Note: This is part three in a series on the problem of pain and suffering.
The others are available at the site.
Part III Suffering: A Human Problem.
Human pain and suffering raises an apologetic problem. How can the idea of a loving
and powerful God be consistent with the existence of evil, pain and suffering
in the world? Although I have not given ?the answer? to this problem, I believe
I have shown that this problem can be answered. Pain and suffering are not inherently
evil. A very powerful and loving God created an amazing universe which supports
advanced forms of life and persons in that universe who have been given the
freedom to choose to love God or to do evil.
But pain and suffering human problems as well. What should our response be to the
pain and suffering which exist everywhere we look in the world? An individual?s answer
will depend on his or her world view. Our theology will play a major role in determining
our response to the suffering around us.
Let us consider the world view of Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions. Of
?course, it is simplistic to summarize the world view of these religions and
the people who ostensibly believe in them. Eastern religions include Confucianism,
Shinto, Jaina, Taoism, Sikkhism and others. The Hindu world view is that the physical
world is an illusion. The word used to describe physical reality is maya. Accordin
g to Hindu theology, this world is an illusion, and a deceptive one at that. Th
e goal of human beings is to see around this illusion in order to detect the
deeper spiritual reality?to experience Brahman. Brahman is the ultimate reality. The concept
of maya is common to Jainism, Sikkhism and Buddhism as well. According to this concept,
our suffering is an illusion. The goal of Buddhism is to end suffering. The eight fold path is
a means to escape suffering by learning to overcome and eliminate desire.
So, according to Eastern religion in general (and please remember that this
is a simplification), human suffering is an illusion. The goal is to overcome suffering
by transcending it, not necessarily by relieving it. This may or may not sound
like an attractive philosophy, but it is not hard to imagine how this way of
thinking can affect one?s response to suffering. I was in Indiarecently on a teaching
visit. One thing which became striking was that a great proportion of all the benevolent
work done in the country is supported by Christian groups, despite the fact
that Christians make up less than one percent of the population. Of course, there are
some very caring Hindus, but it is not surprising, given their world view, that
so many of the basic physical needs as well as issues of social justice remain
unsolved in India. The same can be said for most countries in the Eastern world.
When suffering is viewed as an illusion it certainly is easier to ignore the
suffering around us.
What is the world view of Islam? Unfortunately, most Westerner?s view of Islam is
shaped by their visceral exposure to terrorism in the news media. Few understand
the basic tenets of Islam. One teaching of Islam which is relevant to the problem
of pain and suffering is predestination. The view of the Qur?an is that Allah is a distant
God who does not get involved in worldly affairs. When evil happens, it is God?s will.
?The Arabic term is inshallah. It is the will of Allah. Islam has traditionally
produced an extreme attitude of fatalism. Whatever happens it is inshallah?God?s will.
It is not difficult to see how this world view might affect one?s response to
suffering. This can cause a cavalier attitude about the suffering and even death of those
who are not in one?s immediate family.
To be fair to Islam, another important aspect of the religion should be mentioned. O
ne of the five pillars of Islam (along with confession, prayer, fasting and
pilgrimage) is almsgiving. This almsgiving is intended, in part, to help the poor. The instit
ution tends to be impersonal, but Muslims do have some notable programs to alleviate
poverty. The dichotomy between the teaching on almsgiving and the theology of fatalism
has caused the response of Islam to suffering be hard to stereotype. The word which comes
to mind is impersonal. As with Buddhists, there are obviously some very caring people
who profess Islam, but the question to be asked here is what is the world view
and what is the common attitude spawned by that world view.
And then there is the world view of atheism. Because atheism is not a formal religion,
it will be hard to characterize the world view of atheists (outside of the obvious,
which is that they assume there is no God). The most well-known political system
spawned by atheism is communism. To the atheist, the individual person is born, lives
and dies. That is the end of the story. There is no inherent meaning to the individual
life. In communism, the individual is not valued. The dreams and desires of a single
person are not considered to be important. What is important is what is good for the
community?however that is defined. It should not come as a complete surprise that the
Pol Pot regime murdered over two million souls in Cambodia, or that the Soviets
killed over twenty million in their gulags, only to be outdone by the estimated
thirty million lives snuffed out by the communist regime in China. I am sure
there are some really warm and loving communists out there, but I have not yet
met one. Obviously, not all atheists can be characterized that way, but the philosophical
underpinning of atheism tends to produce a cynical and cold view of human beings,
with its obvious affect on how those who are suffering are treated.
What is the Christian world view, and how ought it to affect the individual
Christian?s response to suffering? The Christian world view can be defined by the teachings
and the actions of Jesus Christ, but let us go back into the Old Testament to
get started. Greek philosophy and Eastern religion view this world as an illusion or
a secondary reality. The physical reality is inherently bad. The goal of religion is to
escape the gross, degenerate, decaying physical world to enter the higher world
of the mind or the spirit. On the other hand, we see in Genesis chapter one that when
God finished his work of creation he saw that it was good?very good (Genesis
1:31). The physical world is not inherently evil. It was created by the same God who
created the human soul and the angels and heaven. The physical world is a place to
find enjoyment. It is not a place from which we must to escape to find the deeper, spiritual
reality. God wanted his people Israelto experience physical blessings as well as spiritual
oneness with him.
From the Christian world view, suffering is not an illusion. It is a reality to which
we must respond. What should our response be? Compassion! Let us consider a biblical
response to pain and suffering. ?He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the
Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your < br> God." We do not see a distant, aloof God here, but one who is involved emotionally
with his people. He expects us to behave in the same manner. ?Religion that God our Father
accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their
distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.? (James 1:27) Th
e Christian response to pain and misery is to alleviate the suffering as much
as we can. We do this, not because suffering is evil. In fact, we already know that
people can grow and come closer to God through suffering. We show compassion to those
who suffer because that is what God does. It is the natural response of love. It is
the response of a parent for a child.
Pain and suffering and loss are a visceral experience. They elicit great emotion. We should hurt
with those who hurt. We should suffer with those who suffer. Human nature causes us to
want to pull back?to protect ourselves from experiencing the suffering of others,
but that is not what Jesus did. What was Jesus? response when he beheld the sobs
of Mary over the death of Lazarus? He was deeply moved and troubled in spirit. ?Jesus
wept.? (John 11:35) Why was Jesus so sad? He knew that Lazarus was about to be raised
from the dead. Jesus was greatly moved because that is the Christian response to
suffering. God weeps when we weep. This is no distant Allah who is far above all human emotion.
?We see no Buddhist escape from human attachment. No! We see the greatest kind of human
God understands our suffering and our emotional response to it. ?During the days
of Jesus? life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries
and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because
of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered
and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who
obey him.? (Hebrews 5:7,8) When we suffer, God does not mind at all if we cry out
to him. Surely, watching others suffering is problematic for us. I know it is for
me. Often I do not agree with God allowing some of the evil and suffering in this
Jesus did not hesitate to cry out to God in the garden because of his suffering. God
?is the loving parent who wants to hear our complaints. Listen to Asaph?s complaint to
God: ?This is what the wicked are like?always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in
innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.? (Psalm
73:13-14). God does not rebuke Asaph for his complaints. He listens. He understands. An emotional response to suffering
is not wrong. It is expected. Those who suffer or mourn need someone to listen to them, not
to rebuke them for their feelings. God?s response should be our response, which is to
listen and to show compassion. Habakkuk complains to God, ?How long, O Lord, must I call
for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ?Violence!? but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?? (Habakkuk 1:2-3) God does
not duck the question of suffering and injustice in the world. He wants to hear our
lament. This, of course, should be our response to suffering as well. Compassion and listening
are in order.
My favorite Old Testament passage along these lines is Jeremiah 12:1. ?You are always
righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about
your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper?? This may sound like an impudent
rebel speaking against his master. However, this is not the case. What we have here is
a son who feels comfortable bringing his complaint to God. Why? Because he knows
God well enough to anticipate receiving God?s compassion. God wants to hear. Jesus felt this
same safety in expression his fear and his suffering to his father. ?My soul is overwhelmed
with sorrow to the point of death.? My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be
taken from me.? ?My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?? (Matthew 26:38,
39, 27:46). Suffering may not be evil, but it is real. It requires the Christian
response, which is compassion.
Having answered the apologetic question of pain and evil and suffering, this
is the key remaining question with regard to human suffering: What am I going
to do about those around me who suffer physically and emotionally? How did I respond to
suffering today? What actions did I take this week? Did I turn my eyes away? Do I purposefull
y align my life so that I can view as little suffering as possible? Am I making a difference?
?Am I part of the solution? The Christian view of suffering is that we need to respond
with compassion and with action to bear the burdens of those who suffer around
Let us look one more time at Jesus and his compassion for God?s people.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues,
preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When
?he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and
helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciple, ?The
harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore,
to send out workers into his harvest field. (Matthew 9:35-38)
Many of us are used to thinking of verse thirty-eight as being about evangelism,
and perhaps it is, but in this context, the work Jesus is asking his followers
to do is to show compassion on the harassed and helpless. This is the Christian response
to the problem of pain and suffering.
Another glimpse of Jesus and his heart for the plight of human beings can be
gained in Matthew 23:37. Jesus looked at Jerusalemand the people who were about to
reject and kill him:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those 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.?
Jesus had a boundless source of compassion for every kind of person. He did his best
to alleviate physical suffering. He set an example of loving and reaching out to those
who suffered emotionally. He modeled this life style and he expected those who followed
him to do the same.
Again, each of us should ask ourselves individually, what am I doing?what am
I doing about those around me who are hurting? Physical suffering is more obvious,
but emotional pain–chronic fear, loss, loneliness, mourning?these are more
prevalent and often more devastating. Are we following the example of Jesus in meeting
Let me suggest a few things NOT to do about the problem of pain and suffering.
1. Teach people to avoid suffering.
2. Tell people who are in the midst of great suffering that it is good for
3. Simply tell people to pray ab
out it (without taking steps to relieve the
4. Tell people who suffer that it is their fault. (even if this is true, it is not
our place to
judge and besides it is better for people to reach this conclusion for
A few suggestions for what we should do:
1. Be like Job. Live with integrity and in faith in God despite your own suffering.
2. Forgive those who have wronged you.
3. Demonstrate empathy to those who suffer, rather than give them ?answers.?
4. Find ways to alleviate poverty both locally and in the developing world. Try
?to do this in the most personal way possible.
5. When presented with physical needs, either meet them, or find someone who
6. Help prevent crime, avoid polluting, prevent accidents, find ways to make
the world a more just place, find ways to help prevent addiction and family
7. Find ways to show empathy to those who are suffering through things you
suffered through in the past. Turn your past suffering into an opportunity to show
Pain and suffering are not evil. They are part of God?s plan for working in this
world. This does not give us an excuse to sit idle when those around us are struggling
with these things. They are an opportunity to make a difference?to show the heart
of Jesus Christ. Let us follow the example of Christ. Let us ?Carry each other?s burdens,
and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.? (Galatians 6:2) ?Therefor
e, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.? (Galatians 6:10) We cann
ot solve the problem of pain and suffering, but let us do what we can to demonstrate
the love and the compassion of Jesus Christ.
John Oakes 12/15/2006