Some Reflections on Suffering
Recently, Mike and I took a short trip up the west coast of Michigan to Sleeping Bear Dune Park and Traverse City. We saw lots of beautiful autumn colors in the leaves, fields of pumpkins and apple stands. We were a day in Grand Rapids; and so we had to visit the famous Baker Book Store Used Book Annex. It is a large building full of all kinds of used (cheap!) Christian books: theology, church history, devotionals, fiction… just about anything one can think of in Christian Books.
One of the books I found is titled “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” by Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian pastor in New York City. He has a series of chapters dealing with the challenges to belief with which contemporary secular people test the church - - issues like “there can’t be just one religion” and “Christianity is a straitjacket” and “The church is responsible for so much injustice” and others. Keller tackles these challenges head on in a very reasonable, intelligent, Christ-centered way.
One chapter that interested me particularly was “How could a Good God Allow Suffering?”- - a common question both inside and outside the church and certainly a very current concern.
That very issue had come up on another stop on our mini tour of Western Michigan which was a visit to some dear longtime friends who live near Muskegon. They are members of a discussion group which had recently had a conversation about God’s role in human suffering. One member of their group had said that he believed that God causes suffering for a larger purpose, pointing to the biblical story of Joseph who was betrayed by his own family, sold into slavery and taken to Egypt where he became the hero who freed the Hebrew people from their slavery.
I don’t know about that. My general belief is that, on the whole, humans cause most human suffering. The roots of large scale troubles go way back and get passed on through the generations. As Christians, we know that all of us participate in what we call sin. As the apostle Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short” of God’s intention for us as his children. Personally, I know that I fall short every day in ways large and small.
Every Sunday, we confess together the ways in which we fall short both personally and as the human race. We confess together because we sin together in the ways we participate in large forms of injustice and economic inequities and damage to the planet. So it seems to me that it is a little unfair to blame the suffering of the world on God.
But such an argument gives little comfort to a person who is suffering what seems to be totally pointless tragedy: cancer, random violence, viral pandemic, natural disasters. For consolation, we look to Jesus and his suffering. Christian faith has always recognized that Jesus bore, in our place, the endless exclusion from God that the heedless, careless sin of the human race has earned as He cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The physical pain that Jesus suffered in the crucifixion was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment. In the death of Jesus, God suffers in love identifying with the abandoned and god-forsaken.
If we ask the question, “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not fully know what the answer is. It is still a great mystery. But “if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth. We can know that God is truly Immanuel - - God with us - even in our worst sufferings.” [Keller. p 31]
The great Russian writer Dostoevsky wrote: I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a mirage, …that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they have shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened. [The Brothers Karamozov, chap. 34]
The fact of human suffering is a difficult question to deal with and we don’t really know the answer. But we know that the suffering of the crucifixion was not the end of the answer. Because of the Resurrection we trust that trouble in life is not the end product. When we are able to turn it over to God with trust in his love for us, sorrow comes with the promise of restoration and joy that grow out of our suffering. We trust that, in God’s hands and in God’s time, all of our experiences, good and bad, will be woven into a future of joy.
May we all learn to give over our troubles to God, asking for his healing and trusting in God’s promise of ultimate joy and God’s eternal and unconditional love for each one of us.