Why Suffering?

Throughout history people have asked why, if God is both good and all-powerful, He doesn’t intercede to prevent pain and suffering in the world. Is there an answer?

How many people have turned away from belief in God because of suffering? One for sure was the Nobel Prize–winning author of many 20th-century works, Samuel Beckett. According to his official biographer, James Knowlson, “it was on the key issue of pain, suffering and death that Beckett’s religious faith faltered and quickly foundered.” In the 1920s the streets of his hometown, Dublin, were filled with men who had returned from the Great War, shell-shocked, gassed, maimed or dismembered. The confrontation with reality clashed with Beckett’s comfortable upper-middle-class background.

By his own admission, another incident in his student days contributed to the rejection of God and Christianity. Raised as an Anglican, Beckett attended church services with his father one Sunday evening to hear a family friend preach. Canon Dobbs spoke about his visits to “the sick, the suffering, the dying and the bereaved.” His way of consoling people in such straits was to tell them, “[Christ’s] crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty.” Beckett was appalled at the failure to explain undeserved suffering and the attempted rationale for a growing mountain of pain. To say that suffering somehow prepared one for a better afterlife made no sense to him either; he considered it an affront to the sufferer.

[Beckett] spoke of his brother’s sufferings and the cruelty of a god, if there was a god, who could preside over such a world.”

Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (1997)

In 1954 Beckett spent three and a half months with his brother Frank, who was dying of lung cancer. According to Knowlson, the experience was harrowing, the passage of time endless, the grief acute, the depression profound. Sam’s pain was matched only by his feelings following the death of his father in 1933 and his mother in 1950. As he had waited for his mother to die from complications of Parkinson’s and a broken femur, “he [had] thought with bitter irony of his own situation, an agnostic who desperately needed God to blame for the unnecessary nature of his mother’s suffering.”

Most of Beckett’s work is dark and pessimistic, centered on the futility and hopelessness of human life. His highly influential play, Waiting for Godot (1952), is the tale of two men who wait for the arrival of someone who never comes and will never come. Thought by many to emphasize that belief in God does nothing but disappoint in an otherwise meaningless existence, the play is nevertheless rich in biblical allusions (the tree of life, Adam, Cain and Abel, the crucifixion, the two thieves, repentance, prayer). Some have also seen parallels between it and the book of Job.

Despite his agnosticism, Beckett wrote with a Bible and concordances at hand, as biographer Anthony Cronin notes. But Beckett’s access to the Scriptures did not reveal to him its truths about suffering in this life. Instead he remarked to writer-director Colin Duckworth, “Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar. So naturally I use it”—often in ironic and sarcastic ways, Cronin adds. According to Mary Bryden, professor at the University of Reading and former president of the Samuel Beckett Society, “the hypothesised God who emerges from Beckett’s texts is one who is both cursed for his perverse absence and cursed for his surveillant presence. He is by turns dismissed, satirised, or ignored, but he, and his tortured son, are never definitively discarded.”

Similar Plot, Different Ending

Another renowned 20th-century writer, C.S. Lewis, was born a few years earlier and a few miles farther north in Belfast. He, too, began life an Anglican in an upper-middle-class home, losing his mother to cancer as a child. After rejecting Christianity as a 15-year-old and becoming an atheist, Lewis, aged 32 and now a professor of English at Oxford, returned to the faith of his upbringing partly through the influence of his Roman Catholic colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien. As a result, his writings became focused on Christian themes, and he became one of the religion’s best-known apologists. His collected novels, The Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia, contain many Christian allusions.

Though he had seen death and dying firsthand in trench warfare in France and been wounded by friendly fire, Lewis came to a very different conclusion about suffering than Beckett did. In 1940 he wrote The Problem of Pain and in 1961, following great personal loss and an intense struggle with his belief, the initially pseudonymous A Grief Observed. Friends actually recommended the latter book to him as a help in his grieving, not realizing that he was its author. Only after his death was it republished under his own name.

After many years as a bachelor, Lewis had met and married the American Jewish writer Helen Joy Gresham (nee Davidman), who had been drawn away from atheism and convinced of Christianity by Lewis’s writings. Their marriage in 1957 came only after she had been diagnosed with bone cancer. After remission and then relapse, she died a painful death in 1960. That he had loved so much and lost so much in so short a time caused Lewis to question God’s goodness.

If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God.”

C.S. Lewis. A Grief Observed (1961)

In The Problem of Pain he wrote, “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. ‘Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’” Later in the book he wrote, “I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.”

In A Grief Observed, which is based on notebooks he kept as he tried to cope with his wife’s death, he struggles with the reality of the experience of loss rather than returning to the intellectual arguments he had put forward earlier. He is at times at a complete impasse, angry and doubting God’s goodness, feeling that God is behind a door with all the bolts fastened.

But toward the end of the book, he writes, “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.”

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable.” 

C.S. Lewis. A Grief Observed (1961)

The book concludes with a quote from Dante’s Paradiso, or “Heaven.” Introducing it, Lewis writes, “[Joy] said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornò all’ eterna fontana” (“Then she turned to the eternal fountain”; i.e., God).

The Problem of Evil

What both Beckett and Lewis struggled with in their own way was a problem that has troubled most people at some point, including other notables such as Mark Twain and Charles Darwin. It is the dilemma known as theodicy, literally the justice of God or the justification of God, or better still, justifying God’s behavior as far as the presence of evil in His creation is concerned. How can a good Creator God exist alongside evil or suffering in the world? German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined the word in 1710 as he tried to demonstrate that God’s goodness is not incompatible with the presence of evil. It was his attempt to answer the writing of a skeptic, Pierre Bayle, who said that suffering proves that God is not good and not all-powerful. This is, of course, a standard argument used by skeptics to bolster agnosticism and atheism.

Often in these kinds of discussions you have the feeling that the humans asking the questions are seeing only a small piece of the picture. As Lewis says, there are nonsense questions. Is it possible that the contradiction posed in the theodicy debate is a red herring in the first place and should not be considered, because it is a nonsense question? Could it be that once God’s plan and purpose are discovered, then suffering, though never easy or something we prefer, becomes explainable?

One of the pieces of the puzzle is to understand that before humans came on the scene, there was a realm into which spirit beings introduced evil. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, it was an otherwise perfect environment, until Satan [the Adversary] and his followers opposed God. The prophet Ezekiel describes this being, before he became the archenemy, in these terms:

You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God. . . . You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created” (Ezekiel 28:12–15a).

But then there came a point where a wrong, competitive attitude entered him. He allowed himself the luxury of an imagined alternative, where he and not God would be in command. Thus sin “was found in you” (verse 15b). Violence against God and His way became his modus operandi: “In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire” (verse 16).

This state of mind resulted in a war against God that drew in one third of the angels (see Isaiah 14:12–14; Revelation 12:3–4). It was a possibility because God had created spirit beings with free choice.

So when humans came along there was already evil in the universe and thus the possibility of sin and suffering for humanity, if they chose to follow the lead of Satan. And choose they could, because God also created them with free moral agency. They could decide to follow God’s way or reject it. If they did that they would be in a position of deciding for themselves what is right and wrong. Early in the story of humanity, we read that human beings chose to proceed without God. This alone is a cause of the effect that we call suffering.

The apostle Paul understood the connection between those early actions and continuing society. Sometimes we suffer because of what others before us have done: “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

It is clear that God expected humans to choose to do the right thing even after Adam and Eve rejected Him and He expelled them from the Garden. To their son, Cain, He said, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:6–7). That is, like Adam and Eve, Cain could have made the right choice and not suffered one of the consequences of sin, which is suffering.

Part of God’s great purpose is to help humanity see what the price of going the wrong way really is—how costly it is. That cannot be learned if every time the consequence is about to play out, He intervenes to stop it, so that there is no evident connection between sin and consequence. If humans choose to go the wrong way, the only way they can learn to choose right is to become aware of the result of wrongdoing.

Without this kind of background knowledge, our attempts to understand and explain evil or suffering in a world created by a good God is like entering a movie two-thirds of the way through and expecting to understand the plot. What happens then is that we ask nonsense questions. Evil is simply not something that flows from God.

The Wrong Question

One of the complaints that agnostics and atheists make is that God does not intervene to prevent evil consequences for humans. Yet if He did restrain humans from acting at every wrong turn, they would soon resent his taking away their freedom to act as they choose. The fact of free moral agency within a gradually unfolding plan is one of the reasons God does not automatically intervene to prevent epidemics or road accidents or abuse or wars.

So rather than complaining about God’s lack of intervention, it would be better to adopt a humble approach and start with the fact that there is probably something we don’t understand from our human vantage point. It is the kind of attitude spoken of in the book of Isaiah—because whatever it is that God is doing in the world, whatever His plan is, our response to it ought to be based on the following: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” (Isaiah 29:16).

You turn things upside down!” That’s to say, you are asking the wrong question. Should you be questioning God as Creator? Should you be denying Him? Isaiah continues the thought later when he says, “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” (Isaiah 45:9).

The point here is that right perspective and humility are necessary to begin to get located in the right relationship with God. Humans are mostly dislocated. They don’t know where they are in terms of God. They don’t understand Him or know His purpose. No wonder, then, that so many come to wrong conclusions about life and about Him.

Job was a righteous man, yet he was not rightly located with respect to God. He was a blameless and upright man, but his understanding was incomplete. God allowed him to be tested by the archenemy, a factor in some suffering, in order to bring him to a much better place spiritually (see Job 1:6–12).

By the end of the book, Job is able to listen to God as He asks dozens of questions, none of which Job can answer. He can only repent, seeing himself for what he is: “Then Job answered the Lord and said: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . . . Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes’” (Job 42:1–6).

Now he is finally where he needs to be and can be blessed much more than before.

Paul Weighs In

In Romans 9 Paul discusses an issue that may have troubled some of his fellow Israelites: Why had God seemingly turned His back on them and begun working with gentiles? It’s another facet of the theodicy debate: Is God good? Is He just?

In Paul’s words: “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:14–16).

In this extended passage, Paul uses the same analogy of clay and potter as Isaiah recorded: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”(verses 20–21).

In other words, as we are seeing, you can come in part way through the movie and not understand; you can begin to argue, complain, ask inappropriate or nonsense questions, and even become violent.

Paul was such a person at one point in his life. He had a great deal of knowledge, but to little good effect. Referring to his life as an observant Jew, he said, “Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13). When Paul was in that condition, Luke tells us, he “was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).

He thought he was right to blaspheme and be rude, arrogant and violent. He later came to see what he didn’t understand at the time. But God allowed the suffering he caused. And some of the people who suffered were God’s followers.

Paul later wrote about his personal suffering, which sometimes came from the kind of persecution he himself had engaged in formerly: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:24–28).

On other occasions, he suffered because God chose not to help him, so that a greater good might come of his difficulties: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ . . . For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

One of the concepts that Samuel Beckett could not accept in his student days was what Paul seems to refer to in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

This is a difficult verse, especially as translated from the Greek. One of the most satisfying explanations is that “Christ’s afflictions” is not a reference to His final sufferings but to the woes, or tribulations, that will precede His coming (see Revelation 8:13). Paul saw his suffering for the Church as making a contribution to these woes so that Christ would come. The phrase “Christ’s afflictions” appears nowhere in reference to His crucifixion. Further, His sufferings cannot be incomplete.

If this is true, then Beckett based his rejection of belief in part on a misunderstanding, passed on by his family’s friend, Canon Dobbs.

Paul provides clearer understanding of the relationship between Christ’s sufferings and the believer’s own when he writes: “For [Jesus Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8–11).

Perfection Through Suffering

We noted earlier a reference to Christ’s suffering in C.S. Lewis’s writings. He said, “I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible.”

This is a reference to Hebrews 2:9–10: “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Here is an idea that is foreign to most if not all other religious persuasions—that we can become perfect by suffering. Yet that is what God ordained for His own Son.

Our natural inclination is to say, “Don’t talk to me about suffering. I don’t want to face it. I don’t want to suffer.” This is an absolutely normal human reaction.

It was also Christ’s reaction in Gethsemane just before the crucifixion: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’ . . . Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done’” (Matthew 26:39–42).

Christ had to suffer; He was made perfect through those sufferings. And His suffering included more than the immediate events leading to His death and the crucifixion itself.

Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.” 

Hebrews 2:18, New Living Translation

The fact that Christ suffered means that He is now able to help human beings even more meaningfully. There can be a bond between us, knowing that He understands and stands ready to help: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted [tested], he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).

Coming in on the human drama part way through and being uninformed of the history to that point is no way to understand the great plan and purpose God is working out through beings made from clay, yet with free will and an awesome future. As Paul concludes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

This is a truth to dwell on when difficult times come.