“What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3: 18).
Inevitably from this the question arises: is suffering God’s will or not? Two diverse attitudes to suffering have arisen in the Christian tradition as a result of this dilemma. Firstly, the acceptance of suffering, either as a disciplinary measure on God’s part, or as the highest way of following and imitating Christ. Secondly, a sense of outrage that there should be suffering at all and efforts to eliminate it on the grounds that its removal is God’s redeeming purpose.
Outrage at the existence of suffering has been an important factor in the modern debate with secularism. With some justification, the proportion of evil and suffering in the world has come to be regarded, as the most telling argument against the very existence of a good Creator God, and with the loss of general belief in an evil agent (Satan), the question ‘Why suffering?’ has become a serious problem at the popular, pastoral level.
Justifying the ways of God (theodicy) is not a new problem for Christian believers but it has become an urgent one. Treating pain and suffering as essentially positive has been one approach to this problem. Suffering, it is said, ennobles. Pain acts as a warning sign. Both suffering and pain play an important role in the overall purpose of life, which is to produce free, mature human beings. These arguments may be reinforced by appeal to scripture and the seeing of a loving Father obliged to chastise for the good of his children: “For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12: 5-11). There is also precedent in patristic preaching and traditional pastoral counselling: St. John Chrysostom, for example, argued that God is not the source of evil, yet permits suffering as a factor in the learning process, for discipline and judgment, the only real evil being sin. Deep within the Christian tradition is a sense that suffering is redemptive, both for oneself and for others.
There are, however, serious objections to this positive approach to the problem of suffering and pain. It is argued, that such an approach cannot explain ‘irrational pain’, for example, the extremes of nerve pain with no obvious purpose; nor can it explain mass suffering as distinct from individual suffering; it cannot cope with innocent suffering. Further, the outcome of suffering is in fact entirely ambiguous and unpredictable, it may ennoble but it often embitters; it may stimulate love and compassion but it can equally cause impatience, cruelty and rejection. Perhaps most serious for the Christian tradition, this kind of explanation, if taken as the whole answer, cannot do justice to the central focus of the faith, the suffering of Jesus Christ upon the cross: “What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3: 18). To do justice to that it is necessary to admit that suffering is a real problem, that there is something radically wrong with the world, of which sin and suffering are both indications; and it is necessary to admit that God’s saving action involves confrontation with all that is wrong in his world, without attempting a sharp dichotomy between moral and physical evils, which are so often in practice intimately related.
There is no satisfactory simple answer to the fundamental question of theodicy, which is now so urgently pressing. However, one characteristic of Christianity is a devotional response to the suffering of Christ, which can effect the transformation or transcending of suffering. The doctrine of incarnation permits the believer to see in the cross God’s very presence in the midst of the suffering as well as the sin of the world, his redemptive entering into and bearing of the consequences of the existence of evil in his creation. Response to the love of God thus displayed, the sense thus mediated of God’s presence in spite of everything, the realization that God has taken all upon himself and the cross has power to release man from his chains, can make a real difference to the situation and in some cases produce actual healing. The Book of Job, for many Christians, voices their own protest, mystification, even blasphemy, in the face of innocent suffering; yet foreshadows the cross in that it points to the only acceptable response, that in God’s presence all suffering and pain, all protests and questions cease and worship begins.
“God, the God, I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken, bleeding but unconquered,very God of God to me”.
G. A. Studdert-Kennedy: High and Lifted Up.
G. A. Studdert-Kennedy: The Unutterable Beauty, 1964.
C. S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain, 1940.
J. Moltmann: The Crucified God, 1974.
O God, the author and fountain of hope, enable us to rely with confident expectation on thy promises, knowing that the pains and sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed and having our faces steadfastly set towards the light that shineth more and more to the perfect day; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev’d Canon Geoffrey Andow