Basics of the Christian Faith
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

THORN ONE: SUFFERING

According to surveys, the problem of suffering is the number one reason offered for why people refuse to accept Christianity. If God is love and all-powerful, as the Bible teaches, why do innocent people suffer? This question mark turns like a fish hook in the heart.

This issue is not merely academic for me. My grandson Samuel has autism.

When I was a young preacher, my Pastor-Dad taught me to build hedges of protection around my life to guard against the three temptations that most often trip preachers: power, money, sex. I through the years have taken extra precautions to safeguard myself from these three dangers.

What I did not expect was a fourth danger. A controversy with God caught me off guard, completely blind-sided me. After Samuel’s diagnosis, for three years I languished through an inner storm of questioning and anger toward God.

The Lord patiently endured my venting, and then granted me victory by His grace. The worst is behind me now, my bearings have been restored, but I still have difficult days, some days the ballast is tested.

I am far from alone in this struggle over suffering. The following anonymous letter, placed in my mailbox at church, expresses the hurt felt by many.

AHow do we continue to trust and serve a God who allows horrible illnesses to happen to helpless children (for example, your own grandson)? You’ve said we “do our duty.” What if we have to wake up every day for the rest of our lives and “do our duty.” What kind of life is that?

God gave His son for me, but then He took my son from me. Doesn’t that make things even? I write this on behalf of sad and angry parents who go through this debate on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.

What would you say to those parents who struggle every day to care for their children whom God has stricken with diseases or disorders? Or those whose marriages have been torn apart as a result? Or those families where siblings have been turned against each other and their parents as a result? Or a world where pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars but don’t have enough left over to help those who hurt because of them?

I know God does not cause all things, but He allows all things. Can we deny that our God allows these? No. I know many parents give their children an allowance, but none so cruel as this.

At times I wonder why we serve such a God or why we should invite others to serve Him as well. Sincerely, a parent grieving over a mentally-adrift son.

Through my questioning pilgrimage, a wilderness wandering and wondering, I often meditated on a Bible verse that helps me. The passage is II Corinthians 4:4, which calls Satan “the god of this world.”

We know God created the world for Himself and to bless and benefit people, His dearest creation. What we don’t know, or at least find hard to grasp, is how terribly the Fall, Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, disrupted God’s original design for our planet. When humans rejected God’s leadership, they cast off God’s intended masterplan for them.

Sin altered everything. It brought hell into what had been meant to be heaven. The whole creation fell sick (Romans 8:22). A full-scale rebellion against God took place in Eden, unleashing evil sinister spiritual forces which find sadistic pleasure in bringing agony to humans.

In a world run amok, God faces the dilemma of continuing to allow people to love. He is an all-powerful force who could impose His will on frail creatures made from dust. Instead, God seeks to give and receive love, which cannot be coerced. Love has to be freely given or it ceases to be love. Thus, we are left with a world where we have to deal with the reality of free will and its painful consequences. To remove suffering would mean reducing people to robots which have no choices.

We must be careful to say we do not believe a particular illness, disease, disability, or birth defect can always be traced to a specific sin. Jesus settled this once and for all time when His disciples asked Him about the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents, but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in Him” (John 9:1-3). In other words, God was achieving a higher purpose in this illness than merely a direct cause and effect relationship between sin and suffering. Sometimes there seems to be an obvious cause and effect link, but this is a dangerous judgment to make. Be careful.

Our worst trauma springs from seeing the innocent suffer. Somehow, the consequences of free will reverberate beyond the confines of a single individual’s existence. Just as good proliferates to bless many who were not part of performing the goodness, even so evil explodes its pernicious affects to many who did not commit the evil.

Ultimate answers to the suffering question lie buried deep within the heart of God. It is a mystery we will not fully solve in this lifetime, but we cannot escape a desperate desire to at least try to understand it better. Even God’s choicest servants wrangle over this issue.

Philosophical questions about suffering abound. Where is God? Believers are convinced the incarnation was God’s way of saying He is in the suffering with us. Jesus robed Himself in our flesh and blood in order that we might know for sure He has experienced our pain.

Human pain is an ulcer in God’s stomach. When Israel was languishing in Egyptian bondage, “In all their affliction He (God) was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9).

How do we not know for sure that more good will come from suffering than from pleasure? For instance, the worst evil ever concocted resulted in the best good. Humans committed deicide. We killed God. Nothing could be worse. Yet out of this crucible came Christ’s resurrection, the greatest event that ever happened among our race.

Is universal suffering a huge evidence to support our belief in the existence of a loving God? Evil, hurt, and suffering are omnipresent, evident in every part of our world. This being the case, how could anyone have ever concocted the idea of a loving God? This world yields precious little evidence to prove God is love. We would have never developed the concept had it not been told to us by One who proved it true through His own crucifixion and resurrection on behalf of sinners in rebellion against Him.

The issue of suffering is extremely complex. The debate will go on and on.

As I struggle with my grandson’s autism, people often offer kind and helpful insights. I am grateful for every word of interest and concern.

Of all the statements I’ve heard, the most helpful came from my sweet wife Ruth. She has never ceased trying to encourage me, even as she seeks to accept the sadness herself.

One day we were discussing Samuel’s autism. Having repeated phrases we had often used before, Ruth finally said, “We will never totally understand it, but let’s make sure the devil never gets any good out of it.” That last phrase stuck. I was able to make sense out of it.

I may never understand why autism was allowed to enter our family, or where it came from in God’s perspective, but I can make sure the devil receives no pleasure or benefit from it.

With God’s help, I can praise Him, make sure anger and bitterness find no root in me, live with joy, bless my son and his wife, plus stay long in prayer. I can display grace under pressure, gladness in the midst of adversity, and be a benediction to others.

Does this answer all my questions? No. But it does make sure the devil gets no good out of it. He caused the sadistic mess this world is in. We must deny his deriving pleasure from it.