I have a brother who says he would like to believe in God but cannot understand how a loving God would allow there to be suffering in the world. I have never asked him what suffering in particular he is referring to. It could be any of a number I suppose, but I suspect his objection might pertain to the one sister we lost to cancer several years back, or the brother we lost to a motorcycle accident several years before that.
Of course when it comes to suffering, I doubt there is one life that has not been touched in some way by it: The death of a loved one, a chronic illness, or simply, difficult and trying circumstances that seem to have no explanation. These are all forms of suffering. The question of how a good God could allow suffering is important for all of us, and this is especially true when the suffering we are speaking of is not out there somewhere, but right here, at home.
The question of suffering is one that has been asked by theologians throughout history, from the time of Augustine to the present, and though we have some understanding, it is one we may never have a complete answer for, especially when it comes to our own.
But what I find more fascinating is that though I may have no better answer than my brother, one of us believes, and the other does not. Or how is it that my father, who arguably has suffered through this tragedy more than both of us combined, states plainly, “I do not blame God.” How is it that suffering can bring some to God, and drive others away? What is it in us that causes some of us to embrace the mystery of suffering, and others to demand an explanation? Or better yet, with so much suffering in the world, why do any of us believe at all?
Not that the Bible has nothing to say about suffering. It does. It provides an explanation for why a good God would allow it. And time permitting, we will look at that in detail. But before we do, it is important for us to pause and consider this curious fact, this ability of God’s children to believe without all the difficult questions answered. It is a strange characteristic of our kind.
A friend in college who had serious doubts about the Christian faith told me of a time he was approached by a bunch of hippie Christians traveling around the country in a van. They met up with him and sought to persuade him of God’s love. He had serious questions for God, and so he presented his objections to them one by one, in What do you think about this? fashion, to see what they had to say. But with each question, they simply answered, “Brother, you do not need to worry about all that. All you need to do is accept Jesus.” The hippie Christians were right, of course. That did not stop my friend from retelling the incident in a mocking tone, as if to show the insufficiency of the Christian religion to answer life’s serious questions. But the sufficiency of the Christian religion stood right before him: Faith, in the face of a violent, unjust and broken world.
This ability to believe in God and his goodness without all the questions answered has more to do with the question of suffering than we might realize. This is because our faith is of divine origin. Contrary to what many skeptics think, we do not come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ by carefully considering facts and based upon those facts, coming to a conclusion. Facts may be part of our journey leading up to our decision, but once we meet Jesus, the facts, as important as they may be, become quite secondary. For if our faith rested on no more than facts, all it would take to destroy it is a new set of facts. That would not be much of a faith at all.
Nor do we come to believe as the result of experience. This might sound puzzling, so let me provide some explanation.
To be sure, experience is involved in our becoming a Christian. But there is a difference between an experience in which we come to believe and an experience being the basis for why we believe. If I pray, and my prayer is answered, and because of this, I conclude God must be good, that is a faith based on an experience. This may seem right, and we may mistake this for genuine faith, but what happens the next time when I pray and my prayer is not answered? The problem with a faith based solely on good experiences is the same problem with a faith based solely on facts: The moment we experience something contrary, our faith is endangered.
But true faith is not based on what happens around us but rather what happens to us. We do not come to believe because we have an encounter with the Lord so much as our encounter with the Lord is that we come to believe. Faith is the encounter. And it remains the encounter, from the moment of our conversion to the present day.
The Bible puts it this way:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Faith is both substance and evidence. Imagine a crime scene and we are investigators attempting to determine what happened. Now imagine that crime scene is life, and what we are trying to determine is whether God created us, and whether he is good. There are many clues around the room: The majesty we see in the creation, the intricacy and complexity of life, and the inner sense we have of right and wrong.
Now imagine another piece of evidence at the crime scene: It is called faith. Though the other evidence is convincing, the moment we pick faith up and examine its contents, it seals the deal. Now there is no more uncertainty. It is the key evidence that confirms our hopeful suspicions. This is the role and proper place of faith in our lives, and it has great implications for how a believer deals with suffering.
In our next installment, we shall take a look at this very topic.