Answering Suffering: 3 Approaches

My small group last week looked at the book of Job and largely about the questioning of suffering.  In the oldest biblical literature, there is much more complaining to God, but after the Babylonian Exile that seemed to be shut up.  The reasons for that are theological shifts which included providing an answer for suffering.  And once you have an answer, it is just disrespectful to keep asking over and over again.  I disagree with that and I think even if we think we have an answer we still can get a lot of healing by complaining to God, but that’s not my main point of this post.  Generally speaking you have three main categories of answers that Christians provide for why there is suffering in the world: labour pains theology, the result of sin, and spiritual warfare.  Which one(s) do you lean toward?  Which do you find most comforting?  Which do you find most logical?

Labour Pains Theology

This category of answer is most strongly seen in the work of John Calvin.  Within John Calvin’s theology, God is in absolute control and choosing everything.  That includes choosing to inflict suffering on his followers among others.  However, the reason for this is that it brings far more good in the long run than we can see while we’re going through it.  One of my professors referred to this as labour pains theology, because it is like being in labour – it is pretty painful for a short time but brings new life and much more joy in the long run.

The Result of Sin

This category is the easiest to see in the work of Augustine and is probably the one that the average person thinks of regardless of their religious slant.  We want for good things to happen to good people and for bad things to happen to bad people.  That’s justice and is a natural drive in all of us.  Putting it as a theology you get two variants.  In one, which I would call a retributive justice theology, God punishes the good and rewards the bad, where the punishment or reward are not necessarily related to the thing done.  In the other, God allows us to experience the negative consequences of our own bad choices (and the bad choices of others) as a matter of respecting our free will and of us learning from those mistakes.

Spiritual Warfare

This category is pretty rare in contemporary Western Christianity, and when my professor (the same one I mentioned earlier) summarized the Christian answers to suffering, he didn’t even include this one.  In the modern world we tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of evil forces at work, but I still contend that if you look at the world around you, it is pretty obvious there is evil out there.  So in this case, suffering is not the result of either our mistakes or God’s grand plan, but the work of evil against us.  You can see this in the beginning of Job (interestingly, the middle of Job operates largely on the sin theology and the end on the labour pains theology) as well as in various apocalyptic literature.  It can be tied into the labour pain theologies because you could say that God allows this evil activity for the ultimate good, but it is still distinct because in this framework it is not something that God wants.

The Suffering Christ

Ok, so I said three, and this one isn’t really an answer to the why but I do tend to think it should be the starting point in actually helping somebody suffering.  To me one of the most important messages of the death of Jesus was about how God handles suffering.  Jesus even asks to be delivered from the suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, but then goes through with it.  I find this a valuable reminder in our suffering that God suffered too – more than most of us at least in the West ever will – but that he was willing to do it out of love for us (regardless of your atonement theology).  I think this is a comfort for those who are suffering.  My life has been pretty great, though, so even more for me, it is motivation for those of us who aren’t suffering to be willing to help those in need, even if it challenges us in the process.  If we are to follow the model of Jesus, we cannot just sit back and hope for a magical instant fix to pain around us, but we are called to get involved in potentially painful ways.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.