“But suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces how, 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.”
Of all the things that happen in our lives, I would say that it’s suffering that most exposes the heart of our faith. Joy is no problem––we can reconcile our understandings of God quite easily with joy. When we experience those moments of joy, we have no trouble feeling connected to God and praising our Creator for the gift of life. But suffering––suffering is one of those things that frequently causes us to feel separated from God. Suffering is that experience of being overwhelmed by pain––whether it’s physical pain, or emotional pain, or spiritual pain doesn’t matter.
And it doesn’t even have to be our own pain. We can suffer because those we love are in pain, because the world is in pain, or because we see pictures of starving children in Africa. We can feel overwhelmed by the suffering of others, until it becomes our own. Regardless of the cause of our suffering, whether it’s big or small, ours or someone else’s, when we suffer, it takes over our lives. And the cause of the pain doesn’t matter, either. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, said that “suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.” Whether your suffering comes from a migraine, or the loss of a child, from chronic and untreatable pain, or moving away from one’s home, you will know that it fills us up, blocking out everything else in our world. Suffering is an anguish that takes over our mind, and body, and soul. We might be able to live through intense pain, but intense suffering is something else entirely.
So it’s no wonder that suffering exposes what we believe about God. It strips away everything we know, and interrupts our previously comfortable relationship with God. It causes all kinds of questions to come up––questions that we’re often afraid to answer. Questions like: Is God causing my suffering? Does me being overwhelmed by my suffering mean that I’m weak? Does it mean that I have no faith? How can there possibly be a point to my suffering? And when people we love have given in to suffering––who have committed suicide because it was too much––these questions are intensified. Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? When it comes to suffering, at a time when we most need to know God is with us, we can feel that God is nowhere to be found. In those times, Jesus’ words on the cross pierce our hearts: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Because of this, there is a huge range of theological approaches to suffering. And by theological approaches, I mean faith-filled responses. I want to spend a bit of time this morning talking about the different theologies we have about suffering, but I want it to be clear that I am not judging any of them, or even recommending one of them over the other. Theology is how we make sense of God, and how we make sense of our faith, and our lives, and since everyone’s life is unique to them, everyone’s theology and how they make sense of their faith will also be unique. And so I offer these to be helpful, and not as a critique. None of them are more, or less, Christian than the other.
There are basically two broad schools of thought when it comes to theology and suffering. The first school is that God is in control of the situation. This is not to say that God causes suffering. The Bible is pretty adamant about that––in the book of Job it is crystal clear that God does not cause suffering or tempt us or send us pain on purpose. And in the letter from James, it says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and God himself tempts no one.” God Does Not Cause Suffering. But that is not to say that God does not allow suffering. In other words, for those of us in this first group, there is an understanding that suffering is the consequence of sin––whether it’s our own personal sin, or our collective sin as a community, or even the world––and that God allows us to face the consequences of that sin and then provides opportunities for us to learn from those experiences. Somebody who has developed bone cancer might say, if this is their belief, “Well, God is really teaching me what’s important by letting me get cancer.” Or, “God has a plan for my life and cancer is part of the plan, and even though I don’t understand it now, I’m sure it will make sense down the road.” The Bible says, in Jeremiah, “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, “plans for your good and not for your harm.’” (Jeremiah 29:11) This is the understanding we have when we say that God sent Jesus to suffer on the cross for a reason, and that it was all part of God’s great plan for Creation. And for a great many faith-filled people, this understanding works.
But it doesn’t work for everyone. This understanding can sometimes lead us to think that God is sadistic, or malicious, or just playing with us. And so the other school of thought proposes that God is not in control of the situation. Not that God couldn’t be if God wanted to, but that God has given up control in order to let us make our own choices and grow into being our own people. The comfort in this understanding comes in God being with us in our suffering––that suffering is not a sign of being abandoned by God, but that God walks along with us when we feel overwhelmed and holds our hand. And again, there is strong Biblical testimony for this view. Many of the psalms speak of God as with those who are suffering, particularly in Psalm 139, which speaks about how there is nowhere we can go that God will not be with us, and says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’” (a description of suffering if ever I heard one), “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for the darkness is as light to you. ... I come to the end––I am still with you.” In the Gospels, Jesus wept with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died. Jesus does not blame God for Lazarus’ death, but he is there with them in the midst of their suffering. In this way of thinking, a person who gets cancer might think, “This is a horrible thing that’s happened, but I know God is with me and suffering with me and I am not alone.” Those of us with this understanding might say that God did not plan for Jesus to die on the cross, but that God was with Jesus the whole time and raised him up in order to right the wrongs committed in crucifixion. And this also works, and is a faith-filled response.
But this doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes, it is not comforting to think of God as being able to help but refusing to, and simply walking with us in our pain. Sometimes we want a God who will take charge. And so while most of us stand primarily in one or the other of these understandings when it comes to our own suffering, sometimes we might even alternate back and forth. Sometimes we might believe that God has allowed us to suffer for a greater good, and sometimes we might believe that our suffering is just something that happens to all people, but that God is walking with us in that nevertheless. Frequently, we will have someone tell us that we should believe one way or another when we are in the midst of our suffering. We might even have told someone else what they should be thinking in their suffering.
The truth is that we can’t know. We simply can’t know what God is up to when we’re suffering. But we do know that God loves us and is committed to us. This is the hope that Paul is pointing us to (who himself endured a great deal of suffering), that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” And so whatever it is that we believe about God and suffering, so long as it helps us to experience God’s love and care for us, then it’s good. It is right for us in that moment. Whatever directs us to be comforted by God’s lovingkindness, to feel that Jesus is with us, is right. Whatever we believe that enables us to have compassion for others in their suffering, and to work to alleviate suffering in the world, is a theology of suffering inspired by the Holy Spirit. If it brings us that true and healing comfort that allows us to face the reality of our situation and continue to trust God, then it is right.
In the end, regardless of our own particular beliefs about God when we suffer, we have God’s promise that one day, there will be no more suffering. The book of Revelation describes the time when God will come down from heaven and be with God’s people, and God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:4) Whether we believe that God has a plan for our suffering or that God doesn’t and is just with us in our suffering, we always believe that God will end suffering. For all people––for all of God’s Creation. This, ultimately, is the hope that sustains us through our suffering, and so we can say, in every time and every place, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.