Note: Sharon recommends the article at this link in connection with our current topic of discussion: How Americans Make Sense of Suffering | Pew Research Center
Michael and Kiran continue their series on suffering and grace. I appreciate their effort and their work.
Kiran: In the good world that God created, there was no shame, fear, judgement, and suffering or at least they are not aware of it. Adam and Eve enjoyed a loving relationship with God, with each other and with the nature. All that harmony was disrupted when they ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The act of eating forbidden fruit symbolizes an act of defiance to God’s explicit command and the pursuit of knowledge outside of His boundaries which are the basis for morality and ethics. When God pronounced curses on serpent, women, and land, suffering entered the world. The main point from this story is that disobedience to God’s commands and the pursuit of knowledge without regard for moral or ethical boundaries can and will lead to negative consequences, including suffering. So, even if God explicitly didn’t curse specific elements of the world, Adam and Eve’s disobedience and moral transgression can result in suffering and a fallen state for humanity.
Since the fall, suffering became a part of human experience despite one’s belief or disbelief in God. None of us can resist suffering and experiencing suffering once doesn’t prevent us from experiencing it again. This perpetual cycle of suffering can only end when God dwells with us in new heaven and earth.
Revelation 21:3,4 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Revelation 22:1-3 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse…
Today in our Christian society, the prevailing notion is that the stronger one’s faith in God, the closer one is to God, the farther he/she is from the suffering. This notion makes some loving Christians behave insensitively towards those that are in suffering with sickness, addiction, or poverty. Such reasoning makes one think that there is a causality between their deeds and their suffering. There is no doubt that unwise decisions result in predictable negative consequences. But my focus is on those that suffer sickness, loss, and heartache for no explainable reason.
In the New Testament, Jesus advocated an opposite notion. Jesus didn’t promise that his followers will be free from suffering, in fact he said they may be persecuted.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (John 15: 18-20)
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13 )
Most of us wonder why a loving and omnipotent God would allow suffering even when we believe in Him? Some of the horrendous evil that was characterized by the intensity and the duration of suffering such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, make it extremely difficult to defend the argument that God is omnipotent, loving, and benevolent.
Theologically we grapple with this issue in two ways namely “the concept of free will” and “the great controversy theme”. The concept of “free will” argues that if God created a world with free creatures, then it is possible that those creatures would choose to do evil. Therefore, to have free will, evil must be permitted, but God is not responsible for it. Even though this theory partly explains why God permitted evil and suffering, it doesn’t explain how God can be good to individuals and the why God values freedom so greatly even in the face of extreme suffering.
The second explanation which is very Adventist is the Great Controversy theme. According to Ellen White, if God destroyed Satan as soon as he rebelled, the rest of the heavenly beings would not have a chance to comprehend the true nature of such rebellion and would obey God out of fear. Such obedience is not acceptable to God and thus He had to permit evil and allow it to come to its maturity so that every heavenly being would have undeniable evidence for consequences of sin. Thus, the human suffering caused by the permittance of evil is for the eternal good of the universe. Even though this theme gives meaning for human suffering, it does it at the expense of introducing a form of dualism into Christian theology, suggesting that God and Satan are engaged in an ongoing battle of equal power. This dualistic view contradicts the traditional Christian understanding of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty.
Has anyone told you these two theories when you were going through your suffering? Does it help at all? The hard truth is that these explanations do very little to unburden our suffering. The reality is that there is no coherent explanation for why the good suffer and why the wicked prosper. If this is the case, one would argue what is the advantage for us to follow God? Is there any meaning for human suffering? To understand these questions, I want to explore today the relationship between suffering and Grace. But first, I want you to remember a time in your life that you went through the worst of suffering. “Pause for a few seconds”. Now silently answer these questions.
What was your response to this suffering? Were you stoic? Were you fixated on the problem? Did you try to avoid suffering? Did you try to lessen its burden with addiction of choice? Did you feel lonely? Did you feel hopeless? Did feel that God was silent? Now, what was the response of those that were around you?
For those of us that went through suffering of any sort, we understand that just because we prayed and we accepted God’s grace, suffering doesn’t go away, or its intensity doesn’t lessen. The loss we experienced in the form of death of a loved one or disability due to a disease or depression doesn’t reverse itself. Accepting God’s grace doesn’t make us hurt less or doesn’t justify the suffering. So, what role does Grace play in suffering?
In the book of Job, one important thing to note is that in his suffering, along with the loss, sickness, and shame, he also experienced extreme loneliness and hopelessness.
What strength do I have, that I should still hope?
What prospects, that I should be patient?
Do I have the strength of stone? Is my flesh bronze?
Do I have any power to help myself, now that success has been driven from me? (Job 6:11-13)
Like Job, in suffering, we experience hopelessness and loneliness. We often feel that we are at the end of our rope and there isn’t anything left in us to fight the fight. Like Job, our loved ones, our spouses, our best friends don’t understand our loneliness and hopelessness. No matter that they say or don’t say it is not sufficient. Suffering exposes our delusions of strength and false sense of security. It makes us realize how fragile and dispensable our lives are. It shows us that we are no stronger than the weakest of the weak in this world. It’s brutal and it’s honest.
Jesus in His sermon on the mount said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Being poor means having nothing; no resources, no retirement account, no marketable skills, no resume, no education, nothing that we can do for ourselves. We need somebody outside of us to provide for us, protect us and care for us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means that our fundamental sense, our spirit, our inner self, who we really are, is aware of an utter poverty that we need another. We are refugees with nothing.
Why is the kingdom of heaven for the poor in spirit? Suffering exposes the brutal honesty of our human condition, as Paul declared “wretched man I am”! To receive God’s grace, we must first realize our helplessness. Even though God doesn’t want anyone to suffer, He uses suffering to help us understand our weakness. That is when we can receive God’s grace. God’s grace doesn’t mean that suffering goes away, and we suddenly become strong. Instead, we realize our dependence in God.
Next, God’s grace grants us God’s presence. This idea of God’s grace and God’s presence together was first introduced in Zechariah
“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:
‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the Lord of hosts.
‘Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!
And he shall bring forth the capstone With shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” (Zechariah 4:6-7)
This verse encourages Zerubbabel and the people of Judah to rely on the power of God’s Spirit and His grace to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and to accomplish their mission of rebuilding the Temple.
We can further see this connection in the New Testament as well.
“But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”. (2 Corinthians 12:9 )
This verse highlights the connection between God’s grace and His presence. God’s grace is sufficient, and in our weakness, His power is made perfect. When we rely on His grace, we experience His presence and power in our lives.
Finally, Paul when talking about “Spiritual gifts” used two terms, charismata (Rom. 12:6) meaning grace and pneumatika (1 Cor. 12:1) meaning Spirit interchangeably suggesting that with God’s grace there is God’s presence.
Coming back to the question, what is the relationship between suffering and Grace, in our suffering when we accept God’s grace, along with His Grace, we receive His presence as well.
In the case of Job, God came during his suffering and didn’t passively sympathize but actively transformed Job. In the case of Jacob, God came during his suffering and actively wrestled with him, disabled him and changed his name. So, what does God’s presence do to us in our suffering? Paradoxically, instead of easing the suffering, God actively participates with us through our suffering. Most importantly while God is actively suffering with us, He transforms us. Paul best described this transformation in this verse.
I like Eugene Peterson’s version of this passage.
We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized;
we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do;
we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side;
we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.
What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder;
what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives!
Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us. While we’re going through the worst, you’re getting in on the best! (2 Corinthians 4:8-12 [The Message])
Paul went through troubles that we can’t imagine anyone going through in their lifetime. Yet in all his suffering, he never felt lonely or hopeless. Why? Because he realized God’s active, transforming presence in his life.
There is another benefit from God’s active presence in our life. God’s presence after transforming us, through us transforms others. Again, Paul described this best here.
All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort—we get a full measure of that, too. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5 [The Message])
Suffering heals us from our delusions of strength and false sense of security. Suffering enlightens us to God’s graceful fingerprints in unexpected places. Suffering allows us to appreciate even the smallest measures of relief, pleasure, beauty and acts of love that come our way. Suffering makes us more sensitive and attentive to the suffering of others, compelling us to share the grace that we received. Suffering can give us the capacity to see all of these as expressions of grace the goodness and presence of God.
Timothy Kellers said, “don’t let your suffering be wasted”. When we accept God’s grace in suffering, it does not always reduce or eliminate suffering, but it conquers and transforms suffering. This makes us free, free to respond, free to learn, free to grow, free to change, free to trust God without having to inspect and approve the balance sheet. After that we become God’s vessels of Grace and bring comfort to others that are in suffering.
Think of the suffering you went through.
- Did your suffering bring you closer to God or made it difficult to trust Him?
- Is God causing suffering, or does He use suffering to show His Grace?
- Does the existence of evil, pain and suffering make you doubt the omnipotence of God?
- Are pain and suffering evil, or do they serve an important purpose?
- Where is grace in suffering? How can we recognize it and accept it?
- Should we embrace or reject suffering?
C-J : Your questions seem to focus on the notion of expectations, a concept not exclusive to Christians but inherent to human nature. It often feels unfair to wonder, “Why me? When will it be my turn?” But research in social sciences shows that children who have experienced significant trauma from a young age eventually have diminished expectations. They accept their circumstances and begin to develop resilience. These children make the best of what they have; they self-educate, become resourceful, and are quick to rebound after setbacks. This resilience is also seen in professions that demand a high tolerance for pain and chaos, such as police officers and emergency response teams. These individuals have a knack for compartmentalizing their own discomfort. They don’t perceive challenges as “me against the world,” but rather see themselves as part of a team. This isn’t about individual struggles; it’s about collective achievement.
In a Christian context, our ‘training’ starts with learning the Word of God and observing more spiritually mature individuals practice their faith. To me, grace is about embracing the unknown, about trusting your training and understanding that God is ever-present. It’s not about personal suffering; it’s about the bigger process. When we hit obstacles, it’s crucial to pause and consider what we might be missing. This mindfulness helps reduce frustration and enables us to find the solutions we need. The act of surrender and building relationships can transform us, and grace serves as the underlying, unseen factor.
Take the examples of Job and Paul. Job didn’t decide to love God based on what he would get in return, and Paul didn’t weigh the worth of his pain. Paul’s focus was always on his love for God—first as a Jew obedient to the law, then as a servant of the Roman Empire. For Paul, getting back up after a fall was part of the journey. If you can’t stand, someone will take your place until you’re ready. This idea extends beyond individual experiences; I see it in the omnipresence of trauma in our lives. Transformation is ultimately about surrender, relationships, and the unseen grace that guides us.
David: Humans, and humanists specifically, aim to alleviate suffering. Kiran’s presentation, as I understood it, suggested that suffering brings us closer to God and strengthens our faith. If that’s the case, are we obstructing God’s plan by trying to relieve suffering?
Sharon: We could be serving as instruments of God, helping and supporting people during their times of suffering.
David: Michael emailed me about a 1970s philosopher, Neil Postman, who argued that modern media, through entertainment, can relieve suffering, albeit temporarily. Advanced technologies can further help us escape suffering in virtual worlds. If suffering is important for our relationship with God, then isn’t our intervention preventing people from getting closer to God?
Donald: In hospitals, the primary focus is on reducing physical suffering, often viewed through a scientific lens. But there’s also emotional or psychological suffering, like the loss of a child. I think we’re discussing two different types of suffering here: one where something is medically wrong and needs fixing, and another where the suffering is simply part of life’s tragedies. We all want control over our lives to avoid suffering. I cared for a 90-year-old man who had a stroke after a fulfilling life. He kept asking what he did wrong. But it’s not about him or what he could have controlled; it’s just life. Are we in pain, suffering, or both? In the end, our desire for control can be traced back to the Garden of Eden. Just like the devil wanted power equal to God, we seek control to understand and navigate our world.
C-J: I don’t think Adam and Eve aimed for equal power or to supersede God. Our curiosity, which reflects God’s creative spirit, drives us. Bad teachings often make people leave traditional faith systems. When we surrender to God, our relationship transcends time and circumstances. I believe that a strong spiritual foundation will make one automatically responsible to humanity and the planet.
Don: I wonder if pain and suffering are the same. Medical professionals see pain as an indicator of internal issues. Conditions where pain sensation is lost, like leprosy, are dangerous. I don’t think pain and suffering are necessarily synonymous.
David: Don is well-qualified to talk about this since he treats cancer patients. With terminal patients, there’s physical and spiritual suffering. Can doctors draw a line between the two?
Don: The line blurs. Mental or spiritual suffering can exacerbate physical suffering, and vice versa.
Donald: Hospitals mostly operate on scientific data, but they don’t necessarily address emotional or spiritual suffering. It seems like we’re trying to discuss both scientific and emotional perspectives here.
C-J: In my experience, patients do better when they have a good relationship with their caregivers. Emotional well-being helps with physical healing. I think this is a universal human experience.
Sharon: I found a statement saying, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Suffering adds emotional resistance to pain, making it worse. Pain seems objective, while suffering is more subjective.
Kiran: In some cases, we have the option to avoid suffering, like choosing whether to give birth to a child with a debilitating condition.
Michael: Previously, Kiran and I were trying to find value in discussing suffering. But if we don’t focus on suffering itself, how can we move to acceptance?
C-J: I believe that acceptance and transformation come when we allow God to intervene.
Michael: But we can’t move into acceptance without discussing the nature of suffering itself.
C-J: I believe everyone here has experienced various forms of suffering. Whether personal or observed, suffering is inescapable. But we must remember our role as ambassadors of God’s transformative power through grace. We can’t avoid suffering; it’s an instrument God uses for a purpose. Both Christian and Jewish traditions address this, although their perspectives differ. While Jewish teachings often focus on earthly suffering, Christianity emphasizes transformation and grace, extending beyond our temporal existence.
Donald: When we say someone is in our prayers, what does that mean? Lately, the number of people in need of prayers has grown significantly. Are we praying for their suffering to end, or are we praying for something else? When we announce in church that someone is ill and needs prayers, what exactly are we praying for? Are we asking God to intervene or to help us understand that perhaps the suffering has a purpose?
Don: It seems we’re all grappling with the meaning and purpose of suffering. We have yet to fully understand why suffering is necessary, let alone why Jesus had to suffer specifically. This is a topic worthy of ongoing discussion, as it forces us to confront difficult questions.
David: If we can alleviate suffering, whether it’s through a cure for cancer or more humane methods of execution, the line between physical and spiritual suffering shifts. Advances in technology, such as virtual worlds, are even making it possible to relieve emotional suffering. Virtual avatars might soon offer relationships free from the risk of emotional pain. What happens then? What becomes of us if we eradicate all forms of suffering?
Donald: The question then arises: what does it mean to be human? Unlike AI, humans have the capacity to suffer. If the suffering is removed, how does that alter our human experience? And what would replace that suffering?
Don: I’m eager to hear Michael’s presentation next week on this topic. Sharon will follow, discussing the role of suffering across different cultures, based on her extensive experience in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America.
* * *