Human Suffering – Biblical Perspectives
By Pete Moore
Revealing God’s Glory
The Bible also gives another positive aspect to a world that includes suffering. On occasions it can be used to show God’s power and majesty, but in these situations the revelation occurs not through the suffering itself, but as God relieves it.
In one example, John records an encounter between Jesus and a man who had been born blind. His disciples immediately looked for some rational cause to this suffering. ‘Rabbi,’ they asked, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus, however, presented a different view, saying, that neither this man nor his parents sinned, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life’.11
Jesus went on to explain that he had come to bring light to the world, and he then healed that man. The transformation was so extreme that many people didn’t recognized him, and the man then became a living walking testifying illustration of the way that bringing spiritual light to people can transform their lives.
Similarly in the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul claims that the persecution and suffering that the Christians are suffering is all part of the process is all part of the revealing Jesus. ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in or body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.’12
Later in the same letter Paul points out that it is when individuals are weak and incapable of doing things for themselves, their reliance on a powerful God is more apparent; ‘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 about my weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’13
Characters in the Old Testament also went through deeply unpleasant experience in order that when they came out from them people would see God’s power. In the book of Daniel, three people who insisted on keeping God’s commands are thrown into a fiery furnace. When they survived, King Nebuchadnezzar changed the laws of the land so that they respected God.
The Bible sees the devil and demons are real personal entities who can disrupt people’s lives. When writing to Christians living in the Turkish city of Ephesus, Paul says that ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark work and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’.14
There are certainly a number of people that Jesus encountered, and healed, whom Jesus said had been unwell because they had been possessed by one or more demons. On one occasion the demon-possessed man was living naked among tombs, before Jesus released a ‘legion’ of demons from him in order to restore his health.15
The New Testament, however, makes it clear that discerning whether someone has a demon, and then driving it out, is not simple. On the occasion a man brought his son to Jesus’ disciples, asking that they drive out the spirit. Jesus drives out the demon, before telling his disciple that ‘this kind can come out only by prayer’;16 the implication being that they had been trying to do this by themselves.
School for Compassion
While there is no reason for believing that suffering should be welcomed, the Bible does show how it can offer opportunities for growth. The Old Testament frequently shows how God’s people are marked as those who show compassion for the weak and vulnerable in society – the very people who are most prone to physical suffering.17
In addition, in the New Testament, Jesus says that when we serve people who are in need, then we are serving him. Again, it is not the suffering itself that is beneficial, but the loving reaction to suffering that is brought out in people who serve others’ needs.
In one parable, Jesus talks of a king who separates people into two groups, one he terms sheep, the other goats. The sheep are those who have lived righteous lives – and we are told that the mark of this upright living was that they fed those in the different forms of need or cast out of society.18 More than just looking after people, Jesus says that in working to alleviate various forms of suffering, they were serving him.
There are also numerous examples of families and communities that have found a new sense of strength and purpose as they are pulled together to support members who were suffering from disease or disaster. As such, suffering, and caring for those who are suffering, become features that bind a Christian community together. As James (probably Jesus’ brother) says, ‘Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world’.19
At the heart of the problem of the suffering are questions about the nature of God. Christians believe that the best way of addressing this question about the nature of God. Christians believe that the best way of addressing this question is to look at Jesus, the person who was both man and God, as Jesus said, ‘if you want to see the father, look at me’.20
Reviewing Jesus’ life show a person who was born in poverty, started his childhood as a refugee, grieved when family members suffered, and was ultimately executed by the most gruesome means then available. A consistent theme through the Bible is that God has a particular concern for the outcast, the marginalized, the weak – in short he cares most for those that are suffering most.
While Jesus was prepared to suffer hardships and physical assault, he opposed suffering in other people whenever he encountered it. When a man with leprosy knelt before him, Jesus broke social taboos and reached out and touched the diseased man saying ‘be clean!’ and Matthew records that he was immediately healed.21
Indeed on each of the nearly 30 occasions recorded in the four Gospels that Jesus meets people who are unwell, he acts to relieve their suffering physically by restoring their health. While it can be argued that he did this to demonstrate the power of the new kingdom, it is also apparent that the ‘new heaven and new earth’ which Jesus will usher in when he returns is a place where people will not suffer.22
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers continued to extent God’s provision for healing to those who were suffering. When entering a temple, Peter and John brought Christ’s healing to one lame man,23 and while in Lystra, Paul acts in Jesus’ name to heal another man who had been unable to walk from birth.24
As well as removing ill health, Jesus acts against other forms of suffering. On a couple of occasions when a massive crowd had gathered in a remote place to hear Jesus speak, he realized that the people were hungry. Rather than sending them away, he had compassion and solved their suffering by providing them with food.25
Part of growing to be Christ-like is that Christians start to be able to extend the compassion that Jesus showed to the people that we encounter; ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.’26
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 32