A Ministry of Care by Dr. Daniel G. Bagby

Pastoral Care Guidance for Deacons, Stephen Ministers, and the Congregation of River Road Church, Baptist

God and Human Suffering

The history of the Hebrew people reflects several biblical understandings of human suffering and healing. The Scriptures also interpret God’s action in human affairs in a variety of ways. Here are the most frequently recognized and taught interpretations:

  1. All human suffering is a consequence of sin, and people who are sick have sinned. This is probably the earliest of biblical answers for suffering, and it was based on the struggle of primitive believers to understand the mystery of disease.
  2. Since God is all-powerful and omni-present, the early Hebrew also believed that God caused all suffering—for particular reasons.
  3. Noting, however, that good people also suffered and fell ill, the people of God soon began to interpret sickness and suffering as also coming from evil sources—since a good God would certainly not punish good servants with suffering and pain. (the book of Job)
  4. During the Exile, aware that their enemies fared well, the Jewish nation began explaining the human condition in terms of good and evil, and suffering as either from God—to teach a lesson—or from evil consequences to selfish decisions.
  5. Some believers, having prayed to God and waited centuries for relief, began to expound the idea that good and evil each had their day, and that it mattered little how much one might pray—relief would only come in a life hereafter. (Ecclesiastes)
  6. After the Exile, a new priestly class rediscovered a “theology of creation,” and identified a God Who gave people freedom (made in God’s image) to participate in good or ill. (Genesis 1). Suffering is seen then as a consequence of choosing good or evil.
  7. Jesus himself taught that “the sun and the rain falls on the just and the unjust,” further bewildering those who felt that God favored the believer. (Matthew 5)
  8. The entire created order was soon understood to have been set free, and not following God’s will in this world. Consequently creation, not always following God’s will, also waits for redemption. (Romans 8) Hence three sources are now identified as capable of generating pain and suffering: chaos (accident), good (God), and evil (Satan: a personification of evil which appears by the fifth century before Christ, during the Persian Exile).
  9. Jesus Christ instructs his disciples (who want to learn how to pray) to ask for God’s Kingdom (power) to be exercised on earth, and God’s will to be done (Matt. 6). Obviously to Jesus (a) God’s will is not always done, and (b) we can ask to be part of God’s kingdom and will.
  10. Prayers of intercession occur early in the Hebrew Scriptures, and continue in the Early Church. The apostles and leaders of the church teach the value of intercessory prayer. (Romans 12, Ephesians 6)
  11. Christ in Gethsemane is a reminder that in petitionary prayers we ask for what is possible in this world-and then defer to God’s will in the mystery of some afflictions
  12. Paul himself is aware that regardless of the faith of the believer, requests for healing do not always occur. He asks for the removal of his own “thorn,” only to be told that God’s grace was to be sufficient for him-suffering and all. (II Corinthians 12)
  13. We know enough now about the human body to understand that certain chemicals are released in our blood stream (endorphins/peptides) and body which contribute to recovery and healing-even mood changes. We also understand that people who believe and have faith contribute to their recovery time. God works in our bodies for healing in every circumstance.
  14. Perhaps the most difficult two issues for Christians over the centuries has been the challenge of:
    • reconciling how a good God can allow suffering and injustice to occur, and
    • how an all-powerful God can activate Self-limitations and not be totally in control in this world. My theological answers:
      • It is impossible to create the possibility of freedom for human beings without giving them the freedom to choose poorly and to destroy rather than to help and heal. In order to truly make us in God’s image (free to choose for ourselves, among other things), God had to give us the freedom to reject what God wills and what God designed.
      • The only way to provide freedom also means that God must give up control in this earthly sphere. Though in Jesus Christ God came to return the created order (the Kingdom of earth) to God’s will, it is still being redeemed, and will not be completely redeemed until we all attain to eternal life—beyond this age. In the age to come, God will have the last say, and will exercise full control—but not now (or God would be playing a game with us in which we may choose whatever we want, but God will always make it immediately good. In such a world, there is no need for us to be moral—God will always fix it). So God cannot employ all of God’s power in this world.
  15. Healing and recovery in this world follow the design of renewal, recovery, and re-formation which God has placed in all the created order-as a natural expression of God’s grace and hope. Yet the healing and recovery forces in God’s human creation must contend with the chaotic and evil forces in this world, which still have destructive power and dysfunctional influence. Our prayers of intercession are for all of God’s creative, healing forces on earth to be focused on a loved one, and for the cooperation of that loved one in faith for the healing process.

Personal experiences of harm and tragedy have often raised the question among struggling loved ones: “Where was God when this happened?” And, in my sense and understanding of God, I’ve responded: “God was the first one crying….”

We can ask for God’s divine power to interfere in the suffering of this world—but we then ask for a mystery we cannot explain. It is evident that divine power sometimes intervenes in unexplainable ways to create a miracle of recovery. We cannot know if/when that will happen—but we know it is not because anyone earned it—it is by grace—or not all—that anyone is miraculously healed. All that we can ask is “if it is possible…”