Can we make sense of suffering?

Can we make sense of the disappointments and heartaches that life brings to us? Can we respond courageously and creatively to our losses? Sometimes the answer is clear, and sometimes it isn’t.1

Years ago, the president of a company I was working for promised me a position that was better than anything I had hoped for. But when his official letter arrived several weeks later, it said that things had changed and I would be going somewhere else instead. I was bitterly disappointed. I wondered why God had let me down. Within a few months, however, I realized that my new situation was better than the one I had expected. What looked like a setback turned out to be a blessing, and I was grateful for God’s leading in my life. Experiences like this support the conviction that there is a purpose behind the apparent tragedies that come to us. God sends them, or allows them, or at least uses them to benefit us. As Paul says, “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28, KJV).

On the other hand, there are instances of suffering that resist this reassuring pattern. Within the past three years, for example, a college friend of mine lost his son in an airplane crash, the daughter of another friend was brutally murdered, a teaching colleague died of cancer, leaving her husband with two small children, and a teenager I know became a quadriplegic when a car crash broke his neck. We can see God’s hand in life’s minor disappointments, but what do we do with incalculable suffering, or “horrendous evils,” as one writer calls them? In cases like this, the loss is catastrophic; it outweighs any possible good that could come from it. So, where is God when it really hurts? Why doesn’t He protect us from harm and deliver us from evil?

The question is as old as time and as up-to-date as this morning’s headlines. Nothing is more pervasive than suffering. Sooner or later, it comes to everyone, and it always brings disturbing questions. In his best-selling book on the subject, Rabbi Harold Kushner asserts, “There is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually diverting.”2

It is a curious fact that suffering seems to take us by surprise. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that everybody suffers. Yet nothing seems more incomprehensible than our own suffering. The writer William Saroyan supposedly said, “I knew that everybody died. But in my case I thought there would be an exception.” But the fact is, there are no exceptions. Not for nice people. Not even for Christian people. Sooner or later we all have to suffer.

And people respond to suffering in strikingly different ways. For some, suffering is a tremendous challenge to faith. For philosophers, suffering is the greatest difficulty religion has to face. One says it’s the only atheistic argument that deserves to be taken seriously. Another says that undeserved suffering is a greater obstacle to faith than all the theoretical objections ever devised, all put together. Undeserved suffering is the “rock on which atheism rests.” At the same time, suffering sometimes has a positive effect on religious belief. Many people find themselves drawing closer to God when they suffer. A woman who spent years in hospice work says that nobody dies an atheist. Everyone she knew came to terms with God in the end.

God’s majesty and life’s reality

Suffering is a particular problem for Christians because of our belief in God. What do we do with the apparent discrepancy between the majesty of God and the realities of life? If God is supremely powerful and supremely good, why does anyone suffer? A perfect Being could create any kind of world He wanted to. If such a being existed, wouldn’t He eliminate suffering, or prevent it, or at least limit it?

Historically, people have responded to this problem in two principal ways. One is to move suffering outside God’s will, to maintain that God is not responsible for suffering. The most popular version of this approach appeals to free will. God endowed His creatures with the capacity to obey or disobey. They disobeyed, and the world now suffers the consequences. So, it was creaturely rebellion that ultimately accounts for the sorrows of the world. God did not cause it or will it. It was never God’s plan that we suffer.

The contrasting response is to place suffering inside God’s will. Things may appear to be out of control, goes this line of thought, but God is nevertheless completely in charge, and everything that happens has its place in His plan. We may not understand why God does what He does, but we can be sure that it is all for the best. Everything we go through, even the darkest chapters of our lives, is just what we need. In time, we will see that God’s way is perfect.

Each response raises questions, and each answer raises still more questions in an endless cycle of philosophical point-counterpoint. Such discussions serve a purpose, but their value in helping us as we face our own suffering is limited. Every philosophical theory founders on the shoals of concrete human suffering. As Dostoevsky saw, all the theories in the world crumble before the misery of a single sufferer. In The Brothers Karamazov, the skeptical Ivan threw down this challenge to his brother Aloysha, a tender soul who had become a novice monk. “Imagine that you are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, . . . raise [the universe] on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth.” After a long pause, Aloysha finally said, “No, I would not agree.”3 And neither would we. No explanation makes suffering intelligible.

In fact, there are even times when religion makes it worse. The believers have all sorts of why-me and why-God questions. They wonder what’s gone wrong. Unbelievers have fewer expectations, so they are less inclined to feel that life has let them down.

When we’re not getting good answers to our questions, the problem isn’t always the answers. It may be the questions we are asking. Suffering is not just a theological or philosophical conundrum. It is the greatest challenge a person has to face. And unless we find a way to respond on a personal level, our theories about suffering won’t be worth much.

The Christian story

The cross and the resurrection of Jesus are central to the Christian story, and they are basic to a Christian response to suffering. According to the Gospels, Jesus approached the cross with fear and apprehension. On the night before the crucifixion, He fervently prayed that God would spare Him the bitter cup that lay ahead. He had to endure the cross anyway, and His cry of desolation, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” reveals the anguish that crushed out His life. With His resurrection, of course, Jesus broke the power of death, reversed the condemnation of the cross, and reunited with the Father.

The cross points to the inevitability of suffering in this world. Jesus did not avoid suffering. Neither can we. Jesus’ anguish also confirms our basic intuition that suffering is wrong. There is a tragic abnormality to our existence. We know that we are susceptible to suffering and death; we also sense that we were not meant for them.

The cross further indicates Jesus’ solidarity with us in our sufferings. It reminds us that we are never alone, no matter how dark and oppressive our situation may be. Because Jesus endured the cross, nothing can happen to us that He has not been through Himself—physical pain and hardship, separation from family and friends, the loss of worldly goods and reputation, the animosity of those we try to help, even spiritual isolation—He knew it all.

If the cross reminds us that suffering is unavoidable, the resurrection assures us that suffering never has the last word. Jesus could not avoid the cross, because of His commitment to rescue humanity, but He was not imprisoned by it. The empty tomb is our assurance that suffering is temporary. From the perspective of Christian hope, the time will come when suffering will be a thing of the past.

Cross and Resurrection are inseparable. Without the resurrection, the cross would be the last sad chapter in a noble life. Jesus’ death would merely illustrate the grim fact that the good often die young, with their dreams unfulfilled and their hopes dashed. In light of the Resurrection, however, the cross is a great victory, the central act in God’s response to the problem of suffering. So, the Resurrection transforms the cross. It turns tragedy into triumph.

Conversely, the Resurrection needs the cross. Seen alone, the Resurrection seems to offer an easy escape from the rigors of this world. It would lead us to look for a detour around the difficulties of life. If God has the power to raise the dead, He could surely insulate us from pain and sorrow and prevent us from suffering. But before the Resurrection comes the cross. And this forces us to recognize that God often leads us through perils, rather than around them. He does not promise to lift us dramatically and miraculously out of harm’s way. Just as Jesus had His cross to bear, His followers have theirs as well (see Matthew 16:24). His promise to be with us in our sufferings also calls us to be with Him in His sufferings.

Facing suffering frankly

Making Jesus’ own suffering the center of our response to suffering leads to several important conclusions. It reminds us that suffering is real and that it was not part of God’s original plan. Suffering is the loss of good things. At times it results from our own choices. Our instinctive response to suffering is “Oh, no. This isn’t right. This is not supposed to happen to me!” We should affirm this sentiment. We were not meant to suffer.

This insight rules out some of the familiar things people say to sufferers: “Compared to other people’s problems, yours aren’t so bad.” “Your troubles are all for the best. Someday you will understand.” “Everything happens for a reason. God wants to teach you an important lesson.”

Sometimes things turn out for the best, it’s true, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are bad, and they just stay that way. The Book of Psalms gives full expression to the depths of human woe. In fact, more than half the Psalms deal with “the wintry landscape of the heart,” as one writer puts it.

Church historian Martin Marty describes losing his wife to cancer after nearly 30 years of marriage. During the months of her final hospitalization, they took turns reading a Psalm at the time of each midnight medication. He read the even numbered Psalms, she read the odd-numbered Psalms.

“But after a particularly wretched day’s bout that wracked her body and my soul,” he writes, “I did not feel up to reading a particularly somber psalm, so I passed over it.”

“What happened to Psalm 88,” she said, “why did you skip it?”

“I didn’t think you could take it tonight. I am not sure I could. No: I am sure I could not.”

“Please read it for me,” she said.

“All right: …I cry out in the night before thee…For my soul is full of troubles…Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.…

“Thank you,” she said, “I need that kind the most.”

“After that conversation…we continued to speak,” Marty recalls, “slowly and quietly, in the bleakness of the midnight but in the warmth of each other’s presence and in awareness of the Presence. We agreed that often the starkest scriptures were the most credible signals of the Presence and came in the worst time. When life gets down to basics, of course one wants the consoling words, the comforting sayings, the voices of hope preserved on printed pages. But they make sense only against the background …of the dark words.”4

People have the right to face their suffering openly. They need to know that God knows and appreciates their trials. In a book responding to the loss of his son, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff describes the struggle to “own” his grief, as he put it. “The modern Western practice is to disown one’s grief: to get over it, to put it behind one, to get on with life, to put it out of mind, to insure that it not become part of one’s identity.” To see his point we have only to think of the facile way newscasters talk of “healing” and “closure” just hours after some terrible tragedy has occurred. “My struggle,” Wolterstorff said, “was to own [my grief], to make it part of my identity: if you want to know who I am, you must know that I am one whose son died.”5

Transcending suffering

While it is important to acknowledge that suffering is real and that suffering is wrong, it is equally important to refuse to give suffering the last word. Suffering may be an inescapable part of our story, but it is not the whole story. We can be larger than our sufferings.

People transcend their sufferings in several ways. One is by courageously refusing to let suffering dominate them. This is the central point in Viktor Frankl’s well-known book Man’s Search for Meaning. When every freedom is taken away, one freedom always remains—the freedom to choose our response. When we cannot change our situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. And of course, the greater the challenge, the greater our courage must be. No matter how desperate our situation, we can surmount it by refusing to let it define our significance. We can be greater than our sufferings.

This call to courage rests on the conviction that suffering does not diminish our value as human beings. This is especially important for us to remember if we depend on success for a sense of personal significance. When my father-in-law underwent bypass surgery, one of his post-operative complaints was the fear that he could no longer be useful. If he couldn’t be productive, he felt, life wasn’t worth living.

We also transcend our sufferings when we realize that we do not suffer alone. God is with us in our sufferings. According to the Christian faith, the story of Jesus is God’s own story, and its great climax is the crucifixion—a moment of agony and isolation. Some people believe that Christ suffered so we won’t have to. But the cross represents solidarity as well as substitution. Christ not only suffers for us, Christ suffers with us.

From the Christian perspective, this is a testimony that God is with us in our sufferings, that everything that happens to us makes a difference to Him. Paul’s letter to the Romans contains the ringing assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—nothing can separate us from Him (Romans 8:35-39).

None of these things can separate us from God, not just because He will be with us when they are over, but because He is with us when they happen. As the Psalmist puts it, “I will fear no evil: for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

The response of hope

Suffering does not have the last word for those who have confidence for the future, so an effective response to suffering must always include hope. One manifestation of hope is the powerful desire to make suffering serve some worthy goal, to use tragedy for some good purpose. When Nicholas Green, an American boy, was murdered in a highway robbery attempt in Italy several years ago, his parents made his organs available to others. Their decision saved several lives and transformed the nation’s attitude toward organ donation. We want our losses to count for something. We cannot let them make gaping holes in the fabric of life. We must somehow mend them, learn from them, grow beyond them. And Christian faith supports this hope with the assurance that in everything God works for good (Romans 8:28).

Christian hope also directs us to a future beyond death, to a time when suffering will be a thing of the past. As Paul describes it, death is an enemy—it is not part of what was meant to be. But it is a conquered enemy—its power is broken and it will someday come to an end (1 Corinthians 15:26). Jesus’ resurrection is God’s promise that death does not have the last word. It assures us that God’s love is strong enough to overcome death and eradicate suffering.

Putting all this together gives us a response to our opening question. If we ask, What is the meaning of suffering? there is no answer, because suffering itself has no meaning. But if we ask, Can we make sense of suffering? The answer is a resounding yes! With faith in God, we can find meaning in, through, and in spite of suffering.

Richard Rice (Ph.D., University of Chicago Divinity School) is professor of religion at Loma Linda University. He has written four books, including The Openness of God and Reign of God, along with a number of articles. His mailing address: Loma Linda University; Loma Linda, California 92350; U.S.A. E-mail: rrice@rel.llu.edu

Notes and references:

  1. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of Update, a publication of the Center for Christian Bioethics, Loma Linda University.
  2. Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken, 1981), p. 6.
  3. Dostoevsky, Feodor M., The Brothers Karamozov, Book 5, chap. 4, “Rebellion.”
  4. Martin E. Marty, A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), pp. xi-xii.
  5. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Grace That Shaped My Life,” in Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of Eleven Leading Thinkers, ed. by Kelly James Clark (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1993), pp. 273-275.