On Sunday morning we began a new two part series called “The Problem of Suffering” with a talk entitled “Why Suffering?” What follows is a brief summary of that talk and some questions to help you reflect either on your own or in your small group. You can also listen to the talk or download it from our Sunday Talks page (the talks are usually available a bit later in the week).
When we experience pain and suffering or see evil seeming to prevail in our world or hear about another natural disaster, it raise all kinds of questions in our minds: why is this happening? Why is it happening to me? Why do people do such horrendous things? And often times God comes into those questions too (whether we are a Christian or not): why does God allow this to happen? Where is God in the midst of all of this?
One of the things I love about the Easter story is the humanity of it. God enters into the muck and grime of real life and shares it with us. We see that graphically portrayed in the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest and crucifixion. You can read that story in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life in the New Testament part of the Bible chapter 26 and verses 36 to 46. You can read that here.
In the Garden and then through the rest of the Easter story, Jesus experienced unanswered prayer, betrayal, loneliness, immense physical pain and suffering, mockery and isolation, feeling abandoned by God and ultimately he experienced death. Jesus knows about suffering and God, his Father, experienced suffering too.
In the Easter story, Jesus has free will. He cries out to God to take his suffering away, but ultimately makes the free will choice to submit himself to the cross. Human beings have free will…we are free to make decisions and choices. Christians believe that God has created us with free will and that is a good thing. Forcing people into a way of acting isn’t very loving. What kind of God would God be if he forced his creation to love him? Free will has a real upside, but it has a dark side too. So much of the suffering that exists in the world today is caused by the willful selfishness and evil of human beings. Some have estimated that 95% of the world’s suffering results from the selfishness of human beings. For example, the world produces enough food for everyone in it to have at least 3,000 calories a day. It’s our irresponsibility and selfishness that prevents people from being fed. We need to look at ourselves first. Look at your own hand. You can choose that hand to hold a gun and shoot someone or you can use it to feed hungry people. It’s our choice, but it is unfair to shoot someone and then blame God for the suffering that produces.
I believe that God still intervenes when bad free will choices are made, but that has to be the exception rather than the rule, because God can’t constantly undermine the free will he has given.
There are other kinds of suffering that we may have experienced. The unexpected death or illness of a loved one, maybe a freak accident that causes suffering or a natural disaster. It is difficult to attribute these to people’s free will choices. What is God doing then? Why doesn’t he intervene?
Well I believe sometimes he does. In my own life I can point to times where God has intervened miraculously. But that of course raises other questions. Why would God intervene in on situation and not another? At this point the answer we can give with the most integrity is we don’t know? I don’t know why God healed my daughter but not my mother (who died of breast cancer at the age of 52). I wish I had a better answer, but God is bigger than my mind can understand. I want a God who is bigger than I can get my head around, but that means that sometimes I am left with questions and the pain of things I don’t understand.
But let me tell you what I do know:
1) If we suffer it is not some kind of heavenly punishment for previous wrong doings.
2) God is not the author of our suffering, even if he sometimes allows it.
3) God can cope with our anger and confusion and wants to hear our hearts.
4) God has experienced suffering of the most extreme kind and knows what it is like to suffer.
What we know is that in Jesus we have a saviour who knows what suffering is all about and stands with us in the midst of it. And we know that on that Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead he gave us a promise of hope that goes way beyond our suffering.
Questions to Reflect on (on your own or in your small group)
What’s one idea from the message that really stood out to you? Why did this idea grab your attention?
Why do you think God gave human beings free will? Do you agree that it was the right thing for Him to do?
Read again the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, what strikes you about what Jesus was going through?
Does it help you in your own suffering to know that Jesus experienced suffering? How does it help?
Can you tell a story of a time when God intervened to prevent or help in some kind of suffering?
Can you ever be comfortable with not knowing the answers to all your questions about suffering?
- How can you trust God even when you don’t understand all that is going on?