One of the most accurate things we can say about suffering is that it is ultimately unexplainable. But there are some things we can say about suffering. Modern westerners assume that life is supposed to be happy and trouble free. That assumption can cause us difficulty when we think about suffering. Our idea that life ought to be happy and trouble free, flies in the face of most of the evidence. Everyone suffers, everyone hurts; some more than others. But I don’t know anyone who has not experienced some significant suffering.
Christians believe we live in a fallen world. Christian or not all of us have a sense that something is not right with the world we live in. We have a sense that this world and its suffering isn’t how it is supposed to be. We have a longing for a world without suffering.
Where suffering and evil originally come from, we don’t know. The Bible is silent on this subject. The serpent is just there. The Bible is very clear that evil and suffering exist. And the Bible is very honest about our experience of pain and suffering.
Where does evil and suffering come from? Some evil we can identify and quantify. Sometimes suffering is the result of our poor choices. Some suffering is the result of genetics or weather patterns or plate tectonics or other natural phenomena. Some suffering is caused by the deliberate action or the deliberate lack of action of ourselves or others. But these classifications still don’t tell us why the world is this way rather than some other way. And they certainly don’t fully explain suffering.
Whatever we try to say about suffering needs to be humble and cautious. What we ought to be more certain about is that evil exists and life is tragic. Often what we tend to do is engage in some sort of suffering competition. A sort of “you think you have it bad, well…..”. We love “winning” don’t we even if the contest is about suffering? But it is not a competition and none of us truly knows the extent of another’s suffering. We only know our own.
Never the less, we do know that all of us suffer. So perhaps part of the answer to the problem of suffering is to acknowledge that. When we recognize that all of us suffer, the “why me” questions diminish. They don’t go away, but they don’t become the focus. For people of faith it’s not about us, it is about God and others. Loving God and loving our neighbor. Curving our hearts outward toward the world rather than inward toward ourselves.
It can become overwhelming when you think about all the suffering in the world. I don’t have to give you examples, you know what I’m talking about. With so much suffering, it seems impossible to do anything that actually makes a difference. Some of us are called to big projects to relieve suffering. Someone has to run UNICEF, or ONE, or Heifer Project, or the Red Cross, or any number of organizations that relieve suffering.
But that’s not the calling of most of us. For most of us, well at least for me, doing something about the suffering of people I know is often overwhelming. Even with my small circle of friends and colleagues and neighbors there is more suffering than I can effectively help with. Realistically I can’t fix much of anything. But I can listen and offer a word of consolation and hope. I can sometimes do something helpful. Cook a meal. Offer a ride. We all suffer but having having a companion or two, who you can depend on and who can depend on you, can make all the difference.