In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people and physicians around the world are facing trials of many kinds: the threat of illness, the death of loved ones, scarcity of health care resources, and the loss of patients. As Christians, the experience of suffering can cause us to ask difficult questions: How can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow suffering? Why did he set the universe up in such a way that suffering is possible, and why doesn’t he intervene when suffering gets out of hand? While suffering can be a difficult concept to understand, looking at biblical examples of suffering can help us to grasp an insight into both the causes of suffering and God’s attitude to and presence in suffering.
There are many examples of suffering in the Bible. Some of them can be understood as the natural consequences of ignoring God’s teachings. In Proverbs, the teacher talks of the inevitable suffering that comes from humanity’s desire to ‘go it alone’. ‘Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?‘ (Proverbs 6:27-28).
This cause-and-effect relationship can be seen whenever we pursue selfish goals rather than God’s desires for us. For example, the relationship between promiscuity and sexual disease or the harmful effects on marriage when one of the partners becomes sexually involved with a third party. This suffering is one consequence of ‘free will’, which while allowing us to worship God genuinely, also opens the possibility for us to make the decision not to follow God, a route that often leads to some form of suffering.
Other kinds of suffering are seen as a force for discipline. One example is in the book of Jeremiah, when God becomes displeased that his people are turning toward man-made gods and adopting lifestyles which do not obey his commands (see Jeremiah 8:13).
Yet there are other examples of suffering – perhaps like the current pandemic – which don’t seem to fit so neatly into either of these explanations. Because of this, at the heart of the challenge of understanding suffering are questions about the character of God. God’s character and attitude toward suffering can be seen in his presence and purpose among his people in the midst of suffering. When God allows his people to suffer, he does not do so vindictively but rather to bring them closer to himself.
In the gospel of John, Jesus encounters a man who was born blind. His disciples immediately look for some rational cause to explain this man’s suffering. ‘Rabbi,’ they ask, ‘who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus responded that neither the man nor his parents sinned, but rather, ‘this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life’ (See John 9:1-5). In this encounter, Jesus reveals that one of God’s purposes within suffering is that God’s glory would be revealed to his people.
Another way that God uses suffering for glory is as an opportunity for spiritual formation. In this sense, suffering is not a force of destruction but rather a force of transformation and spiritual construction. James writes in his gospel, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4) When God allows suffering, he uses the turmoil and hardship as an opportunity to reshape us, as the Holy Potter who is moulding us to more closely reflect his image.
Important to understanding God’s attitude toward suffering is recognising that at the heart of the Christian gospel is a God who himself is not above the strife of suffering. Rather, he endured great suffering so that those who believe in him would escape the death of their sins and have eternal life. The epitome of Biblical suffering is the crucifixion of Christ for the salvation of all of humanity. Jesus’ suffering was part of God’s plan at a critical moment which restored humanity’s relationship with God and allowed God’s will to be fulfilled. God is not ambivalent towards suffering but rather uses it as a force which can create greater, holier outcomes. While we can take comfort in this, it is important still to acknowledge that we may never truly understand why God allows suffering. This can be hard to understand and accept in today’s world of unanswered questions, but we can have faith that God’s purposes are higher and holier than ours and that he does use suffering to accomplish his will and reveal his goodness.
As Christians, how should we respond to the immense, worldwide suffering that is occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic? We can look toward Jesus and the ways in which he cared for those who suffered. In the gospels, Jesus had a particular concern for the outcast, the marginalised, and the weak, and he worked to meet their spiritual and physical needs. Suffering is an opportunity for Christians to show the secular world what Christ’s compassion and love looks like. In a crisis, Christians should be recognised by their love and care for those who are suffering as we work to meet people’s physical and spiritual needs in the spirit of Christ, who met the needs of all those he encountered. Our love for others reflects Jesus’ love for us, and our personal sacrifices reflect his ultimate sacrifice for all of humanity. While only God may know the answers to our questions about why particular suffering occurs, we can take hope in the understanding that he is present in our suffering and uses suffering for his glory and our good.
Ana Worthington is a volunteer with CMF. She is a pre-med student at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, who would be completing a semester abroad at Cambridge University, were it not for the coronavirus.
This article has been adapted from the CMF File ‘Human suffering: Biblical perspectives‘. by Pete Moore PhD, a freelance science writer and author who works at the interface of science, medicine and ethics.
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