The experience of
suffering has been reflected upon over many centuries by philosophers
and theologians. It is considered by Jews and Christians to be a
"problem" because of apparently conflicting revelations about God and
the experience of believers. How can there be a God who is all
powerful and all loving and yet there be evil and suffering in the
world? Attempts to answer this question have led some seekers to
conclude either that there is no God, that God is not all powerful or
that God is not all good or it has led them to close their eyes to the
suffering manifest in the world. All of these "solutions" as well
as presenting their own problems are either in conflict with the self
revelation of God in Scripture, or they
are in conflict with the experience of Christians in their daily lives.
In the Church's
reflections on Scripture it has come up with what are called "pastoral
consolations". Each of these consolations provide some insight
into the mystery of suffering. They will not by being shared eliminate
suffering, but may help us to find meaning in the midst of our
struggles. The consolations do not impinge upon belief in the existence
of God who is all powerful, and all loving and they do not minimize or
ignore the very real suffering that is experienced. These consolations
have been summarized by Thomas Oden in his book Pastoral Theology:
Essentials of Ministry (1983). A concise summary of Oden's
summary is as follows:
God does not directly will suffering.
"The evil that
emerges as a result of sin and the suffering that is caused by it is
indeed permitted by
God, but it is far from God's original intention or direct will for
The free will defense.
"When God chooses to
give us the extraordinary gift of finite freedom, that carries with it
the possibility of abuse."
God's power can draw good out of any evil.
"Out of the abuses
of our freedom, God still elicits goods that could not otherwise be
elicited." Often the good cannot be seen at present but requires faith
that God knows what he is doing in history.
Evil does not limit God's power.
"Only an almighty
God could permit alternative freedoms". God does not stand back
and allow all things in creation to deteriorate but shows steadfast love
in works of redemption in the history of Israel, in coming into the
world in Christ Jesus, and in the world today by the Holy Spirit.
The lessons of affliction.
"Can be occasions
through which the conscience becomes awakened, the spirit becomes in
time strengthened, the moral fibre toughened." People can
unexpectedly feel a deep bond of fellowship with suffering humanity
The cleansing and educative elements of suffering.
God is not punishing
- rather "chastisement" is cleansing, purifying, making chaste, and
discipline is to be understood as "inner education" making us "more
fully intelligent, stronger, more fit for mission". "Suffering is
not to be masochistically sought but neither is it to be compulsively
7. Individual suffering is socially rooted and socially redeemed.
consciousness is formed in great part in interaction with others we are
necessarily affected and formed by the good and bad within society. While this may seem unfair, the eyes of faith do not despair but trusts
that there is a greater intention in allowing what evil does exist to
The values intrinsic to struggle.
and struggle are necessary to growth, development and healthy
formation." "Suffering is permitted for a greater good - the
nurturing of responsible free moral agency."
Suffering may put goodness in bolder relief.
"Suffering is a
creative dissonance or transitional discord within a larger, harmonious
symphony of meaning. Evil and suffering are viewed as passing
incongruities that are later resolved in a larger but as yet only
partially perceived, concord." "It may increase our capacity for
joy". By way of illustration, one can consider how the dull or
dark portions of a tapestry could function to highlight with greater
emphasis the bright colours.
10. Proportional receptivity of the good.
"We can only receive
God's goodness in proportion to our receptivity to it. "Our
imperfection, myopic vision and moral dullness" makes us unable to
benefit from God's incomparable goodness, and thus we experience
11. Evil as a privation of the good.
"God judged it
better to allow physical limitations, suffering, and pain to exist
dependently, because he judged it better to work toward bringing good
functioning out of dysfunction than not to permit any sort of
dysfunction at all."
12. Is this world the best God could do?
Because God is all
powerful he could make any number of worlds, but God is also all good -
so the world we live in must be the best - when viewed not from an
individual, family, society or nation but from the view of the cosmos.
The Incarnation of
God in Jesus Christ shows us that our God is a God who suffers
(impassibly) with us and for us.
"The readiness of
God to subject himself to the conditions of mortal life and to take
suffering and evil on to himself to the point of the cross yields a more
morally credible God than creationist belief elsewhere affords."
In Jesus Christ God
shows us dramatically that he is not distant or uninvolved or so
transcendent that he is uninterested in the day to day struggles of an
individual. By becoming incarnate (taking flesh), God shows
faithfulness to his promises of salvation, that he is completely
involved in our redemption as individuals, and that he does understand
intimately what our human struggles are like with temptation and with
human limitations and sufferings.
"We have not a high priest who is unable to
sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has
been tempted as we are, yet without sin."
"Although he was the Son, he learned obedience
through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the
source of eternal salvation to all who obey him." Hebrews