In Part 1, we concluded that an all-powerful, all-good God lets us suffer, as a world, because suffering is God’s just punishment for sin. But to get a fuller picture of God’s relationship to suffering, we have to add four ‘buts.’
1. But God Laments Suffering
Just because God causes suffering doesn’t mean he enjoys it. Scripture is always clear that God would rather bless than curse; and when he does curse—though justice demands it—he would still rather not. ‘“As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”’ (Eze 33:11).
That’s why our first response to suffering should always be lament, not try to give the right answers. When something bad happens—like coronavirus—our natural first reaction as believers is often to try and explain why it’s happening and then to look for all the ways God might be using it for our good. That’s a good thing to do—in time. But it’s not the first thing we should do when helping suffering people. The first thing we should do is lament that we live in a world where suffering happens. We’re to put our arm round those people and say, ‘That sucks,’ and then say nothing more for a long, long time. Because that’s how God feels about suffering: it sucks, and he’d rather not have to bring it. The psalms are full of lament: people crying out to God in a suffering world. We can too. So many of us are so quick to see the upsides of this virus—‘Think of all the new things we’ll learn! New people we’ll reach! New books we’ll read!’—that we skip over the very real suffering it has caused, and end up being unhelpful. Instead, with God, the first thing we should say to suffering people is: ‘Suffering sucks.’
Our first response to suffering should always be lament, not try to give the right answers … We’re to put our arm round those people and say, ‘That sucks,’ and then say nothing more for a long, long time.
2. But God Knows How We Feel
God has not just left us in sin and its consequences, suffering. He’s done something about it. He’s sent his Son, Jesus, to die for our sins and bring forgiveness. It may be that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’ but as the next verse explains, ‘and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.’ (Rom 3:24-35). God, in Jesus, stepped into the world he was punishing for sin and, on the cross, took that punishment on himself so we could be forgiven. That is the core of Christianity.
That means God knows how we feel when we suffer. He’s not aloof, like Allah, who cannot suffer, or Buddha, who says that suffering is an illusion. Rather, he knows suffering, first-hand, in Jesus.
And that’s a great comfort. Because when you’re suffering, it’s important to know that the person dishing out instructions in life knows what it’s like to suffer, too.
Since this crisis began, lots of celebrities have posted videos encouraging us to stay home, and showing themselves staying home, too, to do their bit. But there’s actually been a real back-lash against this, because, of course, staying at home for them is much easier than it is for us! They have nannies, and cooks, and huge houses! So, despite their doubtless good intentions, when Madonna, or David Beckham, or Gal Gadot tell us all earnestly from their mansions how important it is to stay home, we find this hard to swallow when our nanny-less kids are hanging off us in our normal-sized homes with no cooks to cook other than ourselves!
Is God like that too? Sitting up in his heaven, looking down on us as we suffer, clueless?
No. He’s been through it, even more than we have. On the cross, God felt the total suffering of pouring all of his wrath for sin out on himself. He knows how we feel. And that’s good to know when you’re suffering yourself.
3. God Will Bring Suffering to an End
But Jesus didn’t just die to identify with our suffering, so he could know how we feel. He did it to do something—pay for the cause of our suffering, sin. Because he paid for it, we no longer have to suffer for our sin ourselves in eternity. We can have, as Paul puts it, ‘eternal glory.’ God will one day bring suffering to an end.
Listen to how Paul describes it:
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21)
Creation is currently ‘subjected to frustration;’ it suffers. But one day, it will be freed from that bondage to decay and brought into the ‘freedom and glory of the children of God.’
What does this mean? It means that one day he will raise us to life, and creation will follow suit. Ro 8:22-23 ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’ The hope of the gospel is not just a disembodied hope, of heaven, or of souls floating on clouds. It’s of physical suffering ending—for us and for the world—by the world being remade. How wonderful!
What will it be like? We don’t know. But we know it will be good. C.S. Lewis one last time:
Then the new earth and sky, the same yet not the same as these, will rise in us as we have risen in Christ. And once again, after who knows what aeons of the silence and the dark, the birds will sing out and the waters flow, and lights and shadows move across the hills, and the faces of our friends laugh upon us with amazed recognition. Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be. For we know that we shall be made like Him for we shall see him as He is.
God will bring our suffering to an end.
4. God Helps us Cope with Suffering in the Meantime
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
Our suffering sometimes is so bad we don’t even know what to pray, let alone do. But God gives us his Spirit, who prays for us when our words have dried up. And he knows exactly what the Spirit is saying—and so how to answer—because he knows the mind of the Spirit.
To sum up: can an all-powerful, all-good God allow suffering? Yes, that is not inconsistent, as he may have a good reason to do it. What is that good reason? Justice. When humanity sins, God’s goodness demands that he punish us and suffering is that punishment. But: he laments that he has to do it; he knows what suffering feels like; he’s done something about it on the cross so he can end suffering; and he helps us in the meantime while we wait.
One More ‘But’
But there’s still one more reason God lets us suffer, and it’s deeper than all the others:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
God works for the good of those who love him. And he uses ‘all things’ to achieve that good, even our suffering.
But what is the ‘good’ he wants for us? He tells us in the next verse: ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.’ (Rom 8:29) It is the good of making us more like Jesus.
What is the ‘good’ God wants for us? It is the good of making us more like Jesus. He wants a whole world of people who look like his Son
That is God’s aim: to make us more like Jesus. He wants a whole world of people who look like his Son, ‘many brothers and sisters.’ And he uses suffering—and the ways it makes us depend on him, trust him, cry out to him—to do it. Why is there still suffering in the world when God is all-powerful and all-good? There has to be: God’s justice demands it. But this side of the cross, suffering doesn’t just have to be a knife. For everyone who trusts in Jesus, it can also be a chisel, one that God wields to make us look more like the one we will one day join in glory. And there’s no more loving thing God can do for us than that.
The world is hard. Suffering is awful. But God still loves us. He must do. He wouldn’t have suffered for sins if he didn’t. He wouldn’t have promised us glory if he didn’t. He wouldn’t use our suffering to make us look more like Jesus if he didn’t. So who can separate us from a love like that? According to Paul … nothing:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
That’s the greatest hope we can hold onto, in this time, or any time.