Some careful steps towards understanding suffering

This is a brief overview of the Bible’s teaching on suffering. As such, it can’t come with the sensitivity to people’s own circumstances and the horror of suffering that is warranted. It is rather an attempt to provide some pegs for our thinking – and, with it, confidence as to the end of all suffering in Christ. It is intended for mature Christians who have already considered these things to some degree, are used to coming to the Bible for answers, and already have some sense of the majesty and mystery of God’s ways.

Suffering must in some sense be part of God’s purpose in history.

1) God created humanity to enjoy an everlasting life free from sin, disease, disability, disaster and death. This is our start in Genesis 2 and our end in Revelation 22. This is the context for all else. This is God's ultimate intent in human history.

2) God's intent in creation is however broader than this. He chose us before the creation of the world to be recipients of his grace through Christ, who will one day reign over all things. So, God’s purpose in creation was that he would have a people who have experienced redemption from sin and its consequences, and so praise him for his glorious grace. Therefore sin, and the suffering that followed it, must have always been part of his ultimate purpose - and in this sense intended by him (Eph 1v3-12).

3) Sin or evil is not however created by or pleasing to God. It is the opposite of his righteous and good character. For his ultimate ends, he creates a world and allows the circumstances in which moral beings choose such things, but it is they who choose them. So, sin and evil are created in every decision to rebel against God, as Satan, Eve and Adam did. In this sense God does not intend sin or its consequences. We might say they are a reluctant necessity in the fulfilment of his overall purposes (Gen 3v1-6, Lam 3v32-33).

Talking of God willing suffering nevertheless needs careful thought.

4) The penalty for sin, is to be handed over to a world of suffering, sickness and sinful desire. These things must also therefore have been intended in the sense that they are necessary to the ultimate fulfilment of God’s purposes, but not in the sense that they please him. They result from God's general judgment on all humanity because of the sin of Adam and Eve that we share in and perpetuate. From conception every human being therefore enters into a world of evil, death and the toil, hardship, aging and sickness that goes with it (Gen 3v22-24, 5v1-32, Rom 1v18-32, 5v12-14).

5) The randomness of suffering may find some explanation here, as it displays a world shut off from the order that God brings. We may find an explanation for the viciousness of animals here too. Although there is nothing inherently bad about carnivorism (Ps 104v21), in our more literal translations Genesis 6 speaks of “all flesh” becoming “corrupt” after the fall, in a context where “all flesh” refers to all creatures (Gen 6v9-17). This is why it was fitting to destroy creatures in the flood too. Our struggles with the callous way that animals toy with their prey therefore find some resolution in understanding the fall.

6) Revelation 6v7-8 presents the risen and reigning Jesus unlocking death in the form of sword, famine, plague and wild animals, with a heavenly being calling it out, and the inference that God has given these things power until Christ returns. Although we cannot in confidence say that a specific war, drought, disease or accident is a specific judgment of God for certain sins, we can say that they reflect his general judgment on humanity for its sin. Indeed, we must say that this general judgment is now an expression of Christ's current rule, and must be held in our minds alongside his evident compassion at those who suffer these things. He exercises judgment, but does it through tears (Rev 6-7).

7) This general judgment of God is expressed in numerous ways – and here there is much mystery and the need of much faith.

a)     Occasionally God does cause someone to suffer, be sick, or die as a specific punishment for their sin (Acts 5v1-11, 1 Cor 11v29-32). So, it is entirely appropriate if we suffer acutely to examine ourselves and ensure we have truly repented (Jam 5v14-16, Rev 2v22, 9v20).

b)    Sickness should not, however, be seen that way all the time (Jn 9v1-3). Usually, it is just a reflection of life in this present age.

c)     Nevertheless, God does sustain the biological processes that keep people active and that carry disease and disability, when he does not have to. He could direct them in a different way or instantaneously heal those who are sick (Heb 1v3).

d)    God also allows Satan a degree of power in the world – though constraining him too. And where Satan might seek to attack someone by bringing sickness or suffering on them, or tempt someone to do evil, God shows that he may permit or even direct Satan’s actions when he doesn’t have to, and for reasons that could remain unknown to any victims (Job 1-2, 42).

e)     Moreover, God presents his own interaction with human evil as one where he permits people to do what’s wrong by following their own inclinations, whilst he at times limits or orders them. However, he also reveals that at times he provokes people to evil acts for the sake of certain goods he wants to achieve. A river flows of its own accord, but only as the skilled landscaper determines, whether by permitting or directing its natural course. In a similar way, human beings are responsible for all they do, but do only as God in this sense determines. All this should be factored in to our understanding of human acts contributing to sin, sickness or suffering (Gen 50v20, Is 45v1-7, Acts 4v27-28, Prov 20v24, 21v1).

f)     When we read that every aspect of every life is ordained or decreed by God in advance, we shouldn’t therefore think this means God is directing us at every moment like puppets. It’s much more complex. Knowing all things, he has chosen and so ordained exactly what will be, but he has done this knowing how we would exercise our own choices in every circumstance we face – circumstances that he will either allow or direct into being, and choices that he will permit, limit or even provoke. This means that our experience of freedom and self-determination is a real one, as is our interaction with God (Ps 139v16, Eph 1v11).

g)    Everything mentioned in (a)-(f) above must be consider in understanding some bold declarations God makes about himself. He doesn’t hesitate to say that he is the one who has made the deaf deaf and blind blind (Ex 4v11), who brings “both calamities and good things” (Lam 3v38), and who brings “prosperity and creates disaster” (Is 45v7). Although they are hard, we really have to include these truths in our knowledge of God if it is not to be an idolatrous sentimentalizing of who he actually is.

h)    Most especially however, we must be clear that he takes no delight in such things (Ezek 18v32). Jesus showed so clearly that God feels deep compassion for those who suffer. In this sense he doesn’t bring suffering about “willingly” (Lam 3v33). But the verses above show that he is quite prepared to say that he does nevertheless bring it about. He is totally sovereign. So, nothing happens apart from his “intent” or “purpose” - given the careful nuance and understanding we’ve sought to outline.

i)     We must remember too, that in Jesus God the Son experienced the most severe suffering, and God the Father in giving him to it. They are therefore not removed from our personal suffering, but can empathise with us, and grant us by the Holy Spirit what we need to endure it.

j)     Moreover, God entered into this suffering in order to redeem us from suffering. So, suffering is in no way his ultimate purpose for his people. Nevertheless, we must accept that Jesus teaches a degree of suffering beyond death for unbelievers in hell, that is proportional to their sin. This is most hard to consider, and can only be held to when mindful of his care and action for those who suffer, his readiness to act for their salvation, and how much greater the wisdom of our creator must be to any understanding we can aspire to. Jesus wept over the refusal of the Jews to embrace him because of the judgment it meant he would have to bring on them, yet he could have opened their eyes so that they repented instead (Lk 19v41-44, Mat 11v27).

God brings immense hope in and through suffering.

8) It is only an acceptance of this absolute rule of God, even over such terrible things, that enables us to be certain that they are never arbitrary or lacking some sense of purpose in God’s mind. And he is clear that his purpose in suffering and so sickness is not confined to judgement. In mercy, he also intends it to bring people to repentance (Rev 9v2). Here, Ecclesiastes 3v1-14 seems to imply that God brings people through good and bad seasons so that they feel their own lack of control over life and “fear him.” This may explain a purpose in the apparent randomness of suffering and fact that even Christians suffer horrors. It keeps everyone on their toes. As C S Lewis so famously put it: Suffering is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 

9) God also gives grace to all people, whether they love or hate him, by making humanity in his image, and so with skill in medicine and government, and a conscience that urges them to use these things to tackle sickness. We should not underestimate quite how much sickness God has providentially relieved by this means throughout history, and to an increasing degree as Christ now reigns over all things. We should add that all without exception deserve not one day of happiness on earth because of sin, but should rightly pass straight to judgment. Hard as it may be to see, even those who suffer therefore experience many blessings from God in the everyday things of life. We therefore have no right to blame him for our lot, but should rather give thanks that it is not much worse.

10) Most supremely, however, in Christ God has decisively dealt with the curse of Eden, enabling a full redemption from all its effects, including resurrection in new immortal bodies to fullness of life, free from evil, disability, disease and death, in a renewed world (1 Cor 15, Rev 21-22).

11) Healing is therefore available for the Christian in a similar way that sanctification is. They have been freed from both sin and death, and so are no longer subject to them as elements of condemnation. Nevertheless, while the Christian still inhabits their current body, they are still bound to this world and so impacted by the fall of Adam and Eve. They are no longer enslaved to sin, but will struggle with it until their bodies are done away with (Rom 6v6). Similarly, they may experience healing from sickness, but will continue to experience the sufferings of this world, including sickness, until their mortal bodies die and they are raised to life. Life free from sin, sickness and suffering is therefore described as “hope” – and something we “do not yet have” but “wait for patiently” (Rom 8v18-23). 

God’s has great purpose for suffering in the Christian.

12) The difference for the Christian, however, is that there is now no sense of judgement at all in their suffering or sickness, as Christ has paid the penalty for their sin (Rom 8v1). They are not being punished when they suffer. Instead, God uses suffering in other ways: to hone their character and build their longing for their future hope (Rom 5v3-4); to prove and display their faith, bringing them assurance and drawing others to praise God (1 Pet 1v6-7); and to display his power in their weakness (2 Cor 12v9). This is the way of the “the crucified God.” And some have noted that this pattern seems written into the creation that was made “through him.” Throughout nature we see how death serves the purpose of life.[i]

14) It is critical to understand that suffering was used in Christ’s life in these same ways. His obedience to the father was drawn out and displayed more acutely because of what he had to suffer (Heb 2v10). It displayed God’s power at work in him, causing us to marvel and praise God for it. Suffering in its various forms is therefore a key part of what it means to be a disciple who follows the way of the cross through a life of suffering to glory. It is God’s discipline to train not punish; a necessary aspect of being children that he as Father is developing (Heb 12v7-11). And it is something the Christian undergoes knowing that God understands, having experienced it himself in Jesus.

15) Life until the return of Christ is therefore lived with this tension between suffering and glory. The Christian’s focus is on what will be when Christ returns, and they rejoice to be filled with the Holy Spirit who is the life and power of the world to come. Yet they recognize that they are called to live and serve for a time in this present age, displaying the resurrection power of Christ in how they cope with its trials and hardships. 

God is ready and able to heal on occasion from suffering.

16) This tension means that the Christian cannot presume that God will heal them from sickness because he may have some purpose in it for them - or for others through them. And this purpose may remain unknown to them as it did Job. Like Paul, in suffering they would want to say: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1v20).

17) Nevertheless, knowing that Christ has redeemed them from death and granted them access to the Father, encourages the Christian to boldly pray for healing, recognizing Jesus has the power to heal them, and that, although he has purpose in suffering, God hears his people’s prayers, which are powerful and effective.

18) Prayer for healing might be from the individual or church community, but God especially commends asking elders of the church to pray, or looking to those he may have given a particular gift of healing to (Jam 5v13-18, 1 Cor 12v9).

19) And if Jesus does heal, it may simply be because he has compassion on the Christian’s predicament. However, his own ministry implies it should also be seen as a sign of the sickness-free kingdom he has established, and that will soon be displayed in fullness (Acts 2v19, 22). It is therefore something to share with others as a witness to the truth of the gospel.

20) It is this gospel purpose that makes it especially appropriate to pray for healing for non-Christians too – provided this is done sensitively and without presumption.

God displays the heights of his love in the depths of suffering.

21) What follows from all this, is that the worse the evil and suffering experienced in the world the more serious we recognise humanity’s sin to be, and the more justified and weighty God’s justice and anger at it. We are appalled at God permitting or bringing such things on human beings, rather than at how bad sin must be for him to do so. We blame God, when we should blame ourselves.

22) Yet the more serious sin is and the more extreme God’s reaction to it, the more incredible it is that he is willing to forgive and do so by sending his only Son to suffer that evil and suffering. We conclude then that the worse the evil and suffering in the world, the more God’s love is ultimately magnified because the degree of suffering reflects the seriousness of sin and the extremity of his anger that he is willing to overcome.

23) Moreover, whatever other higher purposes God may have in evil and suffering, one purpose certainly is that it displays the glory of his justice and by consequence his mercy (Rom 11v30-32). As Paul again puts it, all is therefore “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1). Without evil and suffering we would never see or experience God’s justice and mercy. But because of it we will forever take joy in praising him for them, knowing just how much we have been saved from.

24) What follows is that although it would take a strong faith and clear biblical understanding, when we ourselves endure horrific evil and suffering, a key way of processing it, is to reflect on the fact that, although it is not a direct punishment on the Christian, it does bring home to us the seriousness of our sin and that of others, the weight of God’s justice and anger, and so the wonders of God’s love displayed in Christ that deals with all that. It therefore humbles us, and keeps us from trivialising sin or becoming complacent about God’s grace.

25) Moreover, not to teach all this for fear of offending others, is to prevent perhaps the key purpose God has in evil and suffering – for it to lead people to wonder at his mercy. To keep quiet then is to hide God’s glory, and give the sense that there is a total pointlessness to our pain.

26) Of course, there are instances of such extreme evil and suffering, that all this hard to accept. But we must remember there is just so much we don’t know when it comes to God’s purpose. However, we do know God. We know his wisdom, his power, his goodness and compassion, seen most especially in Jesus. And so, we can acknowledge the limits to our understanding, and echo Paul's words in Rom 11v33-36:

"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?   For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen."



[i] If, as many hold, death and so suffering occurred even before the fall in a world declared “very good” (Gen 1v31), then we must conclude God’s means of shaping his creation and creatures into their final state has always been through suffering – just as we see creatures adapted by their environment. Romans 8v19-22 may hint at this. The “bondage to decay” the creation has been subjected to is described as birth pangs – the necessary precursor to the joy of the new life. And the sense is that when humanity bear the glory of God’s image, the whole creation will experience the freedom it would have experienced if Adam and Eve’s descendants had filled and subdued it without sinning. Indeed, it is striking Paul speaks of all creation being “subjected” to decay by God as opposed to being “subject” to humanity. However, Genesis 3 doesn’t include the subjection of all creation in its curses. So, Paul could well be referring to the natural order of things as created by God in anticipation of the redemption he would work in Christ.