Suffering is a near-universal experience that takes many forms: natural disasters, hunger, illness, disability, bereavement, infertility, persecution, racial prejudice, injustice, betrayal, war, rape, etc, etc.
But it is also intensely personal. My suffering can never be exactly the same as your suffering, even if our situations appear outwardly to be identical. As the book of Proverbs puts it, “Each heart knows its own bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10). Not only is my miscarriage a completely different issue from your bereavement (and from his abused childhood and from her breast cancer), but my father’s death does not have the same effect on me that your father’s death has (or will have) on you.
All of this adds to the difficulty of relating to those who are suffering. It can make us feel helpless, longing to speak words of comfort but afraid of making things worse, so that we become trapped in an uncomfortable silence. On the other hand, there are some who will cheerfully wade in with glib answers and superficial reassurances, convinced that what ‘worked’ for them will automatically work for everyone else.
No-one can deny that the existence of suffering raises some huge (and maybe unanswerable) questions. Why is there so much suffering in the world? And why does God allow it? How do Christians reconcile it with our belief in a God of love and justice?
The theological dilemma has been neatly summarised by John Hick: “If God is perfectly loving and good He must wish to abolish evil; if God is all-powerful He must be able to abolish evil. But evil exists. Therefore God cannot be both perfectly good and almighty.” However, this statement makes several assumptions that may not be valid. Does perfect love protect the beloved from all possibility of temporary suffering? (For example, loving parents discipline their children – Hebrews 12:11) Can the abolition of evil be achieved merely by waving a divine wand? (That is something we don’t know; things could well be a lot more complicated than that) And might there be unintended and not-so-good consequences of doing so? (It might, for example, entail the abolition of human free will)
Actually, there are other possibilities. Christians “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) It may well be that, at this very moment, He is in the process of abolishing evil in such a way that will ultimately turn it into good.