“You yourself have recorded my wanderings. Put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” Psalm 56:8
Since God is all-powerful and perfectly good, how can he allow suffering to exist? Moreover, how can he allow good or innocent people to suffer, sometimes in the most excruciating ways imaginable? These questions have troubled philosophers, theologians and people of faith throughout history.
When we suffer, however, our questions become much more urgent: God, why me? Lord, how long? God, please make it stop!
Thankfully none of these questions are too big for God and he has given us the gift of his Word to sort through the complexities of this issue.
To tackle the metaphysical problem of suffering, people tend to gravitate to the book of Job, the one book of Scripture entirely devoted to the subject.
For comfort and hope in the midst of our own suffering or that of a loved one, we can also look in the book of Psalms. Its poems brim with heartfelt, tear-stained questions torn from the depths of the soul – an experience we’ve all shared, or will, at some point. In one of his most beautiful poetic evocations, King David pictures God saving our tears in a bottle, like fine wine, and writing them in a book as an eternal memorial.
There are many other passages in Scripture about suffering, whether we’re seeking answers or comfort or hope. Diving into God’s Word can forearm us to cling to God and weather our worst storms, as well as to comfort those going through storms of their own.
The problem of suffering
Throughout history, skeptic philosophers have tried to use the problem of suffering to disprove the existence of God. Because suffering exists, they argue, God can’t be both all-good and all-powerful. If he can’t prevent suffering, then he isn’t all-powerful, and if he won’t, then he isn’t all-good. Either way, the existence of suffering proves that the Judeo-Christian God cannot exist, they claim.
But this bit of sophistry doesn’t stand up under the weight of Scripture. According to the book of Genesis, there was no suffering or death in God’s original creation – in fact, he called it very good. When our first parents sinned and fell, they dragged all of creation down with them. Evil, pain, suffering and death entered the world, enemies and invaders in God’s good universe. The rest of Scripture as well as human history bears out the spread of this deadly infection throughout our broken world.
And yet, God has seen fit to allow this state of affairs, at least during this present age. Chalking it all up to human freedom isn’t an ultimate answer. That doesn’t explain ravaging diseases or natural disasters. If God is sovereign and free – and he is – he could’ve designed reality any way he chose, including one where sin and suffering aren’t possible. And what good Father would allow one of his children to harm or kill another, for no reason other than to respect the first child’s freedom of choice?
What to make of Job?
Job is the classic biblical text about suffering – but it’s not the kind of text we moderns typically find satisfying. It belongs to a genre known as wisdom literature that was popular in Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Wisdom literature wrestles with life’s big questions without providing easy answers, inviting the reader to wrestle along with it.
Most of Job is a series of repetitive dialogues, written as Hebrew poetry, in which Job’s friends – showing remarkable lack of compassion – insist he must be guilty of some sin that has led to his suffering. For his part, Job keeps protesting his innocence, and asking – practically demanding – that God meet him and hear his case.
The key to the book lies in its introduction and conclusion. At the start, God allows Satan to afflict Job with a variety of natural and supernatural disasters, destroying his possessions, his family and his health. In the end, God answers Job with a long series of rhetorical questions about the mysteries of creation and then restores his fortunes.
Nowhere in the text is Job ever told why he was made to suffer. But the reader is told that God ordained and permitted the precise degree to which Satan could afflict Job, as if Satan were a vicious dog on a leash held by God. In fact, in the end, Job’s adversity is attributed not to Satan, but to God. As for Job, he came to understand that God is God, and Job is not. He learned a lesson Tim Keller has summarised for our modern sensibilities:
“If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know.”
God takes responsibility
The problem of suffering and evil has led to a branch of philosophy known as theodicy, which proposes various arguments to justify God: suffering is a direct result of personal sin; disasters are a result of cultural sin; all forms of evil and suffering come either from the devil, human freedom, or some other so-called “third party” source; suffering isn’t part of God’s will, so he’s not responsible for it.
God, however, takes that responsibility on himself, as he says through the prophet Isaiah: “I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I am the Lord, who does all these things” Isaiah 45:7. Scripture is replete with examples where disasters, both personal and national, are attributed to God; he brings war, disease and famine. Even in cases where there’s another agent, like Satan with Job or the lying spirit with Ahab’s false prophets, God is in charge and permits them to accomplish his purposes.
At the same time, Scripture overflows with expressions of God’s goodness, kindness and compassion. Unlike the pagan gods of the ancient world, God is never capricious or indifferent toward suffering. He feels the pain of his people, both individual and corporate, and is moved by their cries for help. He comforts them, binds their wounds, dries their tears and holds them close as a mother her child. As the psalmist writes, “The death of his faithful ones is valuable in the Lord’s sight” Psalm 116:15.
And yet, death and suffering – sometimes acute, prolonged suffering – persist in our fallen world, universal interlopers in God’s good creation. While they’re occasionally a direct consequence of sin, that’s not the usual case, as Job, the Psalms, the rest of Scripture and Jesus himself make clear. This is a great comfort when we suffer, and a cause for compassion when we see others suffering. To assume it’s because they must have sinned is to place ourselves in the unpleasant company of Job’s three friends.
Even at those times when we feel some sin of ours may have brought on our suffering, we can rest in God’s mercy and compassion. When God gave King David a choice of consequences for a wrongful military census, David answered, “I’m in anguish. Please, let me fall into the Lord’s hands because his mercies are very great, but don’t let me fall into human hands” 1 Chronicles 21:13. Since Jesus has already borne the penalty for our sins, our suffering can never be a punishment, but only a chastisement from our Heavenly Father who loves us and seeks our best.
Jesus and suffering
Isaiah 53 has been dubbed the song of the suffering servant, the longest and most detailed messianic prophecy in the Old Testament. Written seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, it says of the future Messiah, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was” Isaiah 53:3.
The passage goes on to describe how the Messiah would suffer on behalf of his people, bearing our pain and sickness and the punishment for our sins, bringing us healing and redemption through his suffering. “Yet the Lord was pleased to crush him severely,” Isaiah writes. “When you make him a guilt offering, he will see his seed, he will prolong his days, and by his hand, the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished” Isaiah 53:10.
During his time on earth, Jesus was indeed “a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.” Sin and injustice angered him, but he felt compassion for those who were oppressed or sick or who suffered in any way. He welcomed them with kindness and respect, healed their bodies and souls, called them out of their sin and empowered them for a life of love and hope as his followers.
Rather than hiding or suppressing his emotions in the face of suffering, Jesus expressed them openly, weeping over Jerusalem and at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. In the latter instance, although he was about to raise Lazarus, he was still grieved at the reality of death, the dark intruder in his Father’s world. More than that, he wept in sympathy with his friend Mary, Lazarus’ sister, feeling the depth of her grief over her brother’s death.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told his disciples that he was deeply grieved to the point of death and asked them to wait with him while he prayed. Anticipating his death on the cross, he pleaded with his Father that he might avoid it, if possible. He knew he would rise on the third day, but he dreaded the excruciating suffering to come, most of all the weight of God’s wrath poured out on him for every sin of the world. Still, he committed himself to his Father’s will. Through his suffering and death, he defeated those foes once for all and secured redemption for humanity and for the whole of God’s creation.
The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus as our merciful and faithful high priest who sympathises with our weaknesses and was made perfect through suffering. The Greek word telos, translated as “perfect,” means purpose or goal – in this case, “bringing many sons and daughters to glory” Hebrews 2:10. “Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness,” the writer adds, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need” Hebrews 4:16.
The purpose of suffering
It’s difficult to talk about suffering having a purpose, especially when we’re suffering. All we want is for it to stop. How could it possibly have a purpose? The last thing a sufferer needs is a prooftext to explain what they’re going through, or a platitude about everything happening for a reason, or that God won’t give them more than they can handle, or that they simply need to have more faith. All this does is minimise their suffering and blame them for not handling it better. In Job’s words, those who do these things are miserable comforters – in fact, they’re no comfort at all.
The Scriptures are never so glib about suffering. They recognise it as a universal evil in a broken world and offer expressions of grief and sorrow as legitimate responses to it. The Psalms are filled with laments and complaints, struggling to understand suffering and asking God why and for how long.
But as with all evils that have invaded God’s perfect creation, God uses suffering to accomplish his good and wise purposes. The authors of Scripture compare suffering to a refining fire that purifies our faith and our character. Contrary to the popular saying, God does indeed give us more than we can handle, so that we might depend more fully on him and become more like his Son. “For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory” 2 Corinthians 4:17. The apostle isn’t minimising our suffering here but comparing it to the infinite joy of our life with Jesus.
In this dependence, we are privileged to experience a deeply profound relationship with our Creator. As theologian Rebecca McLaughlin explains in her book Confronting Christianity:
“In the early Genesis narrative, Adam and Eve knew God as Creator and Lord – perhaps, even, as friend. But Christians know Jesus far more intimately: as Saviour, Lover, Husband, Head, Brother, Fellow Sufferer, and their Resurrection and their Life. The first humans could not have dreamed of this earth-shattering intimacy with God.”
Because our sufferings shape us to be more like Christ and more dependent on him, they also equip us to comfort others who are suffering. As Paul explains, “[God] comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God” 2 Corinthians 1:4. Through suffering, we develop compassion. Contrary to Job’s friends, our first response shouldn’t be to regale a sufferer with theological or moralistic explanations for their suffering. With Jesus as our model, we are to “weep with those who weep” Romans 12:15.
Comfort and hope
The redemptive story of Scripture follows a path flooded with tears. From the beginning, it was not so. But ever since the sin of our first parents, the tears have fallen like rain throughout human history, sometimes as light sprinkles, at other times like overwhelming monsoons. The Scriptures don’t shy away from the fact that God ordains them, allows them and uses them to accomplish his will.
God does not treat them lightly, however. He feels them as his own and overflows with compassion for those who shed them. God treasures our tears, saving them in a bottle and recording them in a book. In the end, “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away” Revelation 21:4.
There’s profound mystery here, beyond our ability to fathom. But there’s also profound comfort and hope. Our Heavenly Father does not take pleasure in our affliction. Like a human father who allows his sick child to endure a painful medical procedure, God designs our suffering for our ultimate good: “We know that all things [including our suffering] work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” Romans 8:28.
Through Christ’s suffering and death on our behalf, God has already healed us and reconciled us to himself. As a result, the apostle is able to conclude: “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 8:38-39.