Suffering is perhaps the thorniest problem for theists. If there is a God who is loving and powerful, how come there is so much suffering? It seems that the presence of suffering presents us with a dilemma: either God is powerless to stop it (then he is not omnipotent, and therefore not God) or he is not loving enough to stop it (and therefore unworthy of worship).
Many theists, including Christian ones, protest the above implications by saying that suffering is the necessary concomitant of free will, for free will implies the ability to choose that which is not for our good. God could have made us without free will, but then we could never known what love was, and we could not have been truly human. You can't be human without free will and you can't have free will without the possibility of suffering.
I've always been bothered by that line of reasoning, even though it is at first very compelling. It's actually convinced quite a few people. However, I don't find it convincing because I believe in heaven. Okay, I know some of you who just read that statement think I must be typing this very late at night. Non sequitor, right? Well, bear with me. Heaven is a place, according to the Bible, where the just are made perfect. No more sin, no more crying, no more suffering. Wait a minute...no more sin implies that we can't sin any more. That we can't choose that which leads to suffering any more. But are we any the less human in heaven? Do we have any the less free will? You see, heaven is an eternal testament to the reality that humanity and free will and sinlessness are not contrary the one with the other. God could have made us with free will and yet without sin.
So why suffering? I think Norman Geisler was closer when he said that the world in which we live, though it is not the best of all possible worlds, it is the way to the best of all possible worlds. Suffering is not good in itself, but God has allowed it as a means to supreme goodness. I think this is borne out in principle by Romans 8:28: "And we know that God works all things for the good of those who love him, to those who are the called according to his purpose." This verse does not say that all things are good, but that God is working them out for our good. Presumably, the good we will experience as a result would never be experienced apart from the preexistence of the suffering. Paul makes this even clearer in 2 Cor. 4:16-17, where he says that "we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction [by the way, Paul suffered greatly in his lifetime], which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
We see this principle worked out in many smaller ways. An athlete endures a tremendous amount of pain to gain something through it, whether fame or just the feeling of accomplishment. No pain, no gain. And the gain is better because of the preceding pain.
However, though I feel like I'm getting somewhere, this argument still doesn't completely do it for me. It doesn't answer all the questions. However, I have come to believe that there is a way to grapple with the reality of pain and suffering without having to know all the answers - and without having to be an atheist.
How? Because I believe in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John Stott once wrote that if it were not for the cross, he could not believe in God. When I first read that, I thought he was blaspheming, but the more I've thought about it, the more I find myself agreeing with him. Yes, as a matter of fact, if it were not for the cross, I would be an atheist.
What does the cross have to do with the problem of pain? The cross tells me that God is not sitting on his throne careless about human suffering. Far from it: he entered the world of suffering and pain by becoming a man, entered into it fully by suffering its pain and rejection. He was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief....he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (Isa 53:3,5). Not only so, since the Lamb of God - another name for Jesus Christ - was ordained to be the Lamb of God "from the foundation of the world" we know that God planned it this way before there were any men to sin against him. God purposed to embrace for himself all the horrible suffering that we endure long before anyone had suffered at all. God made the world knowing that the pain that he would allow he himself would embrace.
And more than that, on the cross, Jesus endured more than rejection and pain imposed by men. When Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" he revealed the true horror of his suffering: his own Father had turned his back on him. Take all the suffering in the world, the greatest injustice and it does not come even close to what Jesus experienced on the cross. Why did he do this? Was it because he is some sort of a divine masochist? Far from it. The apostle Paul tells us why: "For he [God the Father] made him [God the Son] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor 5:21). He died so that men might be justified, forgiven, and given eternal life. So that the present order of things might give way to a greater glory.
So I don't have to have all the answers. But if God himself freely chose to embrace suffering by becoming a man - i.e. he did not cheat, Jesus was fully man and his divinity did not lessen the pain and suffering which he experienced - if God in his infinite wisdom chose to embrace suffering himself, well then, if he wants me to embrace it, then I will. I will keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now set down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb 12:1-2). That is, the Cross is the answer to my cross.
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