One thing common to all humanity is the perplexing experience of suffering.
Notable examples, like wars and earthquakes, make the news headlines, but most suffering is not on the ‘news’. Yet it is known to all as it walks among our friends, family and communities: the loss of a spouse, the death of a child, mental illness, degenerative disease.
I sat with a middle-aged woman, her body worn out by long-term drug abuse, recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. She and her partner had decided to marry before she died, but a few days after, he died suddenly beside her at home. She had no food in the house and was due to be evicted and, through her tears, kept returning to the question we all ask, ‘Why is this happening?’
This question is often followed by another, ‘How can there be a God if this is happening?’ Suffering is a real problem and we need to faithfully probe the pain and draw out the comfort God offers us in his Word.
When people ask ‘Why?’, or ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’, they are subtly confessing that there is indeed a God and they can’t live without him. Their questions assume a moral order to the world, where there should be justice and some things seem unfair.
But these qualities can’t properly exist in a world without God. In such an imaginary world, there is no good or bad, just preference and opinion; no right or wrong, just choices; no point, no purpose to anything. So why ask why? The answer is: in the end, our broken hearts are subtly confessing we can’t live in a world like that.
These questions also reveal a serious flaw. Behind our sense that suffering is wrong is the conviction that we are basically good and deserve good. Yet the Bible reveals God sees things differently.
Genesis 1-3 tells us God created man good in a world without suffering and death (1:31). He tested Adam’s obedience with a command that threatened judgment and death for disobedience (2:17), but Adam failed and sin and death entered the world, with all their associated miseries (Romans 5:12; 8:20-23).
To deal with the problem of suffering, we must face up to the problem of our sin. God doesn’t owe us blessing, but cursing for our sins. Yet still we get angry when we don’t receive what we have no entitlement to, or when we do receive a little of what we deserve as sinners.
Suffering preaches its own groaning sermon of devastation brought into the world through sin, while the gospel proclaims Jesus Christ who can deal with the problem of our sin and will one day restore a created order free from all suffering (Revelation 21:4; 22:3). Until then, suffering is a reality. But the problem isn’t an unjust God; it is sinful man, living in a world under the curse.
So, where is God when suffering comes to Christians? The answer is that he is where he always is: reigning over all and fulfilling his purposes to his own glory. This is shown especially in what happened to Job.
Job was a faithful, God-fearing man, but Satan challenged God that Job only served Him because he was so prosperous (Job 1:9-12). Job was put to the test and, in one day, lost nearly everything. Yet, in the pain and confusion that engulfed him, he worshipped God and said, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord’. He did not know what God was doing, but he knew that when God had done it, he would be refined as gold (Job 23:10).
Job was confident that all things, including bad things like the loss of health and livelihood, and even the loss of children, work together for good to those that love God.
And, where is God when suffering comes to non-Christians? Again, he is reigning over all, but a non-Christian can take no comfort in God working all things for good. He should listen carefully to God’s voice in his suffering, because, far from contradicting the Bible or Christianity, it confirms it.
Suffering reminds us that we live in a world of sorrow and death due to sin. It convinces us that, despite our utopian dreams, we are ultimately powerless to save ourselves and others. It sounds a solemn warning to sinners to repent, and, if we don’t repent, then the sufferings of this present life will seem incomparable to the sufferings that will be ours in a lost eternity (Matthew 13:42).
But, the gospel tells us that, if we turn from sin and trust in Christ, the sufferings of this present life will not be worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).