that the ways of God are beyond his
"Does Job serve God
While, therefore, the Book of Job offers no simple answer to the
problem of suffering, it has been raised to a wider level. Only by
loss and suffering could Job know that he did not serve God for
the sake of houses, lands, flocks and herds, or even children. He
did not even serve for the sake of his own skin, his health and
wellbeing. He worshipped God for Himself, and in spite of all the
wild words which came from his stress of mind and body he had an
ultimate belief in God's righteousness and faithfulness. It was
only when stripped of everything that he really knew that God was
his only refuge, and in that discovery he was triumphantly
vindicated against the slander of the Adversary epitomized by the
Job's faith in God was put to the
test under trial, and by trial it was tempered as steel. It was by
his final acceptance of the wisdom of God, and by learning that
faith could be developed through suffering, that Job came at last
to the fuller knowledge of God.
The conclusions to be drawn from what has been considered so far
may be summarised as follows:
- Man lives in an ordered universe
of cause and effect and must accept its consequences; and since
sin entered into human life these must involve suffering. The
suffering, however, may not be directly related to the sin of
the sufferer but may result from the acts of former generations.
- At the same time it is the
universe of a God of wisdom and love who can guide and control
the suffering for those who seek Him in order to bring them to a
deeper knowledge of Him.
A Divine Discipline
It is in the light of this latter conclusion that we may
understand a passage in the Letter to the Hebrews based on a
saying in the Book of Proverbs:
"And ye have
forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto
children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor
faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he
chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye
endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son
is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without
chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and
not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which
corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather
be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they
verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but
he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now
no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous:
nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of
righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Wherefore
lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees" (Hebrews
12:5-12; Proverbs 3:11-12).
Read in its context, the passage
expounds itself. Suffering and loss are common to man, but for the
children of God they are directed by their Heavenly Father as a
spiritual training, and as such are the expression of His love.
Does God Suffer?
One stage more may be reached in the understanding of suffering.
It is that God Himself is involved in the suffering of man, for
out of His love He gave His own Son to die for them, and allowed
him to suffer too. Jesus was wholly innocent, untainted by sin of
any kind, yet he voluntarily laid down his life, suffering
injustice and cruelty for the sake of his friends:
"And as Moses lifted
up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be
lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but
have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his
only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not
perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into
the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him
might be saved" (John 3:14-17).
"Greater love hath no man than
this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." Greater love
even God could not have than to give His beloved Son to the
suffering of the cross for the redemption of men.
It is true, therefore, to say that
even God suffers, and it becomes possible to understand the saying
of the prophet concerning God's relation to Israel:
"In all their
affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved
them" (Isaiah 63:9; see also Judges 2:16).
Why Does God not
The God of Israel is not a remote, impassive First Cause:
His Holy Spirit can be grieved, He
can be moved with yearning compassion. He can love with an
everlasting love. All these are Scriptural expressions, and they
reveal God as the supreme Personality who can from His holy
transcendence enter into the lives of the men and women He has
People often ask: Why does God not
intervene to stop suffering, to halt war, to prevent disease,
etc.? God does, of course, intervene in human affairs; He has
shown His power at many times in history. But there is a limit to
this intervention: He has allowed man freewill, and He allows man
to use that freewill -- for good or ill.
God intervened in the history of
His chosen people Israel and gave them special opportunities to
worship. Him and be His witnesses. He entrusted them with His
revelation and with the promises and prophecies of a coming
God Sent His Son
So it was that, nearly 2000 years ago, God intervened in the lives
and history of man by giving His Son Christ Jesus to share in
human suffering to the uttermost in order to bring about
redemption from sin and death. Christ came in the life and nature
of man; he shared our experience and endured the temptations from
within and the afflictions from without that are the common lot of
"It became him . . .
to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings
. . . In all things it behoved him to be made like unto his
brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in
things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of
the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he
is able to succour them that are tempted." (Hebrews 2:10-18)
"Though he were a
Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered"
In accepting suffering in obedience
to the will of God he raised it to a new plane, and showed it no
longer as the greatest evil but as a means to an end: for through
suffering, in his perfect obedience to God, he overcame the power
of sin in human nature, and so made possible resurrection from the
dead to eternal life with the Fat~er. In this he obtained
perfection, a tried and tested faith, completeness in obedience,
wholeness in the love of God and the service of man -- an example
to all his followers.
"For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered
for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he
was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened
not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who
his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we,
being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose
stripes ye were healed" (1 Peter 2:21-24).
And "having been made perfect, he
became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal
salvation" (Hebrews 5:9). He is the author, the source, the cause,
of a salvation men cannot attain for themselves, since on account
of his sacrifice men and women who come to him for life are by
God's grace accepted as members of Christ. And so, as Christ rose
the third day, there is spiritual resurrection to new life now for
those who are baptized into him, and the hope of physical
resurrection and a change to immortality in the day when he
"Partakers of the
If men and women were to become "partakers of the divine nature"
(2 Peter 1:4), raised out of sin to a level where they could truly
know God, enjoy eternal fellowship with Him and share His
incorruptible life, then God alone knew how this was to be
achieved consistently with His own majestic holiness. It was the
way which required the gift of His Son to die on the cross.
If, then, God suffered, and if, in
obedience to the Father, Christ suffered even to death, the whole
problem of man's suffering is raised to a new level. Without faith
in God, suffering is an evil to be endured. With faith, and the
example of the Son of God, suffering may purify and ennoble, and
be a means by which God brings the sufferer nearer to Himself. It
can be truly a divine education, the chastening of the Lord.
"All things new"
If God's Son suffered, can men expect to escape? But beyond the
suffering was resurrection, and beyond resurrection will come the
Kingdom of God when Christ will come to reign, taking to himself
those who have already committed themselves as his followers.
This time for the kingdom to be set
up is very close. But the Lord's own words and many other
prophecies make it plain that the coming of Christ will be
preceded by great tribulation for the world, and no doubt also for
"For there shall be
great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the
world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days
should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the
elect's sake those days shall be shortened" (Matthew 24:21,22).
But when the Lord Jesus Christ
appears, he will cleanse the earth of all evil, put down all sin
and selfishness, eliminate disease-and ultimately death. He will
reign for God and remove suffering. Then shall be fulfilled the
words heard by the apostle John on Patmos:
"And I heard a great
voice out of heaven saying, Behold the tabernacle of God is with
men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people,
and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God
shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no
more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any
more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat
upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new" (Revelation
For those who answer the call of
God's love, the way of suffering may be the way of life, and that
is the ultimate purpose of the existence of suffering in the
world. The call is still going out; there is still opportunity for
all who are looking for hope beyond this present evil world, to
find it in the 'good news' of the Gospel.