On Suffering

"Why is God not doing something about my pain?", "Why did God allow this to happen in my life?" These are questions of people who are going through suffering, and some of that suffering has nothing to do with a person's choices. Sometimes nature or other people make us suffer.

As a person who walked with suffering in myself and in others, I have reflected on this issue. I hope you find this helpful as you also wrestle with suffering. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

  1. God is a God of faithfulness and compassion. Even though we may never understand why God allows (Biblical teaching affirms that God is behind suffering, not as a first cause but as one who allows it) suffering, biblical teaching affirms that God's disposition is towards compassion. Whatever suffering anybody is going through, even though that suffering may have something to do with a person's choices, God looks at that person with compassion.
  2. Creation is incomplete. When God says take care of creation, it assumes that creation is tending towards chaos. God meant for human beings to participate in his continuing creation, by pushing back evil and disease. Practically, this means that humans are meant to use creation to shape new medicines to battle diseases. This also means that humans are meant to discover how they can help each other flourish- becoming the best that they can be. This also means that humans were meant to discover ways to ensure that all people are fed.
  3. God's main goal for human beings is the development of Godlike character, not their happiness. It is not that God does not care that we are sometimes unhappy with our lives, remember that God is a God of compassion. God's higher purpose is the creation of Godly character. If we are to be God's people, that should also be our focus. How can I reflect God's compassion and faithfulness wherever I am?
  4. Victory in this life comes through the cross, a symbol of the giving of the self. The only way to peace with God is to follow Jesus to the cross, to develop a self-giving character that characterizes God and what is supposed to characterize human beings. Suffering can be an instrument to developing the character God requires of us.
  5. Sin is the lifting up of the self above God. The sacrificial system is a pointer to the reality that God requires the self. The animal is sacrificed as a representative of the human being. The self-giving character of God is shown in his continued forgiveness and compassion towards Israel (his chosen people) despite their rebellion. The ultimate display of his forgiveness is the death of Jesus, who is both God and man. Those who trust in Jesus unites themselves to his body, which was wholly given to God.
  6. Some think we come into this world to acquire things (money, status) and that the one who dies with the most things (money, status) wins. However, in God's eyes, the winner is the one who has given himself fully to God by uniting himself to Christ, continually growing into a self-giving individual. That self-giving is reflected in a spouse's continued faithfulness, a mother's continues forgiveness towards her wayward son, a worker's continued faithfulness to his boss who could sometimes be harsh, a person's continued living in the face of tragedy. Self-giving is about compassion and faithfulness, even to those who cause our suffering.

I believe these reflections gives us clues on how to live with suffering.

  1. We may live in complete trust of the one who is compassionate and faithful by disposition. This includes if we cause our own suffering. God may not spare us the consequences of our actions, but despite the consequences, he looks at us with compassion.
  2. Suffering is part of the process of living in this world. The world is not magical, where we can get what we desire by a flick of a wand. Even God almighty went through suffering, by seeing his son die on the cross, and also by experiencing suffering in the person of his son. God's spirit experienced both loss and pain. Because of this, we can know that God is capable of walking with us in our sorrow.
  3. At the end of sorrow is victory, as the resurrection and ascension of Jesus shows. Suffering is the loss of a part of the self (e.g. the loss of a spouse is the loss of a part of the self because relationships become part of the self, our dreams are a part of our selves). Those losses culminate in death. Beyond death is victory if we continue to grow in self-giving, reflecting God's faithfulness and compassion. If you are suffering right now, continue to focus on trusting the Lord who his working in you to become the person he meant for you to be. Remember that all your losses will culminate in victory, when you will meet the Lord who will take away all your tears, and there will be no more sorrow and pain.

Suffering and Sin

When the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina happened, there were some people who said that it happened because of the sin of people in New Orleans. Most people condemned that statement, probably out of disbelief that God would punish evil.

Politicians blame the policies of previous administrations for bad state of affairs. Notably, President Obama blames the Bush administration for the economic recession. Is the Bush administration really at fault? It could be argued that the Bush policy of tax cuts for the rich put more money in the pockets of businesses which would have resulted in more jobs. It also could be argued that it is naive to think that trickle down economics really work, since the rich are only out to make themselves richer and not to help the economy by creating jobs. The problem would then be greed and not the policies.

People have debated whether sin (wrong actions) are completely related to suffering or not. This was the debate between Job and his friends who were supposed to comfort him. Two responses to suffering are presented in Job. They are responses that we must admit, has some wisdom to them. Both responses can be found among the religious and irreligious.

On one side are Job's friends. Their basic point is that Job was suffering because of his sin. Suffering for them is the direct result of sin. In eastern religions, the law of Karma states that your next life (reincarnation) is determined by how you live in the present. This same view was even held in the world of Jesus. His disciples once asked him why a certain man is born blind, is it because of his sin (which could be an allusion to some belief in preexistence of souls) or his parent's sin. The belief that if you would just do things right, things will go well with you, permeates society. There are techniques to help us in relationships, or in obtaining a job, or in becoming healthy. There is wisdom in this thinking because God did create an orderly universe, and if we are in harmony with that order, we are likely to get the results we desire in our universe.

On the other side is Job, a righteous man. Job used to believe that his devotion to God would shield his children from suffering. But you know the story, Job's wealth was taken from him by some robbers and his children were taken away by natural disaster. This led Job to surmise that God is unpredictable, that he is after him for no reason or for some hidden reason. Job hovered between depression, feeling that there is no point to living, and trust, surrendering himself to the God whom he is bitter towards and yet still trusts. Job never agreed with his friends' assertion that he has sinned, therefore he is suffering. Some people detach God from suffering saying that God is powerless to stop suffering and all he can do is have compassion on the suffering. Some go so far as to say that God does not care or that he does not even exist. Existentially, there is a sense in which life is unpredictable. You raise your kids well, then they end up making bad decisions, hurting you and others in the process. You drive carefully, then you are in a terrible accident. The book of Ecclesiastes agrees with the assertion that life is meaningless, that all our hopes for control in our life ends in futility. The author ends up saying that all we can do is obey God and enjoy life as much as possible.

God responded to Job and his friends, not by giving him details as to why life has gone bad for Job, but by asserting his sovereignty over creation. I believe God did this to assure Job that he is still in control of his creation- chaos does not reign. Even though Satan was allowed to inflict suffering, it is with God's permission that he did it. God restored Job's wealth and family, showing that, even though he allows suffering, he still shows his goodness to the righteous. God rejects Job's friends' assertion that Job brought on suffering upon himself. God seems to have put the cause of suffering on his own shoulders, taking the burden away from Job. There is a law of cause and effect in the universe, but that law is overcome by the grace of God.

In the story of the man born blind, Jesus seems to point to the unrelatedness of sin and suffering by answering that the man born blind's blindness was not caused by sin but to show forth the glory of God. Jesus affirmed that suffering serves God's purpose, God's glory (people witnessing healing and other wonders). On the other hand, Jesus did pronounce judgment on the cities that rejected him, alluding to the reality of judgment and the need for repentance to be saved from judgment. Therefore, Jesus did affirm that sin results in judgment. What do we make of this relationship then? Here are some ideas.

  1. God is behind suffering. It is part of his purpose and is not random. God uses it for his glory. God can use a hurricane for his glory, maybe by people tasting the love of God through the church. Maybe just through surviving the tragedy, a person who used to be ungrateful of what he has can experience deep gratitude towards God.
  2. Suffering is a foretaste of judgment, which is a result of sin. The suffering people experience is a foreshadowing of God's future judgment of all sin. We can't say that the people of New Orleans are especially sinful (all have sinned). The hurricane can be seen as a reminder that there is a future judgment for all people, which shows the need for repentance.


Although Christian theology is focused on forgiveness of sins (Jesus came to free people from sin), ultimately, the question it addresses is the problem of suffering. For Christian theology, sin and suffering are somehow related, not in direct cause and effect as in Job's friends' assertion, but in an ultimate sense- human sin results in judgment in the end. Jesus came for the exiled people of Israel who lost their land and are suffering at the hands of their enemies. The reason given is because the nation has sinned. The forgiveness of sin inaugurates the return of Israel to their land and the healing of their suffering. The land is a symbol of peace with God. Those whose sins are forgiven in Jesus have symbolically returned from exile because they are restored to God. History is moving towards the realization of mankind's restoration, the healing of suffering. This is what the resurrection foreshadows. The end of history is God wiping away his people's tears, signifying the end of suffering. The story of sin, suffering, redemption, restoration is not only the story of Israel but the story of the human race. Soli Deo Gloria.

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