Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard, and Kathryn Schifferdecker. Article written by Kathryn Schifferdecker.
Why do people suffer? It’s a question as old as the Bible (or older) and as current as today’s newspaper. Someone we love dies. A child is abused or neglected. A tornado wipes out a whole town. And we ask, "Why? Why do people suffer?"
The atheist has no real problem here. Why do people suffer? Because that’s the way life is. Chance, circumstance, luck, whatever you want to call it. Crap (to use a euphemism) happens. What’s the point in even asking the question?
Those of us who believe in a good, loving, and powerful God have more of a problem. It’s usually outlined something like this:
- God is good.
- God is God (that is, omnipotent)
- Evil exists.
One of these things cannot be true, surely, and so we hedge on one or the other. God is perhaps not completely good, or at least we can’t understand God’s goodness from our limited perspective. Or God is not completely powerful. Or what we consider “evil” isn’t real; it’s only a matter of our perception.
Why do people suffer? I cannot begin to do justice to that question in this essay. What I can do is touch on some pertinent biblical texts. I can’t be comprehensive, because as it turns out, there are many biblical texts that speak about suffering and some of the texts are in tension with one another. But here are some of the most significant ones:
- Genesis 2-3: The story of the Fall, as we’ve come to call it, attributes at least some of the suffering of the world to the original disobedience of Adam and Eve. Even the ground itself is cursed, bringing forth thorns and thistles. Romans 8:18-23 also speaks of the creation’s “bondage to decay” and its “groaning in labor pains.” Suffering, it seems, is part of the fabric of creation itself, though it will not always be so (see Isaiah 11 and Revelation 21).
- Deuteronomy: The writers of Deuteronomy and of the books influenced by Deuteronomy (Joshua -- 2 Kings) have a clear answer to the problem of suffering. God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, so suffering is punishment for sin (Deuteronomy 28). This is an oversimplification of the theology of Deuteronomy; there is also an awareness of the suffering of the innocent at the hands of the wicked (for example, in 1 Kings 21). But Deuteronomy clearly draws a connection between sin and suffering. Sin has consequences.
- Job: The righteous man Job suffers unspeakable losses and demands to know why. His friends are only too happy to offer answers, most of which sound a lot like Deuteronomy: You must have done something wrong to deserve this. Repent, and everything will be restored to you. Job defends his integrity and calls on God to answer him. God does respond to Job, but doesn’t answer the “why” question. Instead, God challenges Job to live again in a world that is wild and beautiful and inherently risky. In Job, the link between suffering and sin is broken. Suffering is not always the result of sin.
- Psalms: The “why” question is asked in the Psalms (Psalm 10:1; 22:1; 43:2; 74:11; etc.), but the psalmists don’t stop there. They are not armchair philosophers serenely contemplating the problem of evil. Instead, they are people in the thick of suffering, people of prayer who out of their anguish call on God to make the situation right. As Jon Levenson puts it, “the overwhelming tendency of biblical writers as they confront undeserved evil is not to explain it away but to call on God to blast it away.” This is the power of lament, holding God to God’s promises and calling on God to be God: “But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!” (Psalm 22:19).
- Gospels: Jesus laments, too, quoting Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). On the way to the cross, he has compassion on those who suffer, healing many, even raising the dead (John 11). His disciples echo the common wisdom of the day by asking about a blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But Jesus will have none of it: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (John 9:2-3). Suffering is not (always) the result of sin. The “why” is not answered, but the “what now” is. Jesus heals the blind man. Jesus does not avoid suffering but enters into it fully, even to the point of death, and he calls on his disciples to do the same: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
- Epistles: Paul knew suffering and seems to accept it as a natural outcome of following Jesus, of taking up his cross. And he encourages his fellow Christians to hope even in the midst of suffering: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
There are many, many other biblical texts I could mention. The Bible is realistic; there are no rose-colored glasses here. The biblical writers know suffering firsthand and they write of it in detail. They sometimes ask the “why” question but they never settle on one particular answer, perhaps because they know as well as we do that there is no completely satisfactory answer to the question of suffering.
Still, there are some biblical responses worth noting:
- Sin produces suffering; yes, no doubt, suffering both for the sinner and for those caught in his or her sin. But not all suffering is the result of sin.
- This is not a perfect world. Suffering is an inherent part of life in this world, both for human beings and for the earth itself (sometimes because of human beings). The earth groans in labor pains even now, waiting for its promised redemption.
- Lament is a faithful response to suffering. You can be angry at God. You can ask questions of God. The biblical writers do it all the time. But part of lament is holding on to God, even in the midst of suffering, and calling on God to fulfill God’s promises.
- Though we will not get an answer to the “Why” question this side of heaven, we can address the “What now.” How do we respond to suffering? We take up our cross. We enter into the suffering of the world, not seeking it out (we are not masochists), but being open to the suffering that comes our way and working for life and healing in the midst of it. We will not bring about the kingdom of God; that’s God’s work. But we can participate in that kingdom even now, being about God’s mission in the world.
- Some suffering will come to us just because we are followers of Jesus. Persevere. Pray. Hope. The One we follow is faithful and he will not forsake us.
Finally, it is fitting to let Scripture have the last word. The book of Revelation speaks of suffering, too, suffering on a cosmic scale. But suffering is not the end of the matter. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’" (Revelation 21:3-5).
Suffering, pain, death, sin -- they are not the end of the matter. God is more powerful still. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God conquered sin and death once and for all. And that same God is working even now to make all things new. This is our hope. This is where we abide, even when we can’t answer the “why” questions.
1. For more on Job, see my reflections at WorkingPreacher.org.
2. Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (2d ed., Princeton University Press, 1994), xvii.
Kathryn Schifferdecker is associate professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary.