A few years ago George Barna conducted a national survey where people were asked to respond to the following question: “If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?” In fact, before you continue reading the remainder of this article, pause and ask yourself that same question: “If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?” Perhaps your question may be, Why did my marriage fall apart, Why did my child rebel, Why did I lose my job, Why did my spouse die just as we were ready to retire, Why did I get cancer. The questions are endless.
All of those questions are certainly valid and are part of the bigger question that was ranked as number one. The number one response to Barna’s question was: “Why is there suffering in the world?” That’s a good question. In Numbers 11:11 Moses asked God, “Why have you brought this trouble upon me?” Something about the human constitution demands answers. In fact, when Jesus hung dying on the cross of Calvary he asked his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Most people who have given up believing in God do so not because of some philosophical argument, but because their hearts were broken by something that happened to them or to someone they loved. One man writes, “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God. Take the even, take the odd.” That’s the whole case against God in a nutshell. If God is all-powerful and could have stopped this suffering but didn’t, then he isn’t good. If he is good and wants to stop this suffering, it must mean that he lacks the power. Either way (people say), I don’t want to believe in a God like that. So they choose not to believe.
Many of the world’s religions address human suffering. According to the first two Noble Truths of Buddhism all of life is suffering and suffering is caused by attachments to worldly things. This attachment, which can take the form of greed, hatred, and ignorance in this life and past lives, can, unless mitigated, return as more suffering (karma). Suffering is not necessarily punishment from a divine being, but rather something that must be transcended by not clinging to material objects or relationships.
Hinduism views suffering as punishment for misdeeds committed in this lifetime or past lives. Even a seemingly innocent person who has not eradicated bad karma from past lives through charitable deeds is susceptible to such payback. Hindus believe victims will be reincarnated and may be happier in their next life.
One of the world’s largest religions, Islam, meaning “submission” seeks to answer the why question. Many Muslims understand suffering as a way of submitting to the will of Allah. Some suffering is the work of Satan and is allowed by Allah as a test of humility and faith. Many Muslims believe suffering and adversity strengthen one’s faith, as pain often leads to repentance and prayer and good deeds.
In Judaism it is often believed that suffering is caused by a weakness in one’s devotion to God. Generally, it is believed that God gave humans free will to feel pleasure and pain, and His purpose in allowing deep suffering of the innocent must be good even if mysterious.
Though suffering isn’t good, God can use it to accomplish good. For instance, God uses suffering to draw people toward Christ. C.S. Lewis says: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Secondly, God uses suffering to sharpen our character and help us become more like Christ. Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
God’s ultimate answer to suffering isn’t an explanation; it’s the incarnation. Suffering is a personal problem; it demands a personal response. God is not distant and aloof. He entered into our world and into our pain. As one philosopher said, “Jesus is there, sitting beside us in the lowest places of our lives.” Are you broken? He was broken, like bread, for us. Are you despised? He was despised and rejected of men. Do you cry out that you can’t take any more? He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Did someone betray you? He was sold out. Are your most tender relationships broken? He loved and was rejected. Did people turn from you? They hid their faces from him as if he were a leper.
Suffering is real and suffering is painful. However, the scripture affirms that God is a Father to the orphaned and a husband to the widow, he is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. God loves you in the midst of your suffering. Call out to him and you will find a faithful friend who has promised to never leave nor forsake you.
Dr. Darrell Tate is minister at Highland Park Baptist Church.