There are several human responses to suffering – whether the swift calamity of a tornado or the steady crush of generational poverty – but there is only one truly Christian response. The problem is that we tend to get confused about which responses are human and which is Christian, because we ask the wrong question.
The wrong question is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We tend to restate it into “Christianese” as: “Why does God allow bad things to happen to me?” or “Why did God spare me and allow this other to suffer?”
One human response to this question is to suppose that there is no God or that God is helpless or uncaring – that the world is driven by mere chance, and there is nothing to be done to prevent bad things or secure good things for ourselves and others. It doesn’t matter what we do, so we might as well focus on being as happy as we can while we wait for random events to impact our lives. This is the type of response Jesus warns against in Luke 12:16-20 – the decision to “’relax, eat, drink, be merry’” [Luke 12:19b] when times are good, and to hoard our abundance against future trouble. It is directly antithetical to belief in a God that created humanity for a purpose and who cares for our well-being. It cannot be accepted as a Christian response.
Another human response is to assume that good things happen if you’re good enough, and bad things happen because you messed up. If only you’d prayed harder, given more, memorized the right verses…this would not have happened. Or, if you are not suffering, the temptation is to tell yourself (and often others, very loudly) that it is because you have prayed enough, given enough, studied enough, and God loves you enough to spare you trouble – and that anyone suffering simply isn’t enough. God speaks out against this type of thinking in Isaiah 1:11-15, going so far as to say, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen…” [Isaiah 1:15]. Praying, giving, and studying are all important practices – but they are not safeguards against suffering, and God does not accept them in place of the true Christian response. Neither should we offer them as proofs or procurers of God’s love.
A third human response is to offer platitudes that absolve the speaker from any responsibility – to say that what has happened is “God’s plan” and “has a place in God’s will”. God does not plan or enact suffering – suffering is a byproduct of a world out of relationship with God. Indeed, “[w]ith all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” [Ephesians 1:8b-10] Suffering is part of this world – but this world is ending, and God’s kingdom is coming, where “’he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’” [Revelation 21:4] God does not plan or will suffering, but God does acknowledge that suffering is a part of this world; the plan is to eventually do away with it. For now, even the righteous must expect to suffer with patience while working towards the accomplishment of God’s will – “Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.” [1 Peter 4:19]
The ultimate source of suffering is too big for us – the ripple effects of relationships broken by sin (relationships with God, with each other, with the rest of creation) are too massive, too entwined. It was too much for us to solve; but it has been solved and is in the process of being solved and will one day be solved through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. We cannot wrap our minds entirely around a problem that is too big for humanity to grasp. What we can and ought to do is determine the appropriate individual and communal response to suffering.
This gets us to the true Christian response – beginning with the right question. The question we ought to be asking is, “How are we to respond in the face of this suffering?”
We have clear direction from God on what this response looks like in practice. What does God expect from us in the face of others’ suffering? “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” [Isaiah 1:16-17] It is not right to offer up platitudes of “this must be God’s will” – we are called, as Christians, to meet the need wherever it might be, to see suffering and do what we can to end it. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” [James 2:15-16] When we - as Christians, the Body of Christ – offer anything less than everything we can to end systemic suffering or meet the needs of sudden calamity, we fail to serve Christ in others, as Jesus told us in Matthew 25:31-46. “’Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’” [Matthew 25:45b] And, when we are ourselves suffering, we ought to be able to lean on our fellow Christians for real support, as the Early Church shows us in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” [Acts 2:44-45]
Insofar as individual Christians or the Church as a whole has failed to truly and materially meet the needs of the suffering, offering up purely human, shallow responses instead, we have failed to live up to our ministry as Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation in the world [2 Corinthians 5:20]. Let us put away from us, then, the wrong question and its human responses, and take up the question of what we ought to do as Christ’s representatives, instead.
“Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” – Book of Common Prayer, 260