The topic of human suffering is a subject many Christians struggle with, and is an issue many theologians have written about over the centuries — so it's definitely not something I can fully address in a single blog post!
But there are some general principles we can find in Scripture that many Christians can/do accept, which should act as a starting point to addressing this subject, such as:
- We live in a fallen world due to sin (Gen 3), and so things aren’t perfect and neither are people, therefore suffering can happen from illness, nature, and human action (or inaction).
- Not all suffering is necessarily “bad”, from a Christian perspective. For example, if we are made to suffer due to our faith, we should rejoice to be counted as partakers in Christ’s suffering —
1 Peter 4:12-16
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.
If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker.
Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
- Sometimes suffering can be used to test our faith to make us stronger, which we see an example of with Peter in the Gospels:
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
And also in James’ epistle:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
- Lastly, sometimes bad things just happen for no good reason. This kind of relates to point one, but with a bit of a different explanation to point out that just because someone suffers, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were under any judgement or that they were any worse than another person — though there are certain times where God's judgement was on someone, but these things are explained in Scripture so we can expect them (see: Acts 12:22-23 and 1 Cor 11:28-32). We can infer consequential suffering from Jesus’ teaching when he speaks about a local tragedy of a tower collapsing and killing some people:
Luke 13: 4-5
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No […]
Can we do anything about it?
Christianity isn't about trying to philosophise about why we suffer, but rather it's to do with how we respond to suffering. We accept that it's a reality of our lives and world, and then go about trying to make it better.
James makes the point in his epistle when explaining that “pure religion” is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). This is similar to what Isaiah declared about the type of worship that God is truly interested in:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Notice the theme here? To worship God is to relieve the suffering and injustices of others.
Jesus takes this one step further in Matthew's gospel, when he equates feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger as doing those things directly to Him!
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
All this is now what Paul calls “the ministry of reconciliation” which God has given us to do because he reconciled the world to himself through Christ (2 Cor 5: 18-29). Now we take that reconciliation to others and alleviate the suffering of others through the power of Christ in us, which will hopefully lead to the ultimate healing that only salvation brings.
As an end point, I’ll just state that I don’t believe “all things happen for a reason” as people often like to say when bad things happen, because that usually implies that everything happens for a divine reason. A God-ordained reason, or fate.
Now, in a deterministic/cause-and-effect sort of way, then yes, “all things happen for a consequential reason” in some form, but that’s about as much as I’d ever use that phrase to mean. Either way, it shouldn't be an excuse or reason to just ignore or accept suffering and evil in the world.
We, as Christians, have been given the responsibility and ministry of confronting human suffering head on, so let's take every opportunity to do so!
Enjoying this? Consider contributing regular gifts for this content on Patreon.
* Patreon is a way to join your favorite creator's community and pay them for making the stuff you love. You can simply pay a few pounds per month or per post that a creator makes, and in return receive some perks!