Why does Suffering Exist?
Suffering. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of life to reconcile with a loving God. It’s often the reason some people toss religion out the window, because they can’t explain why it exists in a world created by God and they can’t understand why it happens to people who don’t deserve it. It’s a hard question, one that is raw and deep and personal, and absolutely not easily answered. I had a discussion about suffering with someone the other day, and since then I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and what I believe about why it exists and how it exists alongside God.
So here are my three answers to the age-old question. I’m not sure any one of them is entirely adequate, but I also don’t think I have to have an adequate answer to the question to believe in the goodness of my God. That, after all, is where faith comes in—trusting in the loving nature of my Father even when things don’t make any sense. And of course, I get that it’s easy to say things like that because I’ve never yet endured major tragedy in my life, so I’m going to hold to the simplicity of that belief until the boat of my life does get rocked, and I do have a reason to blame God for a terrible situation. And then, I guess I’ll just deal with that when it comes.
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1. Suffering exists because God loves us enough to grant us free will, and having a free will means that sometimes we will choose to hurt people.
This is the simplest answer, and it’s the one I think most Christians turn to when confronted with the enigma of suffering. After all, it dovetails so neatly with the doctrine of human depravity and our innate tendency to sin. It’s the explanation that makes most sense when the agent of tragedy is another human being who has chosen bad rather than good, and sin rather than God. This explanation can account for murder, rape, war, and a multitude of other evils that generate suffering in this world. But what it cannot account for is suffering that exists for a reason other than because a human being acted in a way that is evil. It can’t account for cancer, for example. And it can’t account for natural disasters, or accidents, or suicide, or a thousand other terrible occurrences that have nothing to with the sinfulness of man (at least not directly. I know what you’re thinking).
2. Suffering exists because without it, peace and love and joy and all that is good in this world would lose its meaning.
Of the three, I think this answer is the one that gives me most comfort. It turns that terrible word—suffering—on its head and draws you back to the beauty. You don’t know you’re standing in light unless you know what darkness looks like. You don’t appreciate times of joy nearly so much if you haven’t also been through times of sorrow. You don’t know quite as desperately how much love is needed in this world unless you’ve been subjected to hate or you’ve lost someone you love. And the times of peace and love and joy don’t make the hard times any less hard, but they do remind you that the good things in this life are worth fighting and living for. This world isn’t fair. It never has been. But even through the unfairness of it all, there is always, always a light that drives away the dark.
3. Suffering exists to reveal how deeply Jesus loves us.
Some people go through absolute shit in this world. I’m talking like, the worst kind of shit imaginable, the kind that leaves you hopelessly miserable and huddled in the bottom of a pit, unable to lift your eyes, let alone drag yourself out of it. I’m talking like, starvation and unimaginably painful disease and the kind of betrayal that slices into your heart. The kind that seems downright impossible to come back from. For those people, the only kind of answer that I can give for suffering is the cross. The cross doesn’t explain suffering, but it does offer something far, far more profound. When Jesus stepped down to this world and came to life in abject circumstances and taught us to love then died to show us what love looks like, he crossed the boundary between man and God. He came down into the stink and sweat and messy pain of this world and suffered a death worse than it is possible to imagine. He endured the abandonment of the men he had spent his entire ministry teaching. He endured terrible physical pain and torture—whipping, having thorns thrust into his scalp, and being nailed on a cross. And even as he hung dying, crying out for his Father, that same Father turned his back on His Son. Jesus endured not just physical pain, but the spiritual trauma of being separated from holiness.
Jesus went through all of that. He knows. He’s experienced heartache and betrayal and physical pain too great to bear. So when we suffer, we know that Jesus is there, that He has gone through worse for the sake of love. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God of the Christian faith and the God I serve is not a distant and sadistic deity who metes out arbitrary punishment on the innocent, as we tend to believe when confronted with tragedy. Instead He is a God who suffered for our sake. He knows how real our pain is because He has gone through it Himself.
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This was the best shot I’ve got at tackling the terribly difficult question of suffering. I know my answers may fall short when confronted with such suffering. But that doesn’t make Jesus’ ability to identify with our pain any less real. God is here. He is here in the tears of a mother whose child has died. He is here cradling the heart of the one betrayed by her best friend. He is here, even when He feels a thousand miles away. He is here.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.