The problem of suffering and evil in our world is not a Christian problem. It is something everyone has to wrestle with whether they believe in Jesus or not. What is uniquely Christian is how we, as his followers, are equipped to understand and approach the suffering and evil we encounter. There are 5 basic elements in this:
1. Creation – and the One who has made us
A Christian understanding of suffering begins with creation and its creator. For us, the story of our world is one that begins with a Creator God who ‘crafted this place we live in,’ as DA Carson puts it, ‘with breathtaking beauty and unfathomable goodness.’ Despite the tragedy that would occur, for us the fact that ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” provides the fundamental truth to our existence. And this truth profoundly impacts not just how we see our suffering but how we see everything. Because we are not here by accident, but because one who is sovereign desired it, there is a meaning, a purpose, a consequence to every part of our lives – including our suffering.
2. Eden and the Story of the Fall
When people ask how God could have created a world so full of evil and suffering, our response as Christians is “actually, he didn’t.” In Genesis 3 what the scriptures teach us is that no sooner had God finished his perfect creation than it was tragically marred. Our world is no-longer as God created it. It has now been corrupted and broken by sin, and by death, and by decay. And much of what we experience as suffering in our lives comes directly from this fact. As Jesus seems to spell out in Luke 13, and Paul affirms in Rom 8, whether our suffering is caused by malice (as in Luke 13:1–3) or by accident (as in Luke 13:4–5)—these things are simply the evidence that we all live in a world that is profoundly broken and is yearning for restoration.
3. Good Friday and the glory of the Cross
And what has God done about this profound brokenness? Well, the unbelievable centrepiece of the Gospel story is that God himself has come among us in human flesh! In doing so, he has taken all the consequence of our sin and fallenness upon himself AND has defeated its power over us through the cross! In his bearing of temptation and rejection, in his facing a cruel and barbaric torture, in his sinless and sacrificial death, Jesus has redeemed us and utterly transformed everything in our lives. Far from being a humiliation or a defeat (Acts 2:23; 4:27–28 & Revelation 5), the cross of Christ was his enthronement. Through his cries on the cross Jesus fulfilled his calling as the Son of God and revealed himself as the Lamb who was worthy of all praise and glory and honour and might. Christianity’s view of suffering is thus powerfully and uniquely shaped by the fact that our God himself has entered into our pain and triumphed over it on Calvary’s tree. As Edward Shillito once wrote:
“But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak. And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.” from Jesus of the Scars
4. Easter Sunday and the promise of New Creation
Right from Genesis 3 to the end of Revelation, but supremely through the events on Easter Sunday, the Bible declares to us that one day our world – now so disordered and marred and broken by sin – will wholly be restored and put to right. When God’s Kingdom finally comes, God will recreate the heavens and the earth and, through our resurrection, he will recreate us. All of the suffering we face in our lives now sits under the assurance and perspective of this promise that one day God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. (Rev 21.4)
5. The Church and the witness of God’s People
A final aspect in our Christian understanding of suffering is found in the Church and what we experience as part of the community of faith. When it comes to knowing for sure that God is going to do all he has promised, our greatest proof lies in Jesus and in his resurrection. As Paul puts it, “by his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” But in the church, historic and present, we also have a foretaste of all this. As we live together in the power of the Gospel, and as we look to those to have gone before us, you and I already find amazing pointers to the truth of our hope. Already in our new lives together, we see the power of sin and evil being overcome with the proclamation of grace and forgiveness, we see the brokenness and selfishness of our fallen lives being transformed by the healing and the liberation that God’s reign brings about. Before our eyes, and mirrors, angry people become loving. Bitter people become forgiving. Selfish people become servants, Greedy people give themselves and their resources away and lonely people find the family they always dreamed of.
This healing and renewal God now makes possible between us points us to, and gives us confirmation of, our hope. As we see his grace transforming us already, we are seeing the evidence that one day our world’s entire suffering will be brought to an end and what was lost from that first creation will be gloriously restored in the new.
For a more in depth examination of this topic I’d recommend watching D.A. Carson’s lecture, Going Beyond Clichés: Christian Reflections on Suffering and Evil. – given Saturday, April 27, 2013 at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston, TX. I found it very helpful in drawing up the above.