“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
-The Princess Bride
If you’ve been watching the news or browsing social media or really doing anything except living under a rock, you’ll know that 2018 has so far been a year full of pain and heartache coming to light.
Take the Catholic sex scandals, for instance. Over 1,000 sex abuse victims have been estimated in Pennsylvania, and allegations of a systematic cover-up among the church hierarchy remain. Or the hearings against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh this past week, who is accused of assaulting a woman in high school. Or Hurricane Florence, which is estimated to have caused more than $17 billion dollars of economic damage among the Carolinas.
As a Christian who believes in an all-powerful and all-good God, I am not immune to suffering. Although I have had a fairly good life, all things considered, I still have had loved ones die, experienced bullying in school, been laid off work, suffered occasional depression and been bitten by mosquitos. In the midst of suffering, it is easy for me to question God. “Why? Why should I suffer? Why should they suffer?” I want answers. I want to make sense of the chaos in my world.
Perhaps you have asked the same question. Why suffering? Whether you are religious or not, there may be something inside of you that seeks to find a deeper meaning through the pain you may be experiencing.
One of my favorite narratives in the Bible deals with the issue of suffering, and I think that even in our modern age we can understand a little bit more of how to live through suffering from this narrative.
A narrative on suffering
You’re probably familiar with Joseph. He was the second youngest of twelve brothers and his father’s favorite son. This was evidenced by the fact that Joseph was given a coat of many colors (or, “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) because 3,000 years ago there weren’t that many clothing stores around and so dreamcoats were in scarce supply.
Now Joseph prophesied to his brothers that he would one day rule over them. That didn’t sit well with them, especially since Joseph would be eleventh in line to the chain of command. Joseph was being a little presumptuous.
One day, a caravan of slave traders were traveling through and Joseph’s brothers decided to sell him to the traders, unbeknownst to their father. It was a rash decision, but better than their first: they wanted to kill Joseph. Nonetheless, slavery is a great evil, and there is no doubt that Joseph suffered under the traders’ rule.
Eventually, Joseph was bought by a rich Egyptian official. He won the official’s trust and became an overseer of the household, but his suffering would not be over. His master’s wife tried to coerce him into sleeping with her, and he refused on moral grounds. She falsely accused him of rape, and her husband had him thrown into jail (another stroke of “luck”, since under the ancient laws of the time, the husband had every “right” to kill his slave for sexual misconduct).
Joseph would remain in prison a few more years until he won the Pharoah’s trust by interpreting his dreams and predicting famine. Joseph became a high ranking official in the Egyptian court and would oversee food production for the entire nation. Just as he predicted, a famine came and was it not for his foresight many lives could have been lost through lack of emergency preparedness.
A model for suffering
If you were Joseph, and you had found your way up the ranks of one of the most powerful nations on Earth, how would you treat the brothers who sold you into slavery? Would you order them to be put into prison? Slavery? Death?
Joseph did none of those. When his brothers came to him to buy food during the famine, they did not recognize him at first, probably because many years had gone by and Joseph got a new Egyptian haircut (plus, how could they have known that a slave would have become an official in Pharoah’s court? That’s Hollywood right there.) Instead, here is how Joseph responded:
“But Joseph said to 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. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” – Genesis 50:19-21, New International Version
Joseph’s response is so unnatural, contrary to human nature.
It is natural to get bitter.
It is natural to get angry.
It is natural to want revenge.
Instead, Joseph forgave his brothers. Joseph let go of his “right” to control and mete out justice in the universe. Joseph decided to be the “better man” and allow his brothers to live out the rest of their lives. Joseph became a model for those who have suffered at the hands of others.
“Why Suffering?” may not be the right question
We cannot always understand why God allows certain evil acts to occur in our lives. I do not know why God allowed a member from my church (an otherwise charming and likable fellow) to sexually abuse a young family member for many years (he was eventually caught and imprisoned). I do not know why several of my friends have been killed in automobile accidents (through no fault of their own). “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Various explanations have been offered, the most common one being “To allow the best possible of worlds, God had to allow humans to have free will to choose good or evil.” I’m sure that line would have been of little comfort to Holocaust victims on their way to the gas chambers, who would have wished that Hitler did not have the free will to order genocide. Or, in today’s age of #MeToo, of explaining to rape victims that God wanted their abusers to have a choice.
It is in our very nature to question and try to make sense of the universe. But perhaps it is in our best interest to accept the fact that we may not know why God allows evil to happen in our lives. Perhaps, like Joseph, we have to trust that God will still work good out of the evil that happens. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Indeed, God is still in charge of this universe even though we men and women are responsible for our actions. Here is what two commentators have said about Joseph’s story:
“The words you sold me…God sent me [author’s translation], are one of the classic statements of providential control. This biblical realism, to see clearly the two aspects of every event – on the one hand human mishandling (and the blind working of nature), on the other the perfect will of God- and to fix attention on the latter as alone being of any consequence, was to be supremely exemplified in Gethsemane, where Jesus accepted his betrayal as ‘the cup which the Father has given me’ (John 18:11).” -Derek Kidner, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Genesis
“[Genesis] offers no explanation of how God turns evil to good on our behalf. But implicit here is the ultimate relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We can never fully understand how both are held together, yet both are clearly affirmed in Scripture.” – Bill Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis
I especially like one story in the Gospels, Luke 13, where the disciples give Jesus the morning news. “Hey Jesus, did you hear about the people that Pilate executed? Many people were killed. Boy, they must have been some pretty bad sinners! Or about that tower that fell the other day and crushed a multitude? God must have hated them!” (In the ancient world, and to some extent today, it was a common belief that if you were killed in an extraordinary fashion, it was punishment from the gods for some sin that you committed.
Jesus does not accept their explanation. In fact, he bluntly tells them they’re wrong, but rather than give a different explanation for why those people met tragic deaths, he tells them, “Unless you repent, unless you change, something worse will happen to you.” Jesus was alluding to Hell, of course – an eternity of suffering for those who reject God as their supreme source of joy and affection.
“What to do next?” may be better
Victor Frankl, who survived the concentration camps of World War II, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Interestingly, the early Christian church already knew this almost two thousand years before Frankl was born. The writer of the Book of Hebrews wrote to his recipients:
“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded“ (10:32-35, emphasis mine).
Note that the early Christians were joyful in spite of their sufferings. It is possible to have joy and peace in the midst of suffering. It is possible to have hope in a better future.
The past cannot be changed. Joseph knew that. However, he also knew that the future could be changed. He knew that all suffering is temporal and that God will still have the last word. Rather than play the victim, Joseph worked hard wherever he was – in slavery, in prison, in Pharoah’s court – to be a light to those around him.
The Apostle Paul wrote, ” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
How can you overcome the evil in your life today?
What steps can you make to alleviate your suffering, or someone else’s?
You are not responsible for everything that happens to you, but you are responsible for how you respond.
Maybe you cannot end all of the sufferings in the world. Only God can (and He will, one day). But you can do something, you can make some change, however small that may be.
Maybe God will use you, like he used Joseph, to make this world a little better.