The problem of suffering is probably the most frequent objection to the Christian faith. It is often asked by unbelievers when you are trying to witness to them, either as a genuine question, or as a way of asking difficult questions to catch you out! Otherwise it can be asked by Christians experiencing suffering. The question that is asked is normally something like this, “If God is good, then why does he allow suffering and injustice in the world?”
Suffering comes on different levels. In the news there are constant reports of suffering around the world. These include man-made problems such as wars or terrorism, or natural disasters such as earthquakes or famines. On a more local level, there is the on-going problem of crime, whether it is robbery, murder or rape. Suffering also affects us or our loved-ones personally, through sickness, bereavement, accidents, redundancy, relationship difficulties, of financial difficulties. The list seems endless!
Our human response is often to say, “It is not fair!”, or “It is not just!”, or to ask, “How can God allow it!”, and “Why doesn't he stop it?”. We frequently tend to blame God for suffering. After natural disasters, these questions are often asked in the newspapers and on the television. At these times they often interview religious leaders, and we see they rarely give satisfactory answers.
As “logical” human beings we come to the conclusion that if God is all-powerful, then he cannot not be good, or else he would want to stop all the suffering. Or conversely, if God is all good, then he cannot be all-powerful, otherwise he would be able to stop all the suffering. To us it can appear that either God lacks goodness, or power, or both.
So what is the problem?
This is a major problem for the Christian faith and world-view, which has no simple answers. It is a uniquely Christian problem, because the Bible consistently claims that God is both all-powerful and all-good, in both the Old and New Testaments. God is regularly called, “God Almighty”, showing that he is all-powerful. He is also described as good, just and loving toward his creation and his people. Many other religions do not have this problem in their faith, as they do not claim their god to be both good and all-powerful. One of the major perplexities of the Christian faith, which is often asked in the Bible, is, “Why do the righteous suffer?”
But what does the Bible have to say about suffering?
There is no simple answer to this question, as the Bible never wrestles with this issue in a purely abstract or theoretical way. The Bible is always very practical, so that theology is always applied to every-day life. It appears that the existence of suffering is assumed. The Bible does not seem to gives a complete explanation of why it exists, and why it affects those who are trying to live a life pleasing to God. This is the root of the frustration and unanswered questions. However the Bible does give us some helpful and practical insights of how to handle it, and how God uses it in our lives.
The story of Job
The story of Job is an extreme example of a highly righteous man who suffered dreadful calamities in his personal life. It is significant that the book of the Bible that speaks most about suffering does so through the experiences of one individual, rather than by some abstract philosophical teaching. In this article I want to look at the first two chapters of Job, so I would recommend that you take time to read them carefully, and observe what happened in the life of Job.
Firstly, it is important to note that Job is a completely righteous man, who loved and served God with all his heart and lived in the fear of the Lord. This is stated clearly at the beginning: “He was blameless and upright, he feared God, and turned away from evil” (1:2). Later God repeated this twice (1:8, 2:3). We should also note that Job’s faith is being put to the test. Satan asks God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?”. Job is a very wealthy man, who has been greatly blessed by God (1:2,10). The test that is being set is whether Job will continue to have faith, and continue to worship and fear God even if the blessing is taken away? It is questioning Job’s motives for worshipping God, does he do so out of genuine love for God, or are his motives selfish? Does he worship God just to get God’s material blessings? Throughout the test, Job faced the temptation to curse God and die, as his wife suggests (2:9).
In the account, it is clear that Job’s sufferings were sent by Satan, but God allowed Satan to afflict Job (1:12, 2:6,7)
The sufferings come in two stages: In the first, God allows Satan to touch all he has, his possessions (1:11) - his great wealth and large family. However God places a limit on Satan’s activity - he is not allowed to touch Job himself. Four catastrophes then happen (1:13-18): two of these come through other people - the Sabean and Chaldean raiders, and two come through what we would call today, “natural disasters” - the fire from heaven (lightning), and the wind storm. Through all these he lost all his possessions, and all his children.
It is important to note that Job has no idea of why this has happened to him. He does not know about Satan’s conversation with God and the test of faith that is going on. To him, all these events would appear to be “natural” events that could happen in the ancient Near East. To him, it is not obvious that God is involved, or that they came from Satan.
In the second stage God allows Satan to touch his bone and flesh (2:5) - Job’s body. Again God places a limit on Satan - he is not allowed to kill him. Job is then inflicted with dreadful sores (2:7). He is in dreadful physical agony, and is ritually unclean. Again Job has no idea why he has caught such a dreadful sickness. This could be a “natural” event. Again, it is not obvious to him that God is involved, or that it came from Satan. We, as readers of the book, have more insight into the situation than Job or his friends do. We know that this test of faith is going on, and that God and Satan are involved.
So far Job passed the test!
After the first stage, Job worshipped, and did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (1:20-22). He did not accuse God of being unjust. After the second stage, Job did not sin with his lips (2:10). Then Job’s friends come to try and comfort him. However they make his suffering worse. At a time like this, he needs compassion, not advice. Initially they showed sympathy, when they sat in silence (2:12-13). Through the next chapters of the book, they continually give the wrong explanation for Job’s situation. They continually claim that he must have sinned, which was a popular view of suffering among Jews. However, as readers of the book, we know that Job was innocent, as God had twice said at the beginning (1:8, 2:3), and Job knows that he was innocent (eg. 9:15).
So where did Job’s suffering come from?
Looking at his situation from a natural level, there were three sources of his suffering: The first was the raiders, the Sabeans and Chaldeans. They came and plundered Job’s possessions because they wanted them! We see human greed at work as they stole his possessions. They also killed the servants, showing murder and brutality. They exercised their free will to come and raid Job. The second source was what we could call today, natural disasters the fire from heaven, and the wind storm. The third source of suffering was sickness, when his body was afflicted with sores, and other symptoms.
However, looking on a spiritual level, we see that his suffering came from Satan, but Satan was only an instrument in the hands of God in the testing of Job. The suffering was allowed by God. The fire from heaven was described as “the fire of God” (1:16). God took the responsibility for Job’s misfortune, saying that Satan incited God against Job (2:3). Through his sufferings, Job saw the sovereignty of God. After first stage, he said, “the Lord gave, the Lord took away” (1:21). Then after the second stage, he said, “Shall we not receive the bad from God, as well as the good?” (2:10).
Job’s experience shows us that suffering comes on a natural level: human sin, natural disasters and human sickness. On a spiritual level, the suffering was caused by Satan, but was allowed by God.
Where does suffering come from today?
Today too, suffering comes on a natural level, but from different sources. We need to face the reality that suffering can come from our own sin, from our own choices. This was not the case in Job’s life, as God declared, even though his friends said it was. We have free choice of actions, but our actions have consequences, both on ourselves, and, importantly, on others as well.
God made the world, so the world belongs to him. He made us and knows the best for us. He gave his law, which can be seen as the Maker's instructions for the good life. If we ignore or reject God's ways we will suffer, but not necessarily immediately. The effects can take time to show in our lives. There are many examples of our own sin leading to suffering. These are a few examples from many: sexual promiscuity can lead to sexually-transmitted diseases, like AIDS; overwork can lead to stress and burn-out; carelessness can lead to accidents; selfishness in relationships can lead to relationship breakdown and divorce, using drugs can lead to addiction.
We must be clear that not all suffering is a result of our own sin. Job’s friends were wrong, and did not understand his situation. We should not think that if someone is sick, or suffering, they must have sinned. We should not judge or condemn them, that is not the Biblical response. However, if we ourselves are suffering, we should ask God if there is sin to repent of, a lifestyle to change, and he will come in gentle conviction. It is wrong to blame God for this sort of suffering.
Probably the majority of suffering in the world is caused by other people’s sin. People exercise their free-will, either for good or for bad. For Job , this was the Sabean and Chaldean raiders. On a modern global level, this includes: wars, terrorism, pollution, environmental damage, injustice. On a local or individual level, this includes: drunken drivers, plane crashes through negligence, adultery, theft, mugging, rape. Again, it is wrong to apportion blame to God for these.
In this category we should include the persecution of believers by unbelievers, as an example of other people’s sin which causes suffering. Jesus experienced this through his ministry, and supremely on the cross. He warned his disciples that this would happen to them (Mk 13:9f), and was experienced continually by Paul and the apostles through the Book of Acts. Paul also warned the Christians about this suffering, that it is - “through many persecutions we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Earlier, Jesus had called people to, “take up your cross and follow me” (Mk 9:34). The uncomfortable truth in the New Testament is that Christians should expect persecution, because the darkness does not like the light!
Much suffering today, like in Job’s time, comes from natural disasters. For Job, this was the fire from heaven and the violent storm. Today it is the same, whether it is earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or storms.
The final source of suffering today is sickness. For Job, this was the second stage, when he was afflicted with sores. Today, as then, sickness comes in many forms, and affects everyone at greater or lesser level through their lives. With medical advances, we have a greater understanding of sicknesses, whether caused by infection or genetic disorders.
Probably the most important truth we need to understand in this question is that natural disasters and sickness come as a result of us living in a fallen world. In the beginning, God made a perfect world without suffering or death. However the world we now live in is tainted with sin; it is no longer perfect. We need to appreciate that suffering was not part of God’s original creation, but that the creation itself is disordered because of human sin. After the fall, the ground was cursed (Gen 3:17-19). Adam’s sin affected not only himself, but also the ground he lived on. In the Book of Romans, Paul wrote that the creation itself is groaning, subject to futility (Rom 8:19-23).
On a spiritual level, as in Job’s time, suffering is caused by Satan, but allowed by God. The Bible consistently teaches the reality of the devil and the powers of darkness. Satan is the destroyer, and the enemy of the people of God. But Satan is not as strong as God. It is certainly not true that there is a dualism between good and evil, as understood by some eastern religions. From the story of Job, we see that Satan remains under God’s control, who set limits on Satan’s activity. However we need to accept the fact, however difficult we may find it, that suffering in the Bible was allowed by God, and sometimes was even sent directly by God as an act of judgement. An example would be the plagues of Egypt, which would probably appear to the people at the time as natural disasters. The Bible makes it clear consistently that God does act in judgement as a punishment for sin, whether in this life, or at the final judgement.
A look at the bigger picture
To gain the biblical understanding of many issues it is necessary to look at the beginning and the end. Probably the most important questions of life are, “Where did we come from?”, and “Where are we going?”. We should be clear that suffering was not part of God’s original intention for his creation. In the creation account, after each day, it says, “And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1). He made a perfect world without suffering or death.
God created the world because he wanted relationship with us, but to have a meaningful relationship it was necessary to give humanity the free choice to respond to God’s love. Otherwise God would have to relate to people who would be little more than robots, with no free will. It is impossible to make someone love us. People had the free choice either to love God, or not. God wanted people to choose to love and obey him. The sad truth is that people chose selfishness, rather than obedience to God, which is the essence of sin. They rejected God and rebelled against their Creator, and it is this rebellion that led to suffering and death. Because of this, the root cause of all suffering is sin, the consequence of living in a fallen world.
It is impossible to understand the problem of suffering without accepting that we live in a fallen world. The Biblical world-view is based on the foundation that the world was created by a good God, and was without sin, suffering or death. After the fall, sin and death affected all of God’s creation, including mankind and the rest of the physical world.
Suffering has no part in the glorious future God has for us
In contrast to this gloomy prospect, we can bring a wonderful note of hope. For believers, there is the promise that after our lives end on this earth, there will be no more suffering. The problem of sin will be finally dealt with, and there will be no more death. The saints in glory are described this way: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:16-17)
What about now?
During this life, we need to accept the uncomfortable fact that suffering is something we cannot avoid. However, God works through suffering to bring good out of it. This happens in several ways:
The first is that God frequently uses various forms of suffering to bring us to Christ. Difficulties and hardships in this life show us our need of him. They show us we cannot manage on our own. Someone once said that God’s greatest evangelistic tool was trouble, that more people come to Jesus as a result of difficulties in life, than many other ways. To show this, all we need to do is to listen to the testimony of many believers.
The second is that God uses suffering to bring us to Christian maturity, to build our character, to make us more like Christ. This is consistently taught in the New Testament, for example: “suffering should be seen as God's discipline” (Heb 12:11), “suffer various trials so that the genuineness of your faith is tested by fire” (1 Pet 1:6), and “the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:3).
The third is that God uses suffering to bring about his greater purposes. This is particularly seen in the life of Joseph, when after all his sufferings, he said to his brothers, “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). For us, it is much easier to see this in hindsight, rather than at the time, as the writer of Hebrew so realistically notes, "Now discipline (suffering) always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Heb 12:11). The challenge here is how we respond to suffering. There is a choice set before us. Do we respond in faith, maintaining our trust in God, in spite of the circumstances; or do we react in resentment, and blame God, which ultimately leads to bitterness?
The fourth is the encouraging promise that God more than compensates for suffering. We need to gain an eternal perspective, and look beyond the confines of this life. Paul said this, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." (Rom 8:18), and "This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure" (2 Cor 4:17). During his life, Paul certainly endured much suffering, but kept his hope. The promises he received for a better world, a better life in glory in heaven, gave him the strength to endure during his life. This same hope can also give us the strength to endure now, too.
The fifth truth is also an encouragement, that God is personally involved in our suffering. God is not remote and uninvolved, but he suffers alongside us. We are not alone in our pain and suffering. Jesus became on one of us, and was tempted in every way (Heb 4:15), and suffered on the cross. God does not promise to take away all pain and suffering, at least not yet. However, he does promise that he will never leave us or forsake us. He will meet us in the midst of it and give us his grace to endure it, as long as we call out to him in faith.
These insights into suffering were all demonstrated supremely on the cross. It was sin that put Jesus on the cross, where he paid the price for all sin, past, present and future, and that sin was as a result of man's free choice. We also see that on the cross God worked through suffering. The people who crucified Jesus intended it for evil, to get rid of a trouble maker; but God meant it for good, the salvation of all who put their trust in Jesus. Also on the cross, God more than compensated for suffering. Jesus had an eternal perspective, “for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:1-2). Even during his sufferings he saw ahead to his victory, resurrection and our salvation. And the cross proves that God is involved in suffering. On the cross, God suffered for us, and with us (Is 53:5).
How do we respond to suffering?
Now we come to some practical questions. When faced with suffering how should we respond? We should remember that suffering comes in many forms, not just physical sickness.
Firstly, how should we respond when we are suffering in some way ourselves? One thing we need to accept, is that we will never know all the answers to our questions. Job never received answers to the questions he asked, but came away with a far greater revelation of God, and of his creative power. In many ways, the Book of Job tells us more about how to respond to suffering, and how not to, than it explains it philosophically.
We do need to ask God whether there is any sin to repent of, or a lifestyle to change, even something very practical like taking more exercise. We should be open to the specific gentle conviction of the Holy Spirit, and resist the vague heavy condemnation that comes from Satan.
Also it is important to ask God if he is wanting to speak to us personally through our suffering. Is he using the current difficulties in my life. I have known a number of people who were made redundant from their job, and saw their career come to an end, only to realise that God had something else for them, like being called into full-time service for him.
Through the dark times of suffering, above all we need to hold on to hope. We must remember that better times are coming, either in this life, or in the life to come if we a believer. We need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the one who suffered, and was tempted in every way. Also it is very important to remember that it is God’s job to avenge and judge evildoers. If we hold on to resentment, it will ultimately destroy us. Instead, we are to receive God’s grace, and extend forgiveness.
Then through the difficulties we need to heed the call to endure and remain in a place of trusting God , like Job’s test.
Secondly, we will consider the lessons from Job of how to respond to the suffering of others. This is particularly difficult when a loved-one is suffering in whatever way. Above all, we are called to respond in compassion, and not to judge. It is job of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction of sin, not ours! The best thing Job’s friends did was to keep silent for a week. It is altogether too easy for us to make people’s suffering worse by saying the wrong things, or trying to give simple explanations, which are probably wrong. Job’s friends certainly made Job’s sufferings worse, rather than better. I remember meeting a couple once who were expelled from a church after their son had died of a brain tumour, because they did not have enough faith for his healing. When I heard this from them, I was shocked at the extreme lack of compassion shown by that church. Instead, we should pray for the one suffering, praying for God’s comfort and blessing.
During his ministry, Jesus had great compassion for those suffering or living in injustice, and demonstrated this compassion through acts of healing and kindness. Through the history of the church there has been a strong tradition of ministry to those suffering, showing practical acts of mercy to the sick and oppressed. This is a tradition that should certainly be maintained today.
The Old Testament prophets frequently stood up in support of the poor and oppressed, making a stand against injustice, wherever it comes from. The prophet Amos gives a prime example of this social concern, and boldness of speaking out against injustice. It is important that today’s church does the same.