If a good God truly loves us, how can he allow us to suffer? This millennia-old problem does not have any easy solutions, but in a sermon I preached at Jesmond Parish Church, in Newcastle, in November 2017 I looked at the early chapters of Genesis and tried to suggest one approach: looking again at how we were created to be fragile, dependent beings and how in Jesus God came to suffer on our behalf. You can watch it below:
You can also read my notes from this talk below:
The reality of human suffering in the world.
On the global stage:
- the human tragedies behind the shootings in Las Vegas
- the loss of life and destruction caused by hurricanes in the Caribbean islands and USA
- mass killings, torture, rape and dislocation in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq
- thousands of refugees including women and children drowned in the Mediterranean ocean
On an individual level:
As a doctor I have seen so much suffering. Stillbirth, lethal congenital abnormalities, dying babies, young people struck down by terminal illness, and elderly people affected by dementia and other cruel degenerative diseases.
Many times I have held in my arms the bodies of dead babies and wept with parents at the tragedy of a life snuffed out within hours or days of birth, and at my own failure as a paediatrician to find a way to prevent the death happening.
And there are many people here who have been touched by inexplicable suffering and evil. As Christian people we have to engage with the painful realities of our world and of our experience, we have to talk about these issues with tears in our eyes.
If you have come wanting to find slick and simple answers to the painful realities of suffering and evil then you will be disappointed. But together we can think and reflect on the strange mystery of suffering.
There is something deeply mysterious and strange and inexplicable about human suffering. We should beware the tendency of many Christians to come up with neat explanations for suffering – this is what the theologians call “theodicies”. There are real dangers with theological “explanations” of suffering and evil:
First we minimise or trivialise the awfulness and depth of human suffering,
Or second we imply that God is less than fully good – that his goodness is partial, variable, and suspect,
Or third we reduce God to a powerless observer of a world that is out of control.
Each of those three options is wrong and unhelpful. They are not consistent with the God who is revealed in the Bible, and above all they are not consistent with the God who is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.
So if those three options are unhelpful – what is a better way of thinking about the mystery of human suffering?
1. We need to think more deeply about what it means to be human.
The way that we have been made. The creation account in Genesis 2 tells us that human beings (in Hebrew adam) are created out of dust, adamah (Genesis 2: 7). In English we are created to be ‘groundlings.’
And this means that God chose to make us fragile, vulnerable, dependent and to use a philosophical term contingent (which means vulnerable to chance events). God could have chose to make us powerful, strong, resilient beings, but instead he chose to make us out of dust, frail and vulnerable to suffering and abuse.
But not only are we created to be fragile, our human frailty and vulnerability is exacerbated, pervaded and imprisoned by evil because of the profound consequences of the Fall. In Genesis chapter 3, human beings choose to disobey God and their actions have profound consequences. Their very humanity is affected by the solemn curse which their creator pronounces. The curse directed to the woman is linked to the pains of childbirth verse 16 and the curse directed to the man is linked to the limitation and futility of human life. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken for dust you are and to dust you will return.
The writer of Ecclesiastes has the same concept “What happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.” Ecclesiastes 3:19
So from the perspective of the scriptures we live in a world that was created good but it is also a world that is mysteriously broken and marred by evil. And our own humanity is also broken and marred by evil. So the tragedy of human suffering is inextricably linked to what it means to be human. But why are we made like this? Why does God allow it? Have we been abandoned to our fate by an uncaring creator God?
The Old Testament carries many prayers of lament as God’s people pour out their questions to God. Like Psalm 94
O LORD, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?….
They crush your people, O LORD,
and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the sojourner,
and murder the fatherless; and they say, “The LORD does not see;
the God of Jacob does not perceive”
– Ps 94:3-7
2. Jesus and the reality of human suffering
At last – after thousands of years of desperate cries and laments and tears the Creator God himself steps onto the stage – in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So at last we can hear from God himself – we can get the real explanation for all the pain, all the tears, all the agony.
But the mysterious and wonderful truth is that we don’t get an explanation about the nature of suffering and evil. Instead God in the person of Jesus enters into the experience of suffering himself.
God himself enters into the experience of dependence – he becomes a pathetic fragile baby, he can do absolutely nothing for himself, he needs to be fed, to be kept warm, to have his bottom wiped, and at the end of his life on the cross with hands nailed to the wood he is again utterly dependent and through parched lips he croaks, I am thirsty,
The God whom Jesus reveals is a God who weeps at the graveside of Lazarus, a God who is deeply moved at the suffering of a widow in the town of Nain who had lost her only son, and a God who takes the suffering of the world into himself on the cross. Isaiah the prophet speaking of Jesus says “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Isaiah 53:3
At Gethsemane, on the night before he was to be crucified Mark’s Gospel says “he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’,”
And on the cross there is the terrible cry of dereliction when Jesus takes onto his lips the words of the most poignant lament in the Old Testament, Psalm 22. “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So in a strange and wonderful way suffering is not something that is external to God. No suffering goes into the very heart of the Godhead. Christ brings suffering and lament into God’s own life. On the cross God is lamenting to God…
So it seems that God refuse to hold himself away from human suffering. He takes it into his own being in order to bring healing and redemption. He overcomes the destructive effects of evil in the creation not by shattering evil with overwhelming force – but instead by costly divine love. And we worship a suffering God.
John Stott writes, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain.”
Edward Shillito, lived through the First World War and he was shattered by the terrible evil and suffering that he observed. He wrote a poem entitled ‘Jesus of the Scars’:
‘The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.’
3. Suffering can be redeemed
As God enters into the suffering and evil through the cross he brings redemption. That is the deepest mystery of the cross. Through Christ’s suffering and death, evil is being destroyed and new life is springing up.
God’s plan for this age is not to abolish human suffering, but to redeem it – to bring blessing and healing out of evil and pain. That is what God loves to do.
And this has been my experience too. Some years ago I experienced a devastating psychiatric breakdown and I found myself in a locked psychiatric ward. I went through a period of deep internal anguish and psychological pain – it was my own private and personal hell. A time of deep darkness and confusion and pain. I’ll talk a little more about it this evening but what I want to say now is that by his grace I have increasingly seen how God has redeemed this painful experience. It took years of gradual healing and learning and repenting and changing but he has brought unexpected blessing and healing into my life, and he’s given me a new way of sharing this with many other people. It really is true. God loves to bring blessing and healing out of evil and suffering and pain if only we allow him to do this.
And I have become convinced that there is nothing however evil, however twisted, however malevolent, however apparently meaningless, which cannot in some sense be transformed by God’s grace and turned into blessing and healing. Now that’s a statement of faith. I can’t prove it but I believe it. It’s not something we can always see with our own eyes, how can this terrible evil thing be redeemed – but it is based on the personal experience of millions of Christians and also the promise of the scriptures.
So God’s mysterious plan for this age is not to abolish human suffering but to redeem it, it’s to transform it from evil, destructive twisted malevolence – into bring blessing and healing.
But this process from suffering to blessing and healing doesn’t happen automatically. We have to learn to say what Jesus said in the garden of Gethsemene – nevertheless not my will but yours be done.
So we have looked at way we are made – fragile and vulnerable and at how we live in a world that was created good but it is also mysteriously broken and marred by evil. And our own humanity is also broken and marred by evil.
We have seen how God himself enters into the reality of our humanity and how suffering goes into the very heart of the Godhead. Christ brings suffering and lament into God’s own life.
We have seen how on the cross through Christ’s suffering and death, evil is being destroyed and new life is springing up. And how God’s plan for this age is not to abolish suffering but to redeem it – to bring blessing and healing out of evil and pain.
And finally we look into the future in the passage in Romans chapter 8. Suffering and glory always seem to go together in the biblical world-view and this is what we find here.
“I consider that our present suffering is not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Verse 18)
The creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (verse 21).
In this passage in Romans there is a symphony of groaning. The creation is groaning, and we too are groaning, waiting for the redemption of our bodies, “How long Lord, How long?” And the Spirit Himself is groaning within us, with words that cannot be expressed. “How long?”
Creation groans and we groan and the Spirit groans, but they are not groans of despair, they are the groans of longing and anticipation – waiting for the transformation which will surely come. An inexpressible combination of sadness, joy and longing. What CS Lewis called the Inconsolable Longing. How long O Lord, How Long. The words of lament from Psalm 94 are turned into words of longing and hope. Because suffering and pain will finally be abolished.
Revelation 21:4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Yes suffering and pain and death will be finally destroyed – not in this age but in the age that is coming. And in Isaiah chapter 65 we find these words I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people. The sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days…
That’s what this paediatrician longs for – the day that is coming when never again, never again will there be an infant who lives but a few days.