by Gayle D. Beebe, Ph.D.
Christians who follow Christ should expect to suffer, but this idea clashes with beliefs we have about God: He’s personal, He has a loving interest in us, He’s good and He’s holy. How could a good, holy, loving God allow so much evil and suffering? This has been one of the great challenges to faith through the ages.
I always begin with Scripture when confronting a challenge. I love the word of God; I was raised reading it. We had family devotions every morning, which gave me a wonderful orientation to different passages of Scripture and helped me view it as a whole. We need to read Scripture literally and in context. Ultimately, we have to read it in conversation with itself.
There are many biblical passages that address evil and suffering. Rather than wonder why we suffer, I think we should ask why we don’t suffer more. The reality of life is that all of us suffer eventually. The fact that we go through periods of our life without acute suffering is a miracle of God.
Consider just a few verses. “We will crush him and cause him to suffer” (Isaiah 53:10). “The son of man will come and must suffer many things” (Mark 8:31). “Christ has to suffer these things on our behalf” (Luke 24:26). “These present sufferings are worth it all in order that we may realize our future glory” (Romans 8:18). “We should suffer for Christ since he suffered for us” (Philippians 1:29). “If you suffer as a Christian, you will realize a great reward” (1 Peter 4:16). “Christ suffered for you” (1 Peter 2:21).
Getting in touch with the great traditions of the faith also helped me think about evil and suffering. During the first 300 years of the church, Christians were tortured and put to death. They didn’t ask why they suffered; they assumed the greatest form of discipleship was to die for the cause of Christ. Irenaeus, one of the great thinkers of the early church, talked about suffering as soul-making and an opportunity to reflect on our life with Christ and identify closely with His life to become more like him.
Some philosophers have said that so much suffering and evil means there must be evil within creation itself. But Augustine, the author of “The City of God” and a wonderful example of a Christian intellectual, argued that God created all creation and that it is therefore good. We must look at suffering at a deeper level.
God has given us the capacity to reason, and we need to understand how to make sense of our experiences of God, both individual encounters with Christ and corporate encounters through worship. As we learn more about the nature of our Christian life, we begin to understand how to respond to evil and suffering.
In his book “Suffering and the Religions of the World” John Bowker demonstrates that Christianity is the only major religion with a redemptive view of suffering. We get to make a response to suffering that seeks to redeem it, to view it as a total event. Just as Christ was asked to redeem humanity by suffering on the cross, we are asked to continue in our faith with Christ by redeeming the suffering we personally endure.
We can’t always see the meaning of our suffering because we’re inherently egocentric, thinking only about how life affects us. But we can’t just view suffering as what happens to us; we have to get outside our own perspective and see life as it really is.
I don’t want to minimize suffering because it is powerful and affects us in so many ways. Some people end up disappointed by how their life is going or how it has turned out. This frustration of our desires is painful. Suffering also occurs through devastating and arbitrary acts of nature. The most puzzling is suffering at the hands of other humans, when people do evil simply because they have the power to inflict their selfish desires on others.
We can become bitter by such experiences, or they can be openings to follow and experience God in a new way. Without preparing our hearts and minds to grasp the nature of suffering, difficult and debilitating events can create a crisis of faith.
To respond in faith, we can begin thinking about suffering and walking with people who are suffering to understand its nature and rhythm. As we enter into experiences of suffering, we can ask what God wants us to learn as a result of it. Ultimately, we all have an opportunity to respond to suffering in ways that honor Christ and allow us to go deeper with Him rather than reject Him.
Simon Weil the great French philosopher, once said that suffering should be viewed as a passageway, not a barrier. She noted that the sun is the only force in nature that causes plants to grow against gravity. Our egocentrism is like gravity, and the grace of God is the sun in that it’s the only spiritual power that can enable us to grow against our nature. In this way, we can learn how to redeem our suffering.