Did you catch the news today? If you did, you were no doubt confronted with suffering. Some days the reports may be of the suffering of a few people, but often the stories tell of catastrophes affecting hundreds, if not thousands of souls. The fact that disaster, disease, and death are a part of our world is not a surprise to anyone. But where do they come from? Who's to blame when we suffer?
When a terrorist strikes or crimes are committed, most people blame the terrorist or criminal. When a hurricane or earthquake ravages communities, the laying of blame is somewhat harder, though some try to fault the forecasters who were unable to pinpoint the devastation, the engineers whose structures failed, or the rescuers whose efforts are perceived to be misdirected, inefficient, or late. However, when relentless famine brings a country to the brink of starvation, or disease takes the life of a child, more people start to shift their focus away from this earth and target their blame directly at God.
Is God to blame for the suffering in this world? What does the Bible have to say about it? A lot. The Bible views suffering from several different perspectives, and gives us a great deal of insight into its sources. In just one chapter of the Bible, Luke 13, Jesus speaks about suffering from four distinct sources. They are:
Source 1: Evil
It has been calculated that at least 80% of the suffering in the world is due to evil in one form or another. From robberies, rapes, and murders to genocide and oppression, millions upon millions of souls have suffered (and still suffer) as the result of the evil actions of others. In verses 1-3, Jesus is questioned about a group of Galileans who had been killed by Pilate while they were worshipping God. What a great evil to hunt down and brutally kill one's rivals—especially while they were worshipping! Did Jesus condemn Pilate for his evil deed, or incriminate the sufferers? No! He rather used the opportunity to remind his audience (and us) of the need for repentance: "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (v. 3).
Source 2: The Course of Life
If a bridge is engineered improperly, or an airplane is not well-maintained, or a building collapses and people are injured or die, is God behind it? Did the people affected share a common fate because they deserved it in some way? When presented with the example of a tower that fell, killing eighteen people, Jesus said "No" (vv 4,5). There are just some things in life that are a given: the law of gravity and the vulnerability of our bodies have combined to bring suffering (in some degree) to all of us. Can God miraculously intervene to spare people from such disasters? Absolutely. In fact, I look forward to finding out some day how many times He has protected me from one danger or another.
Source 3: Satan
The people of Jesus' day were highly religious and saw the intervention of spiritual forces in many day-to-day events. Sometimes this led them to false conclusions, as witnessed in John 9. But other times it allowed them to be more insightful as to the root causes of things than we are today. The fact remains that the world is a battleground in the ongoing war between good and evil—between God and Satan. Therefore we shouldn't be surprised that when a woman came before Jesus who had suffered with a physical ailment for eighteen years, He not only healed her, but went on to declare that she had been "bound by Satan" (Luke 13:11-17). Does this mean that all disease is from Satanic attack or demonic possession? Of course not, but it's a good reminder that in this life "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6:12).
Source 4: God Himself
Yes, God is responsible for some of the suffering in the world. Don't forget that He once judged mankind with a worldwide flood, killing all but eight people on the earth (Genesis 6,7; 2 Peter 3:5,6). In Luke 13 (vv. 34,35) Jesus alludes to the fact that God would soon bring destruction upon the city of Jerusalem because of the Jews' rejection of Him. In fact, there are several occasions throughout the history of the children of Israel when God allowed them to be overtaken by plagues and enemies as a direct result of their behavior. Christians have a warning given to them, too, in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 that physical suffering and even death can result from continuing in wayward paths.
Who's to Blame?
So who's to blame when suffering enters our lives? That question is very often unanswerable. The sources given above are not a complete list, but serve to illustrate the fact that it is not an easy thing to pinpoint the cause of every sorrow in the world. However, if we're continuing in a path that we know is contrary to God's will, let us confess that to Him and turn back to the right way. If we feel that some evil person or force is behind the suffering, let us follow the example of Jesus Christ, "Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously" (1 Peter 2:23). Whether we can point to a reason for the suffering or not, we can, as Christians, live in the power of the Holy Spirit, who brings forth the fruit of longsuffering and faith.
Remember that if you step back and take in the "big picture" of the Bible, it tells us of paradise created in the first two chapters (Genesis 1,2), and paradise restored in the last two (Revelation 21,22). Suffering was not a part of God's original creation, nor will it be a part of the new heavens and new earth. From either of those accounts, however, read the adjacent chapters (Genesis 3, Revelation 20) and you will find Satan spoiling God's perfect world and then God dealing the final blow in return. Everything you read in between bears the mark of the curse and spiritual struggle. The crux of the Bible's message, the work of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, is where the solution to the problem of suffering is to be found.
In this issue we trust with the Lord's help to move your thoughts beyond the mystery of suffering (the "blame game") to a realization that suffering is a part of our world today and that God has provided for not only the ultimate victory over it, but also makes Himself available to help us through it when it enters our lives (2 Corinthians 1:3,4; Hebrews 4:14-16; Romans 8:26-28).
—T. Don Johnson