RoundTable is a monthly apologetic session held at CrossCulture Church of Christ aiming to discover the truth one question at a time. This is the summary of the last RoundTable session with the same title as this post. Big thanks to Andrew Moody for coming to speak and facilitate the discussion, and for the being gracious with the talk note.
Suffering is one of the hardest things for us to talk about. It is so massive and so difficult, and yet so personal. We all suffer, or will suffer in various ways. But there’s also another reason why Christians can find it hard to talk about suffering. Firstly, we don’t understand why God would allow us to go through these things if He loves us. We want to believe that being a Christian I will make life easier, and suffering is like a slap in the face to that kind of thinking. Furthermore, suffering reminds us that we are still in the same world as everyone else, and that we don’t have the key to life with thought we did. Suffering forces us to face up to the fact that perhaps we don’t know God as as well as we thought we did.
Suffering, in other words, creates a huge problem for faith – which is just what the atheists have always said. According to Richard Dawkins:
“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
So this is the problem of suffering. Vast. terrifying. What can we say in response to it?
Andrew gave two suggestions for people who do not believe in God, and three big ideas for those who are Christians.
Suggestion 1 – The fact that suffering is such a problem might tell us that something is wrong with the world.
If there is no God – if the world is built by violence and driven by death suffering, and that’s all there is to it – then why does suffering feel wrong? Why did Richard Dawkins tell us that the world has no meaning, that it’s all about “pitiless indifference”; and then go on to write about the evils done by religious people? If suffering is normal, why does he even notice it or care about it? Why does he expect anything different?
CS Lewis makes this point in his book Mere Christianity. He says:
[When I was an atheist] my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? …in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist [and that the world was senseless] I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality-namely my idea of justice-was full of sense.
The universe doesn’t really look like a place where there is no God. It looks more like a place where something has gone wrong. It looks like a good and beautiful place in which suffering and violence are intruders.
Suggestion 2 – There might be a higher perspective that would make more sense of suffering.
When we were children, our parents subjected us to all kinds of things that seemed horrible and incomprehensible at the time. They took us to people who stuck needles in our arms. They took us to other people who poked at our gums with metal hooks and drilled holes in our teeth. Those things seemed awful at the time, but as we have gotten older we realise that they meant these things for our good. They had a bigger picture of our life and needs than we did. Might it just be possible, therefore, that this is true with God too? Maybe there will come a time when we will look back on those things that happened in this world and see that God had a bigger plan – that he knew us and our needs better than we did.
So, perhaps we should not be so quick with the claim that God does not exist when suffering does. Perhaps there is an answer out there to help explain suffering. We would claim the the Bible does provide such answers. Now, let’s move on to the three big ideas.
Big Idea 1: Suffering is a sign that our world is at war with God.
Imagine a black and white photograph depicting a row of stylish terrace houses. At the
bottom of one staircase we see a scene of tragedy – a girl of about 12 with blond hair leaning over a the body of a smaller girl on the pavement. The girl on the ground has blood on her face and hair, and beside her is the remnants of a stone ornament from the parapet above. Somehow this object has come lose and struck and killed this child. Now as you look at this scene you ask why? Why would God allow something like this happen to innocent child?
Now imagine that, as you keep looking at the picture, you start to notice other things in the background. A row of sandbags. The windows are criss-crossed with tape. Some of the buildings further away have large holes in them. And then you notice a banner hanging from a lamposts. A swastika. Suddenly your whole perspective on this scene changes. You still don’t really know why this child had to die. You don’t know why she was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. You don’t know why she was born at this moment in history in this city. But in a wider sense you suddenly know exactly why she died. She has been killed because she is part of a nation that’s at war – she belongs to a country that has done terrible things and is now reaping the consequences.
This shift in perspective is pretty much the same kind of thing as we find in the Bible. The first big thing we need to know about suffering is that it’s a disaster that has been caused by a war. From the dawn of time our species has been waging a war of independence from God, and the result is that things have gone disastrously wrong.
- God is our designer, but we’ve tried to make up our own instructions rather than following his and but the result is that we keep damaging our lives and our world.
- God is our lifegiver, but we’ve done our best to push him away and now we grow sick and die.
- God is the source of goodness and happiness but we’ve turned away from him thinking we can make our own happiness. But what we find is that goodness an happiness are in short supply, and so now we end up competing for them.
If we go back to the girl in the photograph, we don’t think that the reason why she got
killed was because she was a worse person than anyone else in that street. Her first big problem is that she is part of a country that is at war. Her suffering comes to her first as part of her national identity. She shares in the consequences of her country’s sins. And that’s how it is for all of us as humans too. All of us are sinners, but we’ll never really be able to understand suffering if we only focus on ourselves. If you keep trying to draw work out what you did that caused your suffering it will drive you crazy. You’ll become completely superstitious and you’ll end up treating God like an evil genie or something.
Big Idea 2: God has given us a way out of the war.
Now if suffering is primarily a product of the war between humans and God then the only thing that can really help is if God finds a way for us to be friends again. And of course the great news of the New Testament is that this is exactly what God has done by sending Jesus.
The angels proclaimed this at the birth of Jesus:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
Jesus says pretty much the same thing from the very start of his mission. One of the first things he does is go to a synagogue where he reads the Bible and then gives a sermon:
…Unrolling [the scroll of Isaiah], he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-21)
The coming of Jesus is the year of the Lord’s favour. Sometimes we look at our sufferings and we think: “Does God hate me? Have I committed some really heinous sin? Is there a God at all?” But the Bible says that the real place to understand what God thinks of you is Jesus. When you look at Jesus you see God’s hand stretched out to you – no matter how sinful you are or what suffering you are facing.
The other part of this of course is that Jesus actually does something to take away the
warfare between us and God. Jesus’ death on the cross brings us reconciliation with God. It absorbs the judgment of God and the hostility from God that our sins and rebellion deserve.
The apostle Paul talks about how Jesus’ death gives us peace with God. He says in Romans 8 verse 1 that if we come to God through Jesus, then we can be absolutely confident that there is “no condemnation” for us. God has forgiven us. Whatever difficulties we are going through, they are NOT a sign that God is against us or out to get us. Whatever sins we have committed they have been taken away. If we put our trust in Jesus then we are no longer enemies with God, we’ve changed sides.
But this leads to another question, doesn’t it? If suffering comes from the war between humans and God and God has given us peace, why do we still suffer? This brings us to the next big idea.
Big Idea 3: Suffering means something different when we are friends with God.
The Bible says that once we are friends with God, we can be sure that there is a reason to be optimistic no matter what happens to us. Have a look at the confidence Paul displays in Romans 8:32-37
“[God] did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
So the way Paul sees it, once we know that God is on our side every setback and tragedy has a different meaning. Paul knows what he’s talking about. We know from his other letters that Paul was imprisoned and beaten and shipwrecked on many occasions; sometimes he had to go hungry, once he was stoned and left for dead.
Now these things didn’t make him happy – they were suffering. And yet Paul doesn’t get lost in these trials. One of the worst things about suffering is that it tends to make us focussed on ourselves. We feel sad because we feel sad. We feel miserable as we think about our situation, and we feel even more miserable as we think about feeling miserable.
But Paul’s response – and this has also been the true for thousands of Christians through the ages – is to keep lifting his eyes and looking back to Jesus. He actively reminds himself of what God has done and what he will do. Jesus has died for us. God sent his own Son to make us his friends. He’s not going to abandon us. There are tears, but it’s not going to end in tears. God will do good for us in this life and after that there will be an that will completely eclipse the trials of this world.
The big ideas aren’t just interesting concepts or ways to understand the Bible, they’re the key to dealing with suffering – they’re the only way to avoid being sucked down when things get too awful. They give us a stable perspective. And we need to train ourselves to think about life from this big picture.
One of the great saints of the early church was an Archbishop of Constantiople named John Chrysostom – “Chrysostom” was a nickname meaning golden mouth because he had such a great gift of preaching. At one point Jon Chrysostom got into conflict with the Empress Eudoxia. He denounced her love of extravagance, and she responded with threats. The story goes that she first threatened him with exile:
“I am going to send you into exile,” said the Empress.
“You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house,” said Chrysostom
“Then I will kill you,” said the empress.
“No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God,” said John.
“Very well, I will take away your treasures.”
“No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.”
“Yes, but drive you away from your friends and you will have no one left.”
“No, you cannot, for I have a Friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to harm me.”
This is Christian way to think about the world and about suffering. When we keep our eyes fixed on the big story, our problems do not disappear. However, our immediate problems assume their proper proportion.