As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3 Listen)
The problem of pain and suffering has vexed humanity since the beginning. If there is a God, and if he is a good and loving God, then why does he allow his creation to suffer? If God is all-powerful, then why didn’t he stop Hurricane Katrina dead in its tracks to dissipate its rain in the ocean?
According to Christian and Jewish theology, something went very wrong when human history began. Pain and suffering were not in the original plan for creation. Sin entered the human race when the first humans, Adam and Eve, succumbed to Satan’s temptation and decided that they, not God, knew what was best for their lives. What Satan offered them sounded like a good thing, but he didn’t tell them the whole story. Adam and Eve were free to choose between God and Satan and they chose wrongly. Because of sin, humans threw away their relationship with God and, as a consequence, pain and suffering entered the world. We literally tossed in our lot with the devil.
Even though our ancestors rejected God, he had another plan to free us from our bondage. People can never be reconciled to God by doing good works because of our inherited our sin nature, but God told the prophets that a Messiah would come who would take our sins and our punishments upon himself. The Messiah would clothe himself in humanity, live as a human, suffer as a human, but would not sin as a human. Though completely innocent and free from sin, the Messiah allowed himself to be tortured and killed in our place. That Messiah is Jesus Christ. He defeated sin and death and, when we trust in him, he gives us salvation as a gift.
Sin is still in the world though and, as long as we live here on earth, we live surrounded by sin in bodies that were born affected by sin. The Bible says that the entire creation is burdened with our sins and longs for the day when Jesus will come again to make all things new.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23 listen)
God sometimes chooses to heal us and protect us from suffering, but other times he chooses to let us suffer. It sounds like a horrible thing, but God tells us that he has plans that we can’t even understand. The book of Job chronicles the immense sufferings of a good and righteous man. He lost his family, except for his wife, his friends and servants, and his health. Yet through it all, he never cursed God. God was silent to Job’s pleadings and questions, but finally spoke to him and told Job that his plans for Job’s life were higher than Job’s plans for his own life.
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
In my own life I have wondered and agonized why God so easily answers certain prayers, but refuses to answer others. God uses pain and suffering to help us grow, to make us more mature, and to make us more like him. If I were a multi-millionaire with a beach house in Bellaire, I would almost certainly grow proud with my achievements and reject God’s plan for my life. God has actually done me a favor by not giving a life of luxury.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good;
teach me your statutes.
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalms 119:67-72)
So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 listen)
Hurricane Katrina is not the plan that God originally had for the people of New Orleans. Because of our sin nature though, we are subject to the consequences of sin upon a fallen creation. God chose not to spare New Orleans from Katrina — but he also chose that Katrina would not directly hit the city as a Category 5 hurricane. Could the last minute weakening and veering to the east have been the result of the prayers of thousands of people? I think so.
Suffering is not good in and of itself. However, if we give our pain and suffering over to God, he can use it to bring about a greater good. To use an example from my life: God has chosen not to heal me of a painful illness. However, if I give that illness back to him, he can make me a better person than I would have been otherwise and can enable to help others.
C.S. Lewis wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts to us in our pain.” Pain wipes away any notion that we have all we need and don’t need God. God allows pain and suffering for reasons known only to him, but Christians have the assurance that our suffering is only temporary and will make us better persons in preparation for spending eternity with God. If we love God, he will turn our pain and suffering into good. In troubles like this, we have no where to turn but to God, and God awaits with open arms.