St John’s Extra: The Problem of Suffering

St John’s Extra: The Problem of Suffering

We need only look at a news feed or social media to see that the world is full of suffering. Around the world there are wars, violence, sickness, and starvation. There are natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and tsunamis. Closer to home, we experience serious sickness and disability, relationship breakdown, and the death of people we love. Suffering is very real.

The challenge for us as Christian people is how we respond to this suffering. Let’s be honest, it’s a real problem and a real challenge. As Christian people we believe in a God who is both all-powerful and all-loving. So presumably God is able to do something about this suffering and should be willing to do something about this suffering. This, in short, is the problem of suffering for the Christian person.

The purpose of this series of St John’s Extra is to engage with this question, to look at the bible and see what answers it can give us. We must be careful not to be trite or simplistic in answering this question because it is a complex one. At the same time we are not left bereft of answers either. The bible faces this question openly and honestly. Furthermore, Christian thinkers through the centuries have grappled with this issue and provided us with helpful insights and answers.

One temptation when we face the question of suffering is to abandon our Christian faith altogether. Doesn’t the existence of suffering in the world actually prove, or at least argue against, the existence of a God as described in the bible? Such questions and doubts are normal! Being a Christian is not about “blind faith”, despite what some might argue. It is a constant grappling with the real experiences of life and trying to understand them in light of God’s revelation of himself to us, especially as centred in Jesus Christ.

Indeed the bible itself legitimizes asking this question about suffering. You need only read through some Psalms to see that this very question is grappled with there. Psalm 22 begins with these words: 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;  and by night, but find no rest.  

This writer’s circumstances lead him to wonder where God is in the midst of all this pain. The Psalms are full of these ‘laments’ – full-throated shouting at God in the midst of very real pain. The bible is not embarrassed about these questions or feelings. Indeed, Jesus picks up these very words of Psalm 22 on the cross in his cry to his Father!

One of the things I love about the bible is its raw honesty with these sorts of questions and experiences. It doesn’t try and pretend that they are not there. It doesn’t pretend that the life of faith will be simple and carefree. Life is complex and hard and that is faced front-on in the bible. 

However, the bible doesn’t leave us without any help or answers in the midst of these feelings and with regard to questions about suffering either. Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore some of the pieces of the puzzle that the bible gives with regard to understanding something of the problem of suffering.