The “problem of suffering” is not a new one, but it trips a lot of people up as they consider how a loving God and seemingly pointless evil co-exist in our world. As we see in John 11, there are theological answers to the hard questions like this. And as Christians, we need to understand three biblical truths about suffering.
1. Suffering is the result of the curse of death on our sin.
Most of the objections raised against God about suffering are built on the assumption that humanity is owed good things and that God is unjust for not giving them to us. That’s why we talk about the “problem of evil.” Why do bad things happen to us good, innocent people?
The Bible takes an entirely opposite approach. It tells us that God created this world without suffering, in a perfect condition called “shalom.” But we all voluntarily rebelled against him, and the just result of that rebellion is the curse of death.
What we truly deserve is death. The fact that there is still good in the world—sunshine on our faces and food in our stomachs—that’s all grace. And the fact that God has given us a space to repent is unspeakable grace. The Bible doesn’t wrestle with the problem of evil so much as it marvels at amazing grace.
As sinners, to put God on trial for our suffering as if he was unjust is twisted form of “chutzpah.” “Chutzpah” is the audacity of a man who kills his mom and dad . . . and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan! We should not ask, “Why is all this bad stuff happening in the world?” We are the reason why. The question is not, “Why me?” But “Why not me?”
Now, this does not mean that individual instances of suffering are the result of specific sins. He got cancer because he was a bad husband or She had a miscarriage because she cheated on her taxes. That is not how the Bible tells us to think about our suffering. As a race, humanity lives in a world of suffering because we rebelled against God, and that suffering affects us all.
2. God, in his love and mercy, has reversed the curse by suffering it in our place.
The only truly innocent sufferer in history was Jesus. He lived entirely free from rebellion and should have been exempt from the curse of death. But when he got to the end of his life, instead of being rewarded, he submitted to the curse of death voluntarily. When he did that, he overturned the entire curse and started the process of healing.
That healing begins by cancelling our sin debt. Jesus nailed our sin to the cross and reconciled us to God. That healing dramatically affects our inward psychological state our relationships. One day that healing will extend to our bodies in full when we are resurrected perfect and without pain. And Jesus’ healing will eventually extend to all corners of our world, as God re-establishes shalom to the earth through the blood of the cross.
3. For Christians, God now uses our suffering redemptively—for his glory and our good.
God uses our suffering (1) for his glory, because there are some things that God can demonstrate to the world about himself through our pain better than he can any other way. And he uses it (2) for our good, because there are some things that God can best teach us about himself through our pain.
A lot of people balk at this point. “All pain for God’s glory and our good? What about the Holocaust? What about September 11?” But this ignores the first point, that suffering is the just result of the curse of death. We live in a world under the curse of sin, and just like the sun comes up and “randomly” shines on both good and bad people, the curse of death often “indiscriminately” affects us all.
Does that mean that God is not sovereign over all of it? No, God is still sovereign, but we have to expand our understanding of sovereignty. If 100 people are standing in a field when the sun rises, all of them are warmed. God typically doesn’t shine the sun on a few individuals and leave others out. In the same way, the curse of death is at work in the world, which causes disease, deteriorating relationships, accidents, and it extends to all, often affecting people irrespective of their relative “worthiness.” And again, because of principle #1, there is none who can accuse God of injustice in this. The human race, because of its rebellion, is under the rightful curse of death.
Furthermore, in saying that “God uses our suffering redemptively, for his glory and our good,” I am not saying that every single bad act on earth leads to a corresponding good act, as if every Jewish family that suffered in the Holocaust can say, “See the good that came into my family through that?” The system as a whole serves the bigger picture of God’s glory, but we cannot always see how in each specific instance.
For the believer, however, God has promised to use all of our suffering for our good and for his glory. He has taken the sting out of death and suffering and promised to use it all now for his glory and the good of our church. So in every seemingly “random” bad thing, believers can know that God is working redemptively for his purposes. This is why Paul can say that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Rom 8:28) and that “God works all things according to the counsel of his will” so that we would “resound to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:11). This is why Joseph could say to those who committed grave injustices against him that “what you meant for evil, God re-purposed for good.” (Gen 50:20).