Suffering and death. Why?
A difficult subject
This topic has exercised many minds, in fact it is the reason some reject any belief in God at all. Surely a ‘righteous’ God would do something about the misery in the world; all this anguish and disharmony surely calls His motives into question.
Some argue that this disharmony exists because God is in combat with Lucifer/Satan: He is so busy dealing with this war that He has no time to concern Himself with the human beings caught up in it. (This is not a Biblical concept, however.)
What follows are some general principles as a point of discussion on why there is suffering in the world, what it can mean for us personally and how, ultimately, suffering and death will be eradicated.
The Two Worlds of the Bible
The Bible describes two worlds.
In the very beginning of creation: ‘And God saw that it was good’. (Genesis 1:25)
At the end, when complete peace is established on the earth: ‘And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4
This ‘World 2’ is where the reign of Christ has ended, and everything is as God designed in the first place (1 Corinthians 15: 24-28). We look at these two worlds and see how we are ‘stuck’ in the period between. We observe life today and see heart-wrenching suffering everywhere. This has troubled so many, yet the answer is simple. Question: what is absent in both ‘World 1’ and ‘World 2’? Answer: there is no sin. Here lies the crux of the matter.
God was not to blame
In the Garden of Eden there was one rule. ‘Don’t eat of the tree’ (Genesis 2:16-17). Adam was warned even before Eve was created; he knew about the process of death and had the choice to obey or disobey. His decision led to sin coming in (Genesis 3:6). The option both Adam and Eve chose was deliberate and informed, it was not God’s doing. (For the consequences of sin read: Genesis 3:19: 3:17-18, Romans 5:12.) Adam had started as dust of the ground and ended as dust of the ground. Subsequently a new eco-system was established on an earth that was cursed. Life was difficult, there were problems, pain and distress. But it was not just Adam who sinned; we, too, do things that go against God’s commands, meaning that we, also, deserve death. Humanity does not today live according to God’s directions; humankind is unable to rule the earth properly either practically or politically.
What Jesus says about suffering…
Suffering can be beneficial to us as it can bring us closer to God.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ Matthew 5:1-10
When we need God, then we look to Him. We seek Him to help deal with our problems and life’s many difficulties. Suffering changes our focus and we turn towards the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
The apostle James shows how suffering can be an instructive, beneficial aspect of our faith.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2-4)
Suffering can be a constructive aspect to our lives as it can bring us closer to God and strengthen our character. One writer put this way:
‘An untried faith is worth nothing, but a faith that stands the test of trial is more precious than gold. Faith without trial finds no scope for demonstration or evidence of its existence.’ (John Thomas, Elpis Israel)
Certainly, faith needs to be proven and Jesus’ own example teaches a great deal about suffering. The torment and pain Jesus endured taught Him how to be obedient to God:
‘In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.’ (Hebrews 5:7-8)
Pain is not a direct punishment for wrongdoing
Jesus himself also made it plain that suffering is not generally proportional to sinfulness, though it seems a very human response when things in life go badly wrong or unjust things happen to the nicest people:
‘There were some present at the very time who told him (Jesus) about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them; do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish;’ (Luke 13:1-5)
Pain and salvation
So those who suffered in these human-created and random episodes were no worse or better than anyone else. Clearly suffering is not always proportional to sinfulness. Sometimes, though, suffering can be brought about by God in order to further His purpose of salvation:
‘And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God should be made manifest in him, (John 9:1-3)
What were the works of God referred to here? It was Jesus opening the blind man’s eyes: one of the ‘eight signs’ in John, ‘that seeing we might believe.’ In other words, we have our eyes opened by Jesus in a metaphorical sense. That man, whose life is recorded in the gospel, was born that through him Jesus could spiritually open the eyes of the blind.
King Solomon tried to understand God’s ways
King Solomon spent his life trying to understand God’s ways:
Then I saw all the work of God that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labours to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it. (Ecclesiastes 8:17)
We, too, look for reasons, asking ‘What is God trying to teach here?’ Why me? Or, rather, I wish it was ‘me’ not ‘them’ when we see a loved one in trouble. Though Solomon dedicated his life to trying to understand the meaning of life he concluded that only God has this knowledge. So, if Solomon (the second wisest man that ever lived) cannot understand the wisdom of God, who are we to try? God has a reason and it is his prerogative to keep that from us if he so wills. Think of Job and the various reasons his friends suggested for him having to endure his dreadful trials. In the end God addressed Job querying how well he understood the nature of the universe. Naturally, contemplating this brought Job lower in his own estimation and gave him the understanding that his tiny level of understanding was nothing before God. The result was a humility that bowed in recognition of God’s majesty (Job 42:2-6). So, we really ought not to get too bogged down in trying to ‘find a reason…’ and accept the situation in humility
There must be trials and tribulations
‘And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.’ (Acts 14:21-22)
If all was wonderful with our lives there would be no incentive to seek the Kingdom of God, and to seek it is one of the great commandments of Jesus (Matthew 6:33) Trials help to remind us of the transience of life. Jesus will come; this promise is repeated frequently throughout the New Testament. With that follows the reign of ultimate peace when God’s kingdom is established on the earth.
The real meaning of Jesus’ miracles
Although Jesus performed miracles of compassion, the benefits were only temporary. The real point of the miracles was to preach the gospel of the kingdom:
‘He [Jesus] found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” … Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:18-21)
Jesus’ miracles of healing were done out of compassion, but his chief role was to preach the gospel of the kingdom.
An end to all suffering
The gospel message clearly teaches an end of suffering for those who respond to its call.
‘But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ (John 4:14)
Certainly, God knows and cares about the suffering of his disciples
‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”’ (Luke 12:6-9)
Sparrows are some of the least significant aspects of creation and the cheapest in the market place yet Jesus is telling us that we are of more value than them (who God does not forget). Sorrows are a necessary part of our life, yet God will always provide help to those who suffer and turn to him.
‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’ (Matt. 11:28-29)
Pain is necessary in this mortal existence, but Jesus will return and bring an end to suffering and death by cleansing the earth from sin.
‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away… I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things.’ (Revelation 21:4-7
The time will come when those who are Christ’s will see and understand what life, with its trials and difficulties, has taught them, preparing them for a life of peace that will last for ever.