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What About Suffering? #AfricanApologetics

High on the list of objections to Christianity is the problem of evil and suffering. This is not particularly surprising. One needs to only catch a glimpse of newspapers and news channels. They are brimming with reports of all manner of atrocities and disasters, natural and man-made alike. This ill does not spare any known category under the sun. Rich or poor. Educated or not so educated. Royal or plebeian. Male or female. Whatever category one considers, varying degrees of suffering cut across all strata of human existence. Even the wider set of (non-human) living things are not spared.

How could an all-powerful, all loving God possibly exist in the face of pervasive evil and suffering?

Some calamities can be attributed to visible causes, and are subsequently ‘explainable’. But others remain shrouded in mystery. To such grim reality, the Bible speaks. Not in mere intellectual rhetoric or trite religious platitudes, but empathetically and ultimately in Christ. He was a man of suffering and one familiar with pain (Isaiah 53:3).

Suffering is an Age-Old Problem

The problem of evil has been around for ages. And it confronts all worldviews. For the Christian, it brings into focus the question of how an all-powerful, all loving God could possibly exist in the face of pervasive evil and suffering. Is he able but unwilling to put an end to it? Or is he willing but unable? What many sceptics cannot readily grant is the coexistence of both a loving God and evil.

Yet what we see in the Bible is a narrative laced with suffering, alongside remarkable blessings. As it unfolds from creation to the fall, to redemption, and ultimately to the new creation we see the marks of suffering and evil. Admittedly, some complex biblical narratives are difficult to reconcile with the central theme of a loving God. An example of such is when God instructed Saul to totally eradicate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:3). But this was by no means a vindictive, unprovoked attack. Rather it was God sparing no judgement in defending the cause of his people.

The Bible does not Deny its Existence

Centuries later, an Agagite named Haman (an offshoot of the Amalekite remnant spared by Saul) attempted to wipe out the entire Jewish community (Esther 3:1-14). Again, God’s silent sovereignty superintended a reversal that ensured the preservation of his people and the destruction of their enemies. I guess what such biblical accounts and other hard-to-explain events attest to is the fact that the Bible itself does not shy away from the reality of pain and suffering. Instead we observe the ongoing tension between good and evil.

Some complex biblical narratives are difficult to reconcile with the central theme of a loving God

While Christianity offers a credible and coherent perspective to this cruel disorder called suffering, it is very important that any attempt to present that case is done with caution and empathy. A good starting point is humbly accepting, and admitting, that we simply do not have all the answers. In fact, some answers will remain the exclusive preserve of the divine. ”The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

How the Gospel Impacts Suffering

If we consider the character of a holy God, who from the outset, set forth his ground rules – “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17) – and the blatant disobedience of his creatures, perhaps the question of why a loving God would allow suffering will give way to a more contrite question of what is holding back his rightful judgement.

We find a clue in the cross of Christ. On the cross, a sinless saviour was crucified. The Father justly expressed his wrath on Jesus. For Christ willingly took upon himself the sins of the whole world. In simpler terms, God was, in Christ, punishing sin and its effect. Herein lies the hope of the Christian faith, and the basis for persistent supplication through times of suffering.

While it is clear from the Bible that suffering and death are the results of sin, it is risky to associate suffering to specific sins

Getting the Balance Right

We ought to be careful in rightly appropriating the blessings of the cross. As such, we should not swing to the triumphalist extreme that suggests Christians should no longer suffer since Christ paid for it all on the cross. The unspoken implication of that idea is that those who suffer are weaklings in the faith or – worse still – not true believers. The extreme on the other hand attributes the blessings of the atonement in Christ to a future age. This view thereby subtly justifies a Christian experience lacking in joy or victory through Christ in this present world. Both extremes are guilty of seeking to resolve a tension with faux biblical warrant.

While it is clear from the Bible that suffering and death are the results of sin, it is risky to associate suffering to specific sins. In his sovereignty, God uses suffering in the preparation of the church for his Son. This difficult preparation has the future promise of a time when there will be no more crying, pain, suffering or death, and when all tears will be dried (Revelation 21:4).

Weeping with Those who Weep

As Christians, we must reject the notion that suffering is inherently good, even though God ultimately uses it to some good end. We must therefore heed the Bible’s instruction to mourn with those who mourn. We must empathise with those who ask the ultimate ‘why’ questions. There is a high possibility that there is a weightier underlying question being asked. For example, it might be ‘what have I done to deserve this evil?’ After cursory probing, it is our responsibility to honestly admit that we do not have an answer to that question. In many cases, initially identifying with people who have experienced severe suffering paves the way for any subsequent response we may offer during such grave situations. Sometimes, a listening ear and a shut mouth are the most practical gifts.

As Christians, we must reject the notion that suffering is inherently good, even though God ultimately uses it to some good end.

Suffering is real, leaving in its wake untold nerve-racking and distasteful physical and emotional debris. Christians and non-Christians alike experience it in varying degrees. This means it is not a function of holiness or good works as some would have us believe. Even so we know that this present affliction is working for the believer a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). It is this hope that prepares Christians for life amidst suffering, and death eventually. Present hope helps us persevere in running our race faithfully. Future hope helps us joyfully anticipate the day when we will behold the face of our Lord and saviour. It is this biblical worldview that makes it possible, somewhat paradoxically, to joyfully sing “It is well with my soul,” even in the face of suffering.

Clinging to the Cross

Yet, as awful as suffering in this present world is, its climax is unleashed in the agony of hell. Therefore, knowing the goodness of a loving God who cares, and has sent his one and only Son to redeem humanity from eternal suffering, we unwaveringly proclaim the good news of Christ.

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