What is the role of faith and prayer in the painful and perplexing drama of human suffering?
I believe in a God whose love is so great that He is love. I also believe in a God who is so powerful that He is all-powerful. But sometimes my belief causes me to struggle.
When I see sad and desperate situations, compassion compels me to help and to pray. This is where I am sometimes confused by faith. Some struggle because they doubt; I struggle because I believe.
My faith is unwavering in the fact that God can do something to help those who suffer. But when I cannot do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering (especially of those I love), and my prayers for them do not alleviate their suffering, I struggle to understand why God does not seem to answer the cries of my heart for those in need.
I realize that I am not the first to be conflicted between faith and suffering. I resonate with the psalmist who asked, “How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Ps. 13:1-2).
More than once, I have identified with his cry: “I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble. Come near and rescue me…” (Psalm 69:3, 16-18).
Like the psalmist, I also struggle with an apparent uneven distribution of pain and suffering. This is the age-old question of why righteous people suffer and the wicked appear to have health and prosperity.
But then I have strong reservations about anyone being righteous enough to lay claim on a good life from God. I do believe in the verdict that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). I also believe that “the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death is such a horrible word and an even more horrible experience. But it is the just verdict pronounced over sinners like me. I am slowly experiencing it every day of my life.
I believe that there is a sad back-story to our suffering and a glorious end-story for those whom God loves. Yet pain in this life is often hard to reconcile with God’s love and power. The agonizing question I face is why God chooses to allow pain and suffering when I am praying so much for its relief. Why doesn’t He answer my agonizing prayers for those who suffer? I cannot endure superficial answers to this real-life question.
Skeptics offer answers ranging from atheism to deism. But for honest people, these alternatives only lead to deeper levels of despair. They also force a degree of thoughtless dishonesty which I cannot permit. If I must choose between “no God” or “a God who means well but either cannot or will not do much to help” I am left with even more perplexing questions on more levels than human suffering. I would have to sacrifice large amounts of intellectual integrity to accept these conclusions.
With my questions, I also know that other great questions are worthy of reflection. Why does God choose to love and to forgive rebellious creatures? The back-story of human sin explains the source of human suffering better than any other explanation (and there are not many others). So why would I think we deserve to have it better? Why do I feel that God should intervene? And what would intervention look like on a world scale?
If I desire for God’s love and power to converge to rescue us from our misery, isn’t this exactly what happened when God entered our world of suffering in the person of Christ and suffered for us ? (see: II Corinthians 5:17-21). Finally, why does God provide such a glorious end-story for forgiven sinners?
On a cultural level, I admit that I have become accustom to (and even impatient for) solutions to pain and suffering. Advancements in science and medicine have strengthened my expectations. Is it possible that I am conditioned to hold unrealistic expectation for health and gregariousness? Do I have a place for sadness and suffering in normal life?
These are not theoretical questions for me. They have been real to me for most of my life. When my father came down with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis in his mid- thirties, I learned what it was like to carry a prayerful burden for a suffering loved one. It profoundly shaped my life and, gratefully, did not lead to bitterness. I learned so much about God’s sustaining grace and His redeeming power to bring good out of pain and suffering. I continued to learn when I entered pastoral ministry and chose to care about many others. Some key scriptures that carried me include: II Corinthians 1:3-11; 4:16-18;12:1-10; James 1:2-9; Psalm 62:8; Proverbs 3:5-6.
I will continue to pray and trust that suffering has a purpose even when I cannot see it. I will pray with one eye on the back-story and a hope-filled focus on the end-story (see: Colossians 3:1-4). When God’s loved ones enter the place He has prepared for them, ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (see: Revelation 21:1-6; John 14:1-3). I find myself longing more and more for this day; for this place.