The case study presented seems, at first analysis, to be as cruel and meaningless as so much of the suffering with which the human race is afflicted. The young woman, Jessica, suffered a tremendous tragedy that drastically affected her quality of life. Her parents, divorced, coped with it in very different ways: the father from a place of faith, the mother from a place of self-reliance. The father is depicted as the only one who was a believer. On the surface, the mother, and Jessica’s unbelieving siblings, seem to have the right of it: where is God, where could God be, in a place of such extraordinary and senseless suffering?
It is a timeless human need, dealing with the problem of suffering. As Kreeft (1986) explains, one of the more powerful answers to the problem of suffering from outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that given by the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha: exposed to suffering, Siddhartha attempted to fathom the mystery by leaving his royal life as a prince to become an ascetic (pp. 2-3). However, when this failed to satisfy him, he developed the concept of the Middle Way: leaving moderately but adequately. Siddhartha concluded that life is suffering, caused by desire; therefore, to end suffering, one must end desire, entering a state of extinguished desire called Nirvana (p. 3). The way to do this is to reduce the ego, a process Kreeft likens to “spiritual euthanasia” (p. 4). As Kreeft explains, while the Buddha’s answers to the problem of suffering are very different from those we find in the Bible, they are, nonetheless, compelling in their own right, and they demonstrate the essential universality of the problem of suffering (p. 4).
As the great C. S. Lewis explained in The Problem of Pain (1996), when he himself was an atheist, the tremendous suffering experienced by so many seemed to him to be a good argument against the existence of a loving God with any real power (pp. 4-5). In his words, his argument would have been: “’Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit’” (p. 5). It is a problem, seemingly, as old as the human condition (at least since the Fall): why does God permit such pain and suffering?
The problem is compounded, for believers, by the fact that the Scriptures and traditional Christian doctrine have always been clear on two essential points: God is good, and God is all-powerful. Therefore, any and all suffering in the world occurs because God at minimum allows it to occur, even though He is good (Lewis, 1996, pp. 12-13). God’s omnipotence means that He can do anything and everything: He could, for example, eliminate disease, natural disasters, and accidents, all major sources of suffering for human beings (pp. 12-13).
For believers, one of the staple answers to the all-important question of why God permits suffering has long been that God allows suffering as a punishment for sin. To be sure, the Scriptures are clear that in fact, sometimes God does exactly this, as when He sent the venomous serpents among the children of Israel to punish them for complaining against Him (Num. 21:6), or on the many occasions in the book of Judges when He delivered His people into the hands of foreign oppressors because of their sins. However, this answer is unsatisfactory if not downright offensive in the context of such horrors as the Holocaust, responsible for over 15 million deaths, or the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which was responsible for the enslavement of perhaps 21 million Africans, including the deaths of perhaps 2 million during the voyage and 7 million before the voyage—to say nothing of the brutal system of slavery which awaited the approximately 12 million who survived, and the ongoing legacy of racism in the United States (Inbody, 1997, p. 23). For these and other horrors, including the heartbreaking spectacle of the suffering of children from various tragic causes, treating of this suffering in terms of divine judgment for sins is equally absurd and repulsive.
In his own very thoughtful exploration of the problem, Yancey (2010) makes the seemingly audacious claim that pain is under-appreciated: our system of pain is a wondrously complex system of sensors that are triggered by stimuli that harm the body (pp. 26-28). Yancey makes the point that pain is necessary for forcing us to respond to stimuli that can harm us: thus we feel the pain of a burn from a hot stove, or from accidentally cutting ourselves while slicing vegetables (pp. 33-34). However, as Yancey freely admits, this still leaves us with the problem of suffering: while it may be well and good to have a system for pain that will tell us to not touch hot stoves, and to be careful when slicing vegetables, what about the seemingly-endless litany of tragedies and horrors to which we are heir? What about cancer and other wasting diseases? What about car accidents that kill innocent passengers, even children?
Yancey’s (2010) exploration of these topics is sensitive and thoughtful. He draws on the life and writings of John Donne, a 17th-century Anglican cleric whose many sufferings and heartbreaks led him to a position of great faith in God (p. 65). What Donne realized, Yancey explains, is that his sufferings had served to impel him to draw nearer to God: “Trials had purged sin and developed character; poverty had taught him dependence on God and cleansed him of greed; failure and public disgrace had helped cure worldly ambition” (p. 65). Thus, in a very real sense, pain and suffering can be redeemed: we can derive very real benefits from them in terms of spiritual growth (p. 65). While the world may look on pain and suffering as senseless, merely something that one must persevere through (or not), Christians can use suffering as an opportunity to learn new lessons about the character of God and their relationships with Him. This is a very great potential value of pain.
Turning back to the scenario, one can see a great deal of potential for this very principle, as well as one rather clear-cut case of it in action. In the scenario, Jessica being in the coma and then the PVS was difficult for everyone, but it proved an opportunity for the father, a devout believing Christian, to learn some important lessons about relying on God. In the scenario, the father is able to see that Jessica did not have to go through a great deal of dysfunction and sinfulness in the form of drinking and partying, certainly a positive outcome from so great a tragedy as the car accident. His conclusion that God wants to use him to reach out to Jessica is a clear example of redeeming pain in the manner Yancey talked about.
For her part, Jessica has a tremendous opportunity, and she has already been availing herself of it. Despite everything she has been through, she does not seem to be bitter: instead, she is spiritually seeking, curious about God and why He would have saved her from death in the car accident. Moreover, she is starting to remember that before the accident her character left much to be desired, and implicit within this realization is a desire for change and self-improvement. Her recovery has also opened new doors: not only has she been a guest speaker at a university on a couple of occasions, she also has opportunities to mentor other people with brain injuries at the very center where she was. All of these are beautiful outcomes of a very terrible event, and none of them would have been possible without that event.
As Yancey (2010) explains, the Scriptures teach us that sometimes the reason God allows pain and suffering is in order to manifest His glory through the life of the person or persons suffering (p. 78). This is precisely what Christ said to His disciples in John 9, when they asked Him whether the condition of a man who had been born blind was due to the man’s own sin, or that of his parents (p. 78). Christ’s response explicitly refuted the idea that suffering is necessarily a divine punishment for sins, and explained that in this case the man’s blindness was “’so that the work of God might be displayed in his life’” (p. 78). While Christ healed the man, this does not necessarily imply that the healing itself is what He was talking about: perhaps the healing only served as the beginning, a visible (literally!) talisman of the power of God in the man’s life (p. 78).
The story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his own brothers, offers another example of God bringing wonderful things out of great suffering: the Scriptures are clear that God was continually with Joseph, so that Joseph gained the favor of those he served under (Genesis 39:20-23). After some years in captivity, Joseph interpreted the pharaoh’s dream by the grace of God, and was put in charge of the whole land of Egypt, gaining enormous power and wealth (Genesis 41:41-45). In his new position, Joseph prepared the whole land of Egypt for the famine that was to come, thereby saving the lives of untold numbers of Egyptians (45:53-57). Of course, he also saved his own family, since the very same brothers who had once sold him into slavery came down to Egypt to buy grain (42:1-3). Years later, Joseph reassures his brothers, who are still somewhat fearful of the prospect of his revenge, telling them: “’Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’” (Gen. 50:19-20, NIV).
Returning to the scenario again, who knows how many lives God might choose to touch through Jessica’s story? If the story of Joni Eareckson Tada, a onetime teenage athlete who was left a quadriplegic after diving into shallow water, is anything to judge by, the answer may well be ‘a great many’ (Yancey, 2010, pp. 127-128). Joni has become famous as a painter, an author, and a Christian speaker: she has not only overcome her tragedy, she has done so by developing a tremendously strong faith in God. In Yancey’s words, “She wrestled with God, yes, but she did not turn away from him. She emerged with a spiritual depth and maturity that has brought inspiration to millions” (p. 139). Although there was a time when she believed, in faith, that God would miraculously heal her, she has since entirely embraced what happened to her. Yancey’s description is simply astounding: “Joni now calls her accident a ‘glorious intruder,’ and claims it was the best thing that ever happened to her” (p. 139).
To be clear, again, this is the accident that left a healthy, athletic teenage girl a quadriplegic for life. How could she possibly hold such a view on what happened to her? The answer is that Joni recognizes what God did in her life as a direct result of that accident (Yancey, 2010, p. 139). Through the accident, God got Joni’s attention in a new way: she became more focused on Him than ever (p. 139). She has emerged as a shining beacon of faith for millions, a testament to the glory and wisdom of God (p. 139).
Joni’s amazing, beautiful story points us toward the cross of Christ, and can help us to appreciate pain and suffering in a new way: as an opportunity for creativity (Yancey, 2010, p. 143). Joni’s suffering was the source of her faith, an act of creation and of creativity, as it led her to new depths of character. Yancey explains that this principle is evident in the lives and careers of many others, who underwent ‘creative suffering’ in a way that ultimately made them symbols to millions: “King, Gandhi, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Tutu, Mandela, and many others… Out of circumstances that should have merely destroyed, these courageous ones emerged with a strength that confounded whole nations” (p. 143). Martin Luther King, Jr., is a good example: he actively looked for the worst Southern sheriffs when he was staging his demonstrations, realizing that the sufferings that he and his followers would undergo could serve as the catalyst to shock and appall a nation too long complacent in the pernicious evils of racism, sowing the seeds for change (p. 143).
While the cross of Christ is a vital touchstone for us to rely upon in confronting the problem of suffering, the resurrection of Christ is an equally invaluable foundation (Inbody, 1997, p. 181). The resurrection is the key to God’s redemption of our suffering. Inbody draws a contrast here between Christianity on the one hand, and some forms of Judaism and the Stoic philosophy on the other hand: the latter have no hope of suffering being transformed and redeemed in the hereafter (p. 181). Through the resurrection, Christ overcame death. In the same way, all of our sufferings can be overcome (p. 181). As the Scripture says: “’Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children’” (Rev. 21:7, NIV).
For believers, suffering should be an opportunity to turn to God afresh and cry out to Him (Carson, 2006, p. 112; Yancey, 2010, p. 149). In Carson’s (2006) words: “We ought to turn to God for comfort, naturally and spontaneously” (p. 112). This is one of the biblical answers to suffering: we belong with God, to God, therefore we should turn to Him for comfort (p. 113). Yes, God permits suffering, but He is also willing to help us creatively redeem our suffering, and towards this end He will comfort us. This is an absolutely vital point to appreciate if we are to even begin to comprehend the answer to the question of why a loving, all-powerful God would permit suffering.
And Carson (2006) is very clear on an essential point: one of the reasons that this perspective is so needed in the church is that it is all too easy to simply appeal to a blissful hereafter with Christ (p. 114). Yes, the Scriptures promise us paradise in the hereafter and an end to all our sufferings (Rev. 21:3-7), and while these promises are true and we should cleave to them, this is often not an adequate response to suffering in the here and now (p. 114). We need to recognize that God is not only in control, but in control in a way that includes Him wanting to, and having the ability to, bring us comfort as we deal with pain, suffering, and evil in the world around us (p. 114).
Returning to the scenario, it seems that the father had the opportunity to learn this lesson, and is availing himself of that opportunity. Jessica also has that opportunity: just like Joni Eareckson Tada, she can turn to God for comfort. The fact that God offers comfort is a truth we need to internalize until it becomes part of how we engage with suffering, pain, and death (Carson, 2006, p. 115). And although it may not be enough to appeal to eternity when dealing with suffering in the here and now, it is still an important part of the believer’s response to suffering to remember that a wonderful eternity is coming. This can help us to put our present sufferings in a certain amount of context: no matter what we are suffering in this life, it is temporary (p. 114). These are lessons that Jessica’s father seems to be learning, and Jessica herself has plenty of opportunity to learn. The rest of the family, again, are left lacking here: they do not have the perspective of having a relationship with a loving God who offers comfort in the here and now and the promise of a joyful eternity.
As C. S. Lewis (1996) explained, God’s perspective, including His perspective on good and evil, is truly far beyond our own (p. 20). By this Lewis does not mean that it is utterly alien, or else we would be completely incapable of understanding it, and it would make no sense to say that God is good (how could we, if we had no means of comprehending why or how?) (pp. 18-20). Instead, Lewis compares God’s goodness to our own with the metaphor of a perfect circle versus “a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel”, respectively (p. 20). God’s goodness is comprehensible to us by His grace, and through faith; however difficult it may be to appreciate His design at times, when one adopts His perspective things become much clearer (p. 20).
However, in learning God’s perspective, we have to be prepared for the fact that we may not find everything we learn to be gratifying. Here, as usual, Lewis’s (1996) theological and moral clarity are outstanding: he observes that God does not exist for our benefit, but rather quite the reverse (pp. 22-25). Lewis draws some inescapable parallels between our relationship to God and that of a dog to a kindly master: such a master, Lewis contends, loves a dog enough as the dog is for it to be worth the master’s while to interfere with the dog in order to make it more lovable (pp. 22-23). While his metaphor is anything but flattering, Lewis’s logic is impeccable: dogs have a tendency to develop unpleasant smells, and often develop bad habits quite naturally; people wash them and teach them better habits (p. 23). In his words: “To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man” (p. 23). But as Lewis points out, if the dog had the ability, once grown and fully-trained, to realize its own condition compared with that of a wild dog, it would have no doubts but that its master cared for it (p. 23). As with the dog, we are lovable enough to God, in His infinite grace and mercy, to be worth His while in ‘domesticating’ through redemption, making us, in effect, more lovable (Lewis, 1996, p. 23). But an absolutely vital point here is that just as people do not exist for the sake of the dogs that they may adopt and care for and love, so too God does not exist for our sake: rather, we exist for his sake, and thanks to Him. Once we understand this, we will be in a much better position to interpret suffering through God’s perspective: like the kindly master of a dog, He does not seek to harm us, only to improve us. Unlike the dog-owner, though, God has infinite power and infinite wisdom, and may choose to improve us through a process of redeeming our suffering.
In the final analysis, Jessica and her father are the lucky ones: her father is a Christian, and she may yet become one as a result of her accident. The rest of the family are nonbelievers and show no prospect of changing their ways. What Jessica and her father can show them is how to suffer creatively: how to endure suffering with patience, grace, and faith in God. From this perspective, God is our source of comfort, our help in time of troubles, and our ultimate hope.
Carson, D. A. (2006). How long, O Lord? Reflections on suffering and evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. (Original work published 1990).
Inbody, T. (1997). The transforming God: An interpretation of suffering and evil. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Kreeft, P. (1986). Making sense out of suffering. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books.
Lewis, C. S. (1996). The problem of pain. New York: HarperColllins. (Original work published 1940).
Yancey, P. (2010). Where is God when it hurts? Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. (Original work published 1977).