Two years ago, I met a young man during a door to door evangelism. I remember this particular day because the young man allowed us to hold the conversation for a few minutes and then stopped us. He went on to ask us a tough question I still remember to this day.
“You are talking of a God who loves me, loves his people, yet he allowed my mother to die a painful death from cancer. As if this was not enough, my girlfriend left me during the same period. Why did he allow me to go through such a painful loss? Why did my mother who trusted him so much endure such pain?”
We couldn’t engage further because he didn’t want to listen to more talk about God. We left.
The subject of human suffering is one that elicits many feelings. We live in a world full of painful situations; diseases such as cancer, HIV, malaria, heart diseases name them. We are faced with hunger, and we lack basic needs such as shelter, and accidents are commonplace. Broken marriages and broken families are painful ordeals. Loss of jobs and income are not pleasant. Friends gossiping and making malicious accusations is not entertaining. People dear to us die; some are orphaned and widowed. Mental health issues are also on the rise. The list can go on and on.
What causes suffering?
We can trace suffering back to the beginning. Post creation events that changed the world forever. After God created the world in Genesis 1&2, He concludes that all He created is good and adds “very good” for man created in His image. This image means man is the epitome of creation. He’s in charge of all creation. Being in God’s image means he can relate, love, and live according to God’s rule. But we know what happened in Genesis 3. Man is tempted and falls for the temptation out of his own decision.
God judges him and cuts ties with the man. There is a separation. Immediately after Genesis 3, we encounter the first murder. Cain kills Abel. We see a downward spiral in Genesis from there. Sin affects humanity to the core. The signs are there for everyone to see from Genesis. Murder, sexual sin, pride, disobedience, deception, greed, etc. God summarizes this in a punchy verse from Gen 6:5, “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” That is a sharp description of the heart of a man caused by sin.
Sin Causes Suffering
One can then stop here to point out that every time sin is committed, there is suffering that corresponds with it. Sometimes this sin is not committed by us necessarily. We live in a broken, sinful world. Take, for example, adultery. It creates deep distrust, revenge, and sometimes leads to death. People feel betrayed, and children raised in unloving homes. It creates suffering.
I recently talked to a teacher at an international school in Nairobi. She spoke about how the consequences of broken marriages at homes due to selfishness affect children attending the school. It is sad to see some of the students who suffer the consequences of their parent’s sins.
A scan through the Old Testament shows many instances where there is suffering. The Israelites in Egypt are oppressed because someone thinks they are lesser humans. This sin of pride and greed leads to untold suffering to the nation of Israel. Wars fought between countries leave people dead. When God is warning Israel against rejecting Yahweh as their King, he says that if they choose a human being for a king, that king will lead their sons to war, and daughters will be prisoners. This means their sons will die, and their daughters will be slaves. And true to God’s warning, we see these warnings being fulfilled shortly after the appointment of the earthly kings in Israel.
New Testament and Suffering
Things are not different in the New Testament. It may surprise many to realize that suffering is mentioned or alluded to in almost every book. The Lord Jesus himself was confronted with suffering on the cross and even death. He suffered because someone thought Jesus did not serve his purposes. In his lifetime, Jesus met many people with challenges and undergoing various sufferings. He warned His disciples of the persecution that they would face.
Concerning the apostles, they were persecuted and killed after Jesus’ ascension. The same happened to other disciples like Stephen. From unjustified incarceration to lashing, to stoning and being killed. Some like Paul were held in custody and John was left to die at the Island of Patmos. They died painful deaths.
Sin disorders God’s creation. Out of his will to choose sin over God, man turns the goodness of creation to evil and suffering. This brings so many consequences. People born disabled, disordered, and some even dead and miscarriages. People are inconsiderate and greedy. Selfishness hangs around us like a thick cloud. Relationships go south and sour. Marriages difficult, and men and women of marriageable age are not able to settle down in marriage. Once beautiful marriages but they end in divorce. Corruption and tribalism are almost regular members of our homes and society. We can go on and on. The realities are all around us to see.
Think about a contractor who wins a tender to build a drainage and sewer system in a slum in Nairobi. Out of their will, they do a shoddy job, and instead of the drainage helping the evacuation of wastewater from the slums, it does the opposite. Then cholera breaks out and many in those slums get affected. Several deaths are lost while families are left suffering the loss.
How does the Gospel speak into human suffering?
How is the good news of a God who is sovereign, of hope to a world filled with suffering?
- The Sympathizing Jesus: We Are Not Alone.
God promises the Israelites while in captivity that he won’t leave them in the desperation of their situation. They should not fear nor be dismayed, for he is with them. (Isaiah 41:10). Emmanuel is God with us. He came and lived amongst us, felt, and understood how we feel. He knows all we go through because he was tempted in every way as we see in Hebrews 4:15. He can feel sympathy for our weaknesses. He sympathizes with every situation we go through. We can pour our heart to Him.
- Christ Is The Answer: A God who Saves His people.
God is mighty and able to deliver us from our troubles and suffering. Nothing is too hard for him. In many texts in the Bible, we see God’s providence in saving his people. The Israelites called on him, and he saved them from Egypt. In the New Testament, we see Jesus alleviating the pain and suffering of the people that came to him. We see him emotional and weeping, feeling the pain of Mary and Martha losing their brother and he raises Lazarus from the dead. God has the power as the Almighty God to save us physically from the pain of sin and suffering.
Salvation from physical pain and suffering, however, should be said and prayed for with humility. God doesn’t act on our demands, but according to His will. He is delighted to take away our suffering, and ultimately He will when he returns (Revelation 21-22). But we must always hold God’s ability and God’s will together. For a Christian, it is never a question of whether God is able. That is settled by scripture, and Yes, He is Able. But he doesn’t reveal all of his will to us all the time. No one knows when they will die or get a disease that brings suffering. Yet we trust God through everything, and He will take us through.
We can then pour out our hearts to God and ask for His salvation from our suffering, and if He does so by taking it away, we praise Him. Sometimes His will is to strengthen our faith, and he gives us the grace to endure suffering and hard times.
The epitome of it all is that he has dealt with the most in-depth, gravest suffering in us – the pain of our sin. He provides a solution and cure to the root cause of suffering – sin. This is the way of the cross for all who believe. It is the good news that deal with sin and suffering, and we look to a day when the sun of righteousness shall arise and bring justice and healing to the world at the end of it all.
In many ways, I have struggled acknowledging the sovereignty of God and questioning His goodness in the face of challenges. I have felt alone and deserted in times of pain. I have wondered why he doesn’t save me sometimes and take away the pain. New creation seems to be a world away and doesn’t make sense in the pain and suffering of this world. However, the Lord has been gracious to keep pointing me to His goodness, and the Scriptures have continually assured and encouraged me. Could you be struggling as I have, may the good God open your heart to experience His goodness. May the Holy Scriptures keep pointing you to these truths.
Article by Mariam Kioko. Mariam works for iServe Africa as a programme’s officer for TransformD programme.