Why Do We Suffer?
Suffering is a reality of life. That is the truth of life that Buddhists recognize.
People either live with suffering, or they live in fear of suffering. That is the truth that Satan in today’s passage recognized.
He saw this truth about people: “All that people have they will give to save their lives.” (Job 2:4) In other words, people live in fear of suffering and will do anything they can to avoid it. Religious and upright people like Job appear faithful because deep down they fear the suffering that can come upon their lives.
He takes that further when he says this: “But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” (Job 2:5)
He is exposing how fragile and weak our faith is. He is wagering with God that once suffering hits us, we will turn away from God.
The issue posed by this passage is: how do we respond to suffering? How should we respond?
The question of why people suffer has always been with us. When we suffer, or we see others suffer, the first question is always “why”? Why must I suffer? Why must others suffer? Why did little children have to be taken from their homes and sent far away to schools where they would be taught that they were inferior, where they were abused, and even died and placed in unmarked graves? Why?
One response to the question of suffering has been that suffering is punishment for sins. This is something I’ve never been down with. When we consider the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation we just had, I cannot accept the idea that all of those innocent children suffered for their sins, or because of their parents’ sins. Most people today cannot accept that. That makes for a very cruel God.
The more common response is that God cannot exist because of all the suffering we see in the world. This has become the general operating belief for most people today. We live as though God doesn’t really exist. Even if we say with our lips that we believe in God.
A World Full of Suffering
When suffering and difficulties arise, people try to overcome it by using everything in their power and ability to save themselves from it. The Korean show “The Squid Game” has taken this world by storm. I haven’t seen all of it, but the premise has touched a core nerve in people. The show illustrates the extent to which people will go to survive when they are pushed to the furthest edges. People will indeed give all that they have to save their lives.
The show depicts a world that is full of cruelty, unfairness and suffering. It depicts a world absent of God. And because God is absent, people are on their own. In a world without God, people have to use their every wit, skill and trickery at their disposal to survive.
The great paradox of faith is this: how can a God who loves and cares for us coexist with a world full of suffering and evil? The conclusion many people make is that this paradox cannot hold. A loving and caring God cannot coexist with a world full of suffering and evil.
The biblical writers struggled and grappled with this paradox. All throughout the book of Job, he asks the question that lies at the core of our souls: why must innocent people suffer? Why does God allow that? In the end, he concludes that he cannot understand why such suffering and evil exist.
In the Bible
Biblical writers do not provide a clear answer for why suffering exists.
When Jesus was on the cross, he himself asked the question at the heart of suffering: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
When we suffer, when evil is inflicted upon the innocent, we feel alone and as if God has abandoned us. Many of the psalms lament the seeming absence of God in the face of suffering.
Biblical writers do not answer clearly why there is suffering.
What the Bible does witness to, though, is that God responds to human suffering. God responds compassionately and does not leave people alone.
Yes, many of the psalms ask why they feel alone in their suffering. But many psalms also declare with joy of how God brought them through out of their suffering.
Biblical writers do not avoid the paradox of the presence of suffering and evil coexisting with a loving God. But rather, they declare that God does care about people, and that God does come to comfort and deliver people from their suffering.
The Central Point of the Paradox
Real faith does not avoid this paradox. But faith focuses primarily on what God does in the face of evil and suffering. We experience difficulties and hardships. We see the great suffering in the world. Yet we also see how God has comforted us.
When Jesus was crucified on the cross, all the hopes and dreams of his followers were shattered. They scattered and ran away in fear. That’s what the cross represented. Defeat. Humiliation. Death.
But somehow, his followers eventually came to see the cross not only as that, but more powerfully, the place where new hope arises and new life begins. It became the place where darkness does not win, evil does not prevail, and death is not final. The cross became the path to new life.
This was an amazing transformation that they experienced. We’re studying this in Acts for our Friday Bible Study. The Holy Spirit coming down was not about the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. Focusing on that takes away from the essence of what the Spirit actually did.
What the Spirit did was give the disciples a new understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection. With the Spirit, they reinterpreted the cross.
What was a symbol of defeat and death, was transformed into the symbol of God’s power and new life. The cross became their strength. This is why St. Paul said, “when I am weak, I am strong.”
The cross became the central point of the paradox, but the point at which God’s love overcomes the pain and suffering we experience in the world.
The cross was God’s solidarity with the suffering of the world. On the cross, God took on the suffering and evil of the world. He bore the sins of the world but overcame it with the resurrection.
This is why when we die with Christ, our suffering is overcome with new life too. The cross became the main symbol through which they interpreted all of life.
In Our World
When things happen to you, when you go through things, we always interpret what is happening. We usually don’t think about how we are interpreting what happens to us, but don’t be mistaken, we are always interpreting our life through the stories we have adopted. What voices are shaping how you interpret our life? What stories shape how you view your circumstances?
When I look around me, I see us living in a world utterly driven by power and money. We are all soaked in this mindset. In the Squid Game, the narrative is that without money, life is full of suffering, difficulty and shame. Obtaining that money is the only solution to overcome suffering.
At the Cross
My friends, followers of Jesus interpret every challenge that comes our way through the lens of the cross. Yes, we may face great difficulty in the moment. The difficulty can be unbearable. There seems no hope. No way out. This is our initial experience of the cross.
This is the experience of Jesus crying out to God and asking why God has forsaken him. So yes, our entry into the cross begins with deep cries of lament.
But the cross is more than that. It is the place where God suffers with us. It is where Jesus himself bore the pain and sins of this world. At the cross, Jesus joins us in our lament and anguish.
At the cross, we experience God’s power. We experience the power of God turning death to life. From turning hopeless anguish into hopeful joy. We experience God’s comforting presence that keeps us going.
And at the cross, we find a new calling.
When Jesus ascended into heaven after the resurrection, the disciples didn’t know what to do. They were confused and bewildered. But the Spirit came upon them and gave them a new mission to spread the good news to the ends of the earth.
The foot of the cross begins with pain and suffering. But on the other side of the cross is new life and a new calling.
The cross is the symbol of life for us. We experience all of our pain and anguish there. We experience our darkness. But we also experience God’s power of resurrection. And we experience God’s new calling for us to also bear the burdens and pain of those around us, just as Jesus did on the cross.
That is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
The Journey of Faith
The cross is the lens through which we interpret all of life. St. Paul said it like this: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Yes, to a world soaked in power, reliance solely on the self, and money, the message about the cross is foolishness. It makes no sense. But for us it is the power of God!
You know, I think a lot about how we are shaped in this world. I mean, at most one day a week, maybe two if we do Bible study, we listen to the Word of God and what it has to say about life. But the rest of the week, we are immersed in the world. We absorb what the world says about how to live and where we get our power from.
I always struggle and wonder with how we can cultivate the lens of faith to interpret life. The Bible is seen as an old book that doesn’t have any relevance for life today.
How can faith flourish in such a world? I do worry about this, but I also have faith that God’s Word continues to flow. The deeper I get into the Bible, the more I realize that this was a concern of every generation. Every generation wondered how faith would be passed onto a new generation that hadn’t experienced the same wonderful works of God they had experienced. But somehow, God is faithful, and God moves in different ways for new times and new places. I know that God will continue to do so.
The journey of faith is to cultivate the ability to take each situation and re-interpret in light of the cross.
When you face great difficulty, challenges and struggles, interpret what’s happening in light of the cross. If you’re suffering, wait and pray. Seek God. If you’re in a moment of “why have you forsaken me?”, express it. But don’t abandon faith. Cling to it. Pray for faith. Pray for strength. Seek the Spirit to give you a new understanding of what you are going through. When you experience a resurrection moment of hope and new life, give praise and thanksgiving.
The ultimate destination of faith is to give praise and thanksgiving in any circumstance, because we trust in the story of the cross.
Prayer for Indigenous people.
That their suffering may not be in vain.
That they may be comforted in their pain.
That from the legacy of suffering, brokenness and pain, there may be healing, new life and new vocation.