One of the most frequently asked, and basic (though fair and understandable) questions regarding Christianity is this: “If God loves humanity and creation so much, why does God allow for such incomprehensible suffering?”
Suffering is a prevalent theme in life. It is as much a guarantee (most times a requirement) as breathing is from the moment you are born. If someone gave you one minute to think of five examples of suffering in the bible, I’m confident you would come up with at least twice that many. I’d have the same level of confidence if I asked you to come up with five examples for your own life.
When I think of the word suffering in regards to the word (the Bible), immediately, three examples come to mind: the beginning of suffering when Adam and Eve must leave the garden; the story of God’s favored servant, Job; and the humble sacrifice of Christ in the last days of his life.
Suffering is so often seen with negative connotations that we forget the potential hidden behind it. I should be clear that I am not speaking as some kind of a masochist: I do not seek, enjoy, or desire that others experience pain of any sort. As I see it, the goodness or silver lining of pain is not one that resides on the surface of the thing; the goodness of suffering is compacted under layers and layers of complexity, like a diamond. Also, along with many things in life, the blessing of suffering may not appear until long after you were alive with the hopes that you would see the comfort and peace of leaving the suffering behind. Humans are finite, limited, and virtually blind as far as the incomprehensible perspective that is required to understand the inner workings of the world and all that goes on in it. Simply, I believe we often don’t have the ability to appreciate the gift of suffering when we do experience it; in the same kind of way a child throws a fit when they are stopped from eating the sweet that will cause an excruciating stomach ache. The pleasure of a sugar rush and the taken-for-granted absence of pain may make the child think the sweet is a good idea, but the parent knows that withholding the sweet will be better for the child in the long term. Suffering may seem unpleasant to us now, but if we can endure it and take strength from God and his kingdom, it will save us from the darkness that lurks hungrily on the other side of the room of suffering.
2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
James 1: 2-4
The following is 95% opinion, and 5% understanding gleaned from reading and attempting to discern the bible. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have recently gained some peace from coming to terms with this question from the following thoughts and scriptures. This is not a peer reviewed journal, and this is not the end-all-be-all in regards to the topic.; as I said, this is mostly my personal opinion and experience.
The writing below examines and addresses one small facet of an incredibly complicated multilayered topic; according to my own, very limited, experience and knowledge.
The particular question is this: what is God’s purpose in allowing suffering? The answer I have chosen at this time in my life revolves around the idea of how we react to those circumstances. Though I’m sure there are many more, the choices of response to the suffering we experience I have (as of late) settled on are the following. First: we choose to fight the pain, writhe in the discomfort of suffering, curse the heavens at the of the unfairness of it, and eventually have some aspect of us die from it; or second: we choose to take on the suffering in the same way we train our muscles to become stronger, by straining and tearing the identities and beliefs of our old selves with suffering (exercise), in order that our old selves may die in the pursuit and growth of a new, stronger, and better self in God’s kingdom. There are obviously more options in regards to the responses you are allowed in the participation of suffering, but these are the choices I have settled on as of late and the ones I wanted to explore for the purpose of this essay.
8 We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—
2 Corinthians, 4: 8-9
I was recently asked a series of questions that has created this curiosity and intrigue regarding destruction in it’s various forms and how it fits into the kingdom of God that I have somewhat recently found myself a participant of.
The questions (paraphrased) are as follows:
#1) How can God allow pain? For example, In his most seemingly blatant disregard for his children and what they may suffer, how can he allow a child to develop cancer and die?
35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
#2) If my life seems to be relatively easy and free of harm as of now, it seems apparent that if I decide to follow God, me or my family will be punished as some sort of test, like in the story of Job. Why would I choose to possibly subject myself, my family, and my friends to that?
19 when a storm swept in from the desert. It blew the house down and killed them all. I am the only one who escaped to tell you.” 20 Then Job got up and tore his clothes in grief. He shaved his head and threw himself face downward on the ground. 21 He said, “I was born with nothing, and I will die with nothing. The Lord gave, and now he has taken away. May his name be praised!”
#3) Is God a good God, or is he an unhinged, inconsistent, and vengeful God? As if he were an alcoholic father?
23 By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land. 24 Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities—and also the vegetation in the land.
Genesis 19: 23-26
The other day, as I was dwelling on these questions, I had a picture come into my mind: in it was a beautiful plain and in the far distance, a volcano. The plain was lush, full of thriving greenery, teeming with wildlife, and it had plenty of sustenance for any living creature there; not to mention ample shelter from the rain, snow, or sun. This plain is perfect, an Eden of sorts, tucked away and undisturbed by the bothers of the world.
But after a short time, the volcano explodes; it destroys the ecosystem and rains a thick layer of ash over everything I had seen. Soon, what I had envisioned becomes a wasteland caked with gray mud.
The destruction remains for years and years. What was once beautiful is now no longer so, and in some ways no longer even in existence.
One thing about volcanic lands is that regardless of whether the affected area is covered by volcanic ash, or by a cooled lava field, eventually the field will turn into a fertile land that brings rise to a great abundance of new life. It may (and probably will) take a longer time than we are around to witness, but new life always arises out of this destruction; often different life as well.
In our lives, when we are blessed and fortunate to receive and live in a fertile plain, one day a volcano may erupt and it may cause the destruction of everything we know. It could come in the form of a death in the family, financial ruin, crippling illness, even the wavering of your spiritual faith from a known or unknown source. The difference I see between the potential of fertile land in nature, and the potential fertile land (financial well-being, healthy family, full faith) in our lives is that nature doesn’t question whether or not it is supposed to return to its prior state (that of greenery, life, fertility), it simply does because that is it’s purpose. To grow, be bountiful, and flourish. It knows its instructions from its creator.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. 3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. 4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
-Psalm 19:1-4, NIV
We as humans often let that destructive reset be the final say. We cannot comprehend that type of complexity with the simplicity that nature does; of returning to our prior beautiful lives, even though things may (and probably are) now very different. We often do not believe that it is possible, we often believe that we have been to scarred too greatly to even be recognized anymore.
The thing is though, we were made to do just that. We were made to go through trials, we were made to become unrecognizable, we were made to learn how to be new creations; the first time I saw this was after finally being brought down to my knees because of mental health issues.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
I had been going through these mental health struggles for years (depression and anxiety being my number one enemies), but I was now convinced that I was so far gone that I would have to resort to some kind of experimental treatment to help me. To avoid an even longer story, I finally gave up and gave in to God. It was the thing people had told me to do for months if not years, but part of the difficulty came because it went against everything I understood about the world, and specifically about the American society I grew up in. We are supposed to strive, to suck it up when it gets hard, and to eventually succeed (maybe with failures, but the position I was in didn’t feel like I had that option); and if we don’t, then it can feel as though we’ve been designated as failures. When I finally did give in, or gave up to God (as is now a funny way of thinking about it), I felt like I had left my body and was now facing it as some kind of disembodied mind as I talked to myself, and asked “why did you let this go on for so long? Why didn’t you do it sooner? Why wouldn’t you let yourself be wrong, be humble, and accept help when it was offered to you?” When I finally come out of this revelatory ecstasy, I truly did not recognize the person I was; it was wonderful, but also equally scary.
One of the greatest things I’ve been able to recognize since my regeneration/salvation/accepting Jesus, is that humility, in its truest form, is a life-altering trait. In moments of clarity, when I’m living in that spiritual relationship, living in that kingdom of God on Earth, I catch glimpses of the humility that allowed Jesus to wash other’s feet; the humility that allowed Jesus to eat and commune with the downtrodden; and most importantly, the humility that allowed him the understanding and confidence to die for the uncountable number that he did. When I catch glimpses of this humility, I desire it so much that I would give anything to be in it always; but then the river of life sucks me back in. This is a daily battle.
What is my point in saying all this? That through dying to my old self, and seeing the importance of humility, I understand that I can’t possibly fathom the way the world turns and the pain and destruction that inhabits it. But I can understand that those things, while many are tragic beyond explanation, are opportunities. They are chances for us to turn the gray mud of post-destruction into fertile ground that will eventually bring much life
In my opinion, the Earth knows it’s place, it knows it’s creator. It has the same desire to partake of the kingdom that I do. There is of course, no “science” in that statement, but when you experience your first personal connection with God it first hand, it’s difficult to believe that the world wouldn’t know who its creator is.
We were made to try again after the unthinkable, we were given the strength, knowledge, and spirit of God that would allow us to push out the first budding leaf of greenery through an otherwise apparently barren land. We were given a way to return more bountifully and beautifully than before. The amazing things is that this is not a one time thing. The fertility that resides in the death and destruction of all that we know is God’s spirit in us. He is the reigniting of our lives and existence after tragedy and he is the ability to move forward in hope and joy without forgetting.
As humans, having the ability to change everything we know about ourselves, from old to new, is a gift we take for granted far too often.
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin.”
What’s important, and also wildly difficult in the nature of being a human, is allowing that new growth to flourish rather than stifling it. If we do stifle the growth, than the destruction is fully realized; it becomes true. If you know anything about the stock market, it’s somewhat like having bought stocks that are now worth less than what you paid for them. If you sell them now, the loss is realized and you have lost money; but if you wait just a little bit longer, the stock will possibly rise and the gain can be realized. We must not give in when we’re at our lowest point because the rise of potential in our lives may be just around the corner.
When the volcano in your life erupts, will you till and water the fertile soil to allow for new growth, or will try to stifle it because what has happened and what you see leaves you hopeless? Know that life always arises from death in nature; so through the different “deaths” or “tribulations” we experience in life, we are given opportunities with God walking right next to us to reinvent and return to better versions of ourselves from these traumatic experiences. The experiences may change the flow of the river of our lives, but it’s solely up to us to determine if we dry the river up or if we redirect the river to keep it flowing, so the volcanic soil can grow into something more beautiful.
To live, and to grow from suffering, the mindset must be one of humility and hope.
I want to be as strong as the green life that sprouts from the earth in the field of gray. I want to be have the self-control, courage, and hope to push through the agony of suffering. I look at what is offered to me, and I pray that I will be strong enough to take it in the times I do experience suffering, because as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. When you see through the fire of suffering to the other side, it is not a surprise to feel joy knowing that you will soon be there with God’s help.