Why do people suffer when they do not deserve it?

Anyone reading this is almost certainly doing so in the context of distress or pain.  It may be something they or someone they know are undergoing, or a catastrophe somewhere in the world may be featuring in the news.  This is written in the hope that you will find healing and help.

To be frank, there is no convincing answer to the question, ‘Why am I suffering?’  It is something that is experienced by every individual (indeed, everything that lives and breathes).  Jesus, who grieved, agonised and finally died in shameful circumstances, was no exception.  It is an unavoidable part of the world we have inherited.

There are a few things that Christians are able to say with confidence.  Firstly, you are not suffering because God hates you.  Secondly, your suffering will come to an end, and there will be an eternity in which peace and justice will compensate you.  And thirdly, knowing the presence of God alongside you will make you stronger as you face painful circumstances.

The Christian faith teaches that God hates suffering.  It was not part of his intention for humankind.  However, he has created a world that has two features.  Both these features are wonderfully beneficial to humans, but also result in a planet where suffering is inevitable.

First, the humans who are the part of creation that God loves are created capable of making choices.  To a greater or lesser degree everyone chooses to do some bad things as well as some good things.  Much of the suffering of the world is caused by humans in large numbers choosing together to do things that are evil.  Wars, poverty and hatred are not caused by God.  They are caused by people who are rejecting the ways of God.  Tragically, people who are entirely innocent often suffer most.

Second, the world is held in a delicate balance in which every part of creation is dependent on every other part.  This is true from heaving oceans to microscopic seeds to meat-eating animals.  Science calls this ecology.  A planet that sustains human life as part of this glorious interdependent system needs certain features in its design.  They include the movements of the planet’s surface that set life in motion, but also cause terrible destruction through earthquakes and volcanoes.  They include the viruses that bring death to humans but life to other parts of our ecology.

How do we know that God cares about this?  Christians recognise that God’s loving commitment to a suffering world was so great that he visited it in person.  Jesus was God.  He experienced the very best and very worst of being human – living, dying in hideous circumstances and overcoming death.  All we know of Jesus leads Christians to believe that wherever there is suffering, there is a sense in which God is alongside each human, hurting with them.  Although Christians find pain terrible and hard to understand, this belief allows them to cling to the possibility that suffering is not meaningless and death will not be the end.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and my body with grief.

My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak …

But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, ‘You are my God.’
My times are in your hands;
deliver me from my enemies
and from those who pursue me …

Love the Lord, all his saints!
The Lord preserves the faithful,
but the proud he pays back in full.
Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in the Lord.

Where to find it:

Psalm 31:9,10,14,23,24

About these words:

The psalms formed the hymnbook of the Jews for a thousand years before Jesus, and of Christians ever since.

And they said…

Senator Gordon Wilson, 1927-1995, injured by a terrorist bomb in Eniskillen, Northern Ireland in 1987.  His daughter Marie died:

I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her.  But I bear no ill will, I bear no grudges.  Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life.  Don’t ask me, please, for a purpose.  I don’t have a purpose.  I don’t have an answer.  But I know there has to be a plan.  If I didn’t think that I would commit suicide.  It’s part of a greater plan and God is good.  And we shall meet again.

John McVicar, former gangster, writing about the murder of schoolchildren in Dunblane, Scotland, March 1996:

There are moments when you need to rest your head on holy ground … There are times when you need religion to explain the inexplicable.  Even an atheist can see there are some things you need to bow your head before.

Paul Claudel, poet, 1868-1955:

Jesus did not come to explain suffering, nor to take it away.  He came to fill it with his presence.

Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, writing in 1995 in the visitors’ book of Yad Vesham, the museum of the holocaust in Jerusalem:

God brings everything we do to judgement.