This term I’ve been teaching World Religions. I was fascinated to see how different faiths deal with suffering.
Hinduism is one of the oldest faiths. It encourages us to accept our lot. Our suffering is what we deserve (karma), from previous lives. Only by following the path we’re born into (dharma) can we transcend this cycle of reincarnation and suffering (moksha).
Buddhism diverged from Hinduism six centuries before Jesus. Siddhartha Gautama became the Enlightened One (the Buddha) when he realized that suffering arises from our ignorance, our attachments and desire for permanence. He taught people to seek enlightenment through meditation. We need to realize that nothing is permanent (anicca), that what we desire causes our suffering (dukkha), and that there is no lasting soul (anatman). Only through enlightenment can we break free from the cycle of reincarnation and suffering, to reach nirvana (nothingness).
These perspectives contain some truth. We all know grief from losing someone or something we’re attached to. We’ve all suffered because of doing wrong. But that’s not the extent of our suffering. You can’t blame a child who’s abused by an authority figure.
In Judaism, suffering is a huge issue. The Torah teaches something like karma: obedience brings blessing; disobedience brings suffering. But that doesn’t begin to explain the suffering of the Jewish people throughout the centuries, from Babylon to Berlin. Like Job, they acknowledge their sufferings, but struggle to make sense of it. If God is running the world, how can life be so unjust? Job’s friends feared that even raising the question impugns God’s justice.
Islam doesn’t encourage the question, since you cannot question Allah’s will. Islam means submission. Allah is merciful and all-powerful, so we are called to submit to his will, whatever suffering comes our way.
Christianity engages with suffering in a different way. Our sufferings are not simply because we’ve accumulated bad karma (Hinduism). Our sufferings are not simply the result of our ignorance and desires (Buddhism). Our sufferings are not simply God’s will for us (Islam). God is running the universe, but unjust things happen in his earthly realm.
Anyone who thinks the universe is just has not come to terms with what happened to Jesus.
In Jesus, God joined us in our sufferings. It’s not how we’d expect an all-powerful ruler to act. We want him to use his power to stop our sufferings; instead he joins us in our pain. Despised and rejected by those who held power, he became “a man of suffering, familiar with pain. … He took up our pain; he bore our suffering” (Isaiah 53:3, 4).
To face the issue of suffering, we must consider this question: Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? That’s the crucial question at the heart of Christianity’s understanding of suffering.
Christians have not always provided good answers to that question:
- The least satisfying answer would be to say that God was angry at us for the way we’d treated him (and each other), so he could not be satisfied without inflicting more suffering on somebody, so Jesus had to be sacrificed. The “God” in this scenario is a monster, not a Saviour.
- A better approach would be to speak of God’s empathy with his suffering people. God so loves the world that he enters into our unjust suffering, to experience our pain with us. But empathy isn’t enough if it doesn’t resolve our suffering. And if you look around, it doesn’t look like the suffering has ended yet.
- An even better approach would be to recognize how God uses his power. God is not like the Hulk, crushing his enemies into submission. That’s how human emperors have gained power through history, from Alexander the Great to Adolf Hitler. But God’s methods are not the methods people use to subjugate each other: conquest, force, deception, and death.
God doesn’t come to us with a show of force. The cross is God coming to us in weakness. Jesus suffered because he confronted evil from a position of weakness, not force.
That’s how Jesus explained his sufferings. It was obvious to him that this kind of confrontation with evil would cause him great suffering at the hands of those in power (Mark 8:31). Nevertheless, he was convinced that this path of powerless confrontation would restore God’s authority over the earth (the kingdom of God). God would raise him out of death if that’s what it took for God’s kingship over the earth to be restored through his Anointed.
- The cross is not God demanding that somebody dies as a sacrifice to compensate for evil. The sovereign of the universe it not like that.
- The cross is not God setting a good example by suffering. That doesn’t resolve the problem.
- The cross is not Jesus suffering so we don’t have to. That’s fake triumphalism.
- The cross is God confronting the very foundations of evil, suffering, and dying in his Anointed, being buried, and then rising from death to reign over the world where evil, suffering, and death have lost their power.
He will reign, until all his enemies are under his feet. We’re not there yet, but that’s what Jesus has achieved.
Christianity’s response to suffering is not a philosophy or a dogma. It’s a person. Our suffering and our hope come together in the person of Jesus:
Revelation 7:17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (NIV).