Reflections on Suffering

I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe; I am the LORD, who does all these things. — Isaiah 45:7

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. — Col. 1:19-20

While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Texts: Ps 31:1-16; Jn 9:1-7; Rm 8:18-25
Hymn: If You But Trust in God to Guide You

Isaiah 45:7 is one of the Bible’s troubling passages. It appears in a context where the prophet is delivering a message about the complete sovereignty of God. It was God who delivered His people into Babylon, and it is God who will return them to their homeland. All things come from God. He is the maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. “I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe; I am the LORD who does these things.” And yet, doesn’t this mean God is responsible for suffering? If God is the author of everything, is He also the author of evil? Is He the source of sickness and disease? Does He cause the hurricanes, earthquakes, and droughts which bring so much human misery? Do even personal misfortunes, things like unemployment and financial hardship, ultimately come from God?

These are difficult questions for those who have faith. We want to believe that God is good and just; but how can we believe it unless we find an explanation for evil? The disciples, when they encountered a blind man, asked Jesus to explain, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). If the man’s blindness were punishment for sin, they thought, then it was explained. But if he was blind for no reason at all, didn’t that make him the victim of divine injustice? Sometimes the effort to explain evil grows out of a desire for reassurance. To see others suffer evokes fear; could that happen to me? But If I can find an explanation for the suffering of others, I can try to avoid the mistakes that brought it about. “For affliction does not come from the dust, nor trouble sprout from the ground” (Job 5:6). With words like these Job’s friends intended to help, but they were actually comforting themselves more than the afflicted.

All explanations for evil, even when they contain an element of truth, miss the depth of the problem, which arises from the facts of the human condition. “Leave me alone,” Job says, “for my days are a breath. What is man, that you make so much of him?” (Job 7:16-17). We are human beings made in the image of God, but we are also small, insignificant creatures caught up in the cross-purposes of nature. Everywhere we look, the grandeur of nature appears built on conflict. Animals maintain balance in the ecosystem by eating each other. Earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes are inevitable on the kind of planet which can sustain life, but at the same time they wreak destruction and destroy life. Since I am only an insignificant creature, why can’t God leave me alone, says Job. At least if I were a worm, the harshness of the world would pass me by unnoticed. But God does not leave us alone. He has made us little less than the heavenly beings (Ps. 8:5), and it is because we know God that we protest nature’s cruel indifference.

Job never did get an explanation for evil. God appeared to him but refused to answer the question. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? (Job 38:4, 33). God does not explain the reasons for suffering. They remain hidden in HIs divine mystery and majesty. “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (Is. 45:15).

Yet God not only hides, He also reveals Himself. Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, in whom all things were made (Eph. 1:15-17; Jn. 1:3). Those who have seen the Son have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9), and the God revealed in the Son is love (1 Jn. 4:16). We know that the same Christ through whom God made the world healed the sick and was moved by their suffering. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn. 11:35). Through His own suffering, Christ overcame death and the devil (Heb. 2:14), and reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Col. 1:20). We are so used to thinking of Christ’s passion as the work by which He ransomed us from sin that we sometimes forget it was even greater than that. In Christ God was reconciling the whole world to himself (2 Cor. 5:18), placing all things in subjection to Him, so that through death He might destroy the power of the devil (Heb. 2:5-15).

If God overcame the world through suffering love, why would we, who have been baptized into his death (Rm 6:3), expect to be spared from suffering? Is not the bread we break participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 16)? Through participation in His body we share even in His work of reconciliation. Not that our suffering is a means of atonement, but because we participate in His body we share in the work by which He overcomes evil. When the disciples who encountered the blind man asked for an explanation, Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (Jn. 9:3). Christ did not explain the reason for the man’s blindness, instead he gave that blindness purpose. Often those who have suffered personal tragedy look for ways to bring meaning to their suffering by directing it toward the good; parents of children killed in school shootings work to protect schools in the future; people suffering from diseases volunteer for medical research; many donate to causes in honor of a departed loved one. Such authentic impulses toward self-giving are a sign that God is still at work in Christ today reconciling the world to Himself. Indeed, we know that God works everything to good for those who abide in his love (Rm. 8:28), and in Christ all things work to His purposes.

Almighty God, Heavenly Father, Your ways are inscrutable and unsearchable to me. When I behold nature, the heavens, the moon and stars which You have established, I often doubt that you care or notice me at all. When adversity strikes, I rely on my own strength rather than You. Yet You have prepared a place for me with the saints through the suffering of Your son. Help me to discover your will for me in every tribulation, and grant me the grace to endure hardship with patience, so that your work in me can come to completion and I may know the peace of Your fellowship. In Christ’s name. Amen

Categories: Faith, Opinion

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1 reply

  1. Eloquent and helpful exposition of suffering: thank you!


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