Suffering. There is no escaping it. Since the Fall (Genesis 3), suffering has inescapably been part of the human condition.
Hindus tend to regard our suffering as punishment for deeds done in a previous life. To the Hindu, a great deal of suffering is simply accumulated "karma" catching up with people. In Hindu thinking, the upside is that by "settling accounts" and paying for past misdeeds, the soul's next reincarnation will be more enjoyable. Hindus say that pleasure cannot exist without there also being pain. For Hindus, bliss and suffering are simply two sides of the same thing.
Hindus believe that Brahman, which is the Ultimate or Absolute Reality, has appeared on earth through the centuries in the form of countless gods. In the stories told in sacred Hindu writings, the gods and goddesses show little concern about human suffering. Indeed, Hindus often see human existence as a sort of theatrical performance directed and produced by the gods.
Buddhists say we suffer because of spiritual ignorance and our inaccurate perceptions of the world and of what it means to be human. Buddhists say we suffer because we are too attached to worldly things. Buddhism urges us to get past suffering by not clinging to material objects or even to relationships with other people. Buddhists say that a desire for things and relationships is what causes us to suffer.
Our Muslim friends generally see suffering as a way to submit to the will of Allah. Islam teaches that pain can lead us to repentance and then on to good deeds. Thus, one Muslim response to suffering is to focus on the rewards promised in Paradise. The good works emphasis of Islam gives rise to the feeling that the more our lives are pleasing to God, the less we will suffer.
Sikhism, the fifth largest of the world religions, teaches that suffering arises from being self-centered, on either our part or on the part of others. Sikhism challenges sufferers to be fearless either in active revolt against cruelty and injustice or in a fearless acceptance of one's plight.
Animistic belief systems such as tribal religions hold that suffering results from (1) people putting a hex or curse on us or (2) the spirits toying with us or punishing us. Animists combat suffering by employing counter-measures against the dreaded "evil eye" or by trying to placate the spirits.
It must be said, of course, that the way in which various religions view suffering is more complex than it might seem in this quick overview.
The Christian response is three-fold:
Shaping Christian responses to suffering are two biblical assertions: Firstly, "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16) and secondly, we are created in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). God cares deeply about us. He is indeed Immanuel, "God-with-us." Isn't that thought the inescapable message of passages like Psalm 23?
"Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me."
-- Psalm 23:4
Hopefully, we are discovering, as is affirmed in Paul's experience, that God's grace and presence are really all we need in any circumstance (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Mary Stevenson's classic poem "Footprints in the Sand" eloquently expresses how God's grace carries us through even the worst of times."
This perspective differs enormously from a fatalistic acceptance of our lot in life. God's presence and grace redefine suffering so it does not exercise power over us. While suffering is a distortion of the good and is certainly alien to that for which we were created, God's presence and grace in the midst of it helps clarify who we are, what is most important in life, and how He can be more than adequate for us whatever the situation.
Sometimes, for reasons beyond our understanding, Yahweh intervenes miraculously and delivers from suffering. After all, Scripture does proclaim that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a Deliverer (2 Samuel 22:2, Psalm 18:2).
To be sure, some believers have gotten off track in their desire that God be a Deliverer. Some fall into the trap of feeling that if they can get enough people to pray, God will be obligated to do what they want. Others think deliverance always comes if one thinks or prays just the right way. For instance, a "health and wealth gospel" proponent once cornered me in California to argue that believers in Haiti suffer from economic deprivation and severe health issues simply because they haven't properly "claimed" deliverance from suffering.
God is a Deliverer. However, He often looks to His people to be the agents of that deliverance. The second part of the Great Commandment -- "love your neighbor as yourself" -- calls us to seek to alleviate the suffering of fellow human beings.
Christians have relieved physical suffering in far greater measure than the adherents of any other religion. Christians all over the world run homes for orphans and lepers and shelters for the homeless. They set up hospitals and clinics. They seek to relieve famine and chronic malnutrition. They organize disaster relief efforts and fight against slavery. They rescue and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking. They run shelters for abused women and their children.
To summarize, God does sometimes miraculously intervene and deliver people from suffering. Other times, He calls His people to be the agents of such deliverance. The best news of all is that God Himself wants to walk with us in every circumstance of life. The image from Psalm 23 of God being with us in the direst of circumstances is what should shape our response to suffering. The affirmation of Paul in 2 Corinthians that God's grace is sufficient sustains, strengthens, and even empowers us.
-- Howard Culbertson,
Published in Illustrated Bible Life, a quarterly curriculum piece produced for teachers of adult Sunday School classes by The Foundry.