by Paul McQuien
The topic of human suffering is too complex to be addressed adequately in a brief editorial or perhaps, for that matter, in a lengthy book. Yet the reality of suffering is central to human experience, including faithful Christians. It has even led some believers to deny their faith and some non-believers to reject the idea that a beneficent, loving God even exists.
When the Christian apologist Lee Strobel was asked in the February 2018 issue of “The Christian Chronicle,” “What argument against faith do you most commonly encounter?,” he gave the following answer. “According to polling I’ve conducted, as well as human experience, the most common objection to Christianity is: ‘How can a loving God allow pain and suffering in the world?’ “ Fortunately, Strobel has given a robust answer to that question in his book, “The Case for Faith.”
Strobel wrote that Charles Templeton, Billy Graham’s one-time friend and associate, moved to an agnostic position concerning God, partly because he couldn’t reconcile the starvation of children in drought-plagued Africa to a loving God. While the ultimate answer to human suffering resides in the mind of our sovereign God, provisional and persuasive answers do exist.
For one thing, what is the meaning of suffering if no God exists? Yes, we are especially troubled by examples of suffering children, which some witness personally in their own families and which we witness almost daily through the media in our violent, war-torn world.
Yet the Bible teaches that suffering does have meaning because God loves these suffering children and has an eternal place of comfort for them. Jesus even used children as examples of innocent trust and warned against abusing them.
Furthermore, most human suffering is caused directly by human violence and depravity, beginning with the fall of man and the murder of Abel by Cain. Contemporary examples are plentiful, including the brutality presently occurring in Syria, school and church shootings, domestic and foreign terrorism (such as 911), and the horrors of ISIS brutality, just to name a few. Just think how things would change if the political and economic world leaders committed themselves to the teachings of Jesus.
Natural disasters and ravaging diseases are less easily explained, but at least some tragedies caused by natural disasters stem from poor people being forced to live in unsafe environments as a result of human greed and complacency. Such unhealthy conditions have contributed to the rise and spread of terrible diseases through the ages. On the other hand, natural disasters sometimes bring out the very best in human nature.
Most important, however, is what the Bible teaches about the role of suffering, especially in the Old Testament books of Job, Psalms, and Jeremiah’s Lamentations, and even more so in the life of Jesus and the New Testament church. Especially important here is the suffering of Jesus revealed in the Gospels.
Actually, his earthly suffering was prophesied in the Old Testament, especially in Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Zechariah 12:10. All three synoptic Gospels contain the passage in which Jesus told his disciples “that the Son of man must suffer many things, . . . and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mk. 8:31, Mt. 16:21, Lk. 9:22 NIV). He followed this up with the statement that his followers would suffer persecution as well (Jno. 16:33). No wonder Paul told the disciples after his near-death by stoning at Lystra, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
In fact, the New Testament theology is filled with references to suffering. One good example appears in 1 Peter, in which the term appears 16 times in this brief book of only five short chapters. Peter emphasized the intense suffering of the innocent Christ (1:11, 2:21-23, 4:1, 13, 5:2) as a reminder to his readers that they should follow the example of Jesus in their sufferings caused by persecution and try to learn from them.
Admittedly, I have not been called on to suffer very much in my own lifetime, so I am certainly no first-hand authority on the subject. At the same time I can appreciate the Apostle Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
I don’t completely understand the meaning of this profound passage, but it definitely confirms the validity of suffering, considering that Jesus endured more earthly suffering than anyone to secure our salvation