St. Damien

The Christian Answer to Suffering

Everybody suffers; there is simply no getting around it. Nobody gets through life unscathed. In fact, the universality of suffering is the single greatest argument that atheists can muster against the existence of God. If God is truly all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, then how can he let his creatures suffer? And it’s not just atheists who ask that. Even people of faith struggle with it. Suffering causes all of us, believers and non-believers alike, to ask if God really cares about us or if he even exists at all.

So what do we Christians say about this? Does our faith answer the problem of suffering in any meaningful way? In this article, I want to explore this question, but I want to approach it from a different angle than most people are used to. Usually, people answer the problem of suffering and evil by trying to explain why God allows it, but that is not what I want to do. Instead, I’m going to look at it in a different way, explaining my approach with a story.

My Story

A few years ago, my father passed away. Only thirteen months earlier, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and the doctors said he was the luckiest guy in the world because they found it early enough. They would be able to treat it, and he would fine. Then, in a little over a year, he was dead. I had lost close family members before, but this was different. This was my father. I was only 27, and he was only 59, so I felt like he was taken from me way too early.

Like many people, one of my first reactions to this great loss was to wonder why God allowed it to happen. However, unlike most people, right when that question came to mind, a flood of answers came along with it. I’ve been studying theology and philosophy for over half my life, so I’ve encountered many, many different answers to that question. Theologians and philosophers have been trying to reconcile the existence of God with the reality of suffering for thousands of years, and I am pretty familiar with the major solutions (as well as some not so major ones). As a result, when I began to wonder how God could allow my father to die so tragically, all of those answers rushed from the recesses of my memory to the forefront of my mind.

Inadequate Answers

Now, my purpose here is not to bore you with all of the answers to the problem of suffering that I’ve encountered over the years, but I will say one thing about them: in my darkest hour, none of them were all that helpful. Sure, some of those answers are actually pretty good, but I found myself not caring about any of them. I realized that it simply didn’t matter why God allowed my father to die. The fact of the matter was that he was gone, and no amount of philosophical heroics could change that. I didn’t want someone to explain why I was hurting so much; I just wanted the pain to go away.

Later on, when we were making the funeral arrangements, my family wanted me to pick out the saying on the back of the funeral prayer cards. As I was looking through the options, one stuck out. It was a verse from the Bible, and it has since become one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

I didn’t know it right away, but as time passed, this verse would lead me to think about the problem of suffering in a whole new way. As I thought about my loss and about this passage, I slowly began to realize that there was a different way of answering the problem, one that was much more comforting than the cold, intellectual solutions I had studied before.

A New Answer to Suffering

No matter how we explain it, the fact is that evil exists in this world. Regardless of why God allows it, we are all going to suffer. And in the face of this harsh reality, Revelation 21:4 tells us exactly what we want to hear: if we remain faithful to God, our pain will not last forever; it will go away.  It may not tell us why He allows us to suffer, but I don’t think that’s too important anyway. When we ask why we suffer, we usually do so because we think knowing the answer will help ease our pain. We just want it to go away, and that is exactly what our faith promises will happen.

Indeed, when I lost my father, that was the one thing I found genuinely comforting. Yes, the pain was still there, and it still hurts when I think about him even now. But my faith promises me that this pain won’t last forever. One day, when God’s plan finally reaches its conclusion and Jesus comes back “to judge the living and the dead” (as we pray every Sunday in the Nicene Creed), my pain will be gone. And not just the pain of losing my father. No, one day all of my pain, all of the suffering I have ever experienced in my life, will be nothing more than a distant memory. It may not be today, and it may not be tomorrow, but I know that it will happen.

The Christian Answer to Suffering

And that, I would suggest, is the Christian answer to suffering. Our faith does not give us an intellectual explanation of why God allows bad things to happen (that is left to theologians and philosophers to figure out), but it does give us the kind of answer to suffering that I think we all truly want. More accurately, we can say that Christianity simply is the answer to suffering; it’s God’s answer. We all experience pain, and the Christian faith is God’s revelation to us of what he is going to do about it. It is his plan to rid the world of suffering and death and restore it to the paradise it was always meant to be. I find that way more comforting than any merely intellectual answer could ever be.