Firstly, I need to state that I’m not qualified to speak on suffering. I haven’t experienced prolonged or intense or debilitating injuries or illnesses, I haven’t suffered any serious misfortunes, and I haven’t been bereaved of anyone really close to me. So, please don’t read this and just say “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about”, because I’m acknowledging that now, but I hope that what I say here might be helpful nonetheless.
I’m titling this ‘responding’ to suffering because you can talk all day about why suffering happens (I’ll mention it a bit, soon), but that won’t necessarily help anyone. What we’re really needing is a response – answers don’t make it any better.
The biggest sections on suffering in the bible occur in the Psalms [citation needed!], where people deal with their pains, confusions and anger at God through songs, and therefore I want to say (before anyone gets bored and stops reading), that these 10 songs express wise responses to suffering better than any prose could, I reckon. We’re just starting to get these kinds of songs coming through in church, like ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ and ‘You Never Let Go’, but even those can be a bit hard to sing when you just don’t feel it – they express the triumph at coming through adversity. These songs can help meet you in the thick of it (warning: some of these videos are fairly ‘American’, shall we say…the songs are incredible though):
For when a happy ending by the end of the song just isn’t realistic:
- Silence – Jars of Clay http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8iZEeQJUDM
For when you’re not sure what God is doing:
- The Shadow Proves the Sunshine – Switchfoot http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDM2QRW-kD0
For when you’ve given your all and it seems there’s nothing left:
- Love Alone – Caedmon’s Call http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTndj9kxu-E
For when you don’t think God even knows you’re there:
- Hold my heart – Tenth Avenue North http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sd6U5ci_uB8
For when you know God’s there but it’s just not that simple:
- Good to Me – Tree63 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXZJECWaD78
For when you’ve been running on empty and can’t go on this way any longer:
- Lord Move (or Move Me) – FFH http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dq9RCRbwbOY
For when you’re overwhelmed by all the questions:
For when you need to have God’s truth spoken powerfully over your situation:
- Rise Up – Third Day http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bac23QHIClc
For…the moments you feel faint, I guess!
- For the Moments I Feel Faint – Relient K http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssWvc8yr0Yo&feature=fvsr
For when you want to wrestle but you’re ready to trust:
I could list at least another hundred quality, honest songs that speak powerfully when we’re hurting, by artists like Downhere, Sanctus Real, DC Talk, Delirious, Ginny Owens, Audio Adrenaline, Jennifer Knapp, OC Supertones, Newsboys, Jon Foreman, One Hundred Hours, Salvador…etc. Let me know if you want any more suggestions.
Ok, let’s carry on. When someone asks about suffering, it’s for one of two reasons: either they want to use it as an excuse not to believe in God, and they’re not really suffering at all, or they’re genuinely finding it incredibly tough to believe in God because of the painful time they’re going through. If they’re the first type, you might get somewhere by explaining how the world started off free from pain, but then creation got messed up when humans rebelled against God, and we’ve been living in the aftermath of that ever since – God sometimes acts to reduce suffering, but if he did that all the time he’d be taking away our freedom, ultimately making us mindless robots. (If the person asking about suffering is just trying to catch them out, you could always challenge them on whether this is the case, and suggest talking about something more interesting like the resurrection!)
However, if they’re the second type of person, someone genuinely suffering, I wouldn’t want to go down the ‘philosophical’ route (technically called a ‘theodicy’ – literally, speaking in God’s defence). Even if you can argue them into submission, how is that going to help them? I would point out the one thing we know. Jesus, being God, came to earth and shared humanity with us, including the full spectrum of its emotional and physical experiences. He suffered and died in a way few humans have ever suffered – physical agony, the pain of being betrayed by his best friends, and even the anguish of knowing what was about to happen to him, too.
If there were any simple answer to suffering, God would have used it to avoid suffering himself. There isn’t one, though. Even God had to suffer. (Saying that God ‘had’ to do something is philosophical dynamite; of course God doesn’t ‘have’ to do anything, which is why it’s all the more mysterious that he chose to suffer.)
So, that reassures me that there must be a reason why God doesn’t just find a way to end all suffering. What do we do, then, when we suffer?
- Remind yourself who God is.
I find this a vital starting point – the psalmists seemed to keep on proclaiming truths about God’s power and greatness, even while they were writing laments and finding it so hard to believe what they were saying about God’s faithfulness (see Tree63’s “Here of All Places” on Spotify for a modern expression of this). I find that my little lows can be remedied by re-focusing and restoring perspective: God is still God, he’s still got my life in his hands, he’s bigger than whatever storm may be blowing around me. For me, the best way of getting hold of perspective is listening to songs like those I’ve listed…for others I guess it could going for walks, reading certain passages from the bible, or other things? But yeah, worship God – that’s what Job did just after his life had literally crumbled to dust, and what David did after his and Bathsheba’s baby son died. It doesn’t make sense, but it makes a difference.
- Try to see if God may be trying to teach you something through it.
Sometimes, God wants you to learn something specific from your experiences, I think. Jacob was given a limp to remind him of his struggle with God, and Paul was given a ‘thorn’ in his flesh, apparently to stop him becoming conceited while being blessed by amazing spiritual experiences, and through God’s refusal to remove the thorn he heard Jesus saying “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). If God’s trying to communicate, try to listen! It may be that once we’ve learned the lesson (e.g. maybe “slow down, you’re burning out”), God can remove the ‘thorn’, but Jacob and Paul had to keep theirs so that may be not the case. Don’t assume that all suffering will have a direct meaning like those examples though – sometimes bad things just happen, and God will bring good out of it somehow (redemption of the situation will always possible) but it may not be apparent this side of eternity.
- Get prayer.
Sometimes it’s tempting to think that God doesn’t want to do anything about our suffering, as if it’s a burden that we just have to bear alone. The bible doesn’t say that. James says to pray for the sick – that should apply to all sorts of suffering, I’m pretty sure. God continually heard the cries of his people Israel when they finally cried out to him from all their trouble. So, we’re definitely allowed to do that, even if somehow it’s our fault that we’re suffering in the first place. That begs the question: is suffering our fault? Well sometimes it is, for example our conscience will probably give us a really hard time if we treat others badly. My guess is that God still disciplines his children, too – through whatever means at his disposal for communicating to us that we need to put something right. However, if you’ve checked and you can’t think what God could be punishing you for, DON’T worry that your suffering is punishment from God – it’s probably not. This kind of attitude is dangerous, and Jesus speaks against it when he refuses to link people’s physical condition to their moral state (John 9:2). Whatever you do, don’t suggest it to someone else unless you’re very sure or very sensitive about it – Job’s friends were convinced he’d brought his suffering on himself, and they’ve gone down in history as some of the biggest idiots ever.
Also, remember God won’t always remove suffering in response to prayer – Paul prayed for his thorn to be removed – three times, even (he says it like it’s a lot, which always seems strange to me – doesn’t sound like many!) – but it’s just not to be. He still learns to be content in every situation though (Phil 4:12).
- Share your journey with others.
They say ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. I don’t really go for this. However, talking about suffering seems to be a recognised way of dealing with it: the Jews shared their sufferings, persecuted Christians have drawn strength from each other in tough times by meeting together, and even if our difficulties are specific to one person, Paul says the whole body should feel that pain, just as it rejoices when one part rejoices. It’s mysterious how people can help each other through difficulties just by coming alongside and talking, but somehow it does.
I think that’s all I can think of for now. I hope something from this is helpful.