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A Christian Perspective on Suffering

John Breadon's picture

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The problem of suffering in the Christian tradition has always been closely linked with the problem of evil: How can a good and all-powerful God allow the appalling pain which is inflicted on people every day? We find it especially hard to imagine why the innocent – such as children and animals – should have to suffer.


Another difficult thing for European Christians to come to terms with is that they have been brought up to believe that they are the ‘developed world’, and supposedly a ‘beacon of civilisation’, but they appear to have done little to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.


Humans inflict suffering

Torture, only recently thought to be no longer in use in the West has been a regular item in news stories over the past decade. Brutal invasions and massacres of innocent people have also become part of our daily diet of news. The Enlightenment was thought to have ended religious wars two centuries ago and ushered in a new era of rational, humane values. But in fact genocidal slaughter seems to have become more frequent or at least much larger in scale – whether of the original Americans in North America (by Protestants) or South America (by Catholics), Christian Americans (by Muslims), whole sections of populations in Europe, Russia, Cambodia (by atheist regimes), and most recently Muslims in the Balkans (Christians again). And of course, the Holocaust, as an attempt to eliminate a whole race, changed the way we think about the human capacity to inflict suffering on a mass scale.


If we look at suffering through disease, modern medicine has visibly reduced bacterial infections and infectious epidemics which caused people to suffer and die in pain. But modern viral epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and cancer, debilitating conditions such as back pain and obesity, not to mention the huge rise in mental illness, depression etc, still cause real suffering to families as well as individuals. Suffering is a permanent feature of our lives, despite our apparent progress through science.


So where is God in all this?

Before the Holocaust some Christians held the notion of an external God, an omnipotent and supernatural being, controlling and willing all that was going on in the world he created. He was a being who intervened in the world from time to time, sometimes as a result of prayer to try to ensure that a family or nation would be spared the suffering that others were going through. After the Holocaust that concept of God became impossible for many Christians. Instead they understood the idea of a God who is totally bound up with, and inseparable from, the natural world; a God who suffers alongside us humans, with the earth and what we do in it and to it.


The role of Jesus in suffering

The churches have thought of God as embodied most fully in Jesus. His experience of suffering on the cross (which lies at the heart of Christian faith) links God with human suffering, not as the cause of suffering, but in solidarity with humanity. Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” identifies God with those who suffer. When a Christian feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, heals the sick, they are doing it all to God.


Jesus’ own response to people’s suffering was to use his gifts as a healer to help alleviate suffering wherever he could. Those like the blind, the leprous, the lame who knew real suffering and the exclusion from society which came with it simply accepted what Jesus had to offer.


Modern responses to suffering

In our twenty-first century society, the NHS offers either pharmaceutical drugs or some other medical interventions no matter whether our suffering has physical or mental symptoms. But an increasing number of people recognise the spiritual ‘dis-ease’ which underlies much ill health. More holistic approaches to healing use many methods ranging from spiritual disciplines to natural plant remedies. Alternative and complementary medicines often work by supporting the natural resources of the body and mind to manage sickness and restore health.


Christians today seek to negotiate a way through the complexity of suffering, both theologically and medically. They face new challenges like the use of treatments involving medicines derived from the cells of aborted foetuses; gene therapies, which appear to involve the creation of new forms of life; assisted suicide, which offers the patient confronted with unbearable suffering the possibility of hastening their death by means of drugs. Different groups of Christians give very different answers to the questions, so the arguments are likely to continue.