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How Should We Respond to Suffering in the World ?

How Should We Respond to Suffering in the World?
A Meditation on Luke 13:1-5

By Michael Parker

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Reading reports from around the world of the advance of the coronavirus known as covid-19 reminds us of our common humanity. Viruses are no respecters of persons, ethnic groups, nationalities, or religions. We’re all in this together. For Christians, however, questions about the cause and meaning of suffering inevitably arise. This is the age-old question of theodicy: how can we reconcile our belief in a loving, omniscient God with the existence of evil and suffering in the world? Rereading Philip Yancey’s Where is God When It Hurts? (the 1990 revised version) was personally helpful to me. Let me share a little of what I learned and some of my own reflections on this subject.
The books of the Bible do not speak with a single voice on the issue of the origins and causes of suffering. Yancey, in fact, finds four answers to this question in the Scriptures. First, there are a number of places where God directly intervenes in the world to punish evil doers. For example, in Genesis 38:7, God found Er to be evil in his sight and so took his life. Second, Luke 13:10-16 tells of a woman who suffered from an infirmity for eighteen years because of a spirit, presumably a demon or Satan. Third, the Apostle Paul referred to a physical affliction as “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan—to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Cor. 12:7). Job also suffered because of the assaults of Satan. In the first case, God directly inflicted punishment. In the second case, Satan or a demon did the work. In the third case, God permitted Satan or a demon to inflict suffering, but he allowed this for purposes of his own.
The fourth cause of suffering Yancey found was due to the unwise actions of human beings: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them” (Proverbs 26:27). In other words, if you smoke cigarettes, you will increase your risks for getting lung cancer. If you regularly over eat, you will become obese and your health will be compromised. If you do not shelter in place during a pandemic, you may get the virus as well as spread it to others. If we pollute our air with carbon monoxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and inorganic particulates, we should expect to cause harm to ourselves, other animals, and our food crops. When bad things happen, we often tend to blame God, but much of our suffering—if we’re honest about it—is due to our own improvident actions. God created the world with certain physical rules, which we violate at our own hazard.
But let’s go back to God’s judgments in time. When bad things happen, people are prone to ask, “Did I do something for which God is punishing me?” A more benevolent version of this question is “What does God want to teach me from this suffering?” If the problem continues after much prayer, some might conclude that the person is persisting in a particular sin or simply lacks faith. Those who take the view that suffering is due to divine judgment point to the many Old Testament verses where God punishes the Israelites because of their evil actions. But in these cases, Yancey observes, God punishes his people because of specific violations of the covenant that he had established with them. Moreover, the punishments only follow after many warnings by the prophets. Pharaoh in the opening chapters of the book of Exodus knew exactly why God was inflicting the ten plagues on Egypt, and later the Israelites knew why they were living in exile in Babylon. But this cause-and-effect relationship does not exist with modern suffering. God’s rewards and punishments in the Old Testament were applied to a people with an explicit covenant relationship with him in which the consequences of the people’s actions were known in advance. This is not the case today. The victims of a tsunami, an airplane crash, or an automobile accident are not receiving a punishment prescribed in advance in a divine covenant. They have not ignored a series of prophetic warnings aimed at having them change specific behaviors. Personal suffering today simply does not fit this pattern.
The pattern that much of modern suffering fits is that given by Jesus in Luke 13:1-5. Jesus was asked about the meaning of two recent events: the slaughter of a religious minority of Galileans in the temple, and the death of eighteen people when the tower of Siloam fell on them. The first was an act of political oppression; the second was a construction accident. These were two apparently random events that could have occurred at any time, either in the first century or the twenty-first century. Jesus does not directly address the issue of causation—that is, Was God responsible? Rather, he makes it clear that the victims of these tragedies were not being punished for specific sins. The Galileans who died at the hands of the Romans were no worse than anyone else. Nor were the victims of the construction accident more or less guilty than anyone else in Jerusalem. Then Jesus concludes with a warning, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:5). In other words, these two tragedies remind us that life is fragile and can be taken away at any time; therefore, we must all be prepared, leading lives of repentance and faithfulness. In the end, we will all perish; but Jesus has in mind here not physical death but the second death.
The pain and suffering of this world, Yancey concludes, should not be seen as judgments from God for specific behaviors that ought to be corrected. Rather, they should be seen as the result of a fallen world that God will someday restore. For now, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). The fallenness of this world—with its attending diseases, physical catastrophes, and death—is meant to remind us that this world is not God’s final intention for humanity; rather, a better world awaits us. In the meantime, God uses the inevitable suffering in this world to convey the message to us that we must attend to the moral and spiritual meaning of this life. If he had kept us in an Edenic paradise in which there was no suffering, it is unlikely that we would pay much attention. The British writer C.S. Lewis addressed this issue in The Problem of Pain: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
When a tragedy occurs in life, one response—perhaps a natural response—is to ask why this has happened. When Job questions God on this point, God declines to answer the question. Instead, he gives Job a speech about the marvels of the universe (Job 38-41). If Job could not understand these things let alone duplicate them, he is certainly not wise enough to govern the universe and is in no position to interrogate God. God seems to be saying that it is not Job’s place to look backwards to discover the cause of the problem; rather, his area of responsibility is to look forward by deciding how he is going to respond to the crisis. This is also Jesus’ message in Luke 13:5. Other New Testament writers go further. James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” (James 1:2) James believes that life’s trials will help us develop perseverance, which will make us mature in Christ. This does not mean that we are expected to put on our happy faces in the midst of tragedy; but it does mean that we should try to look beyond the tragedy to see what good may come out of it. Paul writes in Romans that through trials Christians might learn perseverance, which would lead to character and hope (Romans 5:3-5). In other words, the trials we experience in life can be positive, life-changing, transformative events. Two chapters later, Paul summarized the point in moving and hope-filled words of faith: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The notion of pain as God’s megaphone or that tragedy can have a bright side may sound hopelessly optimistic when one is undergoing suffering. Clearly, these ideas should be broached with tact and sensitivity to anyone actually undergoing a tragedy. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain was published in 1940 when he was about forty-two years old and in perfect health. Twenty-one years later he wrote A Grief Observed. This was a year after the painful and protracted death from bone cancer of his wife, Joy Davidman Lewis. The contrast between the two books could not be starker. The first was an intellectual exercise meant to justify the ways of God to man. The second was a cri de coeur. The experience of watching his beloved wife die a slow and painful death shook Lewis’s faith to its roots and left him spiritually adrift for at least a year. The great Christian teacher, tried like Job by pain and loss, questioned the goodness and justice of God. From that dark place, he slowly regained his spiritual bearings, recognizing in time that the joy of this life is inextricably interwoven with the pain. To have one, we must accept the other.
Similarly, the slow-motion tragedy of the coronavirus that we are now experiencing will no doubt try our faith or that of others close to us. We should be prepared for this. Keeping in mind Jesus’ teaching that tragedies should not be seen as punishments from God but rather as general warnings for victims and bystanders alike is an important starting place. Beyond this, our best response may not be discourses on theodicy, such as this meditation has attempted. This has its place, but, amid suffering, arguments about the goodness of God can sound glib, platitudinous, or Pollyannaish. When Job’s friends learned of his suffering, the Scripture records, “They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13). There is certainly a time for words of compassion and Christian truth, but initially simply being present may be all that is needed or wanted.
Early in Yancey’s book, he observes, “We usually think of the problem of pain as a question we ask of God, but it is also a question he asks of us. How do we respond to hurting people?” At this early stage of the coronavirus pandemic, most of us are not yet in the position of needing to respond to hurting people. But all of us currently need to be thinking of how we are responding to a crisis that will certainly produce much human suffering. The most compassionate and ethical behavior we can practice as Christians is to follow the instructions of medical experts: stay at home as much as possible, practice social distancing, attend to personal hygiene, and encourage others to follow these guidelines.
The title of Yancey’s book asks an important question: Where is God when it hurts? The answer is surely that he is with us, walking with us in our suffering, grieving with us in our sorrow. In this Lenten season, we focus on suffering and sorrow, but these are not the final word. Ours is an Easter faith. Praise God!