St John’s Extra: Suffering within our Story

St John’s Extra: Suffering within our Story

As we wrestle with the problem of suffering, we need to think about how suffering fits within the story that we are living in. Humans are storytellers and we understand the world we live in through a ‘big story’ (the fancy name is a metanarrative) which provides a framework for understanding and interpreting reality.

For Christians, our big story is contained in the bible and the first two ‘episodes’ of this story helps us understand the problem of suffering in our world, and the relationship between God and people in this.

The bible story starts with creation. In Genesis 1 and 2 we see God’s intentional action in designing and creating the world. God describes the world as ‘good’. He says this repeatedly and then when humans are added into the mix, he goes further and says, ‘it’s very good’. The creation is fit for the purpose God has made it for. It doesn’t mean that everything is finalised and perfect because humans have work to do and are told to fill the earth and subdue it. This is a command to exercise loving rule as God’s image bearers in the world. The picture at the end of these two chapters is of a world of harmony and peace where suffering has no place. If that were the end of the story, then Christians would have little to say about suffering. We’d also be completely out of step with reality!

In Genesis 3 however, we see a massive change that impacts our world. We see the first humans, Adam and Eve, failing to live out their role in the world. Placed as rulers in the world under God’s authority, they reject his rule and ignore the one command he has given them. The consequences of this act of rebellion echo through our world today. This rejection of God results in pain and hardship entering the world. There is relational conflict between the man and woman including lack of trust, blame, and attempts to dominate each other. Work becomes frustrating and hard. The harmony that existed in the world is disrupted and suffering is first named as present in the world.

The Christian worldview then holds this tension at its very core. The world is good and was created that way by God. But the world has been corrupted by human rebellion against God and much of the good has been twisted and perverted. We still see much that is good and right in our world and we experience love, and joy and harmony. However, we also experience sadness, pain, sickness, violence and injustice. The world is broken and not all that it should be.

Thus the bible is very clear that we humans have a real responsibility for the current state of the world. Much of the suffering that is caused in the world is directly attributable to human decision-making. Humans bully each other. Humans start wars with each other. Humans kill each other. Humans hoard food and natural resources from each other. In short, we humans, make choices that are often selfish and out of step with the way that God wants us to live; out of step with the way we were created to be. The bible calls this sin and asserts that humans are responsible agents. God allows us to make moral choices and sometimes – often – we choose things that cause harm or hurt to others.

Take world hunger as an example. We can rail against God for his injustice at allowing children in the majority world to starve but the reality is that there is enough food in the world for everyone to be fed.

World agriculture produces 14% more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite population increase. There is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,947 kilocalories per person per day.  So the problem is distribution of food and poverty which prevents people buying food. In the Western world where we live, obesity is becoming a bigger and bigger problem while others in the world struggle to eat.

The Christian worldview asserts that we humans do not live the way that God wants us to. We assert our independence and live in a way that defies God and is it of step with how he would have us live. This leads to much suffering. Christians are under no illusions that we live in a perfect world. No, we live in a broken world where continual rebellion against God by us and others leads to much suffering and hurt. Suffering shows us that things are not as they should be, that we are part of the problem and that we need rescuing by God.

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