Suffering

Life is pain, highness. And anyone who tells you anything different is selling something.
Westley, The Princess Bride.

You and me,
we step out of our time machine
we’re just in time
to see
a baby born
in a stable.

We know that he’s alive
because he cries.

I’ve been wrestling with this question, put succinctly by Pastor Val at Huntington Church of the Brethren,

“Should I attribute every occurrence to a plan of God for my life?”

It’s a very good question. Say my car stops working and I have to drop a thousand bucks that I don’t have (period, let alone to spend) on a new transmission.

Is that part of God’s plan for my life?

Say I fall in love with the wrong person and they break up with me, and my heart gets shattered into a million pieces that take months to heal and rebuild.

Is that part of God’s plan for my life?

Say I’m working with a chainsaw and I accidentally chop off my arm.

Is that part of God’s plan for my life?

Say I get a speeding ticket.

Is that part of God’s plan for my life?

God is sovereign, we say. God works all things according to the word of His power. Everything happens for a reason. But does God ordain suffering? Does God cause it – always, of course, intending it to result in good? And if He does, how could we trust Him? We can never know at any time whether God is going to decide that heinous suffering is in our best interest. God remains ever suspect because who knows; us getting hit in the face with a baseball bat might be part of God’s sovereign plan. And it may be in our best interest. It may be for our own good.

I don’t think that I can live with that. I’m not sure that I could trust a God like that. Because then, who knows? He might ordain heartbreak for me at any moment, and say that it’s in my best interest. That God sounds like an abusive parent who hits his children and says it’s for their own good. And God is not an abusive parent. So if God is good (and I have to believe that He is), either

a) God does not act in that way, or
b) that God only sounds like an abusive parent, but isn’t really.

I’m rejecting (b). It looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck… I’m pretty sure it isn’t a giraffe in disguise.

That leaves (a): God does not act in that way.

And I think that scripture bears that out. The problem is, how can we remove God’s “responsibility” for sin and suffering and evil without sacrificing sovereignty – the idea that God is micromanaging every event? Or is that even what sovereignty means?

Let’s step away from sovereignty for a moment. Let’s let it alone for the time being. Let’s leave that out on the porch, in a place of unknowing. I want to

1) God does not ordain suffering,
2) God uses suffering for good, and
3) in Christ God came and suffered with us.

(3) is easiest to demonstrate. Look at Jesus. Jesus who is God, Jesus who gets born into this world. Listen: the first sound out of God’s voice when God becomes man is not a declaration of sovereignty. It is a cry. Can we say that God wills good to come from that cry? Of course. Is the hurt itself good? Again, perhaps. Does God use that pain for good? Most definitely.

Examine the scourging of God. Only a fool would say that the whips striking the back of God incarnate into human flesh is an inherently good thing in and of itself. And only someone with no knowledge of scripture would say that God does not use it for immense good.

See the God-man hanging on a cross, blood leaking from the crown of thorns He wears and the nails in His hands and feet.

(3) seems well-established. Let’s examine (2) – God uses suffering for good.

Isaiah says,

“But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities. ” (53:10-11)

Ouch. It seems that God has almost… chosen, for the greater good even of the Suffering Servant and for us, to cause suffering. But upon second examination, it still looks like a mystery. Perhaps if we say that the suffering servant is God, then we can allow 53:10-11 to read as a testimony to (3), In Christ God suffers with us. And whether we can say that or not, we may also say that God only ordained suffering for one desiring to do God’s will in this instance.

But my inner protesters have taken up their picket signs. “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16) This, again, is not a prima facie announcement that God causes suffering.

I Peter 4:16: But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name.

Suffering is a part of what is wrong with the world.

Suffering is also something that allows us camaraderie (2 Corinthians 1:6).

“Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,” (Romans 5:3).

“Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises.” (James 5:3)

None of this speaks of God as ordaining suffering. Suffering is just a part of living. Product of the fall.

To review:

God doesn’t cause suffering.
God does allow it.
God doesn’t (typically) cause suffering “For the greater good,” or even “for the later good.”

Dangit.

There’s still the analogy of the parent taking a child to the hospital for surgery. They’re put through pain, but saved from worse pain. So it could still be said that God causes horrible pain in the interest of bringing us joy. But that still doesn’t reassure me that God hasn’t caused some of the horribly painful things that have happened in my life “for my own good.” And it doesn’t assure me that God won’t bring on something else horrible, “because it’s what’s best for me.”

The question is, is that what the Bible teaches? And is that something that it’s safe to “leave out on the porch”? I don’t think so. I don’t think that God causes suffering. I think that God uses suffering, and God identifies with us in our suffering.

And yet one verse, properly understood, could kibosh the semi-reply in the negative to the unanswered question “Does God cause suffering?” Maybe that’s what scares me about the question. With a verse, it could be proved that God hurts us. Because on an emotional level, i have a hard time trusting people who hurt me unless I know without a doubt that the pain of it not happening will be worse than the pain of it happening. And God doesn’t tell us. So I’d rather believe He doesn’t arrange for it, most of the time. But He does use it.

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2 thoughts on “Suffering

  1. But doesn’t God suffer with us in our trials? (Isaiah 63:9, among others) This would scratch your analogy of the abusive parent because what parent, aside from an utter sociopath could suffer pain willingly in order to inflict it. Even so, the idea of the loving God causing pain on any level (even to our benefit) is deeply troubling and I look forward to exploring it through your musings.

  2. Indeed God does, Will. The more I meditate on this question, the more I doubt that God causes us pain. I think that God allows it, but that’s my position on divine sovereignty talking. I should look into whether scripture teaches that God “allows” all suffering, causes all suffering, or simply doesn’t act as an agent in regard to suffering at all.

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