A question that has haunted mankind since nearly the dawn of time is, "why do we suffer"? Implied in that question is the more precise question, "is suffering senseless and random or does it have a purpose or reason"? The typical answers fall into three basic categories: 1) Suffering is random and senseless because nature is random and senseless. This answer implies there is no God or God cannot or will not be involved to change events. 2) Suffering is not random and senseless because nature is not that way. Nature is not random and senseless because God is the designer and is involved, thus He has a purpose in all things. Christianity falls into this category as do perhaps Islam and Judaism although not as clearly as Christianity. 3) Suffering is an illusion. It does not really exist. What we perceive as suffering is really rooted in our misunderstanding and ignorance. New age religion/philosophy, which is an offshoot from Eastern religions such as Buddhism, falls into this category.
The implications for these three perspectives are profound and greatly influence how we live. If one adheres to some form of category one (atheism is one expression of it) the necessary result is hopelessness. Such a one sees suffering as random, senseless and ruthless robbing one's life and joy. Such suffering cannot be controlled and the most we can hope for is to courageously face it as humans thereby demonstrating our character...but in the end we all suffer and die and there is nothing more. Children die, and it is not just or unjust only tragic and sad and hopeless. People get incurable cancer in the prime of life and it simply robs and destroys and there is nothing more but to suffer and die. Dying with dignity serves only to retain some elusive sense of self-pride but in the end it means nothing.
If one adheres to some form of category three (new age, Wicca, Christian Science would all be expressions of it) the necessary result is confusion and denial. People with this perspective see history and experience life in one way (suffering is real and prevalent) but deny that it is real by choosing to believe suffering is a wrong expression of Mind (our individual minds are simply expression of Mind). Of course one must ask, "why isn't a wrong expression of Mind actual suffering"? So the inherent logic of such a perspective must be questioned. This perspective has little power to enable people to deal with life and suffering. Its "power" is in its denial of reality as we know it. It provides "hope" by providing a basis for denying the reality of suffering but in the end there is no lasting hope because all adherents to this perspective clearly suffer and death holds the most likely prospect of repeating the cycle again and again! Presumably the only way out of the cycle of repetitive suffering is to deny suffering so effectively that the individual ceases to suffer in this life which indicates a state in which true harmony with Mind has been achieved and the cycle will end at death. But the state of full harmony with Mind enjoyed at death for the successful adherent results in a loss of individuality. So even with the final end of suffering and achievement of harmony the individual is lost so he/she who suffered (perhaps hundreds of lifetimes of suffering) will not be able to experience the joy of that harmony!
If one adheres to some form of category two (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) the result is some degree of real hope. This category claims that suffering is not totally random and senseless because there is God. The fact that God exists and has some degree of control over life and history, are aspects that these three faiths share. Depending to which of the various traditions within these three faiths one adheres, God is seen as being more or less in control which directly affects the perspective on suffering. But the most important impact on the issue of suffering is the soteriology (doctrine of salvation) of each of the three faiths. Again, there are distinctives within each of the three faiths depending on various streams of tradition. However I propose that the Christian faith has the strongest and most effective answer to the question of suffering and provides the most powerful hope. That answer comes most clearly from the Christian doctrine of salvation that I will discuss in more detail below.
As do all three faiths in category two above, Christianity believes that God exists, that He created all things, and that He sustains all things according to His sovereign purposes. Some traditions within Christianity view God's sovereign control over history as more or less absolute. Although the explanations of how it all works together vary, it is fair to say that most expressions of orthodox Christian faith view God as in control over history AND mankind as responsible and accountable creatures. So the issue of God's freedom over against man's freedom and how the two interrelate is a major issue in the discussion of suffering. It is expressed something like this, "If God is good and all powerful why is there still suffering? Couldn't God have made the world in such a way that suffering never existed? No, because mankind must be free in order to truly love God and mankind has misused that freedom to rebel against God and do wicked things and therefore cause suffering. But, does that rebellion cause natural disasters and random cancers too? Why doesn't God at least stop those? Why couldn't God make man truly free and totally innocent so he wouldn't think of sinning to start with"? This sample "dialogue" represents many of the questions/issues that arise. Here are some answers...
1. Christianity answers the question of suffering with God's sovereignty and omnipotence (all powerful). God is in control and the events and circumstances that cause suffering are not random and senseless. In fact, the Bible declares that all events are ordered and directed by God for His purposes (Proverbs 19:21, Isaiah 46:10, Ephesians 1:11). How does this help us with suffering? What is more frightening; to think that chaos reigns and you WILL be a victim of it with no recourse and no lasting value to be gained from it, or to think that there is a purpose to all things even the bad things? Unless God is evil, the answer is clearly that the latter situation is better. So God's character is an essential issue to the discussion...
2. Christianity answers the question of suffering with God's character. God is certainly sovereign and all powerful but is He good? He absolutely is! The Bible is resoundingly clear on this (Psalms 73:1, Mark 10:18, John 3:16). So, if God is sovereign and all powerful AND He is good then we know that whatever He does is just and good. But that implies that suffering is good - if God is directing all things (sovereign) and He could stop suffering (all powerful) and He is good. That is the dilemma that must be answered.
3. Christianity answers the question of suffering with God's holiness. God's holiness is the truth that He is unique, special, valuable, set apart as the absolute treasure of the universe. God Himself is the MOST valuable reality. As creator He made all of creation to reflect His worth. Mankind was created to do so in a special way being created in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). Therefore, since humans were created in God's image there is a natural "fit" and inclination toward communion with God. Mankind cannot be satisfied or truly and lastingly joyful unless in communion with God as originally intended. Proper communion with God includes acknowledging Him to be the ultimate value and treasure thereby placing everything else in some lesser status (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 6:4). Said another way, the proper response to God is to love Him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength (Matthew 22:36-38). So if God is the ultimate prize/treasure/value and all our love and desire should be toward Him, suffering can become a benefit to us if it serves to elevate God to that highest place of value and reduce other non-God things to their appropriate lower place of value in our lives.
But humans do not naturally want to honor God as the supreme value because of sin. Sin separates humans from God because it causes humans to elevate self and other created things into the place of God. So sin must be dealt with. Christianity teaches that sin CANNOT be dealt with by anything a person can do because trying to achieve acceptance by God through personal works and achievements is inherently self-righteous. This elevates self above God by saying essentially that God owes the person acceptance due to the worth of their righteous acts. The Bible claims just the opposite by saying that our righteous acts are as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). So what can be done? How is communion with God established? How can sin be dealt with? Without this acceptance by God there can be no confidence that suffering will be a benefit to us because we are not in communion with God. Rather, the Bible says that God is against us and not for us if sin is not dealt with and we are not in communion with Him (Romans 1:18, 6:23, Colossians 1:21, Hebrews 10:26-27). So taking care of sin and establishing communion with God is absolutely necessary to deal with the issue of suffering in a hope-full way. So...
4. Christianity answers the question of suffering with God's salvation. God takes care of the sin problem that we cannot take care of. This brings us back into communion with Him and changes our relationship with God from one of enmity to one of friendship (Romans 5:9-11, 2Corinthians 5:18-20 Ephesians 1:1-10). When God restores communion with us we can be assured that God is for us and not against us (Romans 8:31). And He promises to work ALL things together for our good (Romans 8:28). All things include even suffering things. God takes care of the sin problem not by simply excusing it because this would make Him unjust (Romans 3:21-28). Instead, He Himself absorbs the punishment or consequences for our sin through Jesus Christ's death on the cross. He suffers with us and takes the pain of sin which is the ultimate cause of suffering into Himself on the cross (Isaiah 53, 2Corinthians 5:21). This is absolutely astonishing! God suffers with us and takes our rebellion (sin) into Himself to eliminate it so He can show mercy and lavish us with His communion and grace (Ephesians 1:1-8). Because of Jesus Christ we also know that God's character is absolutely holy and blameless and He never goes back on a promise because in Christ all His promises have been completed and answered "yes" (2Corinthians 1:19-20). If suffering is used by God to help us know Him more, and enhance our communion with Him, and cause us to properly honor Him as the supreme treasure then it is to our benefit. This means that God restores our relationship with Him, restores communion with Him, and turns all events in our lives into aides toward ensuring our ultimate and eternal good - wow! Now true hope in spite of circumstances emerges because of this salvation truth.
5. Christianity answers the question of suffering with God's eternal glory. This is actually a continuation of number 4 above. God's eternal glory is the end goal of all things including our salvation AND it is the end goal of our joy - to share and enjoy God's eternal glory (Revelation 21:1-8). This has a profound impact on suffering. The Christian can say, "I consider this current suffering as a light and momentary affliction compared with the eternal joy and glory to come" (Romans 8:18)! It provides an eternal perspective by which suffering can be properly evaluated. Against the backdrop of eternal (forever) joy and glory with Christ in the new heaven and new earth even a full lifetime of constant suffering greatly diminishes in significance. It doesn't become insignificant, but it loses much of its significance as that which defines human existence.
So in the end, Christianity provides the worldview that establishes a framework for living with suffering. But a worldview, a framework of understanding, a philosophy crumbles under the pressure of real life if it is not rooted in truth. Christianity is based on the hard facts of God becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. God did this for His glory first and our good second. Jesus lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death and rose from the grave victorious over sin and death. By God's gracious decision Christ becomes the substitute for all who believe in Him - embrace Him with trust and love - so that all who are in Christ (identified with Christ through faith) are accepted by God as righteous. What hope, what joy, what courage this brings to the Christian!