As I write, volunteers from a community trust are distributing food parcels to people who have been deprived of their usual ways of earning an income during the lockdown in Mutare, the fourth largest city in Zimbabwe. I became involved in raising money for this initiative a week ago, and saw videos from the first people to receive packages last night.
I’m not sure I could describe my own emotions as I watched the response to the food parcels. There were expressions of happiness, hope, quiet sadness, resignation, desperation – most often a mixture of several of these feelings at the same time. Overall, I feel incredibly sobered at the impact that a relatively small amount of money (in UK terms) can have on precious lives on the other side of the world, but also by the fact that it barely scratches the surface. It’s great to have something to keep you going for a few more days, but a far deeper need is the ability to make a sustainable living, and have access to adequate food, healthcare, education, clean water, reliable power, transport, and so on.
It would be counterproductive to feel guilty for what I have – my comfortable lockdown – so long as I am living simply, keep praying, and do what I can to serve those who are currently more vulnerable. I believe it would also be counterproductive to blame God for the situation we find ourselves in. The Bible invites us to lament – to throw our questions, grief, and fear at God’s feet – and I hope to explore this in a future post. I have been relating to God in new ways, praying “Have mercy on us”, and singing the Taizé chant “Oh Lord, hear our prayer”.
I believe that our cries for answers at times like this, and our deep longing for things to be better, kinder, more just, less painful and chaotic, are a sign that we were made in the image of God. The Bible describes God creating men and women, instructing them to rule over the earth, and giving them the freedom to choose what they will do. The world God made was described as “very good”, but human wrongdoing caused a rift between people and God, and also between us and the rest of creation.
The consequence of this breakdown of relationship is selfish behaviour and violence. Land is devastated, water polluted and climate changed, with the results being flood, drought, famine and disease. The powerful force people off fertile land, corrupt (or desperate) builders ignore safety codes, some government emergency action plans neglect the poorest or most vulnerable people, and the foreign aid policies of too many governments are self-serving and neglectful of the poorest or the vulnerable people. We recognise that these things are wrong, and long for something better. We yearn for the role we were made for, from which we abdicated, ruling over a world where evil does not reign.
Of course, not all pain and death seems to be the direct result of human wrongdoing. From a biblical point of view, whether the tree of life in chapter two of Genesis was symbolic or real, either way it points to the existence of human death before people disobeyed God – how else would fruit that gives immortality be necessary? Presumably his plan was to keep us from death if we had avoided eating the (literal or symbolic) fruit. Likewise, would the command have been given to ‘subdue’ the earth if everything was as we would like it, comfortable and predictable?
From a scientific perspective, pain is an incredibly useful warning not to damage ourselves, that we cannot live without. Within this unsubdued world, accidents can always happen, diseases strike, and if people unknowingly get in the way of predators or the processes that keep the earth fertile – such as earthquakes or volcanoes – they will be hurt. The fossil record shows us that disease and death were always part of the package, both for humans and other animals before them.
It seems that the potential for accidents, disease and death – for both animals and humans – may have been part of God’s very good creation, and there was a real threat of famine, albeit far rarer than in our current mismanaged version of creation? How would we have managed life in an un-subdued world if our relationship with God hadn’t broken down, and evil hadn’t been unleashed? Maybe painful experiences due to the unsubdued nature of creation would have been experienced as challenges that brought us closer to each other and to God, rather than bringing us the experience of suffering (which I would define more particularly as involving distress and fear)? Of course these are theoretical questions that no one can answer – but I believe that they are worth exploring. You might want to call this the ‘scientific optimist’s view’ of suffering.
Whether God’s original good creation included the potential for human pain, disease and death, or these were the result of human wrongdoing is the sort of question that theologians and scientists should keep exploring. Either way, the present reality that we have to deal with is that, as the apostle Paul describes in Romans, ‘creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time’. Everything is waiting for the promised future when the world will be made new, with no more pain or death (Romans 8:20, Revelation 21: 1-4).
Why doesn’t God end suffering now – why is he dragging it out? In his story of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13), Jesus makes it clear that it would be impossible to destroy evil now without punishing some people who don’t deserve it. This is not about physical life and death, but about ultimate destinies – who will be with God and everything that’s good, and who has chosen a different path. Governments are currently looking at the available data and trying to balance the relative risks to different people’s lives with their policies. But God knows that his policy of waiting for evil to run its course will, in the end, definitely result in many more people turning to him than if he ended things now.
The Bible also promises that God can provide us with what we need to keep going in the face of suffering. This is not the small print, but is written large across the Bible, and in people’s lives today. “Those who suffer he delivers in the suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction” (Job 36:15). “You, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand” (Psalm 10:14). The people who spoke in the videos I watched last night are teaching me what it means to hold onto faith when nothing else seems secure. They are the experts in trusting God and keeping going – there is often no other option. I have looked in more depth at God’s heart for those who suffer, and our source of hope, in a previous post.
Jesus makes it clear that we are to be his hands and feet in helping to relieve pain and suffering. He taught that “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11), and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). He healed the sick and fed the hungry, and said that those who follow him would do even greater things (John 14:12). Some Christians are bothered by the question of whether we should be teaching people about Jesus or filling bellies, but as far as I can see the Biblical imperative is that we must do both. My own very small efforts are, I hope, a step in that direction.
In the Biblical narrative, those who rail at God rarely receive the sorts of answers they were looking for. The book of Job deals with this subject in detail, telling of a man who is certain his suffering is not a punishment for wrongdoing, as his friend claim, and cries out to God for answers. The response he receives – and accepts – is a long statement about God’s power over creation, and a telling-off for his friends. Job was one of the earliest parts of the Bible to be written. Some of the readers of this book continued to say people get what they deserve, but Jesus was quick to slap this argument down (Luke 13).
The best that theologians working on this topic can manage, if they want to maintain the belief that God is capable of doing anything he chooses, are a series of conjectures. It seems that we have been given the gift of freedom to choose our actions – including wrong ones. Perhaps, some say, God in his love and wisdom has also chosen to limit his power or precise knowledge of the future in order to allow all of creation to find its course in life. Or maybe God achieves his purposes not despite but through the muddle of human and non-human actions that make up the present world. There’s also the question of whether God is at war with Satan (even if his victory is inevitable)? Or perhaps our human minds are simply unable to understand the full set of reasons for why God would allow suffering in the world?
Whichever is the case, many of us have experienced the good that can come out of suffering – not that this is necessarily the reason why bad things happen in the first place, but God can use them to achieve good ends. Part of this good is that through suffering we draw nearer to God and each other, and our characters are moulded to become more like him. In fact, if you did the thought experiment of removing all pain and suffering from your past life, what kind of person would you be? Would you still be yourself?
Whichever view, or combination of views, about suffering a Christian may hold, it usually involves keeping several things in tension: mystery and knowledge, God’s power and our freedom, the goodness and love of God and the depravity of evil he allows to exist, the command to help others and our inability to help everyone, hope for the future and perseverance in the present.
Ultimately, God has already responded to our suffering at a root level by taking it on himself. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus took back the power over creation that humankind had abdicated. He defeated evil and broke the power of death. We do not yet see the final results of those decisive actions – the end of suffering for all those who trust him – but we can already feel their impact. God is no longer remote, but is with us in our troubles. Many people have experienced the wonderful effect, directly or indirectly, described by these words: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Many of the questions raised in the context of science and religion debates are based on what I believe is a wrong understanding of God and a lack of knowledge of his promises and purposes. When theology strips these misunderstandings away we are left with questions the Bible addresses in incredibly relevant, though sometimes indirect ways. I find these answers satisfying, though incredibly challenging.
Some of the people who received food yesterday were, in the words of the community team leader, “really desperate”, and had very sad stories to tell, but yet they still trust God to meet their needs. My prayer is that the worldwide Church will, with God’s help, be part of the answer to their prayers – not just in the immediate future but over the coming years. In this way, trusting in Jesus’ ultimate answer to the question of suffering and his ability to help us meet both spiritual and physical needs, the potential devastation due to COVID-19 (on top of everything else) may be nowhere near as great as some might expect.
For further exploration
God and the Pandemic, Tom Wright (SPCK, 2020)
Why is there Suffering? Bethany Sollereder (Zondervan, 2021, forthcoming)
Why? Sharon Dirckx (IVP, 2013)
Who is to Blame? Robert White (Lion 2014)
Where is God in All the Suffering? Amy Orr-Ewing (The Good Book Company, 2020)