Few things make a person feel so small and inept as facing questions of suffering in the world.
First, there's the sheer breadth of the problem. No matter who you are or how carefully you've planned your life, suffering is going to hit you. Human life is tragically fragile and subject to forces well outside our ability to manage.
Second, there's the inscrutability of the issue. It's one thing to sit in a philosophy class and discuss suffering in a detached, academic manner, but in the real world, if you've ever been pierced by pain or grief, and you slow down long enough to acknowledge the "why" questions burning within you, you know the impossibility of finding a firm answer to grab hold of. Our net of meaning is far too small. And if you've ever sat alongside someone who's suffering, you know the difficulty of finding apt words for the circumstance—in fact it's often best to provide nothing more than your physical presence and a listening ear, rather attempting a pithy answer for your friend's pain.
But despite the magnitude, complexity, and uneasy nature of the issue, it does us no good to ignore questions of suffering. Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, says that while it's popular in the West to avoid topics of suffering and death—distracting ourselves with work, sex, and personal quests to shore up a sense of significance in the world—that kind of approach fails to "take life seriously," precisely because it fails to acknowledge the "rumble of panic beneath everything." The “rumble of panic” is the inexorable approach of death and the trauma that brings.
So let's examine it. First, we'll look at two common responses to suffering: the religious approach, and the western secular approach. Then, we'll observe a couple key resources the reality of the incarnation gives us.
The Traditional Religious Approach
The first response to suffering comes from those of a more traditional, religious mindset, and goes something like this: "You shouldn't question God. Don't complain to him, don't doubt him. His ways are higher than yours, and, well, you just need to have faith."
While there's an element of truth to this answer (yes, if there is a God, it makes sense that his ways would be higher than ours), this response is neither helpful nor biblical. It's not helpful, because few things are more cold and stifling—not to mention frustrating—for an afflicted person to hear than to be told they aren't allowed to express their emotions, and to be commanded to "just have faith." And it's not biblical because you'll find many individuals in the Bible questioning God and crying out to him in their pain, and they aren't condemned for it. The prophet Habakkuk questions God's love and justice with shocking boldness in Habakkuk chapter 1, the psalmist in Psalm 88 goes so far as to imply that darkness is his closest friend, rather than God, and Job cursed the day he was born and challenged God's wisdom, and yet at the end, he's still commended by God.
Further, if you read the entire Bible, you'll quickly find suffering to be one of its primary themes. The beginning of Genesis describes how death and evil entered the world. The wisdom literature—Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes—is filled with shouts of pain, blunt questions to God regarding evil and unjust suffering, and extensive reflections on the apparent meaninglessness of life. The New Testament book of 1 Peter, among others, is dedicated to helping people face the relentless tragedies that characterize so much of existence. And finally, the Bible's chief protagonist, Jesus Christ, is a man of sorrows.
This is one of the reasons I appreciate the Bible so much: throughout the entire book, there's a tension and complexity regarding the subject of suffering that rings true to the real world. It doesn't offer blind optimism and bumper sticker solutions, but it also warns against the futility and dehumanization that comes with hardened cynicism.
So to say, "don't question God about suffering, you just need to have faith," is not only empty and unhelpful, it's incongruous with the very Bible a person may profess to follow.
The Western Secular Approach
Western secular culture gives its members two primary approaches to the fact of suffering in the world. The first is to ignore it, keeping it out of sight and out of mind for as long as possible. While this may work for a while—and we're pretty good at it, due to the wonder of modern medicine and the many means of distraction at our disposal—it's a response that's both naive and fruitless. It's naive because, as noted above via Ernest Becker, it fails to take life seriously and face it for what it is. I'm not saying one should brood on the grimmer aspects of life—existence is a precious, joyous gift that needs to be regularly celebrated—but it's largely immature to push the reality of suffering to the margins for as long as you can.
And it's fruitless to ignore suffering because no matter how meticulously you work to be wealthy or control your life, no amount of money or planning can prevent suffering from tackling you: be it a betrayal, a debilitating illness, or loss of a loved one. I'm not saying medicine, money, or planning are bad things—they do solve many problems—but none of them can provide the fully-orbed protection many hope to find in them.
It's largely due to this approach that Westerners—and I include myself here—are poorly equipped to handle suffering when it strikes, when compared to other cultures. Dr. Paul Brand, an orthopedic surgeon who served in India for the first half of his career, and in the United States for the second half, commented in his book The Gift of Pain, "I encountered [in the United States] a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it."
The other approach to suffering in the West is to use it as a means of discarding the existence of God. The objection goes, "If God is all-good and all-powerful, then there wouldn't be suffering in the world. But there is suffering in the world. Therefore, God doesn't exist. Who needs him."
Now, I'm highly sensitive to this line of reasoning—I've personally felt the weight of it on numerous occasions, and I don't flippantly dismiss it in the moment when I hear it from someone who's undergone tragedy. It would take stacks of books give this question the treatment it deserves, and I'm not going to attempt an exhaustive treatment now, but here are two brief things to consider:
#1. It's critical to remember your cultural context when thinking about or discussing any of the big questions of life. Western secular culture gives its members a "grid" through which to interpret life, just as other cultures give their members a grid. And western secular culture is probably the first culture in the history of the world to see pain and suffering as being a case for the nonexistence of God.
Scholars have noted that our ancient ancestors faced far higher degrees of suffering than we do—as just one example, in medieval Europe, one of every five infants died before the age of one, and only half of all children lived up to age ten—and yet they didn't use it as an objection against the existence of God. Why? Because they had the humility to recognize that if there's a God who's all-good and all-powerful, then it's not surprising he could have reasons for allowing suffering that are inscrutable to human minds. In other words: if you have a God powerful enough to be mad at for not stopping suffering, then by default you also have a God who's big enough to have reasons for allowing suffering that you couldn't understand even if presented to you. We can't have our cake and eat it too.
But in our modern culture, we've become so confident in our powers of human reason and surveillance, that we're certain there can't be any good reasons for God to allow suffering. It actually takes a profound arrogance to say, "Because I can't think of a good reason God allows suffering, he must not have one, and therefore he doesn't exist." If a 5-year old told his 40-year old parent, "Because I can't think of a good reason you're telling me to do [this thing I really don't want to do], I won't do it," we'd say that's utter nonsense, and the child should still trust the parent, because the parent has a far broader perspective of reality than the child does. How much greater is the gap of understanding between a finite human and an infinite God?
So it's important to recognize the objection to God's existence because of suffering is both a) a product of a very particular cultural location and moment, and b) largely depends on the assumptions one brings to the table, rather than neutral, rational thought.
#2. Even if you get rid of God because of suffering, that still doesn't make the problem go away. Anthropologist Richard Shweder, in the book Why Do Men Barbecue, notes that every culture must provide its members with a way to understand and cope with suffering, and modern secular culture stands apart from every other culture in this regard. Shweder surveys other cultures, and shows how all of them help their members process suffering by making the highest purpose of life something outside this world, something outside personal happiness and material comfort. Therefore, in all these other cultures—which may imbibe the narratives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek Stoicism, Christianity, etc.—where life's ultimate purpose may be enlightenment, or moral virtue, or honor, or glorifying God, all these purposes can be attained through suffering, not in spite of it.
But modern western culture, on the other hand, tells its members that this material world is all there is. In a natural-only universe that's subject to blind, impersonal forces, suffering isn't anything more than the accidents of nature. Furthermore, there is no ultimate purpose other than the purpose we create for ourselves, living the life that makes us the most happy. But when meaning can only be found circumscribed within the material world and by attaining the life that gives you the most happiness, then suffering can't have any meaningful part to play. Suffering can only be an interruption to your life story, and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
While I'm highly sympathetic toward secular thought, I find it very difficult to live the secular narrative outside of a vacuum, and without recourse to transcendent ideas. It's one thing to intellectually assent to the belief that the material world is all there is, and at that human beings are, at the root of it, nothing more than the accidental collocation of atoms, but it's another thing entirely to experience, say, the suffering or death of a loved one, and be consistent with the idea that there was no ultimate purpose to that love or relationship anyway, and resist the urge to smuggle in resources from other views of life in order to cope and make sense of it all.
What the Incarnation gives us
So what does the incarnation—God becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ—offer us?
First of all, Christians need to maintain immense humility when approaching the issue of suffering. I often hear people glibly answer the question of suffering with something like, "God wanted to give humans free will, and suffering was a natural consequence of that," but—while I won't go into it right now—that answer, along with the others I've heard, doesn't hold up to scrutiny. At the end of the day, we must admit there's a huge element of "I don't know" with this topic.
But while we don't have a watertight answer, the incarnation does give us potent clues, and some powerful resources for dealing with suffering. Let's divide them up between the "understanding" level and the "experiential" level.
The Understanding Level
First, it gives us an intellectual response to the issue. Whatever the reason is for God allowing suffering, we can know what it is not: it's not because he doesn't love us. How do we know this? Because God proved it, through the incarnation. In the incarnation, he gets involved. In the incarnation, he shares in our suffering. In the incarnation, he shows us he's not a God who sits idly by, cooly watching from a distance as his creation suffers.
While I have much respect for Jews and Muslims and how they cope with suffering, I honestly don't know how they do it. Because in both sets of beliefs, it's acknowledged that God is in fact in heaven, controlling history and the movement of the world, and yet he remains up there, impervious to suffering and refusing to involve himself.
But that's not the case with the God of the Bible. It's striking that Albert Camus, the great french philosopher, picked up on the earth-shattering implication of the incarnation, and what Jesus did on the cross. In his essay The Rebel, he writes:
[Jesus] suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can longer be imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man...because, in its shadow, the divinity abandoned its traditional privileges and drank to the last drop, despair included, the agony of death.
While we don't know why God does permit evil, the answer can't be because he doesn't care. The cross gives us remarkable assurance that he does have a good reason, because he was willing to do everything it took to restore our relationship with him, even though it meant taking on suffering and death himself.
The Experiential Level
The incarnation also provides a powerful resource for dealing with suffering on the experiential level. How?
When you're undergoing a trial, and you approach someone for help, if that person hasn't experienced what you're going through, it's difficult to take their advice to heart. It's hard not to think, "You really have no idea what I'm going through." Sure, you're grateful for their counsel and advice, but deep down, you still feel alone.
But if you meet someone who's been through exactly the same thing you're experiencing, and not only that, but they went through it on a scale ten times more severe, you say, "You really get it. You actually know what it's like." And you pour your soul out to them. And when they comfort you, you're far more comforted than if someone else comforted you. When they strengthen you, you're ten times more strengthened than if someone else strengthened you.
Hebrews 2:17-18 tells us,
For this reason [Jesus] had to be made like [us], fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God...Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
This is astounding. No matter what you're going through, Jesus knows what it's like. God, through Jesus, subjected himself to the laws of biology. The fallibility of human politics. The earthly realities of fear, and uncertainty, and loss.
This means that if you've placed your trust in Christ, then when you suffer, and you go to pray, you're not only praying looking up, but looking across. You can look into the world, not just outside of it. And when you do, you see a face amongst a sea of other human faces. A face that's hurt, frightened, and alone. A face amid an angry crowd, a crowd convinced it's doing the right thing as it ridicules him, tortures him, and sentences him to death.
Jesus knows what it's like to suffer. To be betrayed. To be painfully torn from the one he loved.
So when you suffer, no, you can't understand the full meaning of it, or why God would allow it. But you can still cry out and pour out your grief, you can wrestle with God, knowing he truly knows what it's like. He earned our trust on the cross, and invites us to draw near to him both during the bright and beautiful times, and during the dark and sorrowful ones.