The world is full of woe. Who can deny it? The Christian life is full of woe. Who can deny it? The Bible certainly does not. When Job’s friend Eliphaz observes that “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards” (5:7) or when Job himself remarks “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble,” (14:1) they are not only simply speaking the truth that any observant person will acknowledge, but they are agreeing with a fact writ large in Holy Scripture itself.
Whether we read the personal histories of men and women in the Bible, read over and over again their cri de coeur in the book of Psalms, read the often gloomy sermons of the prophets whose subjects are so often either the pain God’s people are already suffering or the sorrow they are soon to experience; whether we read the story of the Lord’s life and ministry, death and resurrection in the Gospels, or the account of the apostles’ ministries in Acts, everywhere we look in Holy Scripture we find suffering and heartbreak. We find joy and success, of course, satisfaction and fulfillment in the life of faith, but not without acute pain and disappointment. And the Bible does not scruple to force on us the reality of suffering, refusing to permit us – as we might so easily do in our relatively comfortable age – to minimize it or to make light of it, as, for example, Norman Vincent Peale and his disciple Robert Schuller did with their emphasis on the “power of positive thinking” and as the gurus and psychologists you see on television do in their own ways.
We are made to see Job scraping his itching sores while sitting on a dunghill; we read of Hannah’s years of hopeless despair as she remained childless no matter her desperate prayers for a baby, we witness Elijah contemplating suicide, we read of women in Jerusalem eating their own children in a desperate effort to stay alive during the Babylonian siege, we are given to imagine John the Baptist languishing in prison until suddenly they come to take his head off, and on and on it goes.
The wise man who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes admitted that life begins in pain, continues in sorrow, and ends in futility, when, in its last act, even trying to eat a meal or managing to sleep through the night becomes high tragedy. He does not deny the joy that we experience, the profound satisfactions of human life, but in, under, around, and through that life is vexation, disappointment, sadness, and, more often than not, some times of real despair. And who can protest that his characterization of life is too gloomy; after all death itself looms at the end?
From that time to this, life has been terribly hard for vast multitudes of people and at least at times terribly hard for everyone. And God’s people are not excepted. See Martin Luther in your mind’s eye, tears streaming down his face as he holds his beloved daughter Magdalena in his arms as she dies at fourteen years of age. Or see the saintly Thomas Boston as an older man now missing most of his teeth, having lost six children in infancy, and living with his beloved wife who had lost her mind. Pictures of life in this world! Indeed, living as we do today with so many advantages – there is aspirin for our headaches – something people never had in ages past – though, to be sure not all our headaches are subject to medical relief; we have dental care; our children are not nearly so likely to die young; depression can often, though certainly not always, be counteracted with medicine; the pain associated with disease can now very often be managed, and so on – and yet, it is not less true today than it has been in the past that man is born to trouble. Indeed, modern man has invented new forms of suffering the ancients never knew to go along with those they knew very well. If there is less pain from headaches or aching teeth or leprosy there is more from those diseases of old age that modern medicine allows us to experience that they did not experience nearly so frequently in former times. And then there is the social alienation, ruined marriages, broken homes, the agonies caused by the more deadly weapons man uses against man in our time, and on and on. Not content with our own woe, we are nowadays regularly borne down by the woes of people we don’t know who live far away, as their pain and sorrow is brought into our living rooms on the television set or on our computer screens. I know people who suffer from depression whose addictive fascination with the constant stream of bad news from all over the world is a component of their misery. And, of course, the modern tyrants have caused suffering on a scale unknown in the ancient world, cruel as that world so often was. Caesar may have killed his thousands, but Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed their ten thousands and did so with a barbarity unmatched in the annals of human cruelty. In one extended battle in the Chinese civil war in the 1940s some six million were killed. It would have taken a century or more for ancient despots to run up a body count that high! [Philosophers Who Believe, 70]
The fact that the Bible so candidly acknowledges the reality and ubiquity of sorrow and suffering in life – babies born in pain, doomed to die before their lives have hardly begun, wracking diseases that afflict so many in the middle of life, the devastation of famine, war, and natural catastrophe, and, perhaps worst of all, the pain and agony of the heart in the face of life’s disappointments: betrayal, loss, unfulfilled longing, blasted hopes, unredeemed injustice, loneliness, missed opportunities, shame, the declining powers of old age, and on and on – I say, that the Bible acknowledges that this is so much the story of human life does not solve the problem. Almost anyone and certainly almost any Christian finds himself or herself sometimes shaken by how much woe there is in human life and how terrible it often is.
The quandary is very easily stated and it has been stated time and time again, both by the enemies of our faith and sometimes by its friends. If God is good, if God is love, if God is sovereign and all powerful, why in the world does he allow a mother to suffer the death of her baby, or young women be taken into sexual slavery, or little children to be sexually abused, or a wife to be physically abused by her husband, or people to die the painful death of starvation, or so many to live their lives in the deep darkness and hopelessness caused by clinical depression, and, of course, I could go on and on. Why does God allow such misery? To what point would such suffering ever be allowed? And, ask that question often enough, have it forced upon your mind and heart powerfully enough, and men and women can begin to doubt whether God is really as good as the Bible says he is or whether he is there at all.
Now, you yourselves know that this is an immense subject and one the Bible addresses in many different ways. Some twenty-three years ago I did an evening series of sermons on Suffering and Affliction and in that series preached some twenty sermons. But in those twenty sermons I’m sure I barely scratched the surface of the Bible’s theology of suffering, multi-layered, profound, and difficult as it is. But what that means, of course, is that there are a great many things to be said in answer to this complaint and a great many responses to the doubts that Christians can find rising in their hearts because of the suffering they themselves endure or that they observe in the lives of others. I can give you only the outline of a reply, but enough, I hope, to help us come to terms with these facts, for facts they are, facts the Bible leaves us in no doubt about: that God is sovereign and so rules this world and everyone in it; that he is good and merciful even as he is just, that there are reasons for the suffering of human beings and of Christians, and, finally, that profoundly mysterious as God’s ways are and must be for small, ignorant, and sinful creatures as ourselves, we have more than adequate reason to trust God’s goodness and wisdom through all the vicissitudes of life, no matter how painful. It is precisely because all of these things are true that vast numbers of Christians through the ages – people who in many cases suffered greatly in many ways – held fast to the Lord through the pain and trouble of their lives. They read the Bible and found there the help and understanding they needed both to accept their lot and to endure it.
But before we begin our examination of the biblical theology of suffering, let us face a fact that is often ignored when human suffering is raised as an objection to the Christian belief in God, in God’s wisdom and goodness, or in God’s sovereignty. And that fact is simply this: if we cannot believe in a God who would allow such pain and misery in the world, we are left, in the nature of the case, with something far worse. What I mean, in brief, is that while suffering may still be terribly difficult to bear even when that suffering has meaning, is part of a wise and loving God’s plan for our lives and the life of the world, it becomes far harder to bear when stripped of any meaning or purpose or point. And if God does not exist, or is not sovereign, or if human suffering is not his will but he is powerless to prevent it, no one has yet explained how suffering can retain any meaning, any point, any purpose in life or how we can find hope in the midst of it. Human woe must then be nothing else but the impersonal indifference of blind fate that cares nothing for your pain, has no interest in some good that may come of it, and can offer no solace in the midst of it.
This argument has been made in many ways by many different thinkers, but it has been taken up, dusted off, and presented in a modern form by the influential American philosopher and evangelical Christian Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame. Plantinga, of Christian Reformed background, is not only the most influential and best known of American Christian philosophers, he is one of the most influential of all American, indeed of all modern philosophers. What is interesting, in Plantinga’s case, because he is a philosopher who has thought hard about and then written a great deal in defense of the Christian faith, is that he regards the argument from evil – that is, the existence of so much suffering in what is supposed to be God’s world – as the one serious argument against our faith left standing in the field. But then he goes on. I’m going to read this excerpt in full because I think it contains an immensely important and deeply useful truth, a fact to return to when doubts arise in the mind and heart.
“…it is indeed true that suffering and evil can occasion spiritual perplexity and discouragement; and of all the antitheistic arguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken really seriously. But I also believe, paradoxically enough, that there is a theistic argument from evil, and it is at least as strong as the antitheistic argument from evil. … What is so deeply disturbing about horrifying kinds of evil? The most appalling kinds of evil involve human cruelty and wickedness: Stalin and Pol Pot, Hitler and his henchmen, and the thousands of small vignettes of evil that make up such a whole. What is genuinely abhorrent is the callousness and perversion and cruelty of the concentration camp guard taking pleasure in the suffering of others; what is really odious is taking advantage of one’s position of trust (as a parent or counselor perhaps) in order to betray or corrupt someone. What is genuinely appalling, in other words, is not really human suffering as such so much as human wickedness. This wickedness strikes us as deeply perverse, wholly wrong, warranting not just quarantine and the attempt to overcome it, but blame and punishment.
“But could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness if naturalism were true? I don’t see how. A naturalistic way of looking at the world, so it seems to me, has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort; a fortiori, then, it has no place for such a category as horrifying wickedness. It is hard enough, from a naturalistic perspective, to see how it could be that we human beings can be so related to propositions (contents) that we believe them; and harder yet…to explain how that content could enter into a causal explanation of someone’s actions. But these difficulties are as nothing compared with seeing how, in a naturalistic universe, there could be such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. There can be such a thing only if there is a way rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live; and the force of that normativity – its strength, so to speak – is such that the appalling and horrifying nature of genuine wickedness is its inverse. But naturalism cannot make room for that kind of normativity; that requires a divine lawgiver, one whose very nature is to abhor wickedness. Naturalism can perhaps accommodate foolishness and irrationality, acting contrary to what are or what you take to be your own interests; it can’t accommodate appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (that our sense that there is, is not a mere illusion of some sort), and if you also think the main options are theism [belief in God] and naturalism [that matter is all there is], then you have a powerful theistic argument from evil.” [Philosophers Who Believe, 72-73]
Actually, I think Prof. Plantinga’s argument works as well, if in a slightly different way, for what philosophers call surd evil, that is, not the evil that men do to one another, not human wickedness, but the suffering that comes from “natural” phenomena: disease, famines caused by drought, from flood, earthquake, and the like. Again, in a naturalistic conception of the universe, such suffering simply is. No one caused it for some reason; no one allowed it in order that it might serve some good purpose. It just happened. There is no reason for it and it has no meaning; no more than unknowingly we step on an ant on the pavement and crush it out of existence. Just as the wildebeest runs for its life but is caught, killed, and eaten by the lion, so human beings are consumed overtaken by events. We think of such events as tragic, but actually, if there is no God, there is no tragedy, there is simply another event that causes pain or death. Tragedy requires some reason to believe that such a thing ought not to have happened, that such a thing was not the way things should be. But if there is no God, no God of goodness, love, and justice, the things we think of as bad things are not bad at all; they are simply what happens. After all, such things happen to all the beasts sooner or later. If so, it goes without saying that all of what we think of as woe that happens to human beings in those various ways is just bad luck. You can find no purpose for it and take no comfort from the fact that it was done for a reason. You can never say what Paul said to the Thessalonians:
“[Paul, having spoken of the troubles he had recently faced, said he wanted]…to establish and exhort you in your faith that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.” [1 Thess. 3:3-4]
That is, a Christian can say, however painful, however mysteriously sorrowful his or her circumstances, that we were destined for this. God has a plan for us that includes suffering. Whether we know its specific purpose or not, there is such a purpose. That purpose justifies hope. But without God, without his sovereignty over our circumstances, there can be no hope in the midst of suffering. Evil happens; it consumes us; nothing anyone can do about it but bear it as best one can until the light goes out. Every effort to find meaning will, must come to nothing because our life and your sorrows literally mean nothing. If they mean something to you that is only because in your desperation you are making up some meaning that doesn’t really exist, you are tricking yourself as a way of alleviating your pain. You are, in other words, behaving irrationally, investing purpose in what is pointless and significance in what is senseless. You are confusing moral meaning with animal feeling.
So before someone says, “I cannot believe in a God who allows such suffering,” let him or her face squarely the alternative. If God is not the master of our circumstances, both happy and sad, they mean nothing and it is not only pointless to complain of your trials, since there is no one to complain to, there is also no remedy and no hope. Even if one survives one trial, another is coming round the bend sooner than you think and before too long the end comes and it is all over. So before anyone thinks of jettisoning his or her Christian faith because of the trouble he or she is facing or is observing in the lives of others, have the courage and good sense to recognize what you would be trading it for! It is a bad bargain to exchange mystery for despair!
But now, what can we say about the terrible suffering that afflicts every human being in one measure or another and every Christian? Well, as a Christian, I think it is wise to begin with a citation from Augustine:
“God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”
Do you realize how completely the suffering of God’s own son, his enduring the same suffering that is part and parcel of human experience, transforms this question and bathes our experience of pain and sadness in a softer and warmer light?
Here lies, after all, the true distinctiveness of the Christian faith. There was never anything like this in the religions of the ancient world. The gods were petty and vindictive, they would often interfere with the lives of human beings but for their own interests not those of mankind. They were not gods of true love and self-sacrifice. They were not gods of justice. They could not be expected and never were expected to act in accordance with a pure and holy character. Their lives were no example for mankind! And still today other faiths talk about suffering, other faiths are motivated by a desire to escape or transcend the suffering of human life – think of faiths as different as Buddhism and the health-and-wealth corruptions of Christianity – but only biblical Christianity sanctifies suffering by making it the means of humanity’s redemption. Only in Christianity does God actually enter this world and suffer alongside and on behalf of his suffering creatures. If you want a deep explanation for why Christianity is so different fundamentally in its ethic and its manners from Islam, here is the explanation. Jihadists do not worship a God who came into the world to bear the suffering of human beings. It is one thing if our pain and sorrow must be borne alone and if God is thought to be detached from or indifferent to our woe. It is an altogether different thing if God is touched with a feeling of our infirmities, if our divine redeemer himself was made perfect through suffering, and if in all of our afflictions, he is afflicted too (Isa. 63:9). It is an altogether different thing if by his sufferings we were redeemed from sin and death and by our sufferings we are sanctified and perfected as human beings. It is an altogether different thing to experience pain and sorrow if we know, as the Bible teaches us, that God suffers and sorrows with us and beside us. As we read, however mysteriously, in Lamentations 3:33: “…he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.”
In other words, God and, in a still more profoundly human way, the Lord Jesus feels our pain. Obviously there is mystery here. Who can say precisely how he feels our pain or suffers with us and how that truth can be reconciled with the truth of his absolute sovereignty over human affairs? Still we are at least given a way of conceiving of this.
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.” [Ps. 103:13]
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” [Isa. 49:15]
God is presented to us in Holy Scripture as our Father and we know from our own experience and from the observation of others how a parent’s happiness is bound up with the happiness of his or her child, how deeply the child’s pain and sorrow is felt by his or her mother or father. It’s precisely that analogy that God gives us as a way of understanding his own compassion for us. That is the compassion the Bible is speaking about, the compassion of a father or a mother for his or her child. In some way it is like that with God and our suffering. His happiness in some way is bound up with our own, so that the Bible can say that when we suffer, he suffers as well. That is a phenomenal thing to know and for the Bible to teach, and it must alter and alter fundamentally the way we think about our suffering. That we are not alone in it, that God himself, the sovereign God, feels our pain and is himself sorrowful because we are is a great mystery, I do not deny it. But it is also the profoundest possible answer to the charge that a good God would not permit the suffering of which this world is so full. There must be powerful reasons why human beings must suffer if God orders it or permits it even, as it were, against his own will!
In the very center of the Christian faith, and only there, is a God who has himself been wounded, a God who can honestly be described as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. There is nothing remotely like this in any other religion, faith or philosophy of life and it explains so much. Every human being instinctively knows that this is what God should be like! That is why unbelievers accuse us of believing in a God who allows suffering. They don’t think God should do that! Stop and think about that! Why in the world do they think that?
In any case, whether we have any idea why we have been visited with great pain and sorrow, for the Christian it must make an immense difference to know that the Son of God walked this road before us and for us. Suffering is not some alien experience, it is so endemic to human life that when God himself came into the world as a man, when he took to himself a human nature, he became a suffering servant.
In an extraordinarily important and powerful passage in Hebrews 2 we read this.
“In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” [2:10, 16-18]
Heroes are typically either sympathetic or strong. They are rarely both soft and hard, able to offer sympathy and fellow feeling (misery loves company!) and relief (which misery craves even more). But Jesus Christ is both and by suffering both entered into our sorrows and conquered them!
The sufferings of our Lord and Savior were the penalty he bore for our sins. But those same trials and sorrows served another purpose. Living a very difficult life prepared our perfect Savior to be a better help to us in our temptations and trials than otherwise he could have been. Much as we may struggle to understand this, it is what the Bible teaches. We read in Hebrews 2:18, “For because he himself has suffered…he is able to help…” and again in 4:15, “for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are…” The fact that Jesus suffered as we suffer, that he endured our kind of pain and sorrow, is the reason we can trust him implicitly to want to help us, to care for us and to feel our pain. His own afflictions enable him to understand what we are going through. His experience of sorrow has taught him what we are feeling. His experience has made him wiser still as a comforter and helper. In some mysterious way this is knowledge that even omniscience did not give him. It was his very hard life as the Man of Sorrows that equipped him so perfectly to care for us when we suffer. Sympathy is an art, not a science; an art learned in the trials of life.
Surely this is one reason why the Lord appoints so many trials for his followers. If even the sinless one, even the Lord Christ himself needed his own afflictions to attain the perfect sympathy with us that his high priesthood required, how much more must we poor, selfish sinners suffer to become truly tenderhearted toward others? If to love others is one of the two great purposes for which we human beings have been given breath, then blows that soften our hearts and experiences that teach us fellow feeling for others must be necessary and valuable.
It is not so hard to imagine that the Lord’s terrible loneliness – after all, who among even his closest friends really understood his life or even began to grasp the burdens he was bearing? – made him still more perfectly compassionate toward the lonely. The loss of his own beloved father must have had something to do with the way he felt the grief of the widow of Nain, who had lost her only son (Luke 7:13). And when in compassion he helped the sorrowful – and when he does this still today by his Holy Spirit – his help had then and has now a special authority because it comes from his own wounded and experienced heart. He understands as only the fellow sufferer can.
The power of sympathy rests in a shared understanding, a shared experience of pain. The great missionary, John Paton, acknowledged this when speaking of his own broken heart upon the death of his wife and infant son soon after arriving in the South Sea Islands. He wrote, “Let those who have ever passed through any similar darkness as of midnight feel for me; as for all others, it would be more than vain to try to paint my sorrows.” This is what makes Christ’s sympathy so valuable to us. If as a man not a woman, as someone who never reached old age, who never married, who never had children and so on; if he has not suffered precisely every pain or loss or sorrow that we have, he has suffered their type and far more heavily than we have.
As Christians, it is our calling, as we are often told, to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). When we do so we are imitating the Lord Jesus (Phil. 2:1-9). In fact we are never more like the Lord Jesus than when our sorrows and our disappointments and our near despair are turned to the advantage of others. And as with the Lord himself, nothing equips us more effectively for this sacred work of loving our neighbor than our own suffering, sorrow, and trial, at least, if we bear our trials as Christians should in faith and hope.
The old writers used to speak of the importance of improving our afflictions, that is, turning them to the best and holiest use. Well the best use we can make of any of our suffering is to turn it into sympathy and wisdom with which to love and help others. St. Patrick provides a splendid example. Reflecting on the terrible ordeal through which he passed when, as a teenager, he was kidnapped from his home and sold into slavery in Ireland, he said,
“God used the time [of my slavery] to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”
We all have too hard, too selfish hearts. Trials are necessary to soften them so that we can be of real use to others in this benighted world. To be of such use, to love others when they need love the most, is our special calling as the followers and imitators of Jesus Christ.
In one of her poems, Mary Webb sees the suffering soul as a “Factory of Peace” for others, just as it was in the Lord’s case.
“I watched her in the loud and shadowy lanes
Of life, and every face that passed her by
Grew calmly restful, smiling quietly,
As though she gave, for all their griefs and pains,
Largesse of comfort, soft as summer rains,
And balsam tinctured with tranquility.”
That is what the Lord was and is and what he wants his people to be: “factories” making peace in the hearts of others in his name. Much of the Lord’s own care for his people is to come through his people. He appoints our afflictions in part to teach us what pain feels like, what happens in the confused and broken heart, and how the Lord can lift us up and will in his own time. But this is sympathy and knowledge to be shared! Christ suffered nothing for himself! Every Christian should judge himself or herself strictly by this rule: in imitating Christ and following Christ I should regularly bring comfort and consolation to others as he did. Do others look to me to find hope and encouragement? Do folk grow calmly restful and quietly smiling because they have been with me and have been talking to me?
The personal history of the Lord Christ, the suffering servant, teaches us that sorrow and pain in human life have a purpose. Often we do not know what that purpose is, as few could guess what the purpose of his suffering was in the life of the man of sorrows. It also teaches us that among those purposes is this supreme and sublime one: to soften our hearts toward others, to learn to carry their woe in our hearts and to feel their pain as God and Christ feel ours. We may not realize that to be such people is the supreme calling of our lives, but it is! To be such people is to be like God himself, like Christ himself at the most critical point, at the point at which and by which he became our savior.
The Bible has much more to say about the purpose of suffering in human life, and we’ll review some of that teaching next time. But let’s begin here: whether or not we can explain the pain we suffer, in suffering we are like God himself who, in Christ, suffered for us and in all human sufferings suffers with and alongside the one who suffers. Mystery as this may be, it must completely change our point of view regarding suffering in human life to know that what we suffer God himself suffers and, indeed, much more than we do, since he has the whole of the suffering world upon his tender heart.