Whose fault is it? Whose fault is it that the man in John 9 has lived with blindness his whole life? Coming across a man who has been blind from birth, the disciples ask Jesus this question. They know that it must be tied to sin, but was it the man’s or his parents’?
It is easy to judge the disciples’ question, but the question lingers. The third century Greek philosopher Epicurus poses it this way: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
If God is all powerful and all loving, why does the world hurt so deeply? Wouldn’t a loving God relieve the pain? This argument lands with philosophical and emotional weight. It is difficult to argue against it or offer encouragement without slipping into platitudes about the mysterious nature of God, his sovereignty or the ultimate good that may come out of suffering. But the question remains.
There are times when God uses suffering for our growth (Rom. 5:3-5) and times when he uses suffering ultimately for our good (Rom. 8:28). However, if we are not careful, assigning these motivations to God may flow from our own egocentricity.
My brother died as a teenager and that caused me to come back to faith and become a pastor. While this was the result, the changes in my life are not the reasons my family suffered this tragedy. Looking beyond the ego of this claim, a God who operates like this would be a monster, killing one brother to improve the life of the other. We all tend to believe that we are the main character in the story, but this is most certainly not the case.
Like the disciples, the belief that suffering flows out of and is a punishment for sin is alive and well today. Modern Christians frequently operate with a karma-based worldview. “God, I did everything you asked—went to church regularly, tithed, served—and you let my wife die from COVID-19.” Or, “I follow you, I pray and this pain has never gone away. Yet my neighbor cheats on his wife, leaves his children and everything falls into place for him.”
“God makes humans different from any other creature on Earth, making us “in his image” and for relationship based on love (Jeremiah 31:3). It is this love relationship that is difficult, because love is always a risk; it opens us up to pain.”
Love leads to pain
Once we move past these surface reasons for suffering, we arrive at the central issue. We arrive at the godly couple that prays for a child for years and has incredible difficulty getting and staying pregnant only to give birth and lose the child in the first year. The teen who walks into a trampoline park and leaves a quadriplegic. The family who buries their 23-year-old daughter who is killed by a drunk driver. Moments that go beyond pain as a consequence or a hidden good. Moments that leave us asking why.
The answer lies in the beginning, in the created order. Not in the Genesis 1 creation narrative but in a choice built into creation and a great but beautiful risk the Creator takes. God makes humans different from any other creature on Earth, making us “in his image” and for relationship based on love (Jeremiah 31:3). It is this love relationship that is difficult, because love is always a risk; it opens us up to pain.
I love my wife, and, as far as I can tell, she loves me. Through this love we have the power to bring both joy and pain into each other’s lives based on our choices. It is tempting to limit the choices of the person we love. But if the person has no choice whether to love and to be in a relationship, it is not a relationship but captivity.
If there was no choice there would be no love. This is where Epicurus’ equation breaks down. An all-powerful God could create a situation that does not include suffering, but it would also not include love, freedom and choice. Adam and Eve reject God’s love, and in fear they choose self-sufficiency and isolation over trust and intimacy with God. A short while later the first fratricide occurs as Cain kills Abel, and the Bible says that Cain moves away from the Lord’s presence and travels east of Eden (Genesis 4:16).
This movement away from God’s presence that began at the tree continues today. The consequence of rejecting God is sin, death and a brokenness that travels through all areas and aspects of life. An all-powerful God did create the world Epicurus envisions, but then people broke it.
God is not done
The good news is that God is not done. Even though we fail on our end, because of his great love, God is moving us from Eden toward heaven. Surprisingly, the way he moves us forward is by suffering himself. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, steps into our world and suffers alongside us in the “normal” sufferings of life before going to a Roman cross to pay the price we all deserved (Galatians 3:13).
When we see suffering and God’s response this way, our response changes. Like Christ, our response is to be with the hurting. The answer is not in having the answers but entering deeply into the lives of the hurting. When I see people hurting, I often think about what to say. When I am the one hurting, I just want a hug.
Job’s friends were doing a great job sitting with him in his pain, and then they opened their mouths and begin to cause pain. I recently heard a friend say, “She’s in a better place” to a friend whose wife had died of COVID leaving him to raise two kids. While this is of course true, it was not helpful, and in fact was hurtful.
In addition to being with those in pain, we can remember we live in a complicated time—the time between when God’s kingdom is beginning to break through and when it is fully realized. We want heaven and we want full relief now, but the fullness is still in the future. How do we operate in the meantime?
Stephanie Hubach says it well in her book, Same Boat Different Lake: “Think about the ‘already-not-yet-ness’ of the kingdom being reflected along a spectrum of expressions of restoration. Healing is the fullest and most present expression of restoration; hope is the most future-oriented expression and help is in the continuum in between.”
Our “healing” ministries sometimes fall back into the Epicurean pitfall, asking why an all-powerful God would not want everyone healed right now. I have witnessed and heard downright embarrassing stories of people on mission trips trying to pray every person out of their wheelchairs and restore every blind man’s sight. But we are still in the “not yet” portion of the story where hope and help are just as important as healing.
Strength in community
Finally, our response to suffering will always drive us to live, be and heal in community. Suffering demonstrates that we are weak. A bridge is weak the moment before it collapses even though to the onlooker it appears strong because it stands upright. We are all one moment away from a collapse. If the right issue strikes us in the right place, we will collapse. Acknowledging our weakness and depending on community gives us strength.
I have spent time with parents of special needs children though my wife’s ministry. In this community there is a divorce rate some statistics have as high as 85 percent. One of the ministry events is an annual camp for these families. Many of the families come into the week very tired, but they leave strengthened. There are many reasons for the rejuvenation, but an important one is that by coming together in community they realize that they are not alone. They share the burden with one another as well as with loving staff who come alongside to help.
As we live with suffering and seek to minister to those around us who are in pain, let’s remember the value of simply being with one another, of recognizing that full healing is still coming and of finding strength in community.
Jon Annin is lead pastor at Stony Brook Church, a USMB congregation in Omaha, Nebraska.