The subject of suffering has occupied greater and lesser minds from the beginning of time, and where libraries are needed to contain all what has been thought, said and written. Like many, I have been confronted by those who have either lost their faith or have made radical adjustments because of what they have seen and witnessed and in the light of the Bible has to say about suffering and related topics. It is also something I have personally had to deal with, e.g. when carrying a chip on my shoulder for perceived injustices that I have personally experienced or wanting to get back at those who do bad to those I care for. It is therefore appropriate to say something, while admitting I do not have many of the answers, to help set the record straight, noting that in the best part of a year researching this book, the subject of suffering in various guises has cropped up several times, even if only in passing. Suffering was introduced into the world following the Fall, i.e. when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were expelled from their idyllic garden and has been the experience of humanity ever since. The one thing the Bible does not do and that is to unravel in full the mysteries behind suffering.
There is a side of God which Christians, especially those of a more liberal persuasion, present: loving, kind, patient, merciful, gracious etc., all of which is true of course. But there is another side: holy, righteous, judgmental, vengeful, jealous etc. and that too is true. For the sake of balance, we need to recognise both sides. When a few years back, I read Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, I was particularly struck when Dawkins laid into those who believed in and followed God (even though he put God into the same category as fairies at the bottom of the garden) and made the point – how could they given the evidence of God’s cruelty that can be traced back to the Bible itself? After all, did he not command Joshua and Saul to wipe out whole cities – men, women and children? If it happened today, Joshua and Saul might be hauled before an international court on charges of genocide and few “right thinking” people would object. I should add, if Dawkins were to come to me, I could give more examples. While I may question his context, I can’t dispute his examples. There is a lot in the Bible, especially Old Testament, narrative when God does not make sense.
The proposition that has bothered many down the ages is while it may not be unreasonable to expect bad people to suffer, i.e. get their just desserts for their bad deeds, there are countless examples of good people who suffer (as well as the bad people coming off ok or better). We can all think of examples of when that is the case and I will resist giving examples, but we can all think of examples in our own lives, or those we care about, when life has dealt them a poor hand. It is tempting, like Job’s comforters, to question why this seemingly very righteous man should suffer as badly as he did, and that maybe he was not quite as good as he appeared to be. But we know from reading the book with that title they got it wrong and there was an eternal dimension involving God and Satan that no-one saw, not even Job. It was Job who said: “for I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” Job 19:25-26 and as for being confident in God, he declared: “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him” Job 13:15.
If we were to read through the whole Bible, looking for examples of suffering, we would soon be inundated with examples. Sometimes people suffered because of their own wrong actions and there are lessons that can be derived. Sometimes people suffered because of the wrong actions of others. Both are universal experiences. Sometimes people suffered because they did the right thing. This book has furnished numerous examples of the prophets suffering, often as a result of being attacked by those who did not like their message. While we read about the prophets’ pain and sometimes bemusement, we also find they trusted God. For New Testament Christians, suffering was a common place experience. Perhaps the most profound of the prophetic books of the Bible was Revelation and its profoundness was not so much because of the number of prophetic statement but because it was addressed to those who had experienced and would experience persecution.
When it comes to suffering, however much we might try to arrange things (assuming we can – and many do not have that luxury because of the circumstances in which they live) suffering is still nigh unavoidable, for such are the vagaries of life and the best we can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst (although often that is impossible because often we cannot predict what that “worst” is going to be). Persecution is a form of suffering that particularly impacts people of faith. It may be something that can be avoided by renouncing the faith. Going back to Revelation, the readers were encouraged to stand fast and look forward to an eternal reward for doing so. “And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” Revelation 12:10,11. Looking around the world about me at this time, as I write, I am astounded by the amount of persecution happening all over the world and the way things are heading, soon in my own country. The watchword is we must prepare to suffer.
I daresay it is easy to come up with pious platitudes in the light of suffering, especially if it is other people’s, and it is something that we should avoid. Rather we need to seek to encourage, pray for and give comfort and whatever limited practical help we can to those who do suffer, especially our brothers and sisters, some we do not know, who are suffering for Christ. We are reminded that it is our Lord “who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” 2Corinthians 1:4. We should see suffering in positive terms and character building: “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” Romans 5:3-5. Then there is the Day of Judgement and the Eternal State (covered in the next section) when true justice is served (“shall not the Judge of all the earth do right” Genesis 18:25) and mysteries around suffering are resolved. Finally, we should remember the amazing truth that God suffered on our behalf. Jesus the Son died on the Cross and was rejected by His Father, and all that was necessary in order that He could atone for our sins.