Sources of Suffering

INTRODUCTIONWhile even powerful and self-consciously ‘Christian movements’ are affirming that nuclear weapons and AIDS are God’s divine punishment or response to ‘godless communism’, considerable damage is also done to explain all suffering as from the devil or through the direct consequence of sin. The bottom line is that the devil and man have a part to play, and the hand of God could be purposefully seen in suffering. Generally, God punishes those who transgress (for instance Achan, Miriam, Abiram, Korah and Dathan) and also allows suffering in others (Job, Joseph, Paul, to mention a few, for a purpose). There is possibly another source of suffering which cannot be directly attributed to God, the devil or man.The devil’s hand in sufferingThe hand of the devil in suffering could be seen as early as Genesis 3. God’s rebuke to him after the fall of Adam and Eve clearly reveals his responsibility. That it was his doing cannot be doubted. The clear reprimand was “and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel…” (Gen. 3:15).Even though human beings fell into sin, one should stress that they did not invent it. They were merely victims and not designers. This clearly explains why the gracious God provides redemption for mankind and not for the devil and his evil angels. Satan, “dethroned, disgraced, destined for destruction, the loathsome potentate of perversion, was (and is) obsessed with fiendish rage to destroy everyone and everything that is of God” (Berner 197,320). With all fairness to God, sometimes Christians murmur against Him for sufferings that should be attributed to the devil whose wittiness should not be underestimated.Satan’s hand is clearly seen in suffering right through the Bible. The opening chapters of the book of Job reveal that he can control the weather, our health, lives of our children and thoughts of our friends. In the book of Job, the existence of Satan is encountered as a way of understanding the presence of suffering and evil in the world. As a tester, a character who seems to enjoy leaning on people to see how much they can take, “Satan can bring us pain and suffering” (Simundson 1980, 85).With the capacity to enter the minds of people and implanting evil thoughts, Satan has disguised himself as an angel of light, a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a roaring lion sometimes using our best or closest friends, sometimes intimate members of our family, to deceive us and ultimately inflict unimaginable degrees of suffering. The Bible presents Satan as a real being-a spirit presence possessing great power to do harm. Because so many reject the existence of an actual devil, he is an unrecognized cause of much suffering. Whether we realize it or not, his deception of humanity is the major cause of anguish and grief.The extent of Satan’s influence and power is clearly revealed in the Bible. Revelation 12:9 tells us he “deceives the whole world.” John writes elsewhere that “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19). When Paul proclaims that “the god of this age” has blinded the minds of many so that they do not believe the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4), he refers to the devil.
Peter warns Christians that their “adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). In the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus tells us that as soon as many people hear God’s Word explained to them “Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts” (Mark 4:15). This wicked being wants mankind blinded to the comfort, encouragement and deliverance of God’s truth. Throughout history the devil has succeeded in tempting people to indulge in an unlawful and immoral exercise of their physical appetites. He employed this strategy in the Garden of Eden, and his game has worked marvelously ever since. Everyone has suffered because of it.Jesus described the devil as “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Satan’s intent has always been to make human life miserable and ultimately destroy us. His very nature is destructive, and those who commit destructive acts unwittingly follow him. Revelation 9:11 labels Satan as “the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, but in Greek he has the name Apollyon. These two names mean “destruction” and “destroyer,” respectively. In contrast to God, who is the creator, sustainer and giver of life, Satan is the ultimate destroyer and murderer.Satan is the agitator of war and other conflicts. The book of Revelation depicts demonic spirits at the end of the age that “go out to the kings of the earth” to “gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Revelation 16:14). Satan and his demons will instigate a time of distress that will be more terrible than any suffering human beings have ever experienced (Matthew 24:21-22).We can see from these passages that Satan exerts a pervasive power over mankind. God, however, sets limits on Satan’s power (Job 1:12; 2:6). God will not allow Satan to thwart His master plan for the salvation of humanity. As our Father and “Lord of heaven and earth” (Matthew 11:25), God will never relinquish His ultimate control over mankind and the rest of His creation.
The situation is the same in contemporary times. The anonymous article Why does God allow suffering? realistically comments on the craftiness of the devil.Through the spiritual blindness and ignorance Satan has foisted off on the world, he is the instigator of incalculable suffering. He has blinded humanity to the reason for our existence. He has deceived humans into believing that his way-the way of selfishness and sin-is better than obedience to God’s commands. Regrettably, humanity has fallen prey to Satan’s ploys, not realizing the ultimate grief that sin brings (2003, 4).Jesus, however, was neither ignorant, nor spiritually blind. As Fitch observes, “that our Lord recognized the presence, the malignity, the hostility and the undying enmity of an evil one whom he called the devil, is unmistakable” (1967, 51). When Simundson observed that “there are times when it is a help to recognize that there is an evil force that wants us to suffer” (1980, 147), he is acknowledging the responsibility of the devil as a source of human suffering.Man’s responsibility in sufferingAlthough the devil is to be blamed, man has freewill and also made a deliberate choice. In the account of Genesis 3, God turned to the woman and said “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children…” (Gen. 3:16). To the man, God said that “because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen.3:17). But why has that anything to do with one’s suffering today? Suffering originated in the Garden of Eden. It exists simply because of sin. The book of Genesis tells us of the beginnings of sin, sorrow and suffering – the origin of our separation from God. Adam’s sin was his deliberate choice. Christians erroneously believe that he was deceived but Paul, by divine inspiration informs us otherwise : “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived…” (I Tim.2:14). In other words, the man made a very deliberate choice to disobey. It is in this sense that Epp noted – “examine many of your (sufferings) and you will find your name stamped on them as the manufacturer” (1970, 23). A deduction from the above quotation is that man is responsible for most of what he suffers.
To apportion the responsibility of each source of suffering by quantifying it could be another useful or relevant study entirely. However, a wrong assumption is that every suffering is deserved. The law of retribution is hereby challenged. Job, for instance, was singled out not because he was bad but simply because he was good. It would be unfair to charge Job with lack of humility for the Bible categorically states that “there is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8).A realistic question is, are there connections between sin and suffering? Certain expressions of liberal religious and secular thought tried very hard to dismiss the connection. In some ways, it was both understandable and right to question this relationship since forms of Christian orthodoxy had the connection all too explicit. This belief that suffering is punishment for sin, inflicted by God whose punishment begins already in this life, “is firmly rooted in almost all the forms of empirical Christianity” (Hall, 1986,76). Airiohuodion believes that “the disciples of Jesus held the same view like the friends of Job that suffering is as a result of some personal sin on the part of the sufferer or victim” (1996, 15). This explains why they were curious and asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Even though these disciples recognized the theological debate whether an individual, immediate ancestors or even the human race could be blamed for suffering, it would appear as if it is normal to assume that suffering is a result of someone’s sin. Jesus’ reply is worth analyzing. He noted that “neither this man nor his parents sinned…” (John 9:3a). Such a response by Jesus could be seen as a very “clear denial… that we should assume that every example of suffering is a direct result of sin, either by the individual (as in Ezekiel 18 and elsewhere) or by the ancestors of the afflicted person (as in Deuteronomy 5:9-10 and elsewhere)” (Simundson 1980,128).Throughout the history of mankind and even today, man’s freedom of choice means that he is also responsible for his actions. In the world today, “one may choose to smoke at an early age. He may think that it affects no one but himself. Sadly though, its effects are seen by everyone who breathes the smoke – the smoker and the non-smoker” (Northrop 2004, 3). There are many non-smokers dying today because of friends, relatives, and loved ones who smoke. The spread of AIDS knows no boundaries. Innocent people of all races and nationalities are being killed by this dreaded disease. They are not homosexuals, intravenous illegal drug users or promiscuous. They are innocent – often babies. They are guiltless victims of the poor decisions made by others. Through the evil intentions of one man, Adolf Hitler, millions of Jews lost their lives. The effects of his brutality are still felt nearly fifty years after the Second World War. The physical scars can still be seen. The mental scars can still be heard. Since there is nothing new under the sun, it has always been that the innocent suffers because of the decisions of others. The blood of righteous Abel still cries out. Wicked Cain’s decision to murder affected not only innocent Abel but Cain’s descendants.The above discussion shows that the problem of human pain and suffering could also lie in man himself. Decisions made in the past to disobey God are still been made today. For instance, a family can suffer when a careless father spends his monthly salary on alcohol. A promiscuous individual may contact AIDS. Man’s decisions of the past affect us today and man’s decisions today will affect man in the future. When man makes poor decisions, man becomes man’s own worst enemy!God’s hand in sufferingAlthough God did not initiate suffering, He normally plays a very important role in it. Genesis 3, the rest of the Bible and human history down to the present day, all record God intervening, punishing for disobedience and allowing suffering for a meaningful purpose. The antagonism between man and the snake is used to symbolize the outcome of the ongoing struggle between God and the evil one, a battle which is played out in the hearts of mankind. The offspring of the woman would eventually crush the head of the serpent, a promise fulfilled in Christ’s victory over Satan.A response from God is to cause people to suffer as a result of sin. He is a God that “punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generations…” (Gen. 20:5). How did Miriam suffer from leprosy? Did God approve of the stoning of Achan? Why did Israel lose a battle after Achan’s sin? Can anyone argue otherwise that God was not punishing Israel for the act of one man? When Korah, Dathan and Abiram rebelled in Numbers 16, was it not God Himself who put down the rebellion? The above biblical examples clearly show that God could cause people to suffer as a result of wrongdoing. Concluding his discussion on the topic Why do Christians suffer?, Gould admonishes that “it would be good for us to know that many times we suffer because of our wrongdoing” (1980, 28).Although Clarkson agrees that “God may send suffering into the lives of His children” (1983, 78), the position expressed is that it is for disciplinary training and chastisement. The researcher supports this line of reasoning since God, as a loving Father, clearly sees the end from the beginning, and seeks to turn His children away from their waywardness into His paths of righteousness and peace. He knows the awful end of the ways of man and the eternal blessedness of His.Amy Carmichael comments on different aspects of human suffering in some of her books. In so doing, she casts a meaning and purpose on even the severest difficulties of life which is strengthening as well as enlightening. She forcefully argues that “if we are to be God’s knights we must learn to go through flirts of arrows, and so the teaching which was set on fashioning warriors, not weaklings, often dealt with this” (Carmichael n.d., 129). Furthermore, she observes that the belief that no earthly father goes on chastising a loving child is misleading :
That is a common thought about suffering, but I am quite sure that it is a wrong thought. Paul’s sufferings were not that, nor are yours. They are battle wounds. They are signs of high confidence- honors. They Father holds his children very close to His heart when going through such rough places as this (Carmichael 1981, 54).In the process of denying the universal application of the retributive doctrine in John 9, “Jesus bypasses both sides of that discussion and says that the blindness has nothing to do with sin at all but an opportunity for God’s glory to be seen” (Simundson 1980, 128). A similar idea is expressed in Exodus 10:1-2 in the explanation of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This is echoed in John 11:4, where it is observed that “this sickness will not end in death… It is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it”.Deal believes that many Christians fail to see the designing hand of God in their furnace of affliction and are greatly discouraged. He argues, with sufficient justification, that “a proper survey of God’s dealings with His people reveals that behind the human scene is a hidden hand that governs all the painful procedure, …watching with greatest interest and compassion for the final product, finished and polished” (1978, 19).Viewing suffering as something that is Father-filtered, Warren (2002) aptly quotes Joni Eareckson Tada of saying that “we learn from God in suffering that we can’t learn any other way” (194). Important lessons can be learned from Daniel in the lion’s den, Jeremiah being tossed into a slimy pit, Paul and the shipwreck and the Hebrew children and the blazing furnace. Each of the above characters was drawn closer to God as a result of the difficult experience.Long brilliantly analyzes the biblical approach to suffering, observing that God teaches us to seek His comfort which comes to us as a result of our relationship with him and also through our interaction with other people undergoing similar traumatic experiences. He observes that “when we suffer, we also find comfort through others who have suffered…. Those who have suffered know what real comfort is” (1986, 73). It is out of the overflow of comfort they have received from God that they use to comfort others.A critical analysis of the reason why Christians suffer could be clearly seen in the argument of Epp (1970). Paradoxically, God cares for His people – that’s why He allows them to suffer. He has a great plan for them and suffering is just a part of it. Placing His children therefore in the furnace of affliction and watching as they undergo the process of refinement is perhaps deliberate since He wants to see the total image of Christ in them. As He molds His children into something indescribably beautiful, they will eventually adorn heaven as valuable masterpieces.If God is in the refining business, then He wants to purify and cleanse. Suffering therefore plays a role in this purifying since it helps to become more like Him. The apostle Paul demonstrates this clearly in II Corinthians 12:7-10 where he found God’s grace sufficient for his affliction and found himself strong when he is weak. Hart therefore argues that “we cannot have a theology of healing without a theology of suffering. Sooner or later everybody dies, and in order to die you must get sick” (1987, 31). In other words, the argument is that some sickness or suffering is the inevitable consequence of living and cannot be avoided. Therefore, he believes that believers must learn how to suffer in order to know how to live gracefully and peacefully. If one receives a miracle from God, he should be grateful. If not relieved of suffering, frustration should not occur. Probably the need would be for a text “from the laments or from Job or from Paul which allows God to come into suffering and pain and weakness and bring comfort without necessarily ending the suffering” (Simundson 1980, 129).It would appear as if phrases like praise the Lord, repeated so often in contemporary Christian gatherings, both formal and otherwise, create the misleading notion that all is well when it is not necessarily so. The idea of suffering is either swept under the carpet or disregarded as not being one’s portion. Realistically, In the era of praise the Lord theology, the real meaning of words like praise and joy may become lost to superficiality. For it is only in deep suffering that people know the depths of all emotion, whether it be pain that is almost unbearable even for one moment more, or joy that sweeps over the soul once that pain is gone (Skoglund 1992, 70).Writing his book during the very last year of his life, Boyd emotionally observed that having aids is not a rock and roll time. This pathetic experience, among other things, is “painful (both physically and emotionally), dirty, smelly, and just plain awful. But, like so much else in life, where the Lord finds suffering, He provides a compensating grace that some how helps the sufferer to make it through” (1990, 41).Throughout our lives we know that we never have to pay any penalty for sin, for that has been taken by Christ (Rom.8:1). Therefore, when we do experience suffering, “we should not think that God is punishing us (for our harm). Sometimes suffering is simply a result of living in a sinful, fallen world, and sometimes it is because God is disciplining us” (Grudem 1999, 348). In all cases, however, we are assured by Romans 8:28 that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”. The positive purpose for God’s discipline is clear in Hebrews 12, where we read that God disciplines those he loves. Not all discipline however serves to correct us when we have committed sins; God may allow it to strengthen us so that we may gain greater ability to trust him and to resist sin in the challenging path of obedience. This is clearly seen in the life of Jesus who, though without sin, “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Since He was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10), it is observed that “we should see all hardship and suffering that comes to us in life as something that God brings to us to do us good, strengthening our trust in him and our obedience, and ultimately increasing our ability to glorify him” (Grudem 1999, 349).The starting point for a Christian understanding of suffering is the messianic self-understanding of Jesus Himself. A temptation to power and self-exaltation lay in the late Jewish promise to the coming of the Messiah-Son of Man. The Gospel of Matthew describes the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness as a temptation to worldly power. Jesus Himself disappointed His disciples’ notions of aiming at power and exaltation in that He taught them, in accordance with Isaiah 53, that the Son of Man will suffer many things. From the foregoing, a Christian understanding of suffering can be clearly seen. Indubitably, it is not the final aim and end in itself in the realization of human destiny; it is the gateway to resurrection, to rebirth, to new creation. This idea receives its clarification from the Christian understanding of sin. Sin as the misuse of human freedom has led humans into total opposition against God, who in turn delivers them over to death. Turning to God can therefore take place only when the results of this rebellion are overcome.In the Christian understanding, suffering does not appear- as in Buddhism- as suffering simply under the general conditions of human existence in this world; rather it is instead coupled with the specifically Christian idea of the imitation of Christ. Individual Christians are called to become imitators of Christ; incorporation into the body of Christ is granted to those who subsequently are ready to carry out within themselves Christ’s destiny of suffering, death and resurrection. The early church’s characterization of the Christian was that of Christophorus – ‘bearer of Christ’. Suffering was therefore an unalterable principle in the great drama of freedom, which was identical with the drama of redemption.It would therefore be misleading to dismiss suffering as pointless. Clark supports this idea when he opines that “the idea that suffering has no point is so threatening to us that we are hardly even able to contemplate much less embody the implications of such a view” (1986, 31). The issue is that though God may not have planned a particular suffering in the life of the Christian, He has most certainly permitted it. Therefore, whether or not it is an attack from the devil, by the time it reaches him/her, it has the Lord’s permission, and therefore will make it work together with all life’s experiences for good. If anything, God indeed knows what He is doing. The stimulating lesson from Job is this: instead of seeing what the sufferings are doing to us, one should rather see what God is doing through them for the Christian because “the present agony of suffering is a prelude to the radiant ecstasy of life eternal” (Berner 1973, 51).The mystery of sufferingThere is possibly a sense in which suffering can be seen as a mystery when it is not likely to be directly caused by the devil, man and God. The argument is that suffering could be the inevitable, inescapable and unavoidable consequence of living. The white man who walks down the road in an African town and is bitten by a mosquito, which ultimately causes him to suffer from malaria, cannot realistically blame the devil, man or God for the bite. Commenting on this seeming complexity, MacDonald asserts that “for this reason we refer to it as ‘the mystery’ of suffering” (2000, 235). The reasons why suffering is regarded as a mystery is probably because of the difficulty of either understanding or tracing its exact source.Perhaps a more vivid illustration is the logical argument put forward by Hart (1987). The fact that man will eventually die is probably not a debatable issue in any religious belief. If the above is true, a reasonable conclusion is that “sooner or later everybody dies, and in order to die (some) get sick” (31). The question here is that who is the direct source of that sickness that eventually leads to the death of the individual? There are times when one could attribute the cause to the devil, man or God and there are times none could be identified. Who is responsible for the terrible earthquakes that had claimed and continue to claim the lives of many? A terrible problem or natural disaster in West Africa is the progressive advance of the Sahara Desert southwards. Is God punishing man by allowing the desert to expand? Is the devil using his agents to ‘push’ the watered regions southward? Is the desert expanding because of man’s actions? These are undoubtedly seemingly difficult questions to realistically answer. Consequently, “many Christians will use one of the other explanations as long as they work, but when all else fails, they will back on the idea that it is all part of …mystery and we can never know more than that” (Simundson 1980, 147). That mankind cannot realistically classify the source of all types of suffering is an indication of the human efforts to understand the universe.Sockman adds another dimension to this mystery. There is a kind of suffering he believes we do not understand. This is what he calls “the element of chance play in life” (1961, 10). If we accept the definition of chance as the unknown or undefined cause of events that to us are uncertain or not subject to calculation, then we have to agree that chance happens to all.
From the foregoing, one can reasonably conclude that devil is the ultimate responsibility of suffering. His introduction in Genesis 3 is an account of his initiation of the concept in the human race. However, a wrong approach would be to exonerate the role of man in the discussion. Disobeying the divine command cannot be entirely seen as the fault of the devil. Man becomes responsible when he chooses to disobey. Although God did not initiate suffering, He intervenes and punishes the disobedience of man. There is a set of suffering which could be regarded as a mystery.LIST OF REFERENCESBerner, Carl W. 1973. Why me, Lord? : Meaning and Comfort in Times of Trouble. Minneapolis,Minnesota : Augsburg Publishing House.
Boyd, Terry. 1990. Living with Aids : One’s Christian struggle. Lima : Ohio.
Carmichael, Amy. n.d. Kohila. Fort Washington, Pasadena : Christian Literature Crusade.
Deal, Williams. 1978. The Furnace of Affliction : How God through Suffering Develops Christian Character.London : Great Gospel Publications.
Epp, Theodore H. 1970. Why Christians Suffer. Lincoln, Nebraska : Back to the Bible.
Fitch, William. 1967. God and Evil : Studies in the Mystery of Suffering and Pain. Grand Rapids, Michigan:Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Grudem, Wayne. 1999. Bible Doctrine : Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids,Michigan : Zondervan Publishing House.
Hall, Douglas John. 1986. God and Human Suffering. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.
Hart, Archbald. 1987. Counselling the Depressed : Resources for Christian Counseling. Dallas : WordPublishing.
MacDonald, Sebastian. 2000. Suffering : Theological Reflections On Its nature and substance. InReflections on the mystery of suffering, 19(1): 330-337.
Northrop, Chuck. Human Pain and Suffering. Available [Online].[http://www.humanpainandsuffering.htm]. (13th January 2004).
Simundson, Daniel J. 1980. Faith Under Fire. Minneapolis : Augsburg Publishing.
Skoglund, Elizabeth R. 1992. Wounded Heroes : the Secrets of Charles Spurgeon… and Others WhoTriumphed. Grand Rapids, Michigan : Baker Book House.
Sockman, Ralph. 1961. The Meaning of Suffering. New York : Women’s Division of Christian Service.
Warren, Rick. 2002. The Purpose Driven Life : What on Earth am I Here For? Lagos : Integrated PressLtd.
Why Does God Allow Suffering : Satan’s Role in Suffering. Available [online].[http://www.satan]’sroleinsuffering.htm. 27th January 2004.

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