The Search for Meaning
In order to explore the meaning and purpose of human suffering we must first examine the sources of human pain. Very different types of events can cause suffering, and it is helpful to consider them separately. Human tragedy arises from three fundamentally different types of situations. The first is destruction through an act of malice, such as occurred in the September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington D.C.; these caused untold suffering. But this same suffering, with all its pain, anguish and anger, can also be generated by wholly different events. It comes about by freak natural events beyond human control, such as earthquakes, flash floods or tornadoes. Finally the natural condition of mortality, without any intervening disaster, brings death, and the associated grief of bereavement for those who remain.
In this catalogue of tragedy the fragile flame of hope that the world has meaning can very understandably be extinguished. When faced with great loss we might be left questioning, “If there is a God who cares, why did He let this happen?” It is understandable that despair can cloak the hope that there may be a God and that He cares about us.
In order to find any meaning behind, or consolation from, the suffering that so clearly pervades the human world it is necessary to divide our thoughts between these different types of incidents. This is simply because thoughts that may prove helpful in coping with suffering from one origin are often inappropriate when assessing suffering from a different one.
Coping with Suffering from Malice
Nevertheless the question should not be considered answered at this point. It is reasonable that those who can help prevent disaster are morally obliged to do so (in some countries, for example, it is an offence not to come to the assistance of a police officer when requested). In this light accusations against God are made which are worthy of our attention. If God is both omniscient and omnipotent, as the Bible claims (Psalm 44:21, Isaiah 45:5-7), then He knows beforehand that evil is planned and has the power to prevent it. The conclusion that God must choose not to prevent such things is inescapable (although it must also be recognized there could be many more instances when God actually does intervene to prevent disaster without our ever realizing).
Why Doesn’t God Intervene in Cases of Malice?
One evident answer, unfortunately, is that for man to ever recognize he has a need to fundamentally change, and seriously attempt to attain a state beyond that which he currently enjoys, he must see the full effects of his current nature. Man must experience the worst of human nature in order to desire something different for his own life and the world at large. Conversely, suppose for a moment that God actually did intervene in the case of every malicious intent of man. What would be our conclusion? Surely we would suppose ourselves perfect creatures conducting ourselves in a perfect manner! We would come to believe that even if there were a God we certainly didn’t need Him, since the evidence would suggest we were running the Earth perfectly ourselves. God would be fully aware of our self-deception, and that this was a false Utopia; our ‘perfection’ arising only from His constant intervention rather than obedience from us. Yet is this perfection – a human species of marionettes? Surely not! The truth of our current situation is that our blessing, which is also our curse, is that we really do have the free will to conduct ourselves any way we choose, and bring all the subsequent consequences of our choices into the world.
On this theme the Bible comments:
Yet who would believe such a thing? Who would believe that men would deliberately crash an aircraft loaded with civilians into a heavily populated building? Who would believe that millions of men, women and children would be deliberately massacred because of their nationality? Who would believe that a whole trade would develop in which children are kidnapped to have their corneas shaved from their eyes and sold for material profit? We have seen all these things in our society, and we must allow that it makes sense that God had to let us see them, for surely we would never have otherwise believed man could be so evil. Subsequently we would never have learned to desire, and desire urgently, something different than mankind running this Earth.
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
Coping with Suffering from Natural Disaster and Mortality
An important place to begin here is that the Bible teaches it is utterly wrong to suppose an individual has suffered a specific catastrophe in his or her life because of a specific moral failing before God:
His [Jesus’] disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:2-3)
Yet despite Jesus’ explanation, we might still be left bewildered and angry that God did not (seemingly) intervene. Even if we recognize we are supposed to learn the extent of man’s evil from God not (always) restraining man’s malicious behaviour, what are we supposed to learn from these types of suffering; what benefit comes from experiencing it?
The Bible contests the spirit of God as the only source of life in the world (Job 12:9-10), and further contends that all men possess the source of their mortality within them (Romans 3:21-24): the desire to serve themselves rather than to follow their Father. As a result man is divorced from the spirit of God (“sin” is the term used to describe this behaviour) and so cannot last beyond the lifetime of his mortal framework (Romans 6:23). Thus the implicit lesson is that even death itself is ultimately an extension of man choosing not to follow God although, as the above example illustrates, it is invalid to make an association between any given suffering and any given wrongdoing.
How does this thinking help?
It is through an understanding of our fragility, and how susceptible we are to death at any moment, that we learn to turn to God. Indeed this is the core of the answer of why God allows these natural consequences to exist: so that we will recognize our need, and not stubbornly persist in the delusion of self-dependence.
In fact Jesus was asked this very question of why evil misfortune befalls some people.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Jesus’ answer is fascinating. He does not focus on the misfortune at all, but teaches us that what really matters is our relationship with God. If our relationship with God is good, disaster cannot harm us, even if we are physically killed. Ultimately, a “Tower of Siloam” will fall on us all. It doesn’t really matter, Jesus teaches, upon whom it falls today, and who tomorrow. What matters most is where we stand before the Father today – because one day that Tower will fall on us, so we must seize hold of the salvation he offers us!
God Has Intervened!
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
Likewise the God who is “greater than our hearts” and “knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20) cannot do so without knowing the full extent of our pain and tragedies. We are promised that God will never forget us (Isaiah 49:15), and that His “heart yearns” for His children (Jeremiah 31:20). It is no longer reasonable to conclude that God doesn’t intervene because He doesn’t exist, or because He doesn’t care, because in this, the ultimate cause of suffering – being trapped within the mortal cycle of birth, fleeting joys and suffering, death and extinction – God has most certainly and powerfully intervened! He describes an unambiguous path towards salvation, through His Son, precisely because His love could not bear to see all men perish.
We Are Not Forgotten
For one reason: the longer God delays more people have a chance to turn to Him, more can be saved. How wonderful is it that we have a God who deeply desires as many people as possible to turn to Him!
But also, in another sense there is no need to wait. The joy and peace of God’s kingdom can begin to be sampled right now! We do not enjoy now the peace this kingdom will bring in its fullness, for even now those whose lives are dedicated to Christ do not necessarily escape the hands of evil men, or the fallout of the winds of time and chance. But confident belief that this kingdom is coming allows us to taste this future peace today and begin to be at rest in an increasingly frantic world. And as one grows stronger in this belief in God’s compassion and in His coming kingdom, that peace is felt correspondingly more strongly. This peace rests on the understanding that it is never God’s desire for us to continue suffering. God has offered us a great hope that, despite the trials of this world, He will be with us both in the present day and in the future rest He offers to all who seek Him.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD…. For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men. (Lamentations 3:21-33)
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