As we continue to do discuss the subject of walking with God through pain and suffering from Tim Keller’s very helpful book, the 9 minute video below raises the ubiquitous question of why can a loving God allow pain and suffering in our lives?For me it has recently become much more than an intellectual question with the loss last month of a close friend of mine. (See the post entitled: Tribute to a Dear Friend):
The answer to the why of suffering on one level is very simple and on another level it is incredibly complex.
The message of the Bible is that we live in a broken world that is not the way God originally intended it to be. It is a world where often the virtuous and innocent seem to get a harder deal than those who do wrong. It is a world where so often suffering makes no apparent sense. That moves to perhaps the more important question of how do we handle pain and suffering in our lives?
Keller helpfully points out that every culture apart from modern Western secular culture gives some explanation for pain and suffering that offers some degree of consolation and comfort.
So for example, in Hinduism suffering is a result of the law of karma and by living a good life we are able to escape the cycle of death and birth. Suffering in this life is seen as a consequence of something we have done in a past life. That does raise the further question of does that mean there is no such thing as unjust suffering? How do we make sense of suffering that appears meaningless and just brutal?
By contrast modern Western culture appears to have no resources for handling suffering apart from accepting how senseless and awful it can be. That means all pain must be avoided at all costs. Working as a psychiatrist one of the significant concerns I have for my profession is how there is often a strong tendency to medicalise or even anaesthetise the emotional response to suffering. There can be an inclination to be quick to rush to a diagnosis of a mental illness or prescribe medication rather than processing what lessons need to be learnt.
So perhaps the more important question is not why is there evil or suffering, but how do we handle life when it comes?
The third part of Keller’s book is particularly helpful in this regard. The following steps are from this part of the book:
1. Weep and be honest.
The Bible is clear that we should not be embarrassed to show our feelings. There is a time to weep and not try to be stoical. The classic story of Job in the Old Testament, who goes through enormous apparently meaningless suffering illustrates this well. Here is an example from Job 3:24-26,
“Instead of bread I get groans for my supper, then leave the table and vomit my anguish. The worst of my fears has come true, what I’ve dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed, No rest for me, ever – death has invaded life.”
It is very apparent how honest he is about his confusion and pain. Many of the psalms (songs) are also cries of pain and desperation.
From a psychological perspective it is healthy to acknowledge and admit that you are hurting. On a number of occasions during this last month I have found myself crying at the apparent meaninglessness of the loss of a dear friend.
2. Pray and stay close.
At the end of the book of Job, God vindicates and commends Job for handling his suffering well. This is in spite of the fact that Job was screaming and yelling at God, even cursing the day he was born. That seems so surprising until we notice that all of this was done in front of God. He processed his pain in prayer in the presence of God. The key here is that the truly spiritual life is not about feeling good all the time, but being honest and authentic before God about how we truly feel. The Bible makes clear that God is big enough to handle anything we throw at Him – in fact He delights for us to live every aspect of our life in His presence. That means the good, the bad and the ugly.
3. Rethink your priorities.
Sometimes when we suffer it is because we love someone or something more than we love God. We were made to put God first in our lives – the first commandment is to love God with all of our passion, prayer, muscle and intelligence (Luke 10:27 The Message translation of the original Greek)
How do I know when I love something more than God? When it is threatened or even taken away from me. Disappointment and sorrow may well be appropriate, especially if it is something good and healthy. The warning to me is if I find myself in despair or totally worthless or inconsolable.
One of the consistent themes of the Bible is how we have a tendency in our hearts to make other things more important than God. As Keller says, “suffering helps you to re-order your loves because you have made certain things into idols.”
When I go through suffering another key question is can I change and grow through this? Can I do the work of recognizing and taking down from the throne the idols I have created in my heart? It is an important pathway to Spiritual Maturity. (Also see 9 Ways to Look at your Failures with the Eyes of Faith).
4. Accept mystery.
There is so much we don’t understand when it comes to pain and suffering. We do not fully understand why God allows it or why He does not intervene to stop it. But one thing we can be certain of is that it is not because He does not love us or care. How can we say that?
That is not because of a water-tight argument, but because of a water-tight person.
The Bible teaches that God took human form in Christ. He came to earth and took on suffering Himself in order to forgive our sins and rebellion. He shows His love and identifies with our pain by going to the cross.
(For further details on this see A Day that Changed the World).
Feel free to leave any reflections or thoughts in the comments section below