This post was written some time ago but I believe it is worth re-posting because now with the curse of Covid19 sweeping the world and the continued execution of wars in the world and sadly recently in Afghanistan, and all the suffering that is involved, I continue to hear many people exclaim, “How can a loving God allow such things to happen.” Or simply, “I don’t want to have anything to do with a God, if there is one, who allows so much suffering in the world.” It is not easy to give a response to such statements. Certainly, such thoughts afflicted me when twelve years ago I walked alongside my son as he suffered the ravages of cancer; and this triggered in me a struggle with the concept of suffering resulting in an understanding that I would like to share with all those who have suffered or are currently undergoing a difficult time.
Most of us experience suffering at some point in our lives irrespective of our belief systems whether this be bereavement, sickness, handicap, broken relationships, unhappy marriages, loneliness, depression, abject poverty, persecution, unemployment, rejection, injustice and disappointment. There are no doubt numerous times when we struggle with the concept of suffering and how this fits into God’s loving care for us in this earthly life.
No-one’s “god”, religion or philosophy exempts their followers from suffering, but for the Christian “God is Love”. I believe there is relationship between the freedom to make choices and love. If we love someone, the greatest way we can express that is to allow them the freedom to be themselves and to make choices, whether or not they consider us in those choices. Of course we hope since they love us they will consider our needs, etc. in the choices that they make. Unconditional love says, “I still love you, even if you make wrong, usually selfish choices.” This is well illustrated by Jesus’ parable of the lost son [Luke 14: 11-32]. If God’s fundamental character is love, it cannot be expressed in any other way but by granting a degree independence to that which is loved. God loves us, and the purpose of our existence is to freely choose a loving relationship with Him and, through His empowerment, to maintain relationships of unconditional love with other people, in harmony with our environment. Such an outcome is only possible with genuine choice.
If we were programmed by God to choose what He willed we would not be able to have a personal loving relationship with Him. Programmed love is not real love. For such a love to exist there must be the possibility of wrong choices made by humans or more fundamentally by fallen leading angels! This of course implies that angels also have free will through which they too express their love. Some of the suffering we endure, therefore, is I believe, the consequence of bad choices made by ourselves, other human beings and or fallen angels. Included in this is corporate greed that can lead to pollution, climate change, unsustainability and even war, all of which sadly continue to afflict today’s world, resulting in poverty, disease, death and suffering of countless innocent victims which could include each one of us. It could of course be argued that when we consider the enormity of the degree of suffering that has been produced by the free but evil choices of human beings and certain angels it would have been better not to have had free-will. In such a world, however, would we be truly human as God intends us to be? Human existence as we know it is surely defined by its exercise of choice of whether to love or hate, to be generous or greedy, to display heroism or cowardice, to be altruistic or selfish, to be just or unjust.
Does all human suffering arise from egocentric [sinful] choices? The answer is obviously no. Job’s ‘friends’ argued that his suffering was the result of sin – but they were wrong [Job 42:7-8] and Jesus expressly repudiates the automatic link between sin and suffering [John 9:1-3]. There is suffering on a global scale resulting from natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, viruses, bacteria, genetic diseases, hurricanes and tsunamis which are not caused by wrong choices. Jesus points out that natural disasters are not necessarily a form of punishment from God [Luke13:1-5]. Peter distinguishes between suffering as a result of our own selfish choices [1Peter2:20] and that which is not of our choosing [1Peter2:19]. There is also some suffering connected with being obedient to God and doing good [1Peter2:20].
We are intrinsically intertwined with the whole of God’s creation. I believe that God’s whole act of creation is an action of love and divine self-limitation, or kenosis, on part of the Creator allowing creation some freedom in creating itself. This was certainly the thought of theologians such as Frederick Temple. They commented that no doubt God could have brought into being a ready made world, but that he did something much cleverer in bringing into being a world with potentiality to explore ways of being fruitful. This of course implies that, although allowed by God, not all that happens will be in accordance with positive divine will.
There is a price to pay in a world where creatures are allowed to make themselves, in line with a loving God, where shuffling explorations of potentiality [ ‘chance’] will inevitably involve ‘blind alleys’ and ‘ragged edges’. Plate Tectonics has produced diverse opportunities for life to explore its fruitfulness through, for example, mountain building. The shadow side of this is the occurrence of volcanic activity and earthquakes which affect all life indiscriminately. However, without volcanic activity the earth would be uninhabitable by life as we know it.
Some suffering then is the result of living in this world and being an integral part of it. We are only just beginning to comprehend the almost incomprehensible interrelationships between all the interweaving factors of a complex world. The chaos theory postulates that someone waving a flag in the arctic could conceivably trigger a hurricane in the tropics! It is a sobering thought that any action that we as individuals take can have unknown effects on others, also possibly unknown to us, and on future history. Why doesn’t God intervene when such effects have deleterious results? The answer is not an easy one; but perhaps in some way humans are co-workers with God in bringing about His will on earth and although he could direct us and control us so that things go exactly as He would ideally have them go he cannot do this without compromising free will and the environment of His love that he has created. If He changed the physical laws and constants of the Universe, that have been so finely tuned to create us, then this would upset the stability and dynamism, which creates the fruitfulness, of the whole created order. Occasionally he can do this, for we are realising, through Quantum Physics, that the Universe is more open than we thought; and then we have a miracle. Such a world also challenges our own self-dependence and gives us opportunities to reach out in compassion to help others in need. That is not to say that every bit of human suffering has a meaning and purpose, but rather that world we live in, with the existence of so many sources of suffering and challenges to human complacency and human compassion, is the kind of world where moral and spiritual growth is possible.
There are many examples of Christians who would be argue that their suffering, whether caused by traumatic natural events or wrong choices made by ourselves or others, was part of the journey they went through to develop and mature their faith, or indeed to come to faith and also, sometimes served as a witness to others (2 Timothy 4:7-8). We as Christians could, therefore, argue that in these instances a particular good came out of a particular experience of suffering. When suffering occurs it is not caused by but may be used by God, to purify us and move us closer to the likeness of Christ. It is an event along the road of our progressive sanctification.
Originally suffering was not part of God’s plan [Gen.1-2]. Suffering came into the world as a result of man choosing to obey self rather than God and in desiring to become equal with God; to know everything that God knows. Perhaps, more fundamentally it is the result of rebellion in Heaven! We are the result of conflict between heavenly and satanic forces! In some mysterious way this contaminated the course of all creation. An analogy is a bath full of water with plastic ducks floating in it. As the plug is removed from the bath the ducks are caught up in and affected by the swirl of the water as it goes down the plughole. Happenings in the material Universe may in some way be a reflection of happenings in the spiritual Universe, which underpins the material Universe, and is likely to be just as complex.
As Christians we have a hope in the meaning of the Cross that speaks of a time when God became involved in the suffering of the world, experiencing its anguish and pain; a time when He engaged with the consequences of our wrong and evil choices in a complex creation. God so loved the world that this gave God the opportunity to further express his love and compassion by rescuing us, together with all of creation, from the consequences of wrong choices and satanic contamination, through the sacrificial life of His Son Jesus Christ; culminating on the cross.
And beyond the cross is the resurrection of Jesus in which victory over satan was assured, enabling us to believe that our human experience is not limited to this world but reaches beyond it to eternity, for which the present is but a preparation. We are promised that there will be a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more suffering [Rev.21]. This will be achieved through the final negation of satanic influence. The apostle Paul tells us that we shall be included in the radiance of the coming glory, which will put into perspective the present sufferings we experience (Romans 8:18). Because of this our hope is for future glory. We will have a new body patterned after the glorified body of Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:21).
Our “hope of glory” is guaranteed by the indwelling of Christ within us now (Col. 1:27). However, being co-heirs with Christ we may be required to share in His sufferings (Jn. 15:20; Col. 1:24; 2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Pet. 4:12). After suffering with Christ we will share in the glory of Christ (2 Tim. 2:12; 1 Pet. 4:13; 5:10). There is no sharing in Christ’s glory unless there is sharing in His suffering; his suffering that was the result of living in His creation which, in love, He chose to give free rein for evil choices to be made. Nevertheless, prayer the central means of communication with God, I believe can play an important part in ‘influencing’ God to intervene and protect against, alleviate, heal and use suffering for His good purpose. He may not be able to do this all the time, however, without risking the stability of the created order.
Suffering, then, is an inevitable part of the fact that we are God’s creatures with the freedom to choose how to live on this uniquely created and complex planet earth, within a universe which has been given the freedom in some degree to make itself within the framework of temporal time and space governed by dynamic but stable ‘laws’. We are as much a result of its past history and development as we are of the choices we have made and the consequences of spiritual warfare. Suffering can fall on all whether Christian or not. However, the hope which we as Christians share through the suffering and glorification of Christ empowers us to be bold in our response to suffering which may be play an important part in preparing us for a life with Christ in eternity.