One common complaint made about God is that if he is so loving, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world. This is an age-old complaint, and it is part of what is referred to as the issue of theodicy. How do we justify the ways of God with so much pain and evil in the world?
There have been many ways to approach this problem over the centuries of course. One aspect of attempting to answer this is to look at the nature of love itself. If real love exists, can there never be pain and suffering? It seems that both go together, by necessity.
To choose to love is to also choose to hurt – or at least to open yourself up to the possibility of being hurt. When you love someone, your love may be rejected, spurned, not reciprocated or welcomed. To avoid any chance of hurt one would have to avoid any attempt to love.
Any parent of course knows all about this. They love their children, but the children may not always love them in return. They may rebel, go off the rails, fall into horrendous evil, and turn on their own mother and father. That hurts. It is exactly because a parent loves a child so much that it hurts so greatly if and when that child rejects them, or does that which displeases them.
That is true of all loving relationships. The more love there is, the more chance for real hurt and pain. Love rejected always hurts. And it seems we can speak of God as a wounded lover as well. He created us to have a love relationship with him, but we all have turned our backs on him, rejected him, disobeyed him, and even acted as if he does not exist.
That is something that hurts a God of love. This in part is our answer to the problem of suffering: we have a suffering God who knows all about pain and suffering. And one could even go further and say that there is no love without pain – at least in this life.
While for some folks that thought may not be of comfort to them as they struggle with various types of pain, it has to be a big improvement on the common atheist take on things, that crap just happens, so get used to it. Sure, they may not have put it that bluntly, but that is basically the essence of the atheist worldview on such matters.
As leading atheist Richard Dawkins said about this:
Theologians worry away at the `problem of evil’ and a related ‘problem of suffering.’ … On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature. Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Hmm, that is not much of a comfort for any of us. But those of the Judeo-Christian worldview take a much different approach to suffering, and it begins with a suffering God who fully understands what we are going through since he has been there and done that.
He both suffers over his creatures spurning his love ever since creation, and he suffers as Christ went to Calvary to painfully die for our sins. Thus our God is not aloof from such pain, but is fully involved in it. Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, interacting with Augustine and Aquinas in an article, speaks of God’s “suffering love”. He writes:
The fact that the biblical writers speak of God as rejoicing and suffering over the state of the creation is not a superficial eliminable feature of their speech. It expresses themes deeply embedded in the biblical vision. God’s love for his world is a rejoicing and suffering love. The picture of God as a Stoic sage, ever blissful and nonsuffering, is in deep conflict with the biblical picture.
And in his much more personal book on dealing with tragedies in life, Lament for a Son, he puts it this way: “Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.”
Gregory Floyd, who also wrote a book on the death of his son – a six-year-old – says much the same: “To love is to risk heartbreak. The depth of grief is proportional to the depth of love. . . . I have come to see that sorrow can go only as deep as love. And always, always, love is the ground beneath sorrow as well as the sky above it.”
C. S. Lewis, as usual, captures this thought with insight and eloquence in his 1960 volume, The Four Loves:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. . . . The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Although this concept may not be clearly spelt out in so many words in the Bible, surely it is at the heart of its message. God loves. God loves us. We hurt God (by spurning his love, disobeying him, etc.). God sent his son to remedy the situation. It was at once an act of supreme love and supreme suffering.
The two always go together. And that suffering love, or loving suffering, is to be characteristic of Christ’s followers. Alister McGrath puts it in these terms:
Our sense of loss and sorrow when someone dies is in direct proportion to how much we love them. Our heartache would cease if we cared nothing for anyone, and regarded everyone with a splendid sense of detachment. . . . We suffer when those whom we love suffer. Love is the link which unites us with the lives of others, and allows the pain of their suffering to spill over into our lives. There is a bitter-sweet bond between love and suffering…
A brief look at the Old Testament prophets will give us a better picture of this theme. The prophets did more than just speak God’s words. They represented God and they stood in his place. As such, they reflected God’s heart to God’s people.
As Philip Yancey has expressed it, “Why read the prophets? There is one compelling reason: to get to know God. The prophets are the Bible’s most forceful revelation of God’s personality.” Thus they revealed his heart of love and compassion.
But many times in the OT, that heart is depicted as broken, as hurting. So the prophetic voice often reflects this grieving, this anguish, the heartbreak. There are many passages which speak of God’s suffering servants. These include: Psalm 119:136 and Jeremiah 8:21-9:1, 18. Passages which speak of a suffering God include Genesis 6:6; Judges 10:15-16; Jeremiah 31:20, and Hosea 11:8-9.
In fact, the prophets bore a double load of suffering. They not only shared in God’s suffering, but they also shared in the suffering of God’s people. The so-called confessions of Jeremiah are a case in point. “The point of these confessions seems to be,” says William Dumbrell, “that Jeremiah is in fact speaking for the people in their corporate agony”.
Or as J. A. Thompson writes in his commentary:
Jeremiah was never a dispassionate observer of his nation’s suffering, but entered into the anguish of the people and suffered with them. . . . The problem of these men was that they were bearing a message of divine judgment while at the same time sharing the sufferings of the people either in vision or in fact. But they were men torn asunder between God and the people, to both of whom they were bound with deep ties. This combination of love and anguish is nowhere seen more clearly than in Jeremiah.
So the biblical picture is of an intensely personal and loving God who is steeped in our sorrows and suffering. His prophets reflected that broken and suffering heart. And we too are to share that love which is willing to suffer for the sake of others.
One day all pain and suffering will be no more, and God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. But until then, we live in a world filled with pain and sorrow. But knowing that our God shares that with us is a comfort and a consolation.
As Os Guinness reminds us, “No other god has wounds.”