My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “Pain makes theologians of us all. . . . Pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy.” Sufferers ask more questions about the nature and character of God than any other persons at any other time—questions that should be asked.
So, where is God in all of this? Any attempt to understand God must include a theology of suffering—understanding God in the midst of suffering, not apart from it.
Adam and Eve’s choice has given us a world where suffering is the norm, not the exception. Far from being indifferent to our pain, our Creator cares for us in the midst of our suffering.He even chose to suffer Himself. And because He knows what it is like to suffer, we can trust Him in the middle of our suffering.
The promise of God’s own suffering. In the pages of the Bible, the stories of human suffering rival our own newspaper headlines, suffering on a scale that is difficult to understand. Yet, in the midst of these sobering tales of pain and heartache, there is a promise—a promise that God will respond to suffering. The cost to turn that suffering into something good and beautiful could never be paid by any of us. We disqualified ourselves with our choice to turn away from God.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of a Rescuer, a Deliverer who would come. And when He came, He would ultimately rescue us from the suffering of a broken world. He would provide that rescue in an unexpected way, by experiencing suffering with us. Isaiah 53 tells the tale of our suffering Rescuer and what He endured:
He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth (isaiah 53:3–7).
Notice the intensity of the words Isaiah used to describe the suffering: Despised, rejected, suffering, pain, punished, stricken, afflicted, pierced, crushed, wounds, oppressed, afflicted, slaughter.
These are harsh words—words that every sufferer understands. But they are words that specifically describe the suffering Jesus endured on the cross. Through His life, and especially in His death, Jesus understands and identifies with our suffering. As theologian John Stott wrote: “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the Cross.’ In a world of real pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”
Far from being immune to suffering, Jesus embraced it. He endured pain so that He might effectively care for us when we suffer. On the cross, Jesus shouldered the burden of all the consequences that flowed from the choice in that ancient garden—both in terms of the suffering we experience and the judgment with which we were condemned.
Jesus did not come to study and analyze our brokenness. He came to take it all on Himself. He came to be with us and to suffer for us. In His suffering, our suffering is redeemed—both in the pain of the moment and in the eternity to come.
The care of the cross. God the Son came to engage suffering by walking in the dust and dirt of this world, to confront it with His power and miracles, and then to take it upon Himself as He died on the cross for our sin and its consequences. Through His suffering, Jesus demonstrated His ability and willingness to care for His own when they suffer.
In ancient Israel, the role of the priest was to represent people before God. By becoming “Immanuel” (“God with us” matthew 1:23), Jesus lived among hurting people, worked with those in the middle of pain and suffering, and even experienced suffering on our behalf. The writer of the book of Hebrews highlights a wonderful comfort from Jesus’ suffering: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (hebrews 4:15).
We can rest assured that He understands when we hurt and how we hurt because He has hurt like us. He experienced trials and testings, and, on the cross, a suffering beyond imagination. As our High Priest, Jesus represents us before God the Father with full understanding of our fears and pains. And the Father to whom Jesus represents us has the deepest love and concern for our comfort: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 corinthians 1:3–4).
It is to the God who entered into our suffering through Jesus that we cry out in our pain and loss. It is to the God whose mercies are new every morning that we plead for mercy (lamentations 3:22–23). It is because of Christ’s cross and His resurrection that we can cast our cares on Him, knowing that He cares for us.
As Pastor Robert Gelinas put it in his book The Mercy Prayer, it is to this God that we ask:
For those who sin and those who suffer.
For those who suffer because of sin.
For those who sin to alleviate their suffering.
Lord, have mercy on us.