Max Jeganathan is the Asia-Pacific Regional Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Born in Sri Lanka, Max’s family moved to Australia as refugees in the mid-1980s. He has worked as a lawyer and as a political adviser in the Australian national parliament. His research interests relate to the relationships between faith, politics, public policy, economics, and moral reasoning. Max lives in Singapore with his wife and their two young children.
“If God really is who they say He is—all-loving, all-powerful, and all-good—He would end the suffering. Therefore, because there is suffering there can be no God.”
So says the age-old critique. Many of us let words like this wash over us without thinking critically about them. However, to blindly accept this statement is at best, reckless and at worst, wrong-headed. As is so often the case with truth and reality, there is much more to the story.
The reality of suffering is one that everyone of us—Christians, atheists and adherents of other faiths—have to deal with. No one can escape from it. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, illness, a lost loved one, political or economic turmoil, suffering is an unavoidable reality.
Therefore, for any worldview to be taken seriously, it needs to provide a response to this reality of suffering that is intellectually coherent, emotionally satisfying, and existentially compelling.
We Christians are certainly not strangers to suffering. One of the biggest myths about Christianity is that Christians suffer less, a claim that is as ridiculous as it is baseless. There is absolutely no evidence either in the Bible or in the world, to back up this claim. By contrast, Jesus is very honest about the costs of being a Christian (Matthew 16:21-28).
Putting this to one side, we Christians still find ourselves—as we should be—called on to explain how this loving God we worship can allow so much suffering. There is much more to be said than can be conveyed in a short article. However, here are some thoughts that reveal the Christian diagnosis and response to suffering to be both unique and compelling.
A God of Love
It might seem strange to begin with God’s character as an explanation for suffering. However, when we look a little deeper, things become a lot clearer. God is not just a loving God (John 3:16), but He “is” the essential embodiment of love itself (1 John 4:8). The only way that love is authentically manifest in reality is in relationship. Therefore, this God of love is also a God of relationship.
This takes us right back to the beginning of the Christian story, when God created humankind— primarily—for relationship; for loving relationship with Him and with each other (Mark 12:30-31). For a relationship to be real, the parties to that relationship must be—at least in some sense—free to choose whether or not to enter the relationship. Imagine having a friend who was forced to spend time with you under the threat of violence. It would certainly not be an authentic friendship. By robbing your “friend” of the freedom to choose you, you have undermined the concept of love and relationship.
So it is with God and us. For the relationship between God and people, and between people to be authentic, both love and freedom have to be real. When freedom to love was given to us, a necessary condition of that freedom is of course, the freedom not to love. This is the freedom we see exercised all too often on the battlefields of war, where we see fraud, crime, assault, poverty, and hatred.
The sad reality of our condition is that it is people acting freely who cause more suffering for each other than any other single cause. In the 20th century alone, we killed more of each other than in all preceding 19 centuries combined. However, any world other than the one we’re in now, would be one where both love and relationship would not be possible. God wanted a universe in which love and relationship were both real and possible. Suffering is a necessarily unavoidable part of that.
A God Who Knows
There are still aspects of suffering that don’t seem to fit with God’s power or His character. What about kids with cancer? What about natural disasters? What about innocent people who suffer for no good reason?
This all comes back to two things: Our information and God’s trustworthiness. When it comes to suffering, we humans are playing with limited information. We know less than there is to know. Therefore, we’re not in a position to pass moral judgments, let alone pass them against God. Put simply, He knows more than us and is smarter than us (Isaiah 55 and Ephesians 3).
Strangely, we don’t evaluate other truth claims just because of a lack of information. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, then you—like me—don’t know what the capital city of Chad is, what the average weight of a Bengal tiger is, or what the circumference of the Earth is. However, we don’t assume—just because we don’t know—that there are no answers to these questions.
In the same way, there may well be reasons for suffering that exist but that we don’t see. It seems a little arrogant to assume that for something to be true, I must know what it is.
By contrast, God does know all things (Psalm 147:5). This certainly provide us with some reassurance, but in itself that’s not enough. For someone to prove themselves trustworthy, they need to do more than demonstrate possession of information. It is on the question of God’s trustworthiness that we now turn, and what we see is nothing short of life-changing.
A God Who Cares
The responses to suffering out there are weird and wide-ranging, depending on your worldview. Some say that God is real but He can will whatever suffering He wants and we’re not allowed to question Him. Another group may say that we are the cause of our own suffering (because of things that we have done in our lives, either this one or a previous one). Yet others say that the cause of suffering is desire, so the answer is to meditate ourselves out of all desire. Finally, the atheists—when being honest—say that all suffering is meaningless. As many of the New Atheists have written: we are just molecules, so who cares about suffering! Without going into more detail, it’s pretty clear that all of these responses fail. They break down intellectually, emotionally, and existentially.
Then we turn to the Cross of Jesus Christ. What we see is a God who is not removed from suffering, not immune to it, not asking us to ignore it or think our way out of it. No. This is a God who loves us so much that He literally stepped down into our suffering. He suffered for us, as one of us. He defeated suffering on a Cross. He made a way for us to be with Him and for us to be free from suffering into eternity. And in the meantime, He promises to take our hand (if we’re willing to give it to Him) and to give us the strength to go through the temporary suffering of our broken world (1 Peter 1:6-9, Romans 8:18).
In my years as a lawyer and then a political adviser, there was no shortage of emotional, existential and professional turbulence, much of which caused suffering. At those times, it was the assurance of a sovereign, loving and redemptive God with whom I was in and up close and personal relationship, that got me through.
The Cross of Jesus Christ is quite simply unparalleled as a response to human suffering. It shows a God of love, a God who knows, and a God who cares, taking on suffering for those He loves, through a verifiable event in human history. God’s response to suffering is neither abstract nor is it philosophical. It is intellectually coherent, yes. But it is gritty. It is practical. It is tangible. It is life-changing. And it is the only response on the market where perfect love comes together with perfect mercy through God Himself, to offer humankind a way of out of our own brokenness and our world’s brokenness.
Whatever it is you may be going through, please know that there is a God with His hands and heart open and waiting for you—a God who suffered for you and who is reaching out to take your hand, so you can conquer through the suffering.