The difficulty of reconciling belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God with the existence of suffering is notorious. It is, of course, not merely an intellectual problem but a very real personal and practical problem for us all.
Many thoughtful writers have given help in the matter, and I have always been impressed by the wisdom of John Wenham. To summarise:-
1. It is good that man is a free agent, and not a machine. This freedom do accept of reject seems essential to a living, loving relationship with God, but comes with it the possibility of sin in all its horror.
2. It is good that sin is linked with suffering as a deterrent. It may well be true that all suffering is a result of sin (Gen 3:14-19). In a world without sin, even if illness, old age and accident remained, there would be unselfish neighbourliness gratefulness, and courage. Instead of war, greed, lust and fear. It is well known that many illnesses are caused or exacerbated by unhappiness and other mental conditions.
Just as pain in everyday life serves as a valuable deterrent, and may even intensify pleasure (such as a cool drink when thirsty) suffering serves as God’s warning of the consequences – temporal and eternal – of sin. We think, for example, of the miseries produced by excessive drinking, adultery, laziness, greed.
In society we recognise the necessity of having deterrents to crime. Without these the world would soon become a sink of iniquity.
3. It is good that sin is linked with suffering as retribution. Retribution is not revenge: it is punishment according to deserts of a responsible person. There are three elements to punishment: deterrence, reformation and retribution. Many would recognise only the first two of these. Yet deterrancedivorced from retribution can be a terrible weapon of injustice. It is only on the basis that a crime has a just desert that we can have any concept of over-punishmentor of punishmentof the innocent on exemplary grounds.
Likewise, reformation divorced from retribution is sinister; this stems from calling crime a ‘disease’ and replacing ‘punishment’ with ‘cure’. But,
- the ‘cure’ will be just as compulsory as what used to be called ‘punishment’
- the ‘cure’ could extend to any measure which is successful, and may be far beyond that demanded by justice
- if crime is a ‘disease’ to be ‘treated’ compulsorily then any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be ‘treated’, and Christians would vanish into institutions for the Treatment of the Ideologically Unsound’.
We repeatedly observe that children thrive in an environment where rules are kept and where punishments are generally administered promptly and fairly.
Against this solid background of justice, the concept of mercy is best seen. God has revealed that the just desert of sin in perdition, Rom 6:23, and compared with this the judgements of the Bible and present-day horrors are small. God is continually offering, and granting, mercies to us which are all undeserved. And any apparent unfairness in God’s treatment of us arises not because so have too much punishment, but because some appear to have too little. None of us will ever receive harsher judgement than we deserve.
4. It is good that retribution (and rewards), though certain, are often delayed. The sudden judgements on Uzzah, Herod Agrippa, Ananias and Sapphira, Gehazi and Ananias are exceptional reminders of God’s judgement. Examples of a particular disease following a particular sin (e.g. syphylis) are unusual. God gives time for repentance, deepening faith, and purifying motives. See Jn 9:1-3; Lk 13:4f, 34; Gen 19:16; 2 Pet 3:9.
5. It is good that the results of sin (and of goodness) are not confined to the doer. Life would be unthinkable without the corporate principle, and it is right that we should be corporately, as well as individually, responsible.
6. It is good that suffering is limited in degree and in time. It is probably that none has suffered so much as Jesus Christ, but he could take the long view. See Heb 12:2; cf. Jn 16:2; 2 Cor 4:17. In regaining the eternal perspective our sense of values and priorities will begin to be restored, Mt 10:28; cf. Psa 73; Hab.
7. It is good that suffering can promote spiritual life. It is paradoxical, but true, that though a mature Christian is committed to relieve others of suffering, he somewhat welcomes it himself, James 1:2-4.
As a theory this seems harsh and insensitive, but in in practice suffering
- is part and parcel of the way of the Cross, Heb 12:2; and persecution is a source of blessing, Mt 5:10
- leads to toughness, endurance, and comradeship. It teaches sympathy and purity.
- brings sin to the surface, where it can be dealt with, Heb 12:6
- keeps us dissatisfied with this world, and yearning for our true home
- is an almost invariable accompaniment to life’s richest and most worth-while experiences (sport, exploration, art, child-birth, and so on)
- causes the Christian to trust wholly in God’s love and care
- is frequently the instrument of a sinner realising his need for Christ
8. Our supreme good has come through suffering. Our faith was born in suffering; therefore suffering need not destroy it. We should not gasp at God’s permitting suffering when we see the agony entailed in his overthrow of evil.
9. It is significant that the One who lived in closest communion with God was not shocked by the severity of God’s judgments, but frequently spoke of their reality, both past and future. And this was the loving and compassionate Saviour!
10. When all else has been said, we cannot fully expect to understand God’s ways, Rom 11:33-36. But what he has revealed of himself makes us sure of both his goodness and severity, Rom 11:22, and urges us to take heed.
Based on Wenham, The Goodness of God, 50-88.