Human Suffering – Biblical Perspectives

By Pete Moore

No sane person enjoys suffering. It limits our capabilities and is often accompanied by physical pain or emotional distress. The bible gives a rich insight into the variety of causes of, and responses to, suffering, but also declares that only God knows the answers to many of our questions about why particular individuals suffer.

A woman lies in a hospital bed. The cancer that started in her breast has spread. Her vertebrae and bones are now riddled with disease and she requires high doses of pain killing drugs to numb her sense. Her three-year-old daughter stands silently, gently holding Mummy’s hand – confused about why she is so different from just a few weeks ago.

In another scene a soldier pulls the trigger of a gun, blowing a hole through a young child’s head while his parents watch in desperate helplessness.

Human suffering exists.For people who hold no belief in a god it is just one of the hallmarks of this purposeless and often cruel universe. For people who believe in many gods it is an indication that some are good and others bad – get on the wrong side of an evil god and you are in trouble.

But for Christians suffering poses a problem. How can an all-powerful. all-loving God allow suffering? Why did he set the universe up in such a way that suffering is possible, and why doesn’t he intervene when suffering gets out of hand?

Throughout the Bible many people experience different forms of suffering that arises for a wide variety of reason and people respond to it in many different ways. By looking at some of them we can gain insights into God’s attitude towards suffering, whilst recognising that there will always remain elements of mystery and that we will never fully know his mind.

God, Suffering and Evil

Any Christian understanding of human suffering draws from a Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation. In the opening chapters of Genesis God provides over creation and repeatedly says that what he has made is ‘good’ even ‘very good’.1 Many Christians believe that this shows that when God initially created the universe there was no suffering in it. Many believe that human suffering began in the Garden of Eden.2 Others say that for God, creation was good not because it was free from suffering, but because it was free from suffering, but because it had set up a system that served a purpose. That purpose was to develop a physical and living entity that would worship him.

The exact timing and process whereby suffering entered the world is controversial amongst Christians and tied up with the different views on the age of the earth and evolution. All agree that the Bible describes how suffering increases when created beings decide to disobey God and ignore his advice. Indeed the further people stray from a proper relationship wit God, the more they can expect the entire system to dysfunction and for that dysfunction to bring about suffering.3 Human suffering, then is not surprising as an overall concept, though none-the-less difficult to make sense of in individual circumstances.

Biblical Examples

Within the Bible suffering is seen to have a number of very different causes. Equally, there are a variety of responses that people make to each situation.

Consequence of go it alone attitude
As we have seen already, much suffering is a consequences of humanity’s desire to ‘go it alone’ and ignore God. In Proverbs the teacher talks of the inevitability of suffering that will come from adultery. ‘Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?’4 The reality of this cause and effect can be seen in the link between promiscuity and sexual disease and infertility. It can also be seen in the suffering caused as family units break apart when one of the partners becomes involved with a third party.

This ability to ‘go it alone’ is also recognised in the Christian understanding of the way that God gave people ‘free will’. When he created human beings, God gave us the ability to choose rather than setting us up as pre-determined robots. If as beings with free will we choose to follow and worship him, that worship will be genuine. Free will does however leave open the possibility of deciding not to follow or worship God – a route that will lead quickly to some form of suffering.

The way we all too often use our free will is to pursue selfish goals. We don’t share economic wealth, and consequently people starve and die. We are afraid of others, so we attack them. We spend our money on weapons rather than education, agriculture or medicine. We build cities in flood plains and straddling earthquake faults, because there is the potential of making short-term economic gain, or because conflict has driven people there from safer parts. Indeed many Christians say that the vast majority of suffering in the world has its roots in the poor and self-centred decisions that we make, and that comes from our decision to ignore God.

Suffering as discipline
While it is currently unfashionable to mention it, a frequent theme in the Bible is that suffering is part of a process of discipline. In the book of Jeremiah, for example, God becomes displeased that his people are turning to other man-made gods and adopting life-styles that are contrary to his commands. His response is severe. ‘I will take away their harvest, declares the LORD. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.’5

The idea of discipline, however, is greater than just vindictive punishment or retribution. When God punishment he does so as a craftsman who uses a blast furnace to refine the metal he is working with. ‘ See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do.’6 In human language it is the actions of a loving father who wants to see his children grow to maturity. When God tells the prophet Nathan to inform David that he has been chosen to become a King and great leader, God says, ‘I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love will never be taken away from him’.7

The New Testament shows how suffering can bring about remarkable spiritual maturity in individuals. The writer of Hebrews says that ‘our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness’.8 The writer then points out that discipline is seldom enjoyed when it is practised; ‘no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’9

In addition, suffering can be a life-preserving warning system. C.S. Lewis famously referred to pain as God’s megaphone, enabling him to attract attention above the chaotic noise of everyday living.10 Medically speaking, losing the ability to feel pain is a severe disability. This loss of sensation is one of the reasons why people with leprosy pick up so many debilitating injuries.

Read more: “Revealing God’s Glory… Demonic Action…” to be continue…

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 32