Suffering and sin are realities of life. By rightly understanding these realities in light of God’s word, we can come to hear the most joyous and comforting good news. The good news that our sure and certain hope, our salvation from suffering and sin, is Jesus and His work for us.
First, the reality of suffering. One struggle in understanding suffering begins with the misconception that the words pain and suffering are interchangeable and mean essentially the same thing.
Pastor, professor, and philosopher, Gregory Schulz suggests separating them. He defines pain as, “a description of what we experience by virtue of our physical being.” Suffering, on the other hand, is our reflection upon pain. Suffering asks of pain, “Why? Why do I feel this pain?” Suffering seeks to understand the reason or purpose for what is happening to us and around us.
Schulz describes suffering as recognizing, “that things are not the way they ought to be.” Indeed! Things are not as they ought to be between individuals; things are not what they ought to be between groups of people; things are not as they ought to be between humanity and God.
How should we respond to suffering once we distinguish it from pain? Here, we run the risk of turning to the highly intellectual and philosophical analysis known as the “problem of evil.” Even if you are unfamiliar with this phrase, chances are you’ve thought about this issue. As Angus Menuge points out, the problem of evil has often been presented this way: “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good, why is there any evil in the world?”
While this is a reasonable question, it is not a question easily answered. The answers given usually rely heavily on human understanding, go beyond Scripture, and rarely satisfy the original question. Worse, they never provide comfort to those suffering.
The biblical response to suffering, to recognizing that things are not as they ought to be, is lament.
The biblical response to suffering, to recognizing that things are not as they ought to be, is lament. It foregoes trying to satisfy the “why?” question. Instead, lament recognizes the comfort we seek can’t be found in human answers and human reason and so, it looks beyond them to a greater source of hope. Far from an intellectual assent, lament is our complaint about the wrongness of our suffering. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff writes that suffering is “the shout of ‘No’ by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers — the shout of ‘No’…to pain, to death…to abandonment.” Lament gives our suffering shout of “NO!” an upward, heaven-bound direction, toward God.
Lament should not be understood as an act of faithlessness. Lament is just the opposite; it is an act of faith. There’s little reason to complain to One in whom we don’t believe. Nor is there much point in lamenting to someone powerless to fix it.
God actually wants us to lament, to complain to Him. In the second commandment, God not only commands us to avoid misuse of His name, but also to call upon His name in every trouble, pray, praise, and thanksgiving. Psalm 50:15 attests to this, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor Me.” As does Paul in Philippians 4:5, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Lament, forces us to recognize the reality of sin. The world likes to think of sin as merely those thoughts, words, and deeds we’ve done and left undone in disobedience to God’s Law. More often than not, we consider sin as simply surface level, outward mistakes we can make up for with hard work and behavior modification.
But sin goes deeper than that. Sin is the inner disposition of our hearts set against God (Melanchthon, Loci Communes 1521, 37-38). Sin is the tendency for you and me to seek ourselves first, over and above God and our neighbor, in all areas of life whether social, political, moral, or religious. This is what we mean when we talk about our sinful nature or refer to original sin, what we inherited from the first sinners, Adam and Eve. Sin is personal. It’s deep. After the fall, it’s a part of our nature. So much so that we can’t fix it, repair it, or eliminate it. And, because sin is personal, so is our suffering.
Suffering exists because sin exists. Pain, suffering, and death were not originally part of God’s creation. They were added to it as consequences for sin by divine decree.
“To the woman [God] said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you. And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return’” (Gen. 3:16–19).
But, lest we come to believe that God’s nature is His wrath, the truth is, judgment, condemnation, and punishment are contrary to God’s nature. Isaiah calls this God’s alien work (Is. 28:21). God’s nature, His proper work, is to give life, love, and grace.
God, in His wisdom, uses His alien work to bring us to His proper work. Ultimately, God uses pain and suffering to shake us awake, to open our eyes to see that we are not in control and to humble our sinful natures which are set against Him. He forces us to recognize that we are not all-powerful, all-knowing, or perfectly good. He opens our eyes to the reality of salvation: that on our own we are powerless to bring it about; that we cannot solve the problems of suffering and sin; that our only hope is in Him.
In Mark 5, one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet. He begs repeatedly for Jesus to lay his hand on his daughter, who is at the point of death, so that she may be made well.
As Jesus travels to heal Jairus’ daughter, the crowd presses in on Him. In the crowd is a woman who has been suffering from bleeding for 12 years. She has spent all her money on doctors and, still, her condition worsens. Mark writes, “She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touch his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well’” (Mark 5:27–28). We see in both Jairus and the woman the alien work of God in action. Their pain and suffering has humbled them and brought them to their only hope for salvation.
We see in both Jairus and the woman the alien work of God in action. Their pain and suffering has humbled them and brought them to their only hope for salvation.
Jesus recognizes that power has gone out from him. He turns about in the crowd asking, “Who touched me?” His disciples are incensed. “Jesus, how can you ask such a question? Are you blind? Don’t you see all these people here?” But Jesus keeps searching. There’s no reason to believe Jesus doesn’t know who touched Him and that she was healed. This is reminiscent of when God came looking for Adam and Eve in the garden. He knows what has happened, but still, He lovingly asks, “Where are you?”
In fear and trembling, the woman falls at Jesus’ feet, just like Jairus. She knows He is God. That’s why she came to Him. Yet she also realizes she has just touched God in the flesh in an unclean state. But Jesus shows little concern for that. He came to heal the sick and to make clean those who are unclean. He calls the woman daughter. First, she was healed; now, she is restored to God’s family. Where once she was ostracized, now she is drawn near.
As Jesus is speaking, people from Jairus’ house come to bring devastating news; his 12-year-old daughter has died. But Jesus reassures Jairus and they travel on. He did not come to just heal the sick, He came to do something even greater.
They come to the house and Jesus asks the weepers and mourners, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping” (Mark 5:41). Just like the disciples, the crowd can’t believe Jesus would say such a thing. They know what death is. Indeed, so does Jesus. The crowd can’t see past His parabolic speech. Entering the house, Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and says, “Little girl, arise!” And she did! This is what Jesus came to do: to bring the dead back to life!
You and I are dead. Dead in sin with no hope of life by our own power. In recognizing this reality, which suffering and sin makes so clear to us, we recognize the reality of salvation: that Jesus is our only hope for forgiveness, healing, and life.
With Jairus and the woman, we can fall at the feet of Jesus. Just as they were drawn to Him, Christ draws us to Himself. He does so by means of the cross (John 12:32). It is in Christ on the cross where we see the solution to our problems of suffering and sin.
Here too, we find our greatest comfort. As Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, "And this is our highest comfort, to clothe and wrap Christ this way in my sins, your sins, and the sins of the entire world, and in this way to behold Him bearing our sins.... For God has laid our sins, not upon us but upon Christ, His Son” (LW 28, 279-280, 283).
It is on the cross where our sinful nature, that thing that sets us against God, is put to death. It is on the cross where our sin is forgiven. Your sin, and my sin. And by His resurrection, He breathes into us His breath of life. Freely, and on account of Jesus Christ, you and I are forgiven and our life is restored.