On 31 October 2010, Muslim extremists attacked Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Church in central Baghdad, Iraq. They killed 52 innocent people including three priests during mass. Among the dead was three years old Adam, pictured here. He witnessed the deaths of his own parents before being murdered himself a few hours later. The brutality of this massacre is truly shocking, and it will only force more Iraqi Christians, who are already feeling increasingly threatened, to flee their homeland.
A common question many people ask is: if God is good, why does He allow so much suffering to happen? It is a reasonable question. Atheists often ask the same question to challenge the very existence of God. However, you cannot seek a moral explanation without presupposing the universe is a moral system, i.e. governed by a moral being or moral law. I have to admit that in times of deep sorrow, one’s faith in God can be shaken and severely tested. It is easy to blame God or reject Him in such situations, but a deeper look at our scriptures can explain why God allows suffering to happen.
Let us briefly look at some non-Christian viewpoints first. In Hinduism suffering is considered to be just punishment for one’s sins, either in this life or in a previous one. This is the concept of karma, which is shared in other Indian religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. In Buddhism suffering plays a central role: it teaches suffering is caused by attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. The way to avoid suffering is by gradual self-improvement and detachment in order to reach a state of nirvana (or enlightenment). In Islam suffering is the result of human imperfection and unbelief; it is necessary to test one’s faith and strengthen it. So suffering is the will of God – inshallah.
The problem I have with these viewpoints is how suffering seems to be built into the law of the cosmos. Clearly in many cases it isn’t deserved? If punishment is governed by a cosmic law, then is the amount of suffering also built in? Is it not right to try and alleviate suffering? According to the law of karma that would be wrong, akin to letting the guilty out of jail.
It’s clear from the bible that God doesn’t like suffering, which results mainly from the misuse of our gift of free will. There was a time on this earth when there was no suffering. God wanted man to live in peace and harmony without ever having to experience sorrow. However, due to the Fall in the Garden of Eden suffering entered the world. We became separated from God and the consequences were death and sorrow. Paul says in Romans 5:12, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” We are all born with a sinful nature, which we inherit from Adam and Eve.
Although God does not like seeing people suffer He clearly allows it for various reasons. The main reason is simply to remind us that something is wrong. If everything were alright between man and God, there would be no sorrow and death because in the beginning there was none. The leper of Matthew 8:2 would never have come to Jesus if he had been in perfect health, nor the blind man of Luke 18:35. It’s clear from the bible that God reaches people through suffering.
In the Old Testament, God gave the people of Israel the responsibility to uphold His law. Whenever they disobeyed and became wicked, God allowed armies from neighbouring countries to attack Israel. This was His way of disciplining His people. Just like a responsible father sometimes scolds his child, God also disciplines His children. Hebrews 12:6-8 says, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.” Paul in Corinthians 11:31-32 tells us we can avoid often God’s chastisement by judging ourselves instead of ignoring our sins, thus forcing God to judge us.
Of course, there are cases in the bible where suffering seemed overly harsh. Paul was faithful to Christ after his conversion, yet he had to endure much hardship. He said in this letters that suffering made him stronger and kept him humble. God allowed Satan to take Job’s oxen, his asses, his sheep, his camels, his servants, his children and even his health. Yet Job did not curse God and remained faithful, for which he was richly rewarded in the end. The lesson is that even the just may suffer, and their sufferings are a test of their fidelity. They will be rewarded in the end.
We have to accept that in this world, where Satan uses all kinds of tricks to deceive us, suffering is an inherent part of life. We have to live with it, but try the best we can to cope and help others. Jesus did warn us that to follow Him will invite trouble (Mark 8:34): “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” In our times of distress we can look to Jesus, for He, who was without sin, was condemned and crucified on a cross but rose again on the third day.
In John 11:25-26 Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." So don’t be disheartened. Whatever you suffer on earth is nothing compared to eternal separation from God. Jesus has already paid for your sins by dying on the cross. Just believe in Him, trust Him, love Him and worship Him and you too can look forward to eternal happiness.