Most of us know of people who have suffered because of various tragic life-threatening illnesses or indeed who have died as a result of these, sometimes when only relatively young or even in childhood. Some people have experienced much physical, mental and emotional pain or there may have been crime-related illnesses or accidental or suicidal deaths and people themselves or their loved ones have experienced great tragedies.
I personally know of people who previously had a strong faith but lost or rejected it once they or a loved one were severely ill or had died, especially if it was in tragic circumstances. If God loves us, why does He let bad things happen to us? Why does He allow catastrophes to take place which can involve the deaths of many thousands or even millions of people? How, as humans, are we expected to forgive something so bad that it can affect the rest of our lives?
Rev Graham replies:
Thank you, Carol, for another question that we all have considered at some time in our lives and will continue to ponder on as we are all affected by suffering and pain at certain times in our lives. In 2 Corinthians 1: 3 – 7 we read about the links of comfort, suffering and faith. The Lord comforts us in our troubles so that we may be able to comfort others in their sufferings. In respect to your question, why does a loving God allow pain and suffering? A simple answer is that we do not know why and never will!
Consider all the books and research studies that have been published and produced over the years as to why suffering exists. We can speculate from a philosophical or theological perspective but they will not give us a definitive answer. We may also ask if there is any value we may gain from suffering, pain, sadness and catastrophes. Suffering is a symptom of some form of physical or emotional pain that takes place in human situations. Tears flow from our eyes when we feel emotional or incur physical pain and sadness.
Another aspect of your question, Carol, relates to forgiveness. Can a forgiving mind and spirit ease any pain and distress we may carry? There certainly is the case that, if suffering did not exist, then we would have no reasons to be upset or feel pain which in turn would lighten the need for forgiveness. The need for forgiveness and to be forgiven is because some form of sadness and pain has taken place and requires some restitution.
As a basis for our philosophical and theological reflections we firstly have to accept that suffering exists in this actual and present world whether we like it or not. The feelings associated with suffering result from experiencing the loss of life, wealth, purpose and meaning. A formula that might be helpful at this point is outlined below and can be applied in many different ways.
To have knowledge and an awareness of our present and future life may be deemed to be helpful or a hindrance. If we see a car coming towards us on the pavement, we may have time to prepare ourselves to avoid it and any consequences of being run over. In seeing a situation that is going to incur some form of loss and illness, it may be a help to implement some form of cushion that may minimise and help the practical effects it will bring.
There is a strong case that not being aware of something that is going to be harmful in the present or future may be a good thing as we will not worry about its imminent arrival or impact. Equally, in ignorance, when events do arrive, there will be a greater sense of shock and its fallout than if we had known about it beforehand. In ignorance we may enter into a form of denial that trouble is happening and delay any efforts to overcome or work in such sufferings in the short or long term.
Whether we are pre-warned or not about any impending sufferings coming our way, it is important to consider how we might cope with them. If we have a generous level of support around us to help minimise the effects of sufferings it will make a massive difference. A person of faith will also have a wealth and depth of support to draw from as found in the Bible and especially from the example of Jesus who suffered for the sake of others and wept for his friend Lazarus and the city of Jerusalem and bravely wore that ‘crown of thorns.’
The Cup of Suffering
In Matthew 26: 26 – 42, we find Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane feeling very sad and sorrowful because he was aware of the suffering he was going to face in the days to come. He agonises in prayer with his Father and asks that the bitter cup of suffering would be taken away from him. Jesus wasn’t ignorant of the pain he was going to suffer but choose to submit to the will of his Father knowing that the Holy Spirit and ministering Angels would bring him comfort and enable him to cope rejoicing later in his resurrection from the dead three days after his crucifixion.
The mission plan for Jesus was to humble himself and take on an earthly form. He was aware of and experienced human feelings and sufferings such as rejection, persecution and an innocent criminal’s death. In the mysteries of God’s design and redesign Jesus suffered a sacrificial death because of all the short-comings of Adam and Eve as referenced in Genesis 3. A provision has been made, through Christ, for people who want to apply faith to all their suffering situations. For people of no faith, such a solution would be considered as irrelevant and meaningless.
One of the greatest sufferings we all will face is the physical death of a loved one and our own mortality. We may ask why death takes place at all. Why didn’t God just make one generation to last forever? Why is there a divide between an earthly and eternal existence and one where we are judged, accepted, forgiven or rejected? In life different goals exist for different people and for those with faith the process in life is to attain a goal of living a Godly life and being a blessing to all we live with. We have a promise that one day we will be in God’s eternal presence where that perfect paradise will be restored and we will have no pain, suffering or sadness.
At this time of writing we are in Holy Week where we reflect upon the closing days of Jesus’ life. He faced misunderstanding from his disciples, rejection from religious leaders and confusion from ordinary people around him. Jesus sought to bring healing to the poor and the broken-hearted and to set the captives free. It is through Jesus that we are able to find peace, love and comfort that can make a difference in a world that includes realistic and unrealistic expectations and disagreements.
Once again, Carol, there is no easy answer to your very important and relevant question. May we think about some of the great saints in the bible and those in world history who have lived out a life of healing and restoration in the midst of trials and sufferings.
Paul in 2 Corinthians 11: 16 and chapter 12: 1 – 10 boasts about his troubles and that thorn in his side which made him weak but, through the Lord’s grace, he became strong. So may we acknowledge our pain and suffering today wearing our own crown of thorns as we experience God’s grace to comfort, heal and sustain us? Mediate on Graham Kendrick’s worship song Servant King.
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