Reflections on the Question of Suffering

In my sermon last Sunday, drawing from James 1:1-8, I talked about how God can use suffering to grow our souls. My theme was that God is in the business of soul making and God uses our sufferings in the process of soul growth and development. What James says about the redemptive value of “trials of diverse kinds,” however, does not cover all forms and expressions of suffering.

There are sufferings of such tragic proportions that it is difficult to see any redemptive value at all. The atrocities committed against “the other” as we have witnessed in Nazi Germany and more recently in Rwanda and Darfur cannot be described in a redemptive way. Even the suffering that follows natures' upheaval such as we are witnessing now in Haiti seem to make no sense whatsoever.

Last night one of the “world news” programs did a piece on the humanitarian efforts of a 78 year old doctor, who is in Haiti now doing all he can to assist and comfort the wounded and hurting. The coverage showed a traumatized boy, 13 or 14, maybe older, who lost his entire family. He had nothing or no one left, except his life. He was so traumatized that he couldn’t speak. The doctor mentioned that the best treatment for him was to have someone with him at all times, someone to make human contact.

It would be hard to find any redemptive value in such pain. There is no clear answer to the suffering caused by such calamities as the earthquake in Haiti and the horrendous evil human beings can do to one another.

No one will ever be able to figure out how God’s power, God’s love, and human freedom all interact and connect. I sometimes wonder with the process theologians if God is not in a process of growth and development like the creation. The idea of an absolute infinite and all powerful God is derived more from Greek philosophy than the Hebrew Bible. The God of Israel is a God who sometimes changes his mind, regrets actions, alters course, etc.(You don’t have to take my word for it, read those stories for yourself—like Exodus 32; you might be amazed at some of the things you find in the Bible if you take the time to read it)

Do I question the goodness of God in light of such suffering? I question a lot of things, but the basic nature of God’s goodness is a non-negotiable for me. I believe God suffers with the creation.

Eli Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, writes in his book Night: “The SS hung two Jewish men and a boy before the assembled inhabitants of the camp. The men died quickly but the death struggle of the boy lasted half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he?” a man behind me asked. As the boy, after a long time, was still in agony on the rope, I heard the man cry again, “Where is God now?” and I heard a voice within me answer, “Here he is—he is hanging here on the gallows . . .”

God is not a spectator in our suffering; God is a full participant. I believe that we have in the Christian tradition, in the suffering and death of Jesus, the resources to live and cope with suffering. On the cross we have God incarnationally present in the life of Jesus, bearing the hate and cruelty and suffering of the world.

Somehow God is large enough to know both suffering and joy simultaneously. God is able to hold these opposites together—the horrible suffering of the world and the immense beauty and goodness of the world—in ways that we cannot due to our creaturely limitations. We can rarely hold such tensions together, though I have had experiences of joy in times of trial and hardship that I cannot explain other than the Spirit of God.

I sometimes question the extent of God’s power, but I do not question God’s goodness.


  1. In the past week, I have been blessed to hear two renditions, performed live, of I Want Jesus to Walk With Me. Each time, the immediate vision in my mind was of the people of Haiti. I could imagine them walking mindlessly through the streets, looking for something - for anything to bring comfort. My wish for them is that they will know God is walking alongside, sad for them and with a broken heart about their suffering. That is the goodness of God. No matter what, always there, always steady, always feeling our pain and wishing it could be different for us.


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