Photo credits

The Embalse de Riano in northern Spain. The picture was taken by .... me!

Tuesday, May 22


The age old question - why do we suffer?

I keep coming across people with the view that it is all down to sin:
  • Our sin leads us into suffering
  • The sins of others affect us
  • We are attacked by a sinful devil
  • Since the sin of Adam, we are affected by a fallen world.
They say, in effect, that God is too nice to give us hard things or take things away from us.

In my own time I have preached this analysis of suffering.  And I still believe that all those things listed above cause us to suffer against God's desires.

But I no longer find that to be a satisfactory explanation of all suffering.

Take a trivial example.

Two teams are in the league final.  Both have worked extremely hard to get there.  Both teams deserve to win.  But there can be only one winner, and the other side is the loser.  After all that hard work, they go home empty handed.  After all their dedicated support, the losing fans go home dejected.

There is no sin here.  Neither team disobeyed God.  It is not spiritual rebellion to participate in a competition.  The devil didn't make them do it.  I believe God loves sport and feats of human achievement and endurance.  The Bible is contains sporting analogies - "run the race to win the prize!" - its good.  But there is still suffering.  Suffering that does not arise from evil.

One lad, preaching on this at our church recently, said "God will not cut off my right arm just to teach me to write with my left arm".  And he belived that that proves God only does nice easy comfortable things.

But I take my daughter for her vaccinations, and deliberately inflict suffering on her, to train her body to recognise disease.

A general will take his best soldiers and make them stand in straight lines for hours and then deliberately inflict pain and suffering on them, to train them for the task ahead.  The more they suffer, the stronger they are.

In the 1987 'hurricane' that blew down trees all over the south east of England, there was a park with a row of huge majestic trees that all came down.  The park-keeper who had tended them, fed them and waterered them was asked why such good trees had succumbed to the storm when they had been provided with all they needed.  His answer: "They had it too easy.  They didn't put down roots".

So on one level Suffering occurs because - quite apart from sin - that is the way the world works.  God made it, upholds it by his word of power.  HE does hard things too us, and we suffer, but its nothing to do with sin - just life.

On another level, suffering trains us and makes us more than we were.  God sends it.  Nothing to do with sin - its just for our growth as people.  Romans 5 says: we[c] also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.  The example given in the previous chapter is of Abraham, waiting -suffering - for his promised child.

'God gives us growth' - sounds so cosy, but sustainable growth comes through hardship, not through over-stimulus.

On another level, God sends us suffering for his own purposes.  Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?  Neither, but he was born blind so that the work of God may be made manifest in him.  Jesus specifically excludes sin as the cause of the suffering.

Matt Reman writes "You give and take away".  I believe he wrote it after losing a child.  He understood that God, in his sovereignty, can do as he wishes.  There is no suggestion in that song that the taking away is anything to do with sin.  Its just God's will.

And I agree.

But we are not saying that God is capricious in what he does, or malicious.  I have shied away from saying God does bad in causing suffering.  Because all things woirk together for the good of them that love him.  I know the suffering that he sends is not to punish me for sin, but to make me grow.  He only does good things, its just that they feel bad at the time.  No child enjoys vaccinations, they enjoy the health that comes later.  No child likes being refused a thrid biscuit, but they do enjoy not being fat.  No child likes a curfew, but they do enjoy the health that comes from routine.

Hebrews: No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Discipline - discipling - is not all about punishment.  Those soldiers I mentioned before were disciplined by their hard training, not punished.

So what do I do now when something bad happens to me?

I embrace it.

It's God, loving me.

It's not God punishing me. (well sometimes maybe, but not usually)

It's not the devil getting at me.(well sometimes maybe, but not usually).  We give the devil far to much credit.  It's God's world, not his.  The devil is God's devil.  He can only do what God 'wants'. (This could be another long post on its own) - I'm not talking 'permissive will' here, I'm talking 'active will' - God actively sends evil spirits to achieve his purpose - see 2 Chronicals 18v21 - but I realsie that's controversial and its not the topic of this post.

It's not a consequence of my neighbours' sin.  (well quite often it is but that's not the point)

So in church this Sunday I nearly shouted hallelujah (it's an anglican church) when a woman spoke form the front adn said "I thank God for my illness (M.E.) because it has taken me out of work and given me time with my family".  She gets what I get.  Sometimes we are too busy demanding healing to see the blessing under our noses.

In summary, I do believe all those bullet points I started with cause suffering, but by no means all of it.  Much of what we call suffering is actually a blessing from God and we should stop moaning and rejoice in it as the scripture commands.

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