|Thursday, May 1, 2008
IS HUMAN SUFFERING CAUSED BY GOD?
All my life church folk have told me that one reason we suffer is because God “tests us.” Testing by God apparently takes many forms—psychological and political persecution, or physical suffering and disease—anything that leads us to doubt the faith we were taught. Does God really do things like that?
A casual reading of the Jewish Bible (the Protestant “Old Testament”) confirms that the ancient Hebrew writers believed it to be so. For example, in Deuteronomy 13:1-3 God sends a “false” prophet to mislead the Israelites with “signs and wonders.” God wanted to see who loved him with “all their heart and soul” and who would go after “false Gods.” How about that?—a false prophet working for God to mislead the faithful!
In the Jewish Bible God either deliberately puts his people to the test (Isa 1:25-25; Mal 3:1-4; Jer 20:12; Ps 11:5), or for no good reason allows his sidekick Satan the “Accuser” to test them. At that time people believed that Satan worked for God uncovering hidden sins (Job 1:1-12). Even Jesus thought God tested the faithful and so taught his disciples to pray “do not put us to the test” (Matt 6:13). Oddly, however, the psalmist prays to be “put to the test” (Ps 26:2-3).
In the New Testament the situation is different. On the one hand, there is a specific denial that God tests believers (Jas 1:12-13). But make no mistake, believers are still tested. They suffer various trials so that the “genuineness of their faith” may glorify God. But the testing now originates with Satan (who in the New Testament is now God’s adversary). By suffering persecution believers can prove the genuineness of their faith, share in the suffering of Jesus, and in that way glorify God (1 Pet 4:12-17). The writer of James thinks that believers become stronger through testing, and John thinks believers are more productive if they suffer (John 15:2). Paul (Rom 8:17) and James (1:12) even connect sharing the sufferings of Jesus with a believer’s ultimate “glorification” (Rom 8:17); that is, if you don’t suffer, forget about your place in heaven! This is an odd idea because not all believers can withstand the rigors of persecution or disease; some will fail the test, and give up the faith. Apostasy does happen in real life—even though Paul thought that Christians would not be tested beyond their ability to bear it (1 Cor 10:13).
We have all known people “tested” beyond their breaking points. There are two well known cases in the New Testament of such failure. According to Matthew, one disciple of Jesus (Judas) betrayed him apparently for greed (i.e., for thirty pieces of silver, Matt 27:1-6). If the “greed” tradition is historical (none of the other early gospels report it, cf. John 13:2), then the conclusion seems inevitable that Judas was tested by “love of money” (1 Tim 6:10), and failed the test. Another failure of faith is a man named Demas, a companion of Paul (Phlm 24; Col 4:14), who deserted Paul “for love of the present world” (2 Tim 4:10).
One would expect, however, that the God who sees into the human heart (Ps 44:20-21; 94:11; 139:1-2) would know the answers without the tests. If that is correct, why would God even bother with tests, and particularly with tests that cause human suffering? A God that causes, or permits, human suffering for any reason can scarcely be described as a caring deity!
None of the reasons for suffering offered in the New Testament make any sense. Why would anyone voluntarily want to share the sufferings of Jesus (particularly after seeing Gibson’s “The Passion”)? Isn’t the traditional Christian view that Christ suffered in our place (1 Pet 2:21)? According to Paul, it is the common lot of humanity to suffer (1 Cor 10:13), so how then do we sort out suffering as a part of the common human experience from suffering for a religious reason, such as “suffering with Jesus”? Is having terminal cancer “suffering with Jesus,” for example? As to being more productive: suffering and tragedy tend to incapacitate us, which, it seems, makes us less productive. Certainly one’s personal suffering may result in empathy with others who suffer, and recognizing our vulnerability to suffering may decrease our arrogance. But I doubt people would claim to be “better” because they suffered. Such a concept may be one religious fiction, among others that we have invented, to explain God’s apparent inability or disinclination to eradicate human suffering. Suffering of any sort is irrational when considered in the context of a compassionate and all powerful God. And hence arise multiple theories to explain suffering in such a context. Some answers given are: Adam and Eve sinned, and therefore we suffer because of their sin. Sin causes suffering, and so we, being sinners, must suffer. We suffer because God tests us so as to improve the quality of our spiritual life and “bring glory to his name,” etc. For me the bottom line is this: Paul was likely correct: suffering is simply a natural part of life in an unregulated world. In our world bad things happen to good people for no particular reason. God isn’t mad at you, and it is not because of some sin you committed. We have made suffering into God’s test of our piety (Jas 1:2-3) as one way of explaining the disconnect between a caring God and tragic human suffering.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:32pm
OK, Charles. From reading your reply I would surmise that on some things we do agree, but for probably different reasons. I don't have time now to give an extended reply but maybe in a week. But for now a couple of items.