If You Live Long Enough, You Will Suffer

Suffering shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it still does.

Word came this morning that a great guy at church has cancer. Bad cancer.

Earlier this month, my wife’s best friend lost her dad to pancreatic cancer. There was a devastating earthquake in Haiti. Going back to Thanksgiving, there was a young family driving home when a highway accident claimed a 3-year-old girl’s life and her mother’s ability to walk. There’s @mattchandler74 and his brain cancer. There’s little Kate McRae. I could go on, but I don’t want to.

As a thoughtful Christian, I have to be able to make sense of that most difficult of questions: how do you reconcile the reality of suffering and evil with the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God? At the risk of sounding academic and sterile, I’m going to address that the only way I know how: by breaking it down. I see two questions there.

The first is philosophical: are those two ideas even compatible? The short answer is yes. First, on God’s existence in the first place: If there is no God, there can be no such thing as real suffering and real evil; they are just ideas we’ve created that have no grounding in objective reality (see yesterday’s post, Ideas Have Consequences, for more on that).

Second, if God is all-good, does his tolerance of suffering and evil prove that he is not all-powerful? Conversely, if he is all-powerful, does his tolerance of suffering and evil prove that he is not all-good? The Christian worldview supplies defeaters to both objections. The Bible’s storyline tells us about a God who created a good universe with good people who used their freedom to rebel against him: the fact that he didn’t wipe out the rebels straight away speaks to his mercy and patience; the fact that he came in the flesh to atone for man’s rebellion by living a perfect life, dying for the crimes of others, and ultimately rising from the dead speaks to his grace and power; and the advance warning that he is going to return to set everything straight one day speaks to his justice. Whether you like that story or not, it takes away the opportunity to say that suffering and evil logically disproves God’s simultaneous goodness and power.

That’s the philosophical answer. But what do you say to the existential question? As the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell famously asked, “what are you going to say as you kneel next to a dying child?”

Bringing logic to bear on that situation is, for most people, simply a case study in using the wrong tool for the job. Instead, comfort comes from understanding that God is familiar with suffering through first-hand experience of the real thing.

Jesus was not just a man; he was God. And he was not just God; he was a man. This is the most mind-boggling mystery of the Christian faith to me. Everything that is true about mankind is true about Jesus. And everything that is true about God is true about Jesus. But in his humanity, he didn’t “cheat” by playing his “God card” whenever things got tough. People suffered and died all around him. He lost people close to him. And eventually, when it was his turn to suffer and die, he didn’t rage against it as though something disruptive to the whole universe were happening.

The best explanation I’ve ever heard about these questions comes from D. A. Carson in his two messages titled On Being Prepared for Suffering and Evil (part 1, part 2). He begins with these words:

If you live long enough, you will suffer. (And these two talks go downhill from there.) The only alternative is not to live long enough. If you live long enough, you will face bereavement, severe illness, loss, disappointment; you, or your children, or your children’s children, will face loss, death, war… suffering.

When Jesus came in the flesh, he knew those sobering facts better than we do, and he signed up for it all the same. There’s something about the fellowship of sufferings that speaks louder and more powerfully than any moral dilemma or logical challenge can do. So to answer Russell’s challenge, all I can offer in answer to the existential question is “Jesus understands.”

Thankfully, for now, despite all the tragedy that’s come to my attention, I do not find myself kneeling at the side of a dying child. For now, my job is to settle the questions that make “Jesus understands” worth anything as an answer: was he really who he claimed to be? Is he really the only way to get right with God? Does he offer something that no one else does? Do I need what he offers? Is this hope real, or just therapeutic wishful thinking? Is sin real, or just a useful fiction to make sense of all this? And maybe the ultimate question: is sin a big enough problem that it’s worth enduring all this evil and suffering to rescue as many people as possible from it?

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