The Only Answer to Suffering
By Ephraim Radner
Jan 21, 2019
I once heard a priest address a congregation with a question: “What is the complaint I hear most from parents?” Then he answered it by saying: “they lament the fact that their grown children have stopped going to church.” The priest went on: “Do you know what I tell them? Pray to God that your children suffer more.” It was a shocking statement, and people audibly gasped when they heard it.
But the priest’s point here was simply that, for many people, God comes clear to them – rises up before their eyes and hearts – only when their need strips away other lesser, and ultimately false hopes and foundations. It’s not a strange thought, in fact. We often talk of people – those struggling with alcohol or drugs – needing to “hit bottom” before they can face the truth of who they are and what needs to be done to turn things around, often with God’s help. We all need to have our illusions stripped away in order to see God; and suffering often performs that task.
The converse to this bit of advice, however, is also true: for those who suffer, we pray that they will find God, or “be found” by God. Obviously, we first pray for their relief, through God’s mercy. But just as often, we seek God’s presence for them, simply and in an unadorned way. We tend to think, perhaps, that God will encourage them, give them strength, provide hope, and this will help “get them through.” There is surely truth to this expectation. More so, and deep down, we believe that suffering, otherwise so difficult to bear, let alone explain, can find its sense, however mysteriously, only with God, never apart from Him. This is even more true.
I have often been asked to “explain why we suffer,” as if theologians or priests have access to this bit of knowledge that the world has sought after, like gold, since time immemorial. I don’t think we can do this. The only “answer” to suffering is life with God, something we cannot control for others, however deeply responsible we may be for it when it comes to our own selves. Life with God, as a follower of God’s grace, who is Jesus: suffering is dealt with only there.
Christians have tried to “make sense” of suffering and evil in several important ways – explanations about the Fall of Adam and Eve, the value of free will, the fact that we can grow and learn through suffering, and so on. Books on apologetics have outlined and argued these matters, and each of these responses is true in its own way. Still, these arguments rarely convince people. Why? Because these answers do not resolve suffering, which always remains in place in human life, and just because it is suffering, is always discouraging, back-breaking, potentially destructive of the warmest heart. We have to accept and be open about the fact that we can never explain suffering away, however intellectually plausible our arguments might be. Suffering always sticks around – that’s its nature.
We also need to be honest about the fact that the Christian is going to suffer just like the non-Christian, with or without good arguments. Being a Christian isn’t a charm that protects from suffering. How could it be? Paul actually writes that our salvation is given us in a way that must pass through suffering (Rom. 8:17; cf Acts 14:22). Suffering is built into the Christian life, not just because we are human (that too!) but because we are Christians bound to Jesus who also suffered (cf. Mat. 16:24). And if it is truly suffering that the Christian experiences, not some knock-off version of pain, then the Christian too will bend and sometimes break beneath its burden. This is absolutely key to grasping, because it goes quite counter to our religious instincts and desires, though of course we know it to be true deep down.
Finally, as the Christian follows Jesus, enters with him into his life, his suffering, and his death – as the Christian is truly “baptized,” in this sense (cf. Mat. 20:22) – then the truth of all this is slowly made evident, but also revealed as bound to Truth itself, that is to God’s own being. Not with an argument, or even an “answer”; but with the following itself. We learn what suffering is “all about” only with God. That is why one person cannot tell another in advance how suffering will find its meaning for that person or what it will feel like when it does. That is why the minister in the hospital or hospice, or at the graveside, cannot offer words that can “make sense” of what someone is going through in the midst of terrible pain. That person must “follow” for her- or himself. Or at least must be able to see you following.
In this sense, the only answer, the only apologetic response, to suffering is evangelism and formation – not in the moment of pain, of course, where it is rarely heard; but as the context in which suffering finds its profile, the context of drawing into the faith and forming in the faith. In the face of suffering – yours or another’s – there is only following. It is yours to do. No one else’s. Yours to discover. And you will, if you follow with Jesus.
We tend to teach our children to be good, to work hard, to make “wise decisions,” to be nice, to accomplish something. And we pray that nothing bad happens to them. This, after all, is pretty much what we hope for ourselves. But it’s not who we really are; nor is it where we are really going. We will pass through all kinds of landscapes, but eventually each of us will suffer, and see those we love suffering. The truth of God’s life, in its fullness, is something that transfigures all things, and it is this that we yearn for whatever we end up passing through or wherever we end up coming to rest. Shall I pray that my children suffer? Of course not! It will happen anyway. Pray instead that they will follow the one who came to give abundant life, even in the face of tribulation (Jn. 10:10; 16:33).
About the Author
Ephraim Radner is Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College.