One of the main objections to the existence of God raised by atheists has to do with the presence of suffering in the world. They may word it something like this: “If God is all powerful and good, why does he allow suffering in the world”. Their reasoning behind the question is that God is either not powerful enough to end all suffering or He is not good enough to desire the end of suffering. In other words, he is either helpless or he takes some pleasure in seeing his creation suffer.
Keeping this objection in the back of our minds, let us think scripturally and rationally about the source, universality and purpose of suffering.
- The source of suffering - All our suffering whether it be physical, financial or emotional or any other kind, has its source in either of two places - our sin, or the fallen world. If we consider our sufferings, we will see that much of it, we bring upon ourselves through our own decisions. We do not eat well or exercise, so we suffer from bad health. We overspend on things we don’t need and then suffer want. We sin and suffer the consequences. Also, consider how much suffering mankind causes on each other and the environment through greed, war and exploitation. Is God responsible for this? Absolutely not. But one might say, what about children born with physical and mental disabilities? Surely they are not responsible for this. Are their parents responsible for their suffering. In some cases, yes. For example, we know smoking and drinking while being pregnant affects the unborn child. But parents who do everything in their power to have a normal child also end up with children who have disabilities. Unfortunately, this is the reality of living in a fallen world. A world that is in rebellion with the ultimate source of all that is good, cannot be without evil and its effects. Again,the source of all suffering is sin, either going back to the original sin or sin in our personal lives.
- The universality of suffering - Suffering is a universal human experience. When we think of suffering, we might think of those in hospital wards or those suffering hunger in the developing world. But if we look carefully, everyone is suffering from something or the other. Both the rich and the poor, the healthy and the weak. The rich man suffers from sleeplessness over where to invest his money and about what will happen to his wealth that he has already invested. Many times, he has climbed the corporate ladder at the expense of his family and now suffers from loneliness and lack of purpose when he reaches the top. However, we must concede that some of us in the western world who are rich have far easier lives than those in poor countries. The rich man did receive good things in his life, that Lazarus did not. Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation (suffering), but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Even, children of God are not exempt from suffering, as we too suffer from health issues, rejection and even sometimes unanswered prayer. But, when Jesus said he has overcome the world, he means that he did it for us. We never have to lose heart, we only have to draw near to him and we will come out of our momentary suffering not only unscathed but stronger than before. There is no suffering that should lead us to despair, for our light and momentary sufferings are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. It is at this point, that we should turn towards the glorious purpose of our righteous suffering.
- The purpose of suffering - Our God specializes in bringing something good from something bad. He created the world out of nothing, he filled the earth that was void with all kinds of life and it saw that it all came out good. The ultimate example of God bringing good through evil is the cross of Calvary. For us, looking back from this side of the cross it might be easy to see God’s purpose in our Lord’s suffering. But, to an onlooker the cross was a terrible sight. A righteous man beaten beyond recognition and nailed to a tree. Yet, from that place flowed the blood that washes away the sins of the world. Jesus was the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah 53, the lamb of God slain for us. Just as his sufferings purified us from all sin, our personal suffering can lead to practical purity. When we suffer, we are least tempted to sin because suffering draws us to God if we are surrendered to Him. In our suffering, we can say with Peter, “Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” But our suffering is not only a sanctifying influence for us but also a source of comfort for a suffering world.
Listen to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 - Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Child of God, when you suffer and are in tears, there is a God who sees you, who comforts you and fills your heart with peace that passes all understanding. It may look bleak, and it may not make sense but you run to him, not to this world with all its self help and spiritual leaders. He will comfort you and you can then comfort those who are in any affliction. Share with others what God has told you in the private place so that they might be comforted as well. The glorious purpose of suffering is to make us more like Christ - one who suffered but overcame it and brought comfort to us.