Why do we suffer?
Human suffering is a universal fact of life. Whatever our age or circumstances, from time to time at least, and to a greater or lesser extent, we all experience the pain and heartache of suffering. But why do we suffer? There seem to be at least five secondary reasons.
We do not observe God’s natural laws
Probably from an early age we recognised and respected the law of gravity by our mishaps. We soon learnt to count the cost of the sharpness of a knife, the unresisting nature of the ground or the toxic taste of certain liquids! How important it is for parents to teach their children the lethal dangers of fire, water, moving objects and great heights, for instance. Even as adults we can recklessly disregard God’s natural laws and suffer as a result.
Sometimes we suffer because others make us suffer
Many of us have been bullied, mocked, and verbally or physically abused at some time in our lives. Man’s inhumanity to man so often seems endless and inevitable. The mental cruelty and violence of people can be wicked and terrible indeed.
We bring suffering upon ourselves
Through our own folly, forgetfulness, carelessness, laziness, addictions or ignorance, we suffer accidents, illnesses, broken relationships, or worse. And how foolish we are to suffer in advance, through needless worry about events that never happen!
Millions of people suffer through what insurance companies used to call, understandably, ‘acts of God’
Understandably, because God is all-powerful, knows everything and in the last analysis allows everything that happens to us and his universe.
Hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis are major ‘acts of God’, and with famines and plagues can sometimes be God’s wake-up call to nations through his judgements. Outstanding examples in the Old Testament are the great Flood of Genesis 6, the plagues of Exodus 7-11, the earthquake and fire in Numbers 16, and Jerusalem’s destruction.
Satan, the rebellious, lying, murderous angel-prince of this world, can bring suffering to people
A woman could not straighten her back for eighteen years till Jesus did a miracle of healing on her (Luke 13:10-17).
But the primary reason why we suffer is because of sin – indirectly, because we live in fallen world, and sometimes directly because of our own sin. Sin is the Bible word for disobeying or ignoring God our maker. Anything in us and our conduct that displeases our personal Creator comes under the umbrella word of sin. Even the second best course of action for us can be opposed to God’s best course for us.
People everywhere, in all ages, have received two telling witnesses of God from him – the inward witness of our conscience that tells us what is right and wrong, and the outward witness of God’s creation, so varied, beautiful and terrifying in all its splendid complexity. Those of us with access to Bibles have even greater privileges and responsibilities (Luke 12:48).
The Bible says that God made everything good on planet Earth, but everything changed when, tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve wilfully broke God’s commandment (Genesis 3). The ground was cursed by God, the pains of childbirth were increased, Adam and Eve’s intimate relationship with God was severed, they were banished from the lovely Garden of Eden, and the human race was doomed to die physically. Our first ancestors took us all into a life that includes suffering and ends in death.
But thank God, he did not give up on us humans! He is a God of true love as well as of righteous judgement. He provided a way back home to himself for us prodigal sons and daughters. He loved us so much that he sent his one and only Son Jesus to die on a cross as our perfect substitute.
Hijacked by our own sin and selfishness, we can now be rescued for ever by Jesus, for he paid in full the ransom price of himself to set us free from the gruesome grip of sin, death and the devil.
As the sinless Lamb of God, the Good Shepherd died for us all, and gives forgiveness and eternal life to those who acknowledge and receive him, and resolve to follow, serve and love him to the utmost all their days.
Never forget that Jesus suffered on the cross more than anyone ever has. Not only in his body; and not only in his anguish of mind when ‘his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground’ (Luke 22:44); but most of all in his spirit.
Though sinless himself, Jesus was ‘made sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
It is remarkable that suffering can bring beneficial results. The remarkable truth is that Jesus himself ‘learned obedience from what he suffered’ (Hebrews 5:8).
The suffering, sympathetic, self-sacrificing Son of God is what makes Christianity unique among world religions. And suffering can strengthen and even sweeten our characters. It can teach us courage, patience and perseverance, and make us more grateful for past and present blessings.
Suffering can also make us more sympathetic to people in need. It reminds us we are weak creatures of flesh and blood and dependent on others.
Best of all, our sufferings can send us to God with sincere, humble cries for his help and strength and guidance. If God does not grant us a miracle or relief, it is hard to accept and adapt to our suffering, but under God we can do so.
Now let’s be severely practical. Let’s touch on the problem of theodicy. How would I answer someone who said, ‘My daughter died of cancer. How can a loving and all-powerful God allow that?’
My reply in brief would be like this: ‘I’m so sorry for you, and I empathise with you, for we also lost a daughter from cancer. But death is not the end. Try to grasp the Bible’s bigger picture. After death Jesus will judge everyone (2 Corinthians 5:10). He will welcome some to his heaven and will send others to hell. The important thing is this – have you believed in, trusted and obeyed Jesus Christ as your Rescuer and Lord?’
If a Christian questioned the goodness of God on seeing his family, house or church destroyed by those who hate Christians, I would still gently remind that Christian of Christ’s stirring promise in Matthew 5:10‑12, and the apostles’ example in Acts 5:41, and Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.
Yes, the problem of suffering is still clouded in mystery. We cannot answer all the cries of ‘Why? Why me? Why now?’
Surely, at times, God causes and uses pain as a last resort. As C. S. Lewis in his book The problem of pain wrote: ‘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’.
God has revealed all we need to know, yet mysteries remain. The mystery of godliness as revealed in the incarnation, nature, atoning death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the greatest mystery of all. And as, by his Spirit and through faith, we learn to explore this supreme mystery, we can trust God to look after the other mysteries in our life, including that of suffering.