God is good. We have much for which to be thankful. Yet, at a closer glance, few would argue that this world is full of many people who are suffering. As we look at global events over the past few years—famine, disease, wars, terrorism—the human response to suffering is often to cry out. After all, why does a good God allow suffering to exist? Theologians and philosophers call this question “theodicy.” It’s a complicated concept—and one not likely to reach a satisfactory conclusion within the space of this newsletter. May I propose, however, that it’s still a concept worthy of consideration?
Why does God allow suffering? There’s nothing wrong or sinful about asking this question. I’d dare say that when we witness or experience suffering, it’s the very question that God longs for us to ask. There’s a corollary question as well. “How might God redeem this suffering for my good or the good of those around me?”
Think about the following examples from the Bible:
Was God pleased to see Joseph unjustly imprisoned? Certainly not. Was God able to redeem that suffering? Absolutely. Joseph likely suffered greatly during his time in prison, but God comforted him and redeemed Joseph’s suffering. God used his life as a means by which to preserve His people.
What about the disciples? These are the men who spent the most time with Jesus while He was on Earth. Yet, almost all of them died a martyr’s death. God was likely pained by their passing, to be sure. However, He was also able to redeem their deaths, just as He did with the persecution of the early-Christian church. Nothing spreads the Gospel message quite like persecution.
Where our finite human minds see unjust suffering, God sees an opportunity to redeem. What the evil one means for harm, God can use to accomplish a higher purpose. Please note—this is important—God is not the author of pain, but in His omnipotence, He can redeem all things for the good of His purposes—which are pure and loving, as God himself is, and can only be: love. (Titus 2:11-13, 1 John 4:7-8)
However, is there a point where we would draw a line of acceptability for human suffering? To say, “I will suffer, but only this much, and for these people.” If so, where would that line be? Would we suffer with a prolonged illness for a family member? Would we suffer a life-changing injury for a friend or fellow church member? Would we agree to sacrifice a saved family member for a refugee whom we don’t personally know?
What if we had the self-awareness to pray this prayer? “Lord, I don’t understand why this is happening, but if this suffering is for the redemption of another, may Your will be done.” Could it be that this is a picture of complete submission to God?
Were we able to think in these terms, we would see that Jesus drew no such lines of acceptability when He died on the cross. He did the very opposite, suffering unto death so that ALL sin is conquered, and ALL humanity could be saved.
You and I are not Jesus. However, we are called to represent Him here on Earth. To suffer well, surrendering the outcome to God—perhaps for the salvation of another—might be the craziest, counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, and most beautiful thing imaginable.
Suffering is not easy, but thankfully the strength which allows us to suffer well is not ours, but God’s.
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” —James 1:2-4 (MSG)