Understanding Suffering: Its Causes and Sources
#1 – Why Do Godly People Suffer?
Among the seasonal letters we’ve been getting from friends, the news from five has hit us like a punch in the gut. Four struggle to lovingly care for partners with Alzheimer’s. One just received the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. All five have served God long and consistently. They still do.
Their situations dredge up the perennial questions. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do those who serve God seem to suffer as much or more than others? Why not just give up and wallow in misery?
Can the cause of personal suffering be found in the sufferer? The catastrophes that burst on Job led his friends to search in Job’s life for some root of rebellion against God, some sin that would cause God to judge him. They were wrong in thinking that Job brought it on himself. The reasons for Job’s trials were not to be found in him but in a clash between God and Satan. Ultimately, God vindicated Job but did not explain why he lost his sons and his wealth. Instead he called upon him to trust in the infinite and inscrutable wisdom of God.
The story of Job tells us that we will rarely understand why suffering occurs. The cause may be rooted in the rage of Satan in the heavenly places. (Read Job 1) The devil knows that his time is short. He hates God. He hates God’s beautiful creation. And he especially hates all God’s redeemed children. Living as we do in a conflict zone, we must learn to trust in God and put on his full armor. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”(Eph. 6:12).
Asaph had a similar quandary in Psalm 73. He was astonished at the arrogance and prosperity of the wicked in the light of the sufferings of the righteous. Why do they have so few struggles? Why are they so healthy? While, “all day long I have been plagued”(Psalm 73:14). It was only when Asaph took the long view that he saw the doom toward which the wicked were racing—the judgment of God.
In the midst of suffering let’s remember that if we believe in Christ as our savior, we “are aliens and strangers on earth”(Heb. 11:13). Like Abel, Enoch, Abraham and Noah along with the whole catalogue of the faithful in Hebrews eleven may God help us to live by faith, “longing for a better country—a heavenly one”(Heb. 11:16). Jesus has promised to prepare that heavenly place for us. (See John 14:1) And what about our aching, failing bodies? Jesus rose from the dead to be the first-fruits of all those who will inherit an imperishable, immortal, glorious body free from pain, a body like unto His. (See 1 Cor. 15:50-57.)
While faith and hope give us glimpses of a glorious future, let’s not forget to look back to the beginning for the real cause of suffering. Remember, “the sting of death is sin”(1 Cor.15:56). And where did sin come from? I’ll tackle that ultimate question in the next blog.
Meanwhile, as I struggle with interrupted sleep, aching knees and blocked arteries I need to remember that spiritual health is more important than anything. “Be very careful how you live—not as unwise but as wise…understand what the Lord’s will is…be filled with the Spirit…always giving thanks to God the Father…put on the full armor of God”(Eph. 5:15,17,18,20; 6:11).
#2 – Suffering in a Marred World
The universe displays breath-taking beauty. Sunsets and starry skies. Soaring mountains and spiral galaxies. Lilies and roses and frangipani. But! Every leaf that fell from our now naked deciduous trees proclaims an unpalatable reality; everything has been marred by some malevolent influence. Each leaf bears evidence of the depredations of either insects or disease.
Not only in the leaves, but everywhere we look we discover evidence of defects. Weeds continue to choke the iris and day lilies I’ve planted around the edge of our front lawn. Mosquitoes and black flies pester us in summer. Mice and ants invade our home. Our mature birch trees are dying from the top down. Cankers attack our beech trees.
Our world often seems like a dangerous place. Floods and drought, typhoons and earthquakes, volcanoes and storms threaten populations. Human beings provoke wars, distribute poison in the form of drugs, abuse children, oppress the poor, and enslave the powerless. And too often an atrocity like the deranged gunman who took 26 lives in Connecticut occurs.
Microbes and bacteria infect our immune systems. We come down with colds and flu, hepatitis and clogged arteries, diminished memories and arthritic knees. Despite the claims of the beauty industry, an aging clock relentlessly ticks away within all of us. Whenever we honestly look in the mirror, we see its effect. Let’s face it, we will all die. One hundred per cent of us.
Why is it like this? For the origin of all imperfection and suffering, we must go back to origins; back to the historic, space-time fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. (Read Genesis 3) As the progenitors of all people, they chose to disobey God and as a result fell from original goodness into sin. Their fall not only set in motion their own deterioration and death but fractured the harmony of the cosmos. And all their progeny have inherited a sinful nature with a twisted bent to selfishness and evil. Women inherited great pain in childbirth. Painful toil in tilling the ground became man’s lot. Thorns and thistles arose along with a myriad other malevolent influences. As someone has said, “All nature is red in tooth and claw”.
Since that historic fall, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”(Rom. 8: 22). This is why Christmas is so central to history. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into our world to begin the restoration process. He calls all men and women to allow him to inject the antidote into our hearts, the antidote that will conquer our bent to selfishness and sin. He earned the right to call us to faith and repentance by dying for our sins upon the cross. Everyone who heeds His gospel call finds himself beginning to be changed from the inside out. (The new birth.) Ultimately, Christ will return to right all wrongs and to restore the earth to a state of goodness and grace.
So, why do apparently good people, even God’s children suffer? It’s inevitable. We live in an imperfect, fallen world where bad things happen indiscriminately. Fortunately, in the lives of His children God is able to squeeze good from evil. So in spite of evil, let’s celebrate Christmas, the promise of its ultimate extinguishment.
#3 The Oppression of Cruel Men
Oppressors cause much of our world’s suffering. Our televisions daily project stories of suffering inflicted by the oppression of powerful and cruel men. Two years of warfare in Syria has claimed 60,000 lives due largely to the intransigence of President Assad. Meanwhile, the Taliban in the border regions of Pakistan continue to spread fear by targeting innocent villagers on both sides of the border along with coalition soldiers and Pakistani troops. As long as genuine participatory democracy fails to take root in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the future looks bleak—unless God should step in.
“You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted;…defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more” (Psalm 10:17,18).
But let’s think closer to home. In 2008 powerful institutions in the US manipulated the mortgage market and precipitated the worst recession since the thirties. The suffering of hard-working Americans who lost their homes was incalculable. Indeed, the whole world felt the fallout. Or consider North American tobacco companies who promote their cancer sticks wherever laws are lax. Then there are criminal gangs who promote drugs, prostitution, and gambling.
“He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker” (Prov. 14:31).
Powerful multi-nationals run rough-shod over the rights of aboriginals in many parts of the world. Greedy industrialists pay workers a pittance to labor in terrible conditions producing consumer goods. Landlords keep tenant farmers in perpetual debt in Pakistan.
James warns the oppressive rich. “Weep and wail…your gold and silver are corroded…Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you…have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (James 5:1,3,4).
Religious groups are not immune. When religious men gain unbridled power, they often abuse. Consider the crusades, the Inquisition, oppression in reformation Geneva, abuses in Puritan New England and in first nations’ residential schools. Islamists today use suicide bombers and threat of terror to intimidate whole populations. Muslim villagers in Nigeria murder 500 Christians. Villagers in Pakistan try to coerce a young Christian boy to recite the Muslim creed.
Oppressors have bloodied history with their atrocities. Think Sennacherib of Assyria (2 Kings 18:13ff), Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (2 Kings 25:8,9), Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin—the list is endless.
Power corrupts, whether it is in the hands of an abusive husband, a king, or an industrialist. In the west we are very fortunate to have democratic governments, subject to an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances. The development of democracy can be traced to the Protestant Reformation with its acknowledgement of God as the Judge of all the earth, not some priest or pope. It revived a sense of individual freedom under God and responsibility to God. In France where the Reformation was weak, their revolution resulting in a period of terror. In England where the Reformation was strong, a constitutional government of checks and balances developed.
Instead of blaming God for suffering, let’s lay much of the blame at the feet of oppressors. And let’s determine to personally fight for justice and abhor all forms of intimidation and coercion. “Redeem me from the oppression of men” (Psalm 119:134).
Only in coming to know Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour can we find the spiritual resources necessary to prosper in an unjust world. And the hope of His return creates within the expectation of a future reign of righteousness.
#4 – Foolish Choices and Suffering
I agonize over decisions, especially big decisions like whether to move to another house or what kind of car to buy. That’s not to say that I take long to decide what kind of toothpaste or shampoo to buy or whether to plant petunias or pansies in the garden.
But too often I allow price to determine my choices rather than quality. Six months ago I bought a pair of attractive loafers because they were half price. They were a bit tight, but… Now I struggle to get my feet into them. And when I wear them very long, they pinch. I could give other illustrations but they would be too embarrassing.
Even when I determine to balance quality against price, it’s not always easy to make a good choice in our media saturated world. One report lists butter as harmful to our arteries. Another labels margarine as a dangerous culprit. Or take coffee, or chocolate. How do we navigate through all the shoals that we’re told can shipwreck our lifeboat?
Doubtless, bad choices can lead to great harm. And some of those bad choices are clear. Smoking. Overeating. Taking addictive drugs. Avoiding exercise. A steady diet of high calorie fast-foods. Too much sugar. Pornography. Sleeping with prostitutes. Drunkenness. The list is long; the effects devastating in terms of ill health, lost jobs and broken relationships.
Many of our bad choices lead to long-term suffering, or at least, suffering that catches up with us as we age. Why do we choose things we know will be harmful? Often it’s to find immediate pleasure through gratifying a sudden craving. Dare I say it, lust? Donuts and cookies and mega-burgers taste so good! Indulge. Enjoy right now. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with an occasional indulgence but the danger occurs when indulgence becomes a habit.
The danger is magnified when the indulgence breaks one of God’s commandments. Outbursts of anger can not only shatter relationships, but, as Jesus said, even lead to murder. One pilfered item from a warehouse or act of cheating can feed into a lifestyle of dishonesty that ultimately ends in incarceration. Envy or jealousy indulged can foster lifelong discontent. One act of fornication or adultery might promote a careless approach to marital fidelity or lead to catching a sexually transmitted disease.
So why is there suffering in the world? Much of it is caused by human foolishness, indulgence, sinfulness and ignorance. We would be wise to re-read the book of Proverbs often. “He who speaks rashly will come to ruin. The sluggard craves and gets nothing…Dishonest money dwindles away…”(Prov. 13b, 4a, 11a)
Fortunately, God is a forgiving God. There is no sin, no matter how grave, that He will not forgive if one but bows in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ, God’s Son. “His blood can make the foulest clean.”
Forgiveness, however, does not necessarily deliver us from the practical consequences of our sins. The forgiven smoker will still have damaged lungs. The forgiven murderer will still have to finish out his jail sentence. The indulgent eater who is forgiven may still have clogged arteries.
Let’s not blame God for suffering we cause. Instead let’s make wise and godly choices.
#5 – How Attitudes Moderate or Intensify Suffering
Much as we would prefer it, no one can pass through this life without encountering trials of one kind or another. Job loss. Accidents. Disease. Rejection. “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward”(Job 5:7). However, the attitudes with which we face troubles will profoundly affect our ability to cope victoriously; either intensifying or moderating our anguish.
Alice and Elsie and Marci, not their real names, routinely intensify their own pain. Alice wallows in unhappiness while blaming her employer and the government for the misfortunes in her life. A cheerful greeting to Elsie triggers a recitation of grievances that reflect her bitterness and anger. Marci not only looks sad and troubled, she is.
The attitudes of these three intensify their emotional distress. Consequently, they will endure greater pain than that of others who tackle life with an uplifting outlook. Their corrosive emotions may even affect their physical health. For our own wellbeing, as well as to glorify God, we need to get rid of dark and hurtful emotions such as: sadness, worry, doubt, discouragement, fear, envy, hopelessness, bitterness, wrath, discontent, wounded pride, hatred, and the like.
The New Testament uniformly teaches that faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to his teaching delivers us from bondage to these emotions. (I’m not denying that in some cases there are physical causes for depression.)
This does not mean we should cover up our anguish. The Psalms of lament show us the pattern of David. “My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord…all night long I flood my bed with weeping”(Ps 6:3,6). “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?”(Ps. 13:1). But notice that David brought his pain to God and underlying that pain was faith. “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Ps. 13:5).
A huge part of the Christian process of sanctification involves replacing dark attitudes with those that are uplifting. This process doesn’t happen overnight. But the apostle Paul explained that through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, the transformation is certain. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control;” the very emotions that moderate suffering.
According to Jesus, happy are they who have the right attitudes. (See Matthew 5:3-12.) He taught his disciples, “Do not worry” (Matt. 6:31); “Do not let your heart be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me”(John 14:1).
There isn’t room in this article to touch on the power of prayer, the transforming effect of thankfulness, and the uplifting outcome of worship and praise. And surely, I don’t need to mention that we engage in these activities not for therapeutic reasons, but because we have touched the hem of the Infinite, we have been transformed by the saving grace of Jesus Christ. The positive effect—joy—is incidental to the reality of salvation, but very real.
I have no doubt whatever that the Christian faith has contributed infinitely more than we can imagine to human health, social wellbeing, and international harmony. How do I know this? I know it from the teaching of the Bible, observation of others, my own experience, and the testimony of myriad Christians, some of whom suffer indescribable persecution.
Do you have doubts that Christian attitudes moderate suffering? “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” Or as Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).
In a later blog, I’ll write about the role of encouragers in helping those who face trials.
#6 – The Pain Words Can Inflict
As we continue our series on the causes of suffering, consider the terrible effect hurtful words have on our emotional health. Too often we inflict pain on each other in the daily ebb and flo our lives together in families, communities, and at work.
A slightly overweight and suicidal girl walks home from school after another day of verbal bullying. A husband drops into a bar to postpone the open warfare that breaks out every time he comes home. A high school student cringes when his father asks him why he didn’t get straight ‘A’s’ on his report card. A woman shrivels under the stream of criticism flowing from her husband. An orphan, finding no love or comfort, cries himself to sleep in the third home he’s been shunted to in a year.
The childhood taunt is not true; Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Words: stupid, loser, fatty, you did it again, why do you always…, why can’t you be like…, it’s your own fault…, and the like, sting like an asp. Verbal poison comes in an almost infinite variety but all such toxins create emotional pain. The pain manifests itself in many ways: sadness, discouragement, despair, hopelessness, depression, frustration, anger, bitterness, resentment, or jealousy.
In terrible physical pain and anguish, Job cried out for comfort and understanding. But instead of comfort, his three friends urged him to admit his sins and repent. They held a mistaken belief that suffering and misfortune is caused by the sin of the sufferer. How ignorant they were of the reality that accidents, illness, and misfortune are the common lot of all mankind. Some of the greatest saints endured inordinate suffering: Jeremiah, David, Paul, not to mention Jesus, Himself.
Because of their faulty theology, instead of offering understanding and sympathy, Job’s three friends added immeasurably to his pain through their words. After listening to their soliloquies, Job cried, “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2). At the end of the story God spoke, “to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am angry with you and your friends, because you have not spoken to me what is right, as my servant Job has…My servant Job will pray for you”(Job 42:7,8).
David had a similar experience. In both Psalm 41 and Psalm 88 he laments the whispers and betrayal of his friends.
What do sad and worried people need? “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up”(Prov. 12:25). “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver”(Prov. 25:11). Imagine the effect on a depressed or insecure person of a word of commendation or encouragement.
Words can uplift and edify. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”(Eph. 4:29). Christian love calls us to use our tongues in constructive ways.
There may be times when words of correction, even condemnation are needed. But they are rare. Most often people need understanding and affirmation much more than they need criticism. Let’s leave judgment to God while we offer consolation, encouragement, and hope. In the next blog I’ll look more fully at the ministry of encouragement.
#7 – Comforting Those in Affliction
Reading recently about the persecution many Christians suffer, I was struck by how lonely they must be. How do they endure being isolated in dark cells, tortured or locked in shipping containers? Fortunately, in many cases persecuted Christians testify to having an unusual sense of God’s presence.
Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is the great comforter—and He can comfort us either directly or indirectly through the Scriptures. We should not, however, discount the role we are to play as agents of the Spirit. When we reel in unbelief from a terrible diagnosis or when we are discouraged, sick, disappointed, feeling like failures, or doubt our own worth the Holy Spirit most often uses other Christians to encourage us.
During the frightening period when Assyria threatened to destroy Israel, God urged Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”(Is. 40:1,2).
God urges New Testament believers to comfort and encourage one another. Suffering, whether physical or emotional, saps our energy and reduces our resistance to discouragement and temptation. No wonder Paul sent Tychicus to Colossae that “he may encourage your hearts”(Col. 4:8). And to the Thessalonians he wrote, “Therefore encourage each other with these words [words about the certain return of Christ]”(1 Thess. 4:18). The author of Hebrews in warning believers about the danger of slipping away from the faith urged them to, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness”(Heb. 3:13). “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds….let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching”(Heb. 10:24,25).
I have been so often blessed by words of encouragement that I keep an Encouragement File. I haven’t always seen the importance of encouraging others, brought up as I was by a father who had himself been taught to “keep a stiff upper lip,” and “good work is its own reward.” I appreciate the good qualities of my dad, but looking back I can see how my mother often suffered without receiving much comfort.
We shouldn’t be reticent about encouraging others for a job well done, a good article we read, or a Sunday School class well taught. Nor should we be negligent in comforting those who need comfort.
How we comfort others, however, is important. We shouldn’t tell someone that we understand their trial if we haven’t faced similar afflictions. In 2 Corinthians we are taught that one of the purposes of our own suffering is to learn how to comfort others. “The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God”(2 Cor. 1:3,4). No one can comfort one suffering cancer, like one who has gone through it. No one can comfort a lonely divorceé like one who has suffered a messy divorce. No one can comfort a bereaved father like someone who has lost a child. Have we learned from our own experiences about the kind of comfort we appreciated?
Another thing we should not do is quote Romans 8:28 to remind a person that all things work together for good. Nor should be inform them piously that God must be teaching them something, or they must be very special to have such a severe trial. In the midst of pain and anguish, people don’t need to be reminded what they may know to be true when their mind is clearer but can’t feel at the moment. In the midst of pain they may feel abandonment, puzzlement, grief. Such words fall like icicles on tender hearts, hearts that need warm words of love.
In Greek the Holy Spirit is called the paraclete, meaning the one who comes alongside. How instructive to learn from the divine Comforter, that sometimes the best way to help the afflicted is just to quietly come alongside to listen. While we may not be able to say, we understand, we can offer a hug, bring a meal, or pray for the person. We may want to send a card. We can ask if there is anything practical we can do? Cut the grass. Pick up groceries. Clean house. They need to know we care.
#8 – Can We Only Learn the Sufficiency of Grace Through Suffering?