It’s possible to get all sentimental and misty-eyed about suffering and forget the real pain, tragedy, and injustice involved.
“The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the greatest single challenge to the Christian faith,” John Stott wrote. Especially unjustified, unjustifiable suffering. Especially the suffering of small children. Also of course the suffering of mothers who have lost their own children—maybe even seen them killed. The suffering of prisoners being tortured. The horror of children or teens raped and abused. The suffering of families dying of starvation. The emotional torture of knowing a loved one is being victimized and not being able to do anything. And so on.
This suffering is happening right now, even as we think of it. Right now somewhere babies and small children are being killed or maimed or tortured. Depending on who you are and where you live, that might be right next door, or across the street, or even in the next room.
This is a much bigger conundrum for the Christian faith than the fact that God loves us. Sinful as we may be, humans are created by God. So despite sin, God as loving Creator and Parent should continue to love us. Not that great a mystery, compared to the horror of unmerited suffering inflicted on innocents, especially children.
Ajith Fernando in The Call to Joy and Pain (Crossway Books, 2007) writes, “I think one of the most serious theological blind spots in the western church is a defective understanding of suffering.”
Much writing on suffering treats it as a philosophical issue. But that’s secondary. People who suffer don’t care much about philosophy, though they often do ask the big “Why?” question. And too often they (maybe especially children) say: “It’s my fault. I deserve it.” Untrue.
I hesitated to read the novel The Shack by William Paul Young because I didn’t want to read what happens to the little girl at the beginning of the book. After I’d read the book, however, I was glad I did. Young does an excellent job of putting malicious suffering in a larger redemptive context.
I hear way too many glib, false, irrelevant, or only partial answers to the problem of suffering. Many stock answers sidestep the problem of the suffering of the innocents. For example:
Jesus suffered in our place. Thank God this is true! Jesus suffered and died for the sins of the world. But what does that really mean in light actual present suffering? If Jesus suffered in another’s place, why does that other person still suffer now? Especially children and the victims of abuse. Especially those with no Christian hope.
Everyone is under God’s judgment. Again, true, according to Scripture. But it’s no explanation or excuse for the suffering of the innocents.
All suffering is the effect of sin. This may well be true in some sense; I’m not sure. Everyone’s suffering may be the result of someone’s sin, now or in the past. Yet real suffering continues.
Present suffering is not really a problem in light future happiness. Paul wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
Ultimately this will be true for the Christian. And for the Christian it helps relieve present suffering. But it doesn’t answer the question of unmerited, often capricious present suffering in the world.
God is impassable; doesn’t feel human or animal pain. Therefore it’s not really important. This is unbiblical and, I suspect, heretical and diabolical. “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” John Stott wrote.
God also suffers. I believe this is profoundly true. Somehow the answer lies in this direction. The reality of Jesus’ sufferings—and of the suffering of the Father and the Spirit—is and has been a great comfort to Christians in terrible agonies of suffering. But it does not of course answer the question of the present suffering of children and others.
Don’t think about it. Senseless suffering is a mystery we can’t solve; better just leave it in God’s hands. Focus on God’s goodness and love, and trust the rest to God. This option has merit because it affirms a great truth. But Jesus certainly seemed moved by all suffering, and can we be insensitive?
We will understand someday. This also is true. We will understand, or it will no longer be a question. But this is not a present answer.
I’ve spoken here of human suffering; there’s also the issue of animal suffering. I won’t discuss that except to say that it is part and parcel of the larger moral/ethical problem.
The Big Answer
My conclusion is this: There is no answer within our present knowledge and experience. We are left with three assurances, however: (1) The unassailable love of God demonstrated visibly in history in Jesus’ own incarnation, life, and sufferings. (2) The deep experience of comfort (sometimes even peace and joy) that people who know God often experience in the midst of suffering. I believe this is real, not a psychological trick. (3) Jesus’ resurrection and the certainty that he will return to “finish the job,” so to speak, putting everything to rights. Jesus followers affirm that one day there will be an answer; that it will be an adequate answer; that it will be an answer expressive of and consistent with God’s loving character; and that we will see that it is so.
When Children and Jesus Suffer
But for today, I still wonder about children and suffering and Jesus’ love. Is it possible Jesus actually takes the place of a child who is horribly suffering? The child who is being systematically burned or maimed, for example, or children left abandoned to die. What happens in their minds and little hearts? I hope—and I suspect—that Jesus really comes to them; comforts them; in some way actually takes over their pain by a remarkable mysterious act of substitution. That what the suffering child feels is not pain but the warm embracing arms of Jesus. All children in the world, not just those in Christian homes.
As Christians we do after all believe in substitution; substitutionary atonement; vicarious suffering.
This is speculation. It is not an answer; it is a hope. I do believe however there is an answer, because God is love.
Meanwhile as Christians we have an ethical commission: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb. 13:3).