A few weeks ago, our family rented a movie that was produced by a church and released in theaters. The movie did fairly well, and we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the cinematography. Yet, I struggled with the underlying message of the movie. Basically, the storyline pictured a person who had a litany of rough, painful events happen in life all at once. The struggles left the person in depression and despair, but from the bottom, he looked up and found (or re-found) God. After this deeply religious experience, everything in his life turned, got better, and all of life ended up wonderful!
If your theology of suffering and pain resembles the message of the movie, you will come to a time when your view of God will get shattered. There are times in life where great faith in God will not turn back the waters of a flood, heal cancer, cause a rebellious child to repent, or deliver the Publisher’s Clearinghouse check at the last minute. If you have a theology of suffering that says, “Believe God and everything will always turn out alright,” what do you do with the times when things are not alright? As the floods came and went, and are now coming again, there are multitudes of families looking for answers and hope. Pain and suffering are real, and we need to have solid, Biblical answers.
This is very hard. We want quick, easy, pithy statements, but those will not work with pain is real. We would prefer to tell people that they can trust God and He will always take the suffering away, but this is not true. We need to help people find a God who gives deep meaning to their suffering and struggle. For many, the strongest objection to Christianity is that a good God allows the suffering, evil, and pain in this life. How can we answer this objection?
I do believe Christians can give meaning to the suffering experienced by people. While the answers cannot be trite and contrived, we can lead people to the major themes of the Bible to help them trust God. The theme of creation cries out that everything is owned and given purpose by God. We want to stamp our ownership label on the things of life, but nothing brings us back to the reality that we are not in control quicker than brokenness. The fall teaches that this world is massively tainted and cursed because of sin. Have you ever thought that the curse was one of the most loving things God ever did. If He would have left us in our sin, yet living in paradise, we would never look to Him. The message in the theme of redemption is that Jesus entered the fallen world and experienced it all, yet without sin. He has paid the price to purchase pardon and restore hope. And the theme of restoration reminds us that one day God will remove suffering, pain, and disaster from the realm of experience for those who know Him.
As I say that, realize this is a short article, designed to get us thinking as a community of faith about this issue. Simple answers will not do when people are truly hurting, but space only allows for simplicity here. Second, we need to learn when the best answer is silence, prayer, and listening. Finally, the Gospel answer is that Jesus entered our suffering through the incarnation. God Himself joined our pain, struggle, and helplessness in Christ. But then he gave hope through the resurrection. We are most like Christ when we too are incarnational, when we choose to enter the suffering of others to experience it with them.