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Why all the Suffering? part one


Any thinking, feeling person considering the topic of God must at some point wrestle with the subject of suffering. I cannot claim to be an expert, whether that means by suffering more than most or by researching it more than most. Like most people, I can read and think about suffering for a while, then I become overloaded and have to turn off for a time. I have that luxury. A lot of people don’t, because they suffer continually, significantly, and it never leaves them. What right have I to pontificate on this subject? None, really, but I do have a responsibility to give it serious thought and to reconcile it with my faith. To suggest some sort of answer to those for whom suffering is a barrier to belief in God. Incidentally, just because we don’t like the a particular picture of God, as we understand him, is not actually proof that he doesn’t exist, and we would be foolish to presume it is. The problem of suffering neither proves nor disproves God exists, but it does impact the type of God we perceive him to be, and our response. So maybe the problem to face is our perception of God.

The Christian Gospel does not ignore suffering, intellectualise it or brush it off with platitudes. Nor does it provide a mere crutch for the sufferer. The counter-cultural Gospel addresses the root cause of suffering and deals with it, because the God of the Gospel himself entered into our suffering and one day he will eliminate it. This is such a big subject that it would take volumes to cover. It certainly can’t be limited to a single blog. I’m going to dedicate two essays to it, and rather than trying to provide all the answers, just touch on some points that need to be considered in the life-long journey that it often takes.

First, I’m going to look at the root cause of suffering and the extent to which God can be blamed for it. Mostly I’m going to use examples that I think are a bit easier to get our heads around, where human culpability is reasonably clear. Then I’m going to show that despite that, we must decouple individual suffering from individual merit. Thirdly, I’m going to show that God is not at arm’s length from our suffering, even the suffering that seems completely senseless, the suffering of innocents. We will see what God has done about suffering, what he is doing now, and why those who hope in the counter-cultural Gospel suffer differently from those who do not, and finally, how it will all end.

Here’s the bottom line, even though on face value it sounds preposterous. Suffering, broadly speaking, is due to sin, broadly speaking. Before you indignantly respond, “What about children with cancer!” let me emphasise. Individual suffering is not necessarily directly attributable to individual sin. Jesus made that very clear, and it was countercultural in his day. Have a look at the book of John, chapter 9 verses 1:7 and if you have some time, the book of Job (choose a modern translation). Suffering, generally, is due to sin, generally. This goes way beyond individual cause and effect, but it’s worth touching on some examples of that. A woman smokes for thirty years, spending a good deal of grocery money on cigarettes, and gets cancer. A man has an affair so his wife leaves him and takes the kids. People indulge in gluttony and drink excessively and get heart disease. People drive when under the influence, and crash their cars. But we cannot leave it at those sort of examples as if that’s all there is to suffering. In most cases, there’s not such a strong causal association, and even these supposedly "straight-forward" cases are enmeshed in a much more tangled web. Generational poverty and lack of education, despair and mental illness leading to addiction, poor role models, the power of advertising and other cultural influences, unhappiness in marriage, peer pressure. These things may or may not be excuses, but they are factors, and take us well beyond a simplistic, “he/she deserved what they got.” Sin leaves a lot of suffering in its wake, and affects other people. An example from the Bible is king David, who committed adultery and murder and lost all moral authority and credibility over his family, resulting in betrayal and all manner of evil. (See 2nd Samuel 11 and subsequent chapters to 20).

Suffering does not strike in an even-handed way, but we often look at it from the wrong perspective. We like to think we are all basically good people, that we are fundamentally innocent. Any suffering seen in that light is unfair, because nobody deserves it. The counter-cultural Gospel shows us that none of us are innocent. We all sin, we all deserve wrath and judgement (Romans 1:18–32 and 3:10–18). Given the extent of human selfishness, greed, corruption and rejection of the moral absolutes of our Maker, perhaps we don’t uniformly get the suffering we deserve. That’s not a popular perspective, obviously. It’s certainly not comforting and is inadequate as a solution (fortunately, there’s more: Romans 3:21–26). It’s little comfort to someone who is genuinely suffering to be told it could be worse and they should be thankful this is better than they deserve.

So, how can it be said that suffering generally is due to sin, generally? The Bible explains that God gave humanity free will and with that free will came the responsibility to choose to do good, to live the way God intended. God alone was to be the source of moral authority. But humans coveted “the knowledge of good and evil;” they wanted to be gods (Genesis 3 and Romans 5:12). So we chose, and continue to choose, moral autonomy and rebellion against God. We choose to make our own rules. Generally, the rules we make are those that suit ourselves uppermost, with varying degrees of regard for others or what might be in the best interests of society, as if God could possibly know better than us. The Bible calls that sin. The ultimate answer to “Why doesn’t God do something about suffering?” would have been for God to stop it all right there. To take away our usurped freedom to choose between good and evil, to force us always to choose the good. Or maybe never to have allowed us that choice in the first place. Would that have resulted in a world with no suffering? No doubt at all. But for his own divine reasons, God did not do that. He would rather have people choose good of their own volition, by choosing to listen to him. He knows his creation better than we know ourselves, and he designed us in such away that true human flourishing comes when we willingly, not forcibly or automatically, submit to him.

Sin is incompatible with immortality, that’s one of the holy God’s fundamental rules. So our choice of sin brought death, which means our bodies are vulnerable to accident and to decay. As we have seen, in some cases we accelerate that by our actions, but not always. The Bible is not blind to the fact that determinedly evil people often seem to prosper, and people who try to do the right thing often suffer for no apparent reason than “S$%* happens.” (Spoiler alert: the Bible assures us that this inequality is only temporary; justice will prevail during eternity; read Psalm 72). But in the majority of cases, I would venture, the corporate sin of humanity lies at the bottom of specific suffering. Take children in famine-stricken Africa. No access to clean water, not enough food and certainly not a balanced diet. One or both of their parents with AIDs. The famine is there because of poor land use and exploitation of the environment that probably had nothing to do with the way these farmers and their ancestors have lived off the land for generations. Land clearing hundreds or thousands of miles from their village, carbon pollution by wealthy industrialised nations causing global warming has contributed. Government corruption, with its roots in European colonialism and poorly managed transition to self governance, the power plays, the battle for wealth and control of resources. Lack of education, lack of infrastructure due to bad policy making. and incompetent stewardship. Rebel factions have risen against the government, but they are no less corrupt and power-hungry. Violence and unrest now fill the impoverished villages. Foreign aid such as food and medical supplies are held up, diverted, hijacked. Big pharmaceutical companies charge prohibitive costs for vaccines, AIDS medications and convince poorly educated mothers to feed their babies commercial formulas watered down with excess contaminated water rather than breast-feed. It goes on and on.

Where is God in all this? He should strike down the corrupt government and replace it with....? He should reverse global warming, either by some miraculous act or by somehow neutralising our copious carbon emissions. He should rain food and medication down on these people; there’s arguably enough of it in our part of the world so take it from us. He should send in people to teach and build wells and create jobs and empower women. He should strike down every facilitator and user of the sex trafficking industry. God should force the equitable distribution of wealth and resources. In other words, God should take complete control, right? It would be better world, wouldn’t it?

I’m reminded of the story of the guy who lived in a flood-prone region. A forecast was issued, and he got the text warning, that his area would be flooded and he needed to evacuate his home. He decided it was God’s job to protect him, so he stayed. The rain fell and the river rose and water lapped at his door. The police came round and ordered him to evacuate. He refused, because it was God’s job to protect him. The water flooded his ground floor and he moved upstairs. The SES came around in a boat to rescue him and the man refused to go, because it was God’s job to rescue him. The water rose higher and he moved to the roof. A rescue helicopter swung past and the man waved them away, because it was God’s job to rescue him. Not long after, the man was swept away and began to drown. Then God appeared to him as his life flashed before his eyes. “God!” he cried in anger and disbelief. “Why didn’t you save me?” And God said, “What do you mean? I gave you weather forecasts and sent the police and the SES and a helicopter. What more did you expect?”

I think that corporately, humanity is like this man. We expect God to do something but don’t recognise he expects us to work under him, and he has given us the moral imperatives and the resources to do so. We demand moral autonomy, freedom from God’s rules, and he has permitted it, for now. Then we blame him for our mess, for what we have done with our autonomy, our free will. We don’t play by the rules, but we blame the Manufacturer when things go wrong.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

We have been made stewards of this good earth and custodians of each other, yet we have failed to make wise use of our resources. I’m more worried about the electricity bill for my air-conditioned house than I am about sending money to a family that sleeps under tin and cardboard. I eat more in a day than some people see in a week. The government should do something about global warming, but I’m going to drive my car and buy bottled water. I expect my children to be safe at school, but don’t you dare make laws that will regulate my guns. Someone should take down sex traffickers, but don’t suppress the availability of porn. Don’t tell me I can’t drink or smoke as much as I like, it’s my body. God has given many nations wealth and advanced technology that can create medications and life-saving interventions, engineer safe water and advanced agriculture and infrastructure. With electricity and internet, an excellent education should be available to everyone on the planet. Research can be invested in renewable energies, turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:2–4). People can find meaningful employment in such industries, regain hope and self-esteem. The root causes of crime such as inequality, poverty and lack of education can be tackled and justice could be equitable. The fair and free democratic process can be used to weed out corruption in government and ensure the election of men and women with the good of all uppermost, especially the most vulnerable in society.

Sure. It sounds like "leftist" fantasy, doesn’t it? But God has given us a knowledge of right and wrong, his moral absolutes. We don’t lack moral guidance, we lack the incentive and selfless motivation to use it. God has given us common sense, intelligence, resources, but we ignore them as we perch on the roof and watch the flood waters rise. And blame God. But, God knows all this, and he has and is doing something about it. His counter-cultural Gospel addresses the root cause of all trouble and suffering; sin. God knows our hearts and that we cannot live as we are meant to, in our own strength. He has dealt with sin by entering into the very suffering which sin causes, taking it all upon himself in the person of his Son on the cross. And one day, here’s the thing. One day, Christ will return and he will intervene. Dramatically, unmistakably, in judgement (Romans 2:3–8). He will destroy those who destroy the earth (Revelation 11:18). Those who have not fed the hungry and tended the sick and imprisoned, those who have suppressed justice and trampled on the poor will face the music. And lest we see ourselves as not part of the wider corruption of humanity, remember, we are each the individual manifestation of corporate sin, and whoever has ignored "the least of these, by brothers and sisters," has ignored me, said Jesus (Matthew 25:31–46). God has let humanity off the leash, as it were, at our own request. But not forever.

This doesn’t cover all there is to say about suffering, not by a long shot. Even if you agree with this damning perspective on humanity, this does not comfort the dying, the bereaved, the lonely, the ill, the persecuted. Bear with me. In the next blog I want to talk more about the heart of God, his love and mercy that perfectly balances his justice and explain how he will one day wipe every tear from our eyes, and sorrow and suffering will flee away.

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