If God in His providence holds all things together through Christ (Col. 1:17), the obvious implication is that even man’s suffering has purpose. Over the course of multiple posts, I hope to discuss the issue of suffering. My goal, gentle reader, is not to cover every nuance or sprint down every rabbit-trail, but to help us gain a greater understanding of God’s purpose for us as believers. (Note—my thoughts on suffering will be most relevant to those inside the family of faith).
Let’s admit up front that the question of suffering is a difficult challenge to the Christian worldview. John Stott puts it this way, “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in very generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.”
While Stott is correct, it is also important to note that other worldviews and philosophical systems likewise have to deal with the problem. In the remainder of this post, I would like to VERY briefly consider a few non-Christian responses to suffering.
Derived from the Greek word doceteo, which means, "to appear to be", Docetism is the notion that evil doesn't really exist except in our perception, and we should simply learn to tune it out. The Hindu Brahmans believe this; so did Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, who wrote: "The only reality of sin, sickness, or death is the awful fact that these unrealities seem real to human, erring belief, until God strips off their disguise. We learn in Christian Science that all this is illusion."
The Christian refuses to look at suffering as an illusion. There is no attempt to gloss over it or use euphemisms to diminish it. Sometimes, Christian pastors will use euphemisms to diminish suffering, but Scripture does not. When Lazarus dies, to take but one example, we see Jesus weeping bitterly for His departed friend. For the Christian, suffering is not illusory.
There is also the view that suffering is simply “payback” for our actions—something akin to “bad karma.” The Christian may unconsciously say something like "What goes around comes around," and indeed the Scriptures do teach the general principle that one reaps what they sow, but for the Christian, suffering is not “pay back” from God for something we’ve done wrong. Such is not the way of the God of Scripture.
The Stoics concluded that everything that takes place in the physical world happens on the basis of mechanistically determined physical causes over which we have no control. That is, there is nothing you or I can ever do, think say or achieve that will change the course of human events.
So if there is nothing we can do to control events, the Stoic says that what we must do is simply try to always remain calm, to not let anything disturb us—in short, “take it like a man.” Is this Biblical? In many, if not most of the Psalms, we see the psalmist crying out to God, calling upon Him to act. The so-called “lament” is even a celebrated part of Hebrew literature. Solomon writes that there is “a time to mourn,” and Jesus Himself says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We must not adopt a determinism or fatalism that claims we have no control over suffering.
Hedonism is an ethical system that maintains that the highest end of man is pleasure, and that pain and suffering are to be avoided at all costs. In the ancient world, there were to main schools of hedonists. The Cyrenaics believed that the pleasure of the body were important to happiness while the Epicureans thought the pleasures of the mind were ultimately more important.
There are at least a few other schools of thought on the issue, including Existentialism. For now, let me just conclude by saying that every philosophical system has to come to grips with the existence of suffering.
When I pick this up later in a few days, I’ll begin to examine how the Christian views suffering. Come back soon!