Two earthquakes and then a massacre in Christchurch. An eruption at White Island. And now a pandemic, a nationwide lockdown, and a massive economic recession. New Zealand has endured a great deal in recent years. Greg Liston looks at the ‘whys’ of suffering.

The natural response to repeated and ongoing traumatic events like these is almost always shock. On being faced with such a calamitous sequence, expressing grief is natural, appropriate and necessary. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown, many helpful articles were written that validate expressing such raw emotion.1 Most note how the scriptures, and particularly Psalms (the Bible’s songbook), provide an immensely valuable resource for doing this, e.g. “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13:1, NRSV). As this season has taught us, in the middle of suffering, “a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”2

As New Zealand collectively picks itself up off the canvas, though, and as the grief and shock of another body blow begins to subside (even if just a little), other questions and emotions arise. Primary among these is how do we make sense of these awful events? How can we process them so that together we continue to endure? 

While the biblical narrative affirms and even encourages grief in the midst of suffering, that is not all it says. There is more insight offered. The following paragraphs (probably much too simplistically) condense the biblical plotlines on suffering into three key truths. My prayer is that recognising and affirming these truths will enable us to “hold firmly to the word of life” together (Philippians 2:16, NLT). 

Not the way it’s supposed to be

The way the world is now is not the way it was ever supposed to be. This is the first truth to recognise and affirm. God never wanted his beautiful creation to be saturated with evil, hurt and suffering. What this means is that suffering is intrinsically senseless.3 It is insane to think otherwise. Sometimes you can see the senselessness right on the surface, as with the Christchurch killer who had no clear goals and achieved nothing with his murderous actions. Sometimes the chain connecting the senselessness to suffering is more complicated, as with the COVID-19 virus.

But let’s be clear on this: the senselessness is ours. Acknowledging this truth is neither popular nor comfortable. I believe Christianity ultimately offers immense comfort. But such comfort stems from a recognition of humanity’s culpability. Suffering is rooted in our senselessness. The word the Bible uses to describe this is sin. Those three ideas—senselessness, suffering, sin—wind together through Scripture like an intricately spun cord. The Bible talks about how we all have this vein of senselessness running through us (Romans 3:23). It talks about how our senseless sin has a cosmic, worldwide impact (Romans 8:19-21). And it talks about how sin and senselessness always eventually leads to suffering (Genesis 3:8-19). How could they not? If you have a wonderful, intricate, interconnected, perfect universe and one part of it breaks, then every other part must be affected too.

So, rather than us shaking our fists at God and asking him why all this has happened, perhaps it is more justified for God to ask us why we have allowed all these bad things to happen. “What have you done to this wonderful world I gave you?” But he doesn’t. “Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way.”4 Suffering may be the inevitable consequence of sin and senselessness, but God does not leave us to suffer alone.

He’s in it with us

The Bible does not promise that we will not suffer. In fact, it virtually guarantees that we will (See Isaiah 43:2 for example). Suffering is not new, and it is perhaps only in our hermetically sealed Western luxury that we could ever fool ourselves into thinking it is unusual. We live in a senseless, sin-filled world, after all. But what the Bible does promise, and repeatedly, is that even in the midst of a world drenched with suffering, nobody suffers alone. God is in it with us. Christianity makes the extraordinary and unique claim that God in Christ suffers with us. 

The best evidence for this is the cross. The cross is where the intertwined cord of sin, senselessness and suffering ultimately leads, and also where it finally gets unravelled. On the cross, Jesus is maliciously and unfairly targeted, just like the victims of the Christchurch massacre. On the cross, Jesus is isolated and separated from his loved ones, just like those affected by COVID-19. Do you see? He’s in it with us.  

The Bible often talks about our suffering as being like fire (see 1 Peter 1:6-7, 4:12-13 for example). Of course, this is just a metaphor, but once it was much more. During Israel’s exile, three people were literally thrown into a fiery furnace. That story ends with the king who was responsible looking on in terror, shouting, “I see four men, unbound, walking around in the fire unharmed! And the fourth looks like a god” (Daniel 3:25, NLT). 

Does it help to know that God suffers with us? While it may not definitively explain why suffering occurs, it does, at the very least, show us what the answer cannot be. “It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God took our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”5

Senseless but not pointless

There’s more. For those whose minds and hearts are consumed with grief, this next truth can be almost too much to hear. The Bible doesn’t merely affirm that God suffers with us; it also declares that God redeems our suffering. In other words, our suffering isn’t pointless. So many people live lives that are so hard. The hopeful couple longing for the child that never came. The spouse watching a loved one slowly give way to Alzheimer’s. The small business owner whose huge efforts and expense have been obliterated through the shutdown. Here is God’s promise, especially for these people. Heaven is going to be so much greater because of what you have gone through. Your suffering is not in vain.

How do we know? The best evidence is the cross (again). On the cross, you see Jesus enduring unimaginable evil and suffering. And what comes of it? Resurrection! Eternal life! Glory! Not just for Jesus but for all those who believe. As Paul says, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54, NRSV). Swallowing doesn’t just destroy; it transforms. Swallowing food fills us with life and energy. So, if death is swallowed up in victory, it isn’t just destroyed or defeated; it is transformed into fuel for the eternal life that is coming. 

Think it through. If Jesus’ resurrection happened (and it did) that means we too will be resurrected (and we will). The only possible conclusion is that everything we have suffered will be swallowed up and transformed. C S Lewis explains this well: “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”6

God knows there are many questions left unanswered. But here is the true and final defeat of the evil, hurt and suffering that has happened over the last few years. Not just that God is in it with us, but that all of our suffering will be humbled and transformed to serve a new and greater good. That is the truth of what the Bible affirms and that is what Christians believe. 

Contributor: Greg Liston

Greg lectures in systematic theology at Laidlaw College and previously pastored at Hillsborough and Mt Albert Baptist Churches. He has one beautiful wife, two incredible children, two hefty PhDs, attends Mt Albert Baptist and cooks awesome roast potatoes.

References:

  1. See for example N T Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To” in Time
    https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity.
  2. C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Fontana, 1957), viii.
  3. Note that saying suffering is senseless does not mean that it is purposeless. (See the last section in this article, for example.) Rather what is affirmed is that suffering ultimately, even if not always directly, stems from senseless actions.
  4. Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 199.
  5. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009), 30-31.
  6. C S Lewis, The Great Divorce (London: Fount, 1977), 62.

Scripture:

Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol  Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.