There are two types of question people ask about suffering. Firstly there's the general question: If God is good why does he allow so much suffering, or to put it another way, why does he allow the world to remain in such a mess? Secondly there's the much more complex questions that arise from personal experiences of suffering. In this brief article I'll try and address both questions.
A vital point to make at the start is that God doesn't like suffering. He's not a cosmic sadist as many of the god's of ancient religion were. God loves people with a passion we can barely begin to grasp and he hates to see them suffer. Suffering was not a part of the world as God originally created it and it will not be a part of heaven. Why, then, does he permit suffering to happen at all?
When God created the world he created us not as robots or puppets but as people with the freedom to make choices. Just as a parent could keep their teenage child safe by locking them in a padded cell, God could keep us safe, but only at the expense of our freedom. That would not be much of a life. As humanity we've used our freedom to reject the loving direction of our creator running our lives apart from him.
Suffering is a consequence of human freedom; the pain and evil in the world reflects not God's heart but ours. We're free to love, to protect, to affirm, to encourage, to build up, to cherish and to create. We're also free to exploit the developing nations, to pump carcinogens into the atmosphere, to build concrete tower blocks in earthquake zones, to abuse and hurt, to lie, to break commitments, to insult, to fight and destroy. The contradictions in the human heart can clearly be seen in the interactions between the children in any school playground.
The creation as God originally made it was good, it was our choice to usurp him that fractured it. However, God longs to rescue anyone who'll live in relationship with him. Suffering is temporary for all who'll turn back to God, he's planned a new world where there'll be no more pain or death. However we still have a choice. When God comes back to wind up history and settle all issues of justice, our choice will be clear. Do we want to turn back to God and live his way or to reject him and his directions?
People with significant personal experience of suffering tend to have much less abstract questions about the subject. An impersonal sheet of thoughts is far from a complete answer to the extremely painful and complex questions raised, but here are a few reflections which may go a small way to help.
When we've experienced suffering we tend to ask 'why'? This is a natural question but it doesn't often get us far because the cause and effect processes which go on in the world are extremely complicated. There's one thing which is very important to affirm. In Jesus' day people thought that all suffering was an affliction from God as a punishment for personal or family sin. Jesus was very quick to reject that idea.
Whilst the reasons for suffering in a particular situation may be impossible to discern, Jesus made it abundantly clear that we're not to conclude that God loves us any less when we suffer. Indeed, he often singles out widows, aliens and the fatherless in the Bible for special protection. God cares passionately about broken and hurting people.
Another important point to remember is that God understands our suffering in the most real way possible. In the person of Jesus, God wore human flesh and limitations and entered our suffering world. He didn't receive a warm welcome. He was born in poverty in an animal shelter; his first bed was a feeding trough. Whilst a baby his family had to flee into exile to avoid the murderous attentions of the king.
He spent much of his life as an unknown carpenter. He was misunderstood by his family, rejected in his home town and betrayed and let down by his friends. He lived a sacrificial life of love and service. His short public ministry was abruptly ended when he was falsely accused and executed as a common criminal by one of the most tortuous and agonising methods devised by man. God is not naive about suffering.
Because he loves us, God longs to meet us in the midst of suffering. He can bring comfort, perspective and spiritual nourishment even when there's no physical relief if we'll allow our suffering to turn us to him. No-one would wish for suffering but if we're willing, we can learn and be strengthened in character through our experiences.
God is working out his purposes in world history in mysterious ways of which sometimes we catch glimpses but often we're wholly ignorant. However if we'll align ourselves with him, he can bring great meaning and dignity into our suffering.
Whether or not we understand how things are working out, God can bring great and eternally significant things out of very dark situations. Thus we're freed from the tyranny of empty, wholly destructive and meaningless pain. God's offer of forgiveness for the world was brought out of the death of his son on a cross, bitterness, rejection, hurt and death being swallowed up by love, reconciliation, resurrection and life.
Finally God offers the sure hope to all who respond to his love and forgiveness that death is the gateway to an eternity free from suffering and pain. If this life is all there is then suffering
becomes unbearable. However, if we'll receive a new, immortal body and an eternal place in God's community of perfect love, then this life comes into a very different perspective. God has an unimaginably glorious future for all who will embrace him. This is a vision of heaven recorded at the end of the Bible:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, ' I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,for the old order of things has passed away.' He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'