The irony of the fact that, in the western world at least, we are living longer, is that having escaped an earlier death from some other cause, there’s a greater chance of spending our last ten to fifteen years in a mental fog, increasingly unable to care for ourselves, or express ourselves as we’d like, in order to relate to those around us. Between ten to fifteen years is roughly the time dementia can take, from its onset until death finally brings release from the suffering it causes. It’s not just the person with dementia who suffers. Their suffering’s shared by their family and friends, who watch helplessly as their loved one slowly declines.
When I was working with people with dementia, one frequently-asked question was, “How long will this go on?” Another was, “How can God allow such a cruel disease?” For that matter, how can an all-powerful, loving God allow any of the tragedies that befall humankind?
How do the world’s various faiths suggest we deal with the question of suffering? Hindus believe the bad things that happen are payback for the bad things we’ve done. The belief in reincarnation explains the suffering of tiny babies – they’re being paid back for what they did in a former existence. Although belief in bad karma provides no comfort for the sufferer, the justice of it is appealing. By its very nature, there can’t be any evidence for it, but it’s alive and well as an attempt to explain why suffering exists.
Islam makes no attempt to explain why we suffer, but does tell us how to respond. We’re to accept suffering as the inscrutable, unalterable will of the Supreme Being. We have no right to ask questions, as Job did in his suffering. We’re called on to endure it.
The Buddha wrestled with the problem of suffering and came up with an attempt to cope. He said we suffer when we don’t get what we desire. So if we can detach ourselves – rid ourselves of desire – we’re released from suffering. He recommended various disciplines like meditation and fasting, to help us to detach ourselves. But is it really possible to rid ourselves of desires, which are integral to who we are, and essentially good – like wanting our children to be well?
Such a state of detachment is a far cry from what Christians believe – that God loves the world so much he involved himself in our suffering. In the person of Jesus he confronted the evil forces that delight in our destruction, endured the worst they could do, and triumphed over them. In overcoming the power of death, he signalled the end of all suffering, and the final renewal of the world he made to be good.
In his little book, If I Were God I’d End All the Pain, John Dickson concludes that from where we’re standing now there’s no completely satisfying answer as to why there’s so much suffering. The four belief-systems of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity offer four different approaches: the idea of karma, unquestioning acceptance, the attempt to detach ourselves, and the God who took on suffering in order to signal its end. We respect each other’s right to hold our different views, but we have to accept they’re pointing in quite different directions. So they challenge us to look at the evidence for each one, and choose between them.
Another choice is the atheist’s belief there is no God and the universe is blindly indifferent to our fate. If that’s so, there’s no point getting upset about suffering. If, as Richard Dawkins says, we’re the result of a huge, cosmic fluke, dancing to the tune of our DNA, why should we care if some of us are in pain or get wiped out? But the fact remains that we do care, and it’s a problem for us precisely because we suspect there is a Creator who should have our interests at heart.
Jesus said he’d come to give his life – to die. So how did he deal with the problem of suffering? We know he was filled with compassion for people undergoing it – people suffering physically, or overcome by grief, or harassed and helpless – spiritually lost. On two occasions we know of, such suffering moved him to tears. In seeing others suffer, Jesus suffered.
That compassion would have been part of what attracted people to him. But it was the news of his work of healing the sick that brought the crowds from far and wide. He was confronting head-on the causes of suffering, and removing them. Jesus did that because of who he is, and who he knew he was – God’s promised Servant-King, whom the prophet Isaiah had said would open the eyes of the blind and release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
His first acts of healing were releasing a man from his demons and ridding Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever. Word got around, so as Matthew recounts it,
That evening after sunset [that is, when the Sabbath-day was over] the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.
Jesus continued to heal the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame and the paralyzed – often simply by touch, although on one occasion we know of, without even seeing a person who was dying. He brought back to life three people who had died. He released people in the grip of forces beyond their control. He used his power to rein in the forces of nature – as when the disciples, caught with Jesus in a storm on the lake, were fearing for their lives. Jesus commanded the waves to be still, and immediately they were.
Not surprisingly, people took all these miracles as evidence that God was with him. As the Pharisee Nicodemus said, “No one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus himself said,”Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.”
In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ first healings, he makes this comment: “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.’”
The healings Jesus performed were not simply to show his power. They confirmed him as God’s suffering Servant, who’d come to begin the process of renewing the universe, by carrying our diseases for us. He would do that by hanging on a cross. Every work of healing pointed to that final confrontation with all that destroys human life, as Jesus suffered – bearing the weight of the sin of the world – despised and rejected by those he’d come to save – dying in agony, of body and spirit.
Jesus’ work of alleviating the suffering he encountered was a powerful sign of who he is – the Creator-God. It’s also the sign of what’s to come, when all the processes of decay and death will be reversed – for good. As in the final vision in the book of Revelation, when God makes everything new there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Now there’s a future to look forward to. In the light of it, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome,
I consider that our present suffering is not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us……when the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
The concluding evidence for that reversal of the pain we now experience is that the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty and he himself was seen alive. That was God’s sign of how the world will be, when his authority is finally universally acknowledged. It will be alive, with life that nothing can destroy.
It’s on the facts of the empty tomb and Jesus appearing alive that Christianity stands – or falls, if there were any way to prove the accounts of them are false. Simply to say such things couldn’t have happened because they’d never happened before and haven’t happened since is not that proof, when you’re talking about what the God who created the universe can do.
As well as having the eye-witness testimony to those events, we have the testimony to the presence of the living Christ with people today who’ve committed themselves to trust and obey him. Recently I was moved and encouraged by news from a Christian leader in Syria that, in the midst of the troubles there, the church is moving whole-heartedly to help relieve the suffering, and to live the truth of the good news of the Prince of peace. He wrote,
Thank God we are the Church of the living God, here for a divine reason, and relying on our sovereign Lord. Across the country the Church is united in prayer twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, praying for the glory of God to dwell in us, and for peace. By God’s grace we are sowing the seeds of love. Counting on the Lord’s power we know we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. We have adopted the motto of a Lebanese pastor who lived through the heat of civil war in his country: Our loyalty is to Christ ….. and our love is to all.
We can rely on the Lord Jesus to bring us through our present suffering – to be with us and in us, as he promised. I recall a lady in the dementia unit where I worked, who’d believed in him all her life. For many years his likeness was being imprinted on her character, with the result that even in her dementia, his love and concern for others could still be seen in her. Not long before she died, I asked her how she was feeling. She hadn’t really spoken for months, but she looked up at me, and whispered, “ Fine. But how are you feeling? You looked tired.
Victor Frankl, reflecting on his ordeal in a concentration camp during the Second World War, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that one’s life has meaning.”
Most of us won’t suffer anything like what Frankl suffered. But whatever trials do come our way, it remains true that God in the person of Jesus bore for us the awfulness of the separation from him we deserve. That gives value and meaning to our lives beyond any we might come up with. Because he suffered on our behalf, we live to glorify him and enjoy him for ever, to use the words of Augustine.
God of all grace and infinite love, help us to see the world’s suffering – and ours – in the light of what you’ve prepared for us through the suffering and death of your Son, the Lord Jesus, our Saviour-King.