When it comes to sin and suffering there is a significant amount if debate, even amongst Christians – mostly because we can’t actually know for sure and so how we read and understand the Bible determines our line of thinking. There are questions about the so-called original sin – did Adam and Eve bring sin into the world? If so, where did it come from? If God created everything did God also create sin? Or, did God create Adam and Eve with sin in them? Why would God do that, doesn’t that make all the problems of the world God’s fault? What kind of God do we worship if this is the case? The consequence of how we answer these questions leads to how we the respond to the questions of nature and nurture – are we born sinful and in need of redemption or over time do we learn to become sinful as we grow older? Is sin an in-built part of who we are or is sin a choice we have? And, the consequence of the answers to all of this leads to how we understand our need for redemption, whose responsibility it is to redeem and how that is done. It also leads us to how we answer questions and understanding of suffering – if God is loving then why does God allow suffering?
For me it comes back to what we believe about being made in the image of God, not to look like God but as relational beings in the image of God. If we were robotic and designed to simply fulfil tasks set out before us to appease our creator there would not be a concept or right and wrong, suffering or joy, we would simply fulfil the tasks as programmed to do. Being made for relationship comes with an element of risk because it must include the option for choice. I have all kinds of different relationships as I am a child, a brother, a husband, a father, a friend, and much more. Each relation is different, evoking different emotions, feelings, responses and understandings, each brings me both joy and pain (and a whole range of feelings in between). I have hopes and dreams for my children and therefore make choices that will have an impact upon how they live their lives, the values and morals they hold, their exposure to different ideas, beliefs and activities. As they grow up they are increasingly making their own choices and will opt to either listen and accept what I have taught them or they will choose different things, based on their own preferences, understandings and emotions. And, I want them to think for themselves so I have to give them the space to learn, to make mistakes and to discover consequences. When they were babies they had no choice about anything, if I wanted to have a little cuddle I would simply pick them up. As they have grown older they can choose to come towards me for a cuddle or to turn away, and now when they choose to do so, especially when it is not because they are hurt or sad but just a desire to receive and give affection and nurture it is more wonderful than those times when I could simply pick them up. I have to watch as my children make choices and take risks which I know could cause them pain and yet could also bring them joy. Like when they were learning to climb up to a slide on our climbing frame and were wobblily and uncertain, falling a few times but ultimately finding a new skill which brought excitement. As they get older the risks become bigger but their capabilities and skills are also developing and it is wonderful to witness when they achieve something that has caused them distress or even pain (such as falling off their bike, trampoline, swing, slide) but now comes easily and brings joy.
Relationships also become more challenging. In the early days of visiting parent and toddler groups my children would just want to play with me or their mum, we had to follow them around and be with them continuously. Gradually they would become more confident and go around exploring the room, the toys and activities… sometimes taking toys from other children or having something taken from them because neither child understood the social norms. Now they go to school and I don’t get to know all of their friends, they meet people I don’t know and I have to trust that they will be a good friend to others and also find friends who treat them well. When school is in session we hear at the end of each day about the fun and the friendship as well as the falling out. One day friends are laughing together, the next someone has said something causing an upset and the next they are laughing again. It can be tiring keeping up. They are learning together how to make friends and be in relationships, how they interact with others, who they gel with and who they don’t. Each child has come with different values, culture, bias, likes and dislikes, and in this melting pot they are learning the pains and joys of relationships. Just as when they were learning to ride a bike there have been some falls, injuries and suffering but as they persist (and it will take a full lifetime) it is a delight to experience the joy that comes through their relationships, as special friendships develop between those who choose to be in relationship with one another.
As a husband I can testify to my own desire before marriage to find a partner who would be my equal and my love. I can testify to the joy and the fears of falling in love, the hardships of dealing with disagreements, the challenges my own selfishness has brought, the hurt I have felt from my wife when we have had a misunderstanding and the pain I have caused her. In the deepest of relationships we find the most painful suffering but also the greatest happiness. This is because to experience the ecstasy of love there must be an equal and opposite emotion of hate, to experience joy there must be an equal and opposite feeling of misery. Without these opposites we become numb.
It can be through our greatest suffering that we come to understand and appreciate the tenderness and compassion of genuine love. Jesus’ taught the Sermon on the Mount which begins with these seemingly strange words of the Beatitudes;
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.Matthew 5:3-6
If I asked you to identify someone who you consider ‘blessed’ I suspect it would not be the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, or those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These ideas of blessing are the opposite of what we would commonly understand by being blessed. The idea of being in mourning being a blessing is surely an oxymoron. To be in mourning is surely a time of suffering and loss. Yet, we do not mourn those we do not know or those we do not love. Many people move away or die every day and I do not mourn them because I do not know them. To mourn is to lose someone who we have loved and who has loved us, we only mourn from a place of love and the greater the grief the greater the depth of love. Therefore, although there is pain and suffering it is a result of the blessing having been loved and of loving another.
So, why does God allow suffering? Well, in part it is because we bring it on ourselves, we don’t always make the right choices and we cause suffering to be brought upon ourselves as well as causing suffering to others. We do this as individuals and collectively, the more people involved the greater the consequences. There is also suffering to maintain life, for example I have learned not to touch fire because it will hurt me, keeping a safe distance preserves my life, and fire can be a very good thing. God also created us for relationship with both one another and with God, this includes the gift of life but also the risk of death, the gift of choosing relationships or rejecting them. The Bible is filled with examples of suffering, we are not alone or unique in these experiences. We have a choice in how we respond to this suffering, to blame God and others, to wallow in self-pity or take out our feelings on others. Or we can continue to pursue relationships with God and others, those who love us and share in our pain, who will hold us and who we can hold in the midst of the darkest days. And, where is God in our suffering? Well, I believe that although we may feel lost and alone God’s Spirit is with us. I believe that we are gifted with the Bible which provides us with the stories, experiences, thoughts and prayers of others (eg. Job 30:9-31 & Psalm 42:1-11) offering empathy or giving us words when we cannot find our own. I believe that Jesus knew the ultimate pain and suffering and when he cried our from the cross (Matthew 27:46) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I believe God did not forsake Jesus only that it felt that way, therefore, in the midst of our own suffering we can turn to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and know that God understands what it means to suffer and feel the pain of forsakenness.