This is a difficult question to answer, not because there are no answers, but because it is often both a theoretical question and a personal question.  It is difficult to answer with both lucidity and sensitivity, and to give a theoretical answer to someone who is suffering can be very insensitive and even cruel. 


There are at least four kinds of suffering:


a)      Suffering that results from our own bad choices, such as bankruptcy resulting from extravagant spending or addiction resulting from substance abuse. 


b)      Suffering that results from the bad choices of others, such as being a victim of crime or an accident caused by a drunken driver. 


c)      Suffering that is common to the human condition, especially sickness.


d)      Suffering that doesn’t make sense because it occurs in spite of good choices, such as rebellious teenaged children of loving, conscientious parents or the failure in business of an honest, hard-working business person.


Of these four kinds of suffering, the easiest to explain theoretically is the first, but that can be little comfort to the person experiencing it.  Although this kind of suffering may be relatively easy to understand for an unaffected bystander, it is still very painful for the person experiencing it.  In fact, being angry with oneself for the bad choices that brought about the suffering can significantly aggravate it.


Similarly, the second type of suffering is relatively easy to explain theoretically, but that is even less comfort to the victim.  Even though one can readily see that this is a result of the sinfulness of man, it doesn’t alleviate the victim’s suffering.


The third and fourth types of suffering are obviously the most difficult to understand, because there seems to be no reason for them.  The Bible does not ignore this problem.  Perhaps the best example of this is the story of a man named Job, who lived over 1500 years before Jesus Christ.  The Bible says that Job was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil”.  Nevertheless, God allowed Job to suffer as few men or women have before or since, losing both his wealth and his children.  Job is left to ask the question we all ask when we suffer for no apparent reason: “Why?  What did I do to deserve this?”


The story goes on to recount how Job has three friends who come to “comfort” him, but they aren’t much help.  In effect, they insist that Job is really suffering because of his own bad choices, and all he has to do to turn the situation around is to ‘fess up.  This only intensifies Job’s suffering.  In fact, the term “Job’s counselors” has become a euphemism for people who respond insensitively and simplistically to the suffering of someone else.  At the end of the story, God gives His evaluation of their “comfort’ by saying, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has.”  Whatever else we might say about God’s dealings with evil and suffering in the world, this makes it clear that He does not respond to it simplistically or insensitively.


Since each situation is unique, it is not possible to give a “one size fits all” answer to this question.  Nevertheless, there are a few things we can say that can give us some of the elements of an answer to our specific situation:


a)       We need to recognize that if God were to deal decisively with evil in the world, He would have to deal with us as well.  As Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said, “The line between good and evil in the world is not a line that separates good people from evil people, but a line that goes right through every human heart.”  Part of my heart is on the wrong side of that line too.


b)       God understands unjust suffering very well, because His Son, Jesus Christ, suffered unjustly.  In fact, the Bible says that Jesus’ heart was totally on the right side of the line mentioned by Solzhenitsyn, and yet He suffered the death of a common criminal.


c)       God understands and empathizes with our suffering.  He does not take it lightly, nor does He give simplistic answers.  “For He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds, curing their pain and their sorrows”, according to the Bible.


John Ed Robertson

February 11, 2004