Of all the challenges thrown at faith in God in modern times, perhaps the most difficult is explaining the problem of suffering. How can a loving God allow suffering to continue in the world which He created? For those who have endured massive suffering themselves, this is much more than a philosophical issue, but a deep-seated personal and emotional one. But does leaving faith in God help? It doesn’t. The problem of suffering is still unsolved. Only faith in God and His Messiah gives real hope for Shalom.
But how does the Tanakh address this issue? Does the Tanakh give us any examples of suffering and some indicators on how to deal with it?
The Tanakh is startlingly realistic when it comes to the problem of endured suffering. For one thing, the Tanakh devotes an entire book to dealing with the problem. This book concerns a man named Job. It begins with a scene in heaven which provides the reader with the background of Job’s suffering. Job suffers because God contested with Satan. As far as we know, this was never known by Job or any of his friends. It is therefore not surprising that they all struggle to explain Job’s suffering from the perspective of their ignorance, until Job finally rests in nothing but the faithfulness of God and the hope of His redemption. Neither Job nor his friends understood at the time the reasons for his suffering. In fact, when Job is finally confronted by the Lord who especially shows His majesty, Job is silent. Job’s silent response does not in any way trivialize the intense pain and loss he had so patiently endured. Rather, it underscores the importance of trusting God’s purposes in the midst of suffering, even when we don’t know what those purposes are. Suffering, like all other human experiences, is directed by the sovereign wisdom of God. In the end, we learn that we may never know the specific reason for our suffering, but we must trust in our sovereign God. That is the real answer to suffering. God answers Job out of a whirlwind. But we can say, as a song puts it beautifully, “You are the storm that calms my heart”.
Another example of suffering in the Tanakh is Joseph’s story in the book of Genesis. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers. In Egypt, he was indicted on false charges and thrown into prison. As a result of Joseph’s suffering and endurance, by God’s grace and power, Joseph is later promoted to governor of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. He finds himself in a position to make provision for the nations of the world during a time of famine, including his own family and the brothers who sold him into slavery! The message of this story is summarized in Joseph’s address to his brothers in Genesis 50:19-21: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.”
In the New Testament, the truths of Joseph’s story are applied to all believers in the Messiah. Romans 8:28 contains comforting words for those enduring hardship and suffering: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In His providence, God orchestrates every event in our lives—even suffering, temptation and sin—to accomplish both our temporal and eternal benefit.
But let’s go back to the Tanakh. King David endured much suffering in his time, and this is reflected in many of his poems collected in the book of Psalms. In Psalm 22, we hear some of David’s anguish: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’”
It remains a mystery to David why God does not intervene and end his suffering and pain. He sees God as enthroned as the Holy One, the praise of Israel. God lives in heaven where all is good, where there is no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What does God know of all that humans endure? David goes on to complain that “dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”
Did God ever answer David? Yes, he helped him out. But many centuries later he gave even a deeper answer. Roughly one millennium later, a descendant of David named Yeshua was tortured to death on a hill just outside Jerusalem. On a cross, he endured suffering and shame to even a greater extent than his forefather. Things that didn’t happen literally to David, happened literally now. David’s Psalm turns out to be prophetic. Yeshua’s hands and feet were pierced. His garments were divided among roman soldiers. He was stared at and derided. In fact, He uttered the words with which David opens this psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” completely identifying Himself with the suffering of David and more than that…
Yeshua the Messiah is the eternal Son of God in whom the fullness of God dwells. He is God’s walking Shekinah. But as such he has lived on earth as a human being and has endured hunger, thirst, temptation, shame, persecution, nakedness, bereavement, betrayal, mockery, injustice and death. Therefore, He is in a position to fulfill the longing of Job: “If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot” (Job 9:33).
Biblical theism is, in fact, the only worldview which can consistently make sense of the problem of evil and suffering. Believers in Yeshua the Messiah serve a God who has lived on this earth and endured trauma, temptation, bereavement, torture, hunger, thirst, persecution and even execution.
The sacrifice of the suffering Messiah can be regarded as the ultimate manifestation of God’s justice. When asked how much God cares about the problem of evil and suffering, the believer can point to the Messiah’s enormous suffering and say, “That much.” Messiah experienced physical pain as well as feelings of rejection and abandonment. While coming into this terrible suffering he even took God’s wrath over our sin and iniquity upon himself. He experienced the same suffering as many people today who know the bitterness of isolation, pain, and anguish and far more. God really came in the midst of the whirlwind of suffering and brought his comforting presence there. The end result will be complete Shalom.
(Adapted from gotquestions.org with permission)