The Riddle of Suffering

The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb c.1799-1800 by William Blake 1757-1827

“The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb” by William Blake, watercolor

“Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
(Psalm 10:1)

If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does He allow so much suffering?  Arguably, this question lies at the core of human existence.  The silence that seems to greet it pierces our hearts.  Who will comfort us?

From time immemorial, humanity has intuited that sin is behind much of the suffering it experiences.  In his book, Classic Christianity, Thomas C. Oden notes that “the deeper level of the perplexity of suffering is not when people suffer for their own sins – that has a ring of justice.  It is rather when they suffer for the sins of others – that seems unjust.”[1]  There is a vicariousness that is built into the cause and effect fabric of the universe.  Its threads can extend through families, communities, and even time.  Not only do we suffer for our sin, but the consequences have the power to reach into the lives of others, even those not yet born.

Much of the Old Testament affirms the view that suffering is inextricably linked to human sin.  Still, one book stands out from the canon in its portrait of innocent suffering and its sufferer, a man named Job, stands out even more by daring to ask God, “Why?”

The ancient text tells us that in our finitude we cannot fully comprehend the reasons God may have for allowing us to suffer.  When Job demands an answer in the midst of tremendous suffering, God replies, “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge … Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”  God’s words to Job from within the storm remind us that His ways arise from what G.K .Chesterton called “the survey of one who from some supernatural height beholds some more startling synthesis.”[2]

Simply stated:  we are not omniscient enough to understand.

Chesterton notes, “the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein is indeed a type, in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say ‘I do not understand,’ it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat ‘You do not understand.’ And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.”[3]

So, God answers the interrogator with His own interrogation.

Yet Job was comforted.  God did meet with him and called him by name.

God will then go on to meet with every one of us by entering history and dying.  In the dwindling light of a Friday afternoon, when the Jews were sacrificing the Passover lamb to commemorate their salvation, a cry rang out on a lonely hill outside of Jerusalem.  Jesus was begging for comfort but, unlike Job, He received only silence.

According to C.S. Lewis, Christ gives us the supreme example of innocent suffering.  Lewis believed that Jesus’s unjust suffering sheds light on our own struggles with the same reality.  He acknowledged that there is an apparently gratuitous nature in much of the pain in this world.  He believed that Christ’s cry of God-forsakenness from the cross expressed this truth most profoundly.  In his essay “The Efficacy of Prayer” he wrote, “When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need.  There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore.”[4]

Oden notes that no theodicy we construct will ever begin to be adequate if it does not have at its core the cross of our Lord, the ultimate picture of innocent suffering that was prefigured in Job.  He writes that though “Christ’s death does not reduce the freedom that risks causing evil and suffering … Christ’s death is proclaimed as the birth of a new freedom amid the complexities of causal chains.”[5]  This reminds me of something that George Macdonald wrote (and that C.S. Lewis included in his book, The Problem of Pain):  “The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but their sufferings might be like His.”

In the end, the same God that doesn’t fully answer our question meets us by entering time and drinking from the same bitter cup.  Just as he met Job, He meets all of us, though not in a storm, but beaten and abandoned on a cross of shame.  In this, His perfect justice is satisfied and His perfect love is demonstrated.

Jesus cried, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” The Father’s silence pierces our hearts.  He would not comfort His own Son on the Cross.

Yet, God the Father did give an answer, just not with words.  It came in the form of an empty tomb.

And what does this tell us?  That one of history’s “most massive examples of injustice” did not happen in vain.[6]  Christ’s resurrection strips our suffering of its meaninglessness and dresses the causal chains that bind our world with hope.

In this, we find our comfort.

 “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”  Hebrews 4: 14-16

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“The Ascension” by William Blake

[1] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), 438.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (London: William, Clowes and Sons, 1934), 140, Kindle.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, “An Introduction to the Book of Job.”

[4] C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer”, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, (Boston: Mariner Books, 2012), 10.

[5] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity, 439.

[6] Ibid., 441.

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