Why does God allow suffering? Many of us are asking such questions right now in light of coronavirus and other troubling world events. How does suffering fit into our understanding of the good life?
About 10 months ago, I began losing the ability to walk. I remember being on a business trip in Boston and noticing that I was moving, but only with extreme difficulty. For almost 12 years now, I have suffered with Chronic Lyme Disease. Six months ago all of that came to a head when I – a gainfully employed and well fed American — was diagnosed with starvation and put in line for a feeding tube at UNC Hospital. Apparently, the years of treatment had destroyed my body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients. I dwindled down to 110 pounds. Apart from the intervention of family, friends and coworkers I was told that I probably wouldn’t have made it. For the second time in my life, I have recently had to walk away from a career and a home to focus on my health. Suffering isn’t foreign to any of us, though, is it?
When I told people the title of this talk and asked them what came to mind. Sadly, nobody had difficulty coming up with an answer. Everyone either had a story to tell – their mother’s cancer, the tears of infidelity or infertility. The loss of a job. The death of a close friend. Or they reminded me that there are roughly 700 million people on this planet that don’t have enough clean water to drink or food to eat.
Tragically, it appears that suffering is an inescapable feature of the world we inhabit – which means that any definition of the good life has to account for it. There are no ways of life on offer that don’t include suffering.
So, the question becomes, how should we then live? What is the good life in light of suffering. There are essentially four main responses to suffering that constitute a vision of the good life.
- You can live like Buddha – the spiritual guru who ignored suffering, suppressed desire, and meditated under a tree.
- You can live like Hugh Hefner – the debased naturalist who avoided suffering, indulged desire and smoked the tree.
- You can live like John D. Rockefeller – the noble naturalist who mitigated suffering, managed desire and donated trees.
- Or you can live like Jesus – the suffering servant who vicariously absorbed suffering, redeemed desire and hung on a tree.
Each of these responses to suffering emerges from a particular worldview. As I am sure you noticed, those worldviews were pantheism, atheism and Christian theism. But why is it that each of these worldviews responds differently to suffering? It’s because each worldview has a different account of the cause of suffering and the end of suffering. Panthiests attribute the cause of suffering to the body. Athiests to natural processes. Christians to human error. In other words, the reason we suffer is either because the universe is bad, blind or broken.
Each worldview also has a different account for the end of suffering – which we could summarize in three R’s: Reabsorption, rot or resurrection. In combining these two answers, you can see that:
- The reason Buddah meditated under the tree is because he believed that the universe was bad, and in the end he would escape the body and be reabsorbed into Nirvanah.
- The reason Hugh Hefner smoked the tree is because he believed that the universe was blind, and in the end he would rot.
- And the reason that Jesus hung on the tree is because he believed that the universe was broken. In the end, he would be resurrected.
Here is what I want you to see. Notice that only one of these worldviews says that life is good in an ultimate sense. Think about that. According to the pantheist, this life is ultimately bad, not good. According to the atheist, this life is neither good nor bad, it just is. The theist is the only one that says that this life is ultimately good — and not just good, but very good.
So because we as Christians are the ones who believe that life is essentially good and only accidentally bad, it is incumbent on us to provide an account on how suffering fits into the vision of a good life.
How can we say with a straight face to the world that suffering is a rhythm of a life well-lived? In that regard, I would like to say three things.
We have to learn to pray our pain, sing our sorrows and lean in to the comfort of community.
1. God uses suffering for his glory.
I think that the first thing that needs to be said is something that my wife told me a few months ago. We were sitting in our car in a parking lot of a Chick-Fil-A. My wife, Jillian was eating dinner and patiently listening to me as I was wrestling to make sense of what is happening to us in the last months. And then in a poignant moment, she stopped, looked at me, and said, “Honey, I have been thinking about this. And if you could bring God more glory right now by being healthy – then guess what? You would be healthy. But you’re not. So, apparently, you can bring God more glory right now by being sick.” That was the most comforting thought that she could have shared with me in that moment.
It silenced me. It stopped the bleeding. Not only was my suffering under the sovereign control of our great God, but it was be used for his greater glory. “Though now, for a little while,” Peter says, “If necessary we are suffering trials of various kinds so that the tested, genuineness of our faith may result in praise, and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7, paraphrase). So the first thing that needs to be said is that your suffering and mine, no matter the duration or degree of difficulty, is being used by God for his greater glory.
2. God uses suffering for our greater good.
Second, God also uses our suffering for our greater good. I want to briefly mention a few ways that he does this. In particular with regard to character formation, relational intimacy and eternal rewards. Think about this: Apart from grace, suffering would only be deformative. It would destroy us. But because of grace, because of God’s intervention in Christ, suffering can be gloriously transformative. In other words, suffering is the crucible that the divine blacksmith uses to shape us into the image of his son. When he has tested me, Job says, I will come forth as gold. Suffering shapes character.
Suffering also deepens our intimacy with God. My wife said something recently that I thought illustrated this well. She said, “You know, I do not like to be sad, but I do like to be held.” The Psalms say that God is close to the brokenhearted. He saves those who are crushed in spirit. He draws near to us in the midst of our suffering. In addition to shaping our character, and deepening our intimacy with Christ, suffering is also an investment in our future.
In particularly difficult moments over the last few months when I have been curled up in pain – on the bed or on the couch. My wife – my faithful bride has come over, leaned down, and whispered in my ear, “Treasures in heaven, baby, treasures in heaven.” These light and momentary afflictions, the Bible says, are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. Your sufferings are actually doing something. They are preparing an eternal weight of glory for you.
Before moving to the final point. Let me say, in paying homage to Dr. Smith’s great work, that suffering well takes practice. In the power of the spirit we have to learn to pray our pain, sing our sorrows and lean in to the comfort of community. Because it is all too easy to fall into the world’s liturgies of lament. Do you know what mourning without hope looks like? It looks like binge-watching Netflix, a carton of ice cream, a bottle of vodka and online shopping. If we are to mourn with hope, we have to be habituated to the liturgies of lament that have been curated for us in scripture. We have to learn to pray our pain, sing our sorrows and lean in to the comfort of community.
Our suffering has a missional character to it.
3. God uses our suffering for others.
Finally, God uses our suffering for the greater good of others. Our suffering has a missional character to it. In particular in the areas of evangelism and justice. In other words, suffering is a rhythm of the good life because we cannot fulfill the great commission to bring all people and places back under the lordship of Christ apart from suffering. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. The default reaction of the world to our faithful presence and proclamation is persecution. So with regard to evangelism, we suffer to share the one who suffered to save. Because it is God’s will that the gospel would be proclaimed by the persecuted. And with regard to justice, we cannot bear the burdens of the orphan, the poor and the widow unless we are willing to suffer with them and for them.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, and I quote, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle.” In short, God extends his redemptive purposes for the world through the sufferings of his people. He promises, one day looking through the eyes of a resurrected body out over the landscape of a renewed creation, all that we have endured here for the cause of Christ will not only make sense, but will have been well worth it.
Suffering is a fundamental rhythm of the good life because God uses it for his greater glory, our greater good and the greater good of others.
This article is a transcript of Jonathan Darville’s talk at Wisdom Forum: The Good Life.