God and suffering

October 18, 2007 | Struggles | 13 comments

I heard yet another horrible story on the news recently. I won’t burden you with the details, but it was one of those cases where I wanted to pack up my house and move to a cave just so I never have to be exposed to anything like that again. Whenever I hear things like this I’m reminded of the age-old question, one of the ultimate tough questions to ask of Christianity, “How could a loving God allow us to suffer?” Though I had come to some small understanding of this great mystery to enough of an extent that it wasn’t a roadblock to belief, I found myself thinking as I read that latest news story, “My God, how could you allow this to happen?”

As I sat back in a prayerful silence (not because I’m just a naturally prayerful person, but because I felt too depressed to do anything else), a thought popped into my mind seemingly out of nowhere: “Where would you have God draw the line?” Meaning, what types of suffering should he allow, and what should he not allow? I’ve been asking myself that question over and over again since then, and it’s led to some interesting thoughts about suffering.

I recoil in horror at stories of great suffering like I heard on the news the other day, and angrily tell God that I want him to stop this. Yet “suffering” encompasses a broad spectrum of experiences. Where would I have him draw the line? Nobody wants him to allow the horrific events that make the news. But what about the suffering that comes with broken bones? What about migraine headaches? What about sleep deprivation? What about humidity, paper cuts and ingrown toenails? What about sticky keyboards and uncomfortable desk chairs? Should a loving God allow us to have itches we can’t scratch? For that matter, should we be asking God why he doesn’t make the earth’s gravitational field a little weaker to lessen the suffering (albeit minuscule) that currently comes with walking, moving, lifting, etc.? I’m not being sarcastic or in any way trying to minimize the great suffering that’s at the far end of the spectrum. Obviously, something like being tortured involves exponentially more suffering than something like having to strain to pick up a heavy object — but they are both forms of suffering nonetheless.

As I thought about everything in life that is technically suffering, the examples were countless — so countless, in fact, that I realized that suffering is the defining characteristic of our experience here on earth. At every single moment we suffer. Some it’s so slight that we hardly notice it, sometimes it’s so great that it consumes us, but we always suffer.

How odd, then, that we yearn for something different. Why would the human animals that inhabit planet earth, where to live is to suffer, be consumed with feelings that it shouldn’t be this way?

Boothe Farley, writing about the recent death of her daughter, says it far better than I ever could:

If God didn’t ordain Copeland’s sickness, if it wasn’t His design, why in the world did she have it? Because I live here. It’s like asking why I have a Southern accent. It comes free, courtesy of my locale. She wasn’t sick because I needed to learn a lesson. She wasn’t sick because I didn’t do enough things right – or too many things wrong. She was sick because we live in a broken, fallen world and until Jesus comes back, things are just going to keep going wrong. Not all the time – that’s when the glimpses of Heaven come in. But quite frequently. Life is truly one long dysfunction. Only by God’s grace – getting what we don’t deserve – do we ever see any good at all.

So how could a loving God allow suffering? As Boothe points out, perhaps a better question would be, “Why would God, who gave free will to the creatures he created in his image only to have them use it to scorn and reject him, even allow these recalcitrant creatures to have glimpses of heaven in their fallen world? Why would he bother to let them know something of the peace and joy of his realm, where there is no suffering?” Because he’s loving.

13 Comments

  1. Wonders for Oyarsa

    Hi Jen,

    What you say is true of course, but I think the deeper answer is that evil and suffering, though a profound mystery, are answered in Christ. It is a little silly for a Christian to be surprised at suffering, because our Lord, the perfect embodiment of God himself, was never more clearly exalted as when he took it upon himself to pull the evil and suffering and death on his shoulders on that horrid cross. The central symbol of our faith is a symbol of shame and suffering. We can’t escape it, we have to go through it, if we expect to share in his resurrection.

  2. Karen E.

    Sometimes people struggle with this question because the difference between God’s active will and His passive will has never occurred to them. It did, clearly, occur to Copeland’s mother, and she’s right that we live in a fallen world in which suffering will always be allowed, even when not ordained. Because, as you said, Jen, He’s loving and He has given us freedom to return or reject the love.

    And that makes so much more sense than a blithe, “It was God’s will, dear.”

  3. el-e-e

    Oh, Jen! What a terrific explanation. I’ve never looked at it this way and I think it’s genius. 🙂 Thank you for your insight, as always. (I like that you included paper cuts and uncomfortable desk chairs. Hee.)

  4. Jonathan

    Jennifer,

    I often read blogs that mimic my own thoughts yet describe them much more coherently and thoroughly than I ever could. I bookmark the great ones to fall back on in tough times. I have to say I have found myself bookmarking every post that finds its way onto this website. Thanks for the inspiration and hard work.

  5. patjrsmom

    And scripture reminds us that God will work out all things for good for those who love God. He can bring amazing graces from the suffering in the Body of Christ, especially of the innocent.

    Great post.

  6. Courageous Grace

    I have struggled with this question as well, and the answer I keep coming up with is that our suffering helps us to appreciate the gifts God has given us.

    The pain we experience serves to make the joys we experience better than they would have been otherwise, that we sometimes tend to take the joys for granted.

  7. Warren

    Another great post!

    The whole issue of evil and suffering, which is a stumbling block to so many, actually played a key role in my conversion. In my previous life (pre-Christian), my philosophy was mostly based on various Eastern traditions – Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which I still greatly respect. Suffering is a big issue with these traditions, especially Buddhism – “all is suffering” is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the starting point for all his teaching. However, I always felt that something vital was missing. To the Eastern traditions, suffering is just the result of ignorance, to be avoided, ended, transcended in some way. They do not, as far as I can see, invest suffering with any kind of meaning. And when I started to go through the Middle-Aged Meat Grinder in earnest (deaths of both parents and all three brothers, open-heart surgery, car wreck, illnesses, teenage kids, etc), I badly needed for it all to mean something. Only Christianity provided me with a framework by which to understand my experiences of suffering in a meaningful way – the other traditions, great as they are, gave me nothing I needed when the going got really tough. In fact, I have come to believe that Christianity is truly unique in this regard. The Cross, with all that it stands for, is something that only Christianity offers to the human race.

  8. Abigail

    This is the real struggle of “faith” and “hope.” A reason so many people have for leaving the church. I don’t think the mystery of suffering can ever be really grasped by the mind, its more of a heart thing. “Blessed are those that mourn.” I can clearly see how that is true in my own case, but struggle to have faith in those words when I hear of other’s suffering.

  9. Michelle

    That was beautiful! Thank you for those thoughts and insights, they are right on!

  10. JP Benjamin

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that “suffering is the defining characteristic of our experience here on earth.” The reason that time is meaningful to us is that things ‘can be done to us’, i.e. we can suffer. The angels do not have this attribute, and I think it was St. Therese who said that if it were possible for them to envy us, they would envy our ability to suffer. As temporal creation, we have the capability of slowly making our way towards God, from nothing, and if done well it is a beautiful thing.

  11. lyrl

    “Suffering” is a word with a negative connotation. A word with the same meaning – but a positive connotation – is “challenge.” I think most people would characterize the milder examples Jen gave as challenges rather than suffering just because of the different connotations.

    People want to “avoid suffering”, but to “overcome challenges”. To me, facing and overcoming challenges is a huge part of being human. People run marathons and climb mountains for the experience of having challenged themselves successfully.

    The concept of striving for a place where there are no challenges, where everything is handed to you on a silver platter – is not my idea of eternal bliss.

    The Reform Jewish concept of a Messianic Age where we have eliminated the extreme forms of suffering such as war and abject poverty, but the world still has challenges such as being a parent (the Christian tradition teaches there will be no more children, ever, after the Resurrection – Matthew 22:23-33) – resonates much more with me.

  12. Cow Bike Rider

    Great post. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog.

  13. Daisy

    Like Chesterton said, “The amazing thing isn’t that the magic was over at midnight, but that Cinderella went to the ball in the first place.” (best of my memory).

    Orthodoxy.

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