Is suffering redemptive? In Christianity’s ancient and ongoing struggle to understand how suffering could exist in a world created by an all-powerful and all-loving God, the idea that suffering exists to strengthen and purify us, to make us more fit for the Kingdom, frequently comes up. According to this way of thinking, God allows (or even sends) suffering to test our faith and resolve our character. Suffering teaches us what is genuinely important, and what is secondary; it purifies our souls and focuses our commitment. Inherent in this idea is that suffering is–or at least can be–ennobling.
Whether you say that God allows suffering to come our way or causes it to do so, in either case you’ve made God the author of our suffering–which is where I have to part company with this way of looking at things. Think about it this way: would you cause your child serious physical or emotional harm in order to “teach them a lesson?” Plenty of people do, of course, but thankfully much of the world has come to see that as child abuse. If even we can recognize such behavior for what it is, then surely God does so as well. Could we be more compassionate than God? I think not.
But while we must reject the notion that God causes suffering, we can affirm the belief that God can bring good out of suffering. When we say that God reigns over the world, one of the things we mean is that God is constantly at work to make the world look more like the Kingdom. In a world where we daily misuse our freedom to harm one another, the work of building the kingdom requires God to wrest good from the jaws of evil. As I’ve said above, God does not cause evil to happen; most of the time we’re plenty good at that on our own. But neither will God permit evil and suffering to have the last word; every day, in thousands of ways both great and small, God is bringing healing out of the world’s hurt, turning even suffering toward the coming of the Kingdom.
How does that work? In two ways, principally. First, the Holy Spirit surrounds and upholds all who suffer, offering healing. As we are able to accept that healing, it transforms us. That healing can make us wiser, more compassionate persons, better able to see and respond to the suffering of those around us. Does this make suffering, grief, and tragedy “worth it?” Of course not. This newly-found wisdom and compassion can never return those whom we’ve lost, for example. But in a flawed and chaotic world, they move us a step closer to the moment when it will be on earth as it is in heaven.
Second, whenever we respond to tragedy and suffering–whether that’s hopping on a plane to an earthquake-stricken country or taking a meal to a friend recovering from surgery–we are the agents of God’s redemption of the world. Does this mean that God can’t accomplish this work apart from us? Of course not. What it means is that God is handing us the indescribable privilege of being part of God’s great work of building the Kingdom. How sad for us if, having been given this opportunity, we choose to sit on the sidelines instead.