© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002


Before we turn to the Bible and examine what it has to say about suffering it is beneficial, and perhaps necessary, to look at the various opinions about suffering that can be found in our world. In this post-Christian, electronic and multi-cultural age, with the whole world in our lounge rooms and in our community, we can no longer live in isolation as our ancestors did, protected from concepts which were either unknown or safely remote. We can no longer naively assume that our beliefs are right.

Each one of us needs to analyze what we believe and why we believe it. Each one of us needs to recognize what the source of our beliefs is, and to face the question: are we going to allow our understanding of suffering to be shaped by the various ideas and mentalities that surround and impact us, or are we going to accept the teaching of the Bible as God's authoritative revelation, as absolute truth, and allow God, through this Book, to teach us what to believe.

[1] Tradition

Traditional beliefs are beliefs that have been built up over successive generations; they are what has 'always' been believed. They are usually accepted without question. Generally speaking it is built into the human heart to operate on a tit-for-tat, performance/merit basis. In the realm of suffering this means that people believe 'if I do this ... 'god' (whoever or whatever 'god' is) will to that'. We find this underlying traditional belief about suffering expressed in many ways in the belief systems of most cultures. When this traditional concept is married to a superficial understanding of the Bible it becomes: 'God rewards the righteous with long life and prosperity, and punishes the wicked with suffering.'

In line with this traditional concept of suffering, the Christian who is sick believes that the sickness is God punishing him/her for some unconfessed sin. This concept is also behind the feeling of injustice in such often asked questions as: 'Why does God allow all these innocent people to suffer?'

[2] Animism

Animism is belief in and subjection to spirits which inhabit trees, pools, mountains, etc.The lives of animists are dominated by the fear of these spirits, and offending them is believed to be the cause of suffering. Much time, effort and wealth is spent placating and appeasing the spirits in an effort to prevent or remove suffering. Associated with this fear of the spirits is subjection to the rule of witchdoctors, medicine men or shamans, who are believed to have the power to communicate and bargain with the spirits. Accounts of Christian missionary work in tribal areas frequently contain references to the devastating effects of this view of suffering. Among these effects are human sacrifice, self-mutilation, pay-back murders, and sustained poverty (for the spirits and the shamans exact excessive payment).

These are not tales from a long past era. These things are being practised today. Nor should we dismiss this information as irrelevant. We should rather take a good look at our own view of suffering and honestly face the question: how much of my concept of suffering is really closer to this belief than to the Biblical teaching? If we are honest we might well be surprised.

[3] The non-reality of suffering - in Pantheism

Pantheism, which shows its face in many eastern religions, teaches that everything is 'god': I am god, you are god, the trees, the grass, the sun - all are 'god'. Our lives are simply 'god' playing out a role, as non-real as the roles played out by actors. Suffering, indeed all of life, is but an illusion. In such a set up it is pointless 'to be angry at suffering or demand an explanation for it ... A man went for comfort to a Zen Buddhist priest after he lost his wife and son. He was comforted with the notion that suffering, death, and even life itself, were an illusion, nothing more than a drop of dew that disappears with the sunrise. He accepted this metaphysics and, yet, his humanity revolted against it. He wrote the famous lines: "Life is dew. Life is dew. And yet ... And yet ...!"' (Vishal Mangalwadi Missionary Conspiracy p20). In making suffering non-real our humanity, we ourselves, are also made non-real.

[4] The non-reality of suffering - Christian Science

'Here also is found the pith of the basal statement, the cardinal point in Christian Science, that matter and evil (including all inharmony, sin, disease, death) are unreal.' (Mrs Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings, p27). Some further quotes:

'There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.' (MW p 21)

'All reality is in God and His creation. ... That which He creates is good, and He makes all that is made. Therefore the only reality of sin, sickness, or death is the awful fact that unrealities seem real to human, erring belief, until God strips off their disguise.' (Science and Health p472).

'If God made all that was made, and it was good, where did evil originate? It never originated or existed as an entity. It is but a false belief.' (MW p45)

' ... the evidence of the senses is not to be accepted in the case of sickness, any more than it is in the case of sin.' (S&H p386)

'If it is true that man lives, this fact can never change in Science to the opposite belief that man dies. ...Death is but another phase of the dream that existence can be material. ... The dream of death must be mastered by Mind here or hereafter. ... Life is real, and death is the illusion (S&H p427-8).

Unity (formerly The Unity School of Christianity) also teaches that there is no sin, sickness or death.

[5] The amoral world of the naturalist/atheist/evolutionist

Because in this world-view there is no God there are also no absolutes, including no moral absolutes, and therefore there can be no moral explanation of suffering. It is pointless to ask here for anything beyond the physical explanation. The question 'why this suffering?' presupposes that we live in a moral universe, and are moral beings, needing moral answers, but in this world view there is no meaning, no purpose, no moral answers.

[6] The Hindu world of karmic suffering

'The word karma literally means action and has reference to a person's actions and the consequences thereof. In Hinduism, a person's present state of existence is determined by their performance in previous lifetimes. The law of karma is the law of moral consequence, or the effect of any action upon the performer in a past, a present or even a future existence. As one performs righteous acts, he moves towards liberation from the cycle of successive births and deaths. 'Contrariwise, if one's deeds are evil, he will move further from liberation. The determining factor is one's karma. The cycle of births, deaths and rebirths could be endless. The goal of the Hindu is to achieve enough good karma to remove himself from the cycle of rebirths and achieve eternal bliss.'

'Samsara refers to transmigration or rebirth. It is the passing through a succession of lives based upon the direct reward or penalty of one's karma. This continuous chain consists of suffering from the results of acts of ignorance or sin in past lives. During each successive rebirth, the soul, which the Hindus consider to be eternal, moves from one body to another and carries with it the karma from its previous existence.' (McDowell and Stewart Concise Guide to Today's Religions, p273)

In this view of suffering - all suffering is because of personal guilt.

Any loving action to alleviate or remove suffering is an interference with the justice of karma, and will necessitate the individual suffering that same karma in yet another life.

In the same line Theosophy teaches 'No one is to blame except ourselves for our birth conditions, our character, our opportunities, our abilities, for all these things are due to the working out of forces we have set going either in this life or in former lives ...' (Cooper, Theosophy Simplified, p.55).

Increasingly people in our society are embracing the Hindu concepts of past lives, reincarnation and karmic suffering for sins in past lives. Our minds are being repeatedly exposed to these concepts. We must recognize them as yet another expression of the traditional understanding of suffering to which the human heart automatically gravitates: that suffering is punishment for sin.

[7] Buddhism

Buddhism teaches 'Four Noble Truths':

' The First Noble Truth is the existence of suffering. Birth is painful, and death is painful; disease and old age are painful. Not having what we desire is painful, and having what we do not desire is painful.

'The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. It is the craving desire for the pleasures of the senses, which seeks satisfaction now here, now there; the craving for happiness and prosperity in this life and in future lives.

'The Third Noble Truth is the ending of suffering. To be free of suffering one must give up, get rid of, extinguish this very craving, so that no passion and no desire remain.

'The Fourth Noble Truth leads to the ending of all pain by way of the Eightfold Path.' (McDowell & Stewart, p 291.)

The Eightfold Path then elaborates on Right Views, right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Behaviour, Right Occupation, Right Effort, Right Contemplation, and Right Meditation.

In Buddhism, because all of life is intrinsically suffering, it is illogical and beside the point to ask 'why this suffering?' and to try to fight it or remove it. All one can do is to try to detach oneself from it.

[8] The Islamic world of fatalism

The God of Islam is too far removed from human beings to be personally involved with us. Everything that happens, including suffering, is the result of his capricious, arbitrary, predetermined will. He plans and wills both good and evil, and nothing can be done about it, for he is not such a God as can be moved to mercy or compassion. In this fatalistic world view it is useless to complain about suffering, it is useless to try to do anything about it. 'It is the will of Allah' and that is that. [For further information read 'Concise Guide to Today's Religions' Josh McDowell & Don Stewart.]

[9] Distorted perceptions within Christianity

During the last half century a variety of distorted perceptions about suffering have become fairly widely popular within Christianity. These distortions teach that suffering - whether physical or financial - results from sin or from lack of faith. If relief from suffering is sought and not gained, it is because the sufferer (1) has sin in his/her life, (2) does not have enough faith, (3) does not have the right kind of faith, or (4) made a negative confession (for example, his/her prayer included some doubt about whether God would really do it).

The following ideas are also associated with this world view:

That healing is in the atonement. This is based on a physical interpretation of 'by his wounds we are healed' (Is 53:5). This is taken to mean that no Christian ought or need ever to be sick. Some stretch it further to mean healing of every kind: emotional, mental, physical, financial.

That this healing was actually achieved 2000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross, so that we actually are already healed. The symptoms we experience are nothing more than tricks of Satan by which he tries to steal the health that is already ours, so we should refuse to acknowledge the symptoms.

The prevention of disease rests in our thinking: 'the thing that makes a believer a success is right thinking, right believing, and right confession.' (Hagin Right and Wrong Thinking, p24).

Any acknowledgement of sickness opens the door to satanic control.

Demons, the agents of Satan, are behind every disease and addiction; we should bind them in the name of Jesus. When they are so bound and still the sickness does not depart the 'victim' is then blamed for concealing some dark secret sin.

Poverty is treated in much the same way as ill health.

It is clear from the above that this perception of suffering fits right in with the traditional perception obvious in the world religions and cults, and has overlooked the truth written of in Romans 5:21 that, for the believer in Christ, grace reigns.

[10] Spiritual warfare emphasis within Christianity

Two points are relevant here. In this mentality : (1) Demonic princes and their cohorts are 'in charge' of geographic territories, with the power to cause suffering, inhibit reception of the gospel, interfere with the prayers of the (ungodly) saints. And so on. (2) The protective power of the good angels, also resident over geographic territories, are either increased or diminished by the prayers of the saints, which in turn are rendered ineffective by the presence of sin in the lives of the saints.

[11] The Biblical world view of suffering as alien, abnormal

This is the world view that the rest of our studies will seek to understand. Put briefly it is this: that our sovereign God created a world that was 'very good', in which the words 'sickness', 'suffering' and 'poverty' had no meaning, because there was none. From Genesis 3 onwards everything changed. At that point sin, and along with it, suffering, entered the world. That suffering is here because of sin, is obvious. Why God, who is powerful, good and loving, permitted sin, is not so obvious. But it is obvious in the Bible that the present condition of the world, which began at Genesis 3 and will continue until the consummation of all things with the return of Jesus Christ, is not the way God created it to be, and is not the way it will be. We live in a time that is 'in between' - neither the original, nor the eventual. It is only in this not-yet-in-heaven time frame that suffering exists. When we take the long-term view, we understand that suffering is an intruder, just as sin is, an alien, abnormal, unwelcome intruder, but merely an intruder none the less. It has no permanent right to be here. It has no ultimate power or authority. It is not greater than the Owner of this world, nor can it turn him aside from his purpose. Indeed, so great is the gulf between his power and its power that he takes it in his hands and makes use of it in his eternal plans.