Skip to content

Why do we suffer?

by on April 11, 2016

XIR84999 Job (oil on canvas) by Bonnat, Leon Joseph Florentin (1833-1922) oil on canvas Musee Bonnat, Bayonne, France Lauros / Giraudon French, out of copyrightAt CCC we’ve started a series on Suffering. Here’s the first talk.


Suffering 1: Why?

Job 1

Also Romans 8:18-25

Boxing day, 2004. An earthquake size 9 on the richter scale struck off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. No one was warned, no one was prepared for the tsunami that followed. Over the following days and weeks, we heard of those who had perished. Thousands, then tens of thousands, and finally hundreds of thousands of lives snatched away by the waters. Whole islands flattened.

The chaos that followed was like a hell on earth, piles of corpses littering the beaches the injured and the survivors desperately searching for lost loved ones. Many of the corpses were those of small children.

When something like this happens, when terrible disaster strikes, people naturally have a question they ask: they ask ‘why?’

Over the following weeks many answers were offered, often by Christian people. One pastor wrote that ‘this tsunami is God’s plan at work, we cannot question it.’ Another wrote, ‘we cannot tell how guilty people might be, what punishment they might deserve’. God is always just in his works. So they got what was coming to them.

Another wrote that the suffering of these innocents ‘will bear spiritual fruit for themselves and all mankind’ It will all turn out for good.

It’s very common for people to respond like this when faced with disaster.

‘Que sera, sera’.

‘It’s fate. It’s all fate’.


‘It’s his karma’.

People like to believe that the events of their lives were not random – they were in some way part of a cosmic plan. Especially when it comes to their sufferings and misfortunes. Hence all the sayings. All these sayings are trying to answer the question ‘Why?’ We want reassurance that what has happened, however painful, makes some kind of sense.

It’s not only catastrophes on the news that have us asking why? – our own lives are full enough with disasters too. The one thing everyone I know has in common is: the all suffer. Suffering is very present and very real for all of us.

I could tell you so many stories. A family friend, Kevin a young man, intelligent, kind, gifted, a Christian man, a school teacher –  eight years ago he was struck down by a mystery illness. Now he spends his life in bed. He’s lost so much.

People suffer in so many different ways. Some suffer chronic pain. Others know the tortures that go on where there is mental illness.

Then there are those who suffer because of loved ones and friends. Broken relationships I think bring the most acute suffering of all.

Yes suffering is real for us. And we struggle to make sense of it. For the past six months I have thought of the story of Job nearly every day. Because I often feel like I’m living a similar story. Job lost so much so suddenly. And he struggled to make sense of his suffering. Why had this disaster come upon him?

How can we make sense of a world where so many children suffer so terribly, where we ourselves suffer so much?

When people say ‘It’s his karma’. or ‘it was meant to be.’ they are trying to find some meaning, some purpose, behind seemingly meaningless events. If we knew the whole story, we would see the point of it all.

This is sometimes illustrated by the idea of a tapestry being woven. If you look at the under-side of it, it’s all loose threads and random blotches of colour. Strands interwoven without any apparent pattern. But if you look from the top, you see the design. From above it all makes sense. What appears from below as ugly and pointless, from above is beautiful and, once it is finished, it is satisfying.

We live below the tapestry of life, says the illustration. It’s not very satisfying from here. Downright ugly at times. But if we could see the big picture, what God can see, from above – we would see that all of these dark and messed up threads are part of a masterpiece of breath-taking beauty taking shape: God’s plan for the world. All the pain and misery and terror and trauma – nothing is left out, nothing unnecessary, it all contributes to the finished tapestry. It all has a reason. It’s all for our ultimate good.

I don’t know how you feel about this story. For some people it seems to bring comfort. But sometimes it can bring the worst suffering of all.

If you are a young mum who’s just lost her child, could there be anything worse than being told, ‘It was for the best.’ ‘He’s in a better place.’ ‘It was meant to be’. ‘God knows best.’ I think this might just be the worst suffering of all, to have to hear this heartless denial of our pain. It’s hard to believe anyone would say those cruel things to a grieving mum. But I’ve heard them. I’ve heard all these things said by well meaning friends and family. Often by Christian people. In these ways we torture the sufferers.

Most religions go for this tapestry approach to suffering. It all works together for good in the end. You can see why people like this idea of a cosmic plan. Pain is scary and confusing. It makes us question whether life is good. If there is a sense that our pain is worth it, that it is achieving something, it’s easier to bear it. If I have pains in my legs I may become discouraged. But if I know that they are the result of the half-marathon I ran yesterday, all part of my fitness plan – that’s different. I can embrace that pain: no pain, no gain. But the thought that I might be suffering, not for any good reason, but just as an accident in a meaningless universe – that’s pretty hard to take. And so when disaster strikes, we find ourselves talking about fate, or God’s purposes.

The Bible has some surprising things to say about evil and suffering. It paints a bit of a different picture from the one we’re used to. We’re going to try and give it a hearing over the next few weeks. And I want you to be deliberate about this: let the Bible challenge your view of suffering and evil. Be open-minded and willing to rethink this.

There are two bible books that tackle this issue: the largest is JOB. Job is a happy and prosperous man, a good man. But disaster strikes, and he loses everything: wealth, liverstock, children, health, everything. And he spends the rest of the book asking ‘Why’?

Job’s ‘friends’ come and sit with him for a whole week in silence. But when Job starts asking Why, they can’t help themselves. These are deeply religious people, and like most religious people, they have an answer, they can find a logic in Job’s misery. “God does not do anything without reason. Job must in some way deserve the disasters he’s suffered.” That’s what they say. Or they say, ‘It’s all God’s plan. Stop complaining about it.’

But we the readers know what’s going on behind the scenes. We know that the cause of the misery is this Accuser, this Satan character. He wants to destroy Job’s life, and God allows it. Why does the Accuser hate Job? Why does God let him ruin Job’s life? We are never told. Nobody ever finds out. After 40 chapters meaning never emerges. Not much logic to all that! We are never given a satisfactory because to answer the why. Job’s suffering remains a mystery.

The other book that deals with suffering is Ecclesiastes. It is much blunter. Solomon the wise conducts an investigation into the problem of human suffering: what he calls ‘life under the sun’. He finds it to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. What does it all mean then, all this labour and toil, this blood, sweat and tears in which we live our brief lives? Solomon the wise is painfully upfront about his conclusion:

‘Meaningless, meaningless!’ says the Preacher. ‘It is all utterly meaningless!’

Solomon repeats this word meaningless no less than 38 times in his book: it is his major finding. The Hebrew word havel can be translated ‘vanity’ or ‘futility’. It speaks of the non-logic, of the absurdity of human misery. Solomon looks for a ‘Why’ – and concludes that there is no Why. Human suffering is cannot be explained raltionally. It is senseless. Ecclesiastes is a very dark book!

But surprisingly, when when turn to the New Testament, we find the apostle Paul agreeing with Solomon. Paul summarises Ecclesiastes in his letter to the Romans. He says:

The creation has been subjected to futility        Romans 8:20

Futility. The word Paul uses here is the same word, the signature word from Ecclesiastes: futility! Meaningless! Paul confirms the findings of Solomon the wise. The creation has  fallen into chaos. That’s why things are so bad down here.

What this means is that suffering and evil are worse than we might have thought. They are meaningless, and therefore enemies of everything God has created. There’s no good in them at all. They are truly evil.

To return to our illustration of the tapestry, this Scripture view would seem to say, SHOW ILLUSTRATION  ‘When seen from below the tapestry of life is shot through with dark and ugly threads. It’s covered in loose ends. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. And when viewed from above – it looks pretty much the same. In fact, it’s a sucky tapestry however you look at it.’

Well, what about Jesus? The great sufferer. The man of sorrows. Jesus watched his movement, everything he had worked for, dissolved, his flock scattered. He died in shame and defeat, in agony. His enemies had won. Jesus’ story is full of suffering.

The Scriptures tell us that what God’s Son submitted to was not really his own suffering: it was ours. It was a suffering he didn’t deserve. It had no claim on him – but he came and claimed it. It wasn’t for himself that he suffered, it was for us. In fact those things that happened to Jesus were God’s way of dealing with our suffering:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Christ himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil. Hebrews 2

What did God do about our suffering? He didn’t give us a lesson. He came near. Jesus Christ didn’t come to explain suffering. He came to endure it. To sit with us in it. Like Job’s friends did at first, before they opened their mouths and started lecturing. Jesus doesn’t lecture us. He joins us.

You might think this has been a pretty grim assessment of our human condition. We suffer, and it’s pointless. But when we see how Jesus has entered in to our misery, that makes all the difference. We get this totally new perspective on pain: human suffering is not a puzzle to be explained, it is a burden to be shared. And suddenly there is hope. In the coming weeks we’ll be learning more about the hope that the gospel brings to sufferers.

So how does the Bible’s unique view of suffering actually help us? 3 ways:

1. First, you don’t have to understand or feel good about pain and suffering. And that’s a relief!

Often sufferers – especially religious ones – have a double burden: firstly the trouble itself, and secondarily the pressure to find some positive meaning in it, to somehow feel good about it, to not cry out or complain. I suffered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 4 years, and a well-meaning friend asked my during that illness, what has God taught you through this? And I didn’t know! And I felt so guilty, this sickness was for me, it supposed to teach me something, and I hadn’t learnt anything. Not only was I sick, I’d failed at being sick! This double burden makes our trials so much harder to bear.

But you know, Jesus didn’t feel good about suffering on the cross. To hear that the evil afflicting you is truly evil and you don’t have to see it as good – this can come as a great relief.

2. What the gospel tells us is that when we are in distress we are not alone. There is someone right there with you: Jesus. He understands how much it hurts. He knows what it is to feel the confusion, the misery. Jesus feels what you feel. He doesn’t make the mistake of Job’s friends, talking too much, trying to explain it all to you. He doesn’t tell you to feel good about your pain. He simply sits with you. No matter how deep into the pit of suffering you go, you will find Jesus has gone ahead of you, and he is there beside you. No one else knows your sufferings the way Jesus does.

We are not alone. And that is the best thing of all.

3. What Jesus has done for us, you can do for others. 

The gospel of Jesus gives us cues for how to help others when they suffer. We can be Christ to our neighbours by sharing in their meaningless sufferings.

Job’s friends started off just sitting with him. They sat with him in the dust, a long time, not saying anything. That was good. It was when they opened their mouths that things went bad. When people are hurting, and they ask ‘Why?’, they don’t need an answer. There is no answer. What they need is you. You with them. Beside them in their pain.

We can be Jesus to other people by entering their troubles the way Jesus entered ours. Being present is good. But we need to learn – and this is the difficult thing for us Christians – we need to learn to shut up. Take time to listen to people. Let them talk to you. Express an interest in what they are going through. And you’ll find that people will start opening up, start sharing with you. Because pain is very lonely, and what people most need when they suffer, is someone there.

And when you bear people’s burdens with them like that, in the name of Jesus, you actually bring Christ into their situation. He comes close, through you.

And having someone there with you, someone who cares, sitting by you in the dust – so that you’re not alone – that’s better than all the explanations in the world.

From → General

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: