What (and why) is suffering?

“What sort of world is this? It is a world shot through with matchless beauty yet witness at the same time to intolerable pain.” Judy Hirst, Third Way Magazine

The undeniable fact of suffering in the world – and in our own lives – is troubling to everyone, and most of all to those of us who believe in a good, loving and capable God. The question of how a God of love can allow – even perhaps ordain – suffering is one of the oldest and most enduring theological conundrums (see the book of Job), and one that has driven many people away from faith. (Not that atheism has a huge amount of help to offer on the subject as far as I can see.)

There are of course many different religious and theological responses to the conundrum. There are those who maintain that the existence of suffering disproves the existence of God, or else renders him a monster – or at best powerless and useless. At the opposite end are those who believe that all suffering is ordained by God for his glory and our ultimate good. And there are even those who deny the existence of suffering, seeing it as an illusion that we need to somehow stop believing.

In between the extremes are those like me who aren’t sure what to think, who don’t want to believe that God deliberately inflicts suffering yet do see that some suffering can sometimes be redemptive and may be used by God for good.

The whole topic is a minefield. Suffering is a terrible reality for many people, and any attempt to discuss it runs the risk of coming over as either glib and platitudinous or else callous and judgemental. So perhaps it’s a subject best left alone, accepting that suffering is something that cannot fruitfully be analysed or explained. Yet I find I can’t just leave it alone.

Framing the discussion – what is suffering?

One dictionary definition of suffering is: “to experience or be subjected to something bad or unpleasant”. However, this is deeply subjective – we all have very different ideas of what is ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’. I would find it unpleasant to sit through several hours of football; others would feel the same about opera or poetry or church. And what is unpleasant is not necessarily bad, and vice versa.

So one of the difficulties in talking about this subject is that people in different places and times have very different views and definitions of suffering. One person’s great suffering may be another’s minor inconvenience, and vice versa. And as life goes on we learn to bear more, so things we experience as suffering now we may not later.

We in the modern, affluent, comfortable Western world need to recognise that we have a historically atypical understanding of what constitutes genuine suffering or deprivation. What others have had to put up with through the centuries as a routine part of daily life, we might see as a terrible or extraordinary ordeal – but they might not have. Conversely we might consider it suffering if we have to forego one meal or one favourite TV programme, which people of other times would boggle at.

We also often have unrealistic expectations of a largely pain-free, problem-free life, and when we experience pain and trouble we may doubt God or feel let down by him. I suspect that Christians in other times may have been more resilient – which is not to say that suffering wasn’t a problem for them. But it was, I think, more of an accepted fact of everyday life.

The problem of pain

Another problem is that we often tend to conflate suffering, pain and evil, thus muddying the waters. There is of course an overlap between these three things, but they are not the same and cannot be dealt with as though they were.

All pain arguably involves a degree of suffering, though not always high-level or long-term. But there are forms of suffering that involve no pain – certainly no physical pain. Oppression, deprivation, enslavement or abandonment may involve emotional or psychological pain but not physical pain. Loneliness and friendlessness involve no physical hurt but are the some of the worst conditions humans can experience.

Similarly, some forms of hardship or deprivation are hard to categorise as pain in any sense, but they may be experienced as suffering nonetheless. And there are irritations, physical or mental, which are not painful but extended over long periods can become almost unbearable.

Furthermore, not all evil involves pain or suffering (at least in the short term), and conversely not all pain or suffering are necessarily evil nor the result of evil. Some evils are highly enjoyable, and some pains – while clearly unpleasant – are ultimately beneficial, such as the pain of the dentist’s drill.

Useful pain

Indeed, the phenomenon of pain is originally intended (whether by nature, God or both) as beneficial, though by definition never pleasant. It has a good and vital purpose – to warn us that something is wrong and urgently needs addressing. If we touch something hot or sharp, pain tells us to move away fast. Continuing pain tells us of deeper damage that needs healing.

Removing our sense of pain is not a blessing. Leprosy causes its terrible maiming precisely by taking away the awareness of pain, thus leading victims to inflict accidental self-damage without realising.

It’s a strange and perhaps significant fact that life cannot come into being without pain. Childbirth is one of the most painful processes any human can go through – one no man can understand – and yet without it, none of us would exist and the human race would perish. Why or whether it has to be so painful I don’t know (literal readings of Genesis notwithstanding); but it certainly is.

Perhaps the real problem with pain is when we can do nothing to stop it – when the damage cannot be healed, or the pain message cannot be switched off and continues to scream at us intolerably. This is certainly a kind of suffering, and hard to see as beneficial in any obvious way.

Necessary suffering?

But the problem of suffering is not quite the same as the problem of pain, and neither are the same as the problem of evil.

Even suffering is clearly not always evil. We all know the ‘suffering’ of delayed gratification or of having our will thwarted – of not getting what we want when we want it. Every child knows the ‘suffering’ of being forced to eat their greens or stop playing/watching when it’s time for bed. Though these are clearly trivial examples, we nonetheless experience them as real suffering. But it’s generally only our ego that suffers, often to the long-term benefit of our character.

We sometimes use the phrase ‘cruel to be kind’ to describe these experiences – things which are unpleasant but beneficial. Which is not to justify genuine cruelty, nor to condone child-beating. But sometimes I think that in our desire to avoid physical pain we’ve forgotten that there can be worse things.

Emotionally, one of the most piercing pains many of us will suffer is the experience of unrequited love; the feeling that life has no meaning outside of this desired, beloved person, but they have no interest in us. We might feel at the time that it’s ‘evil’ that the world is set up in such a way, but it’s surely just a consequence of our essential freedom. Love cannot be forced, thank goodness; yet this good reality is the cause of much pain.

Different kinds of suffering

Another complicating factor in the discussion is that there are so many different kinds, causes and degrees of pain and suffering. These very different kinds cannot usefully all be lumped together when we’re talking about why God allows suffering.

So there is self-inflicted suffering and that which is brought about by other people, or that deriving from natural causes. There is accidental suffering and there is suffering caused deliberately. There is apparently meaningless or random suffering and there is suffering that clearly has a redemptive element. There is everyday suffering and there is exceptional suffering.

Humans are fragile beings with many needs, and if these are not met for a while then we start to suffer. We’re also adapted to quite a small specific range of conditions (e.g. temperature, pressure, oxygen level) and if these change then we start to experience suffering. This is just part of life. But we can’t realistically expect all our needs to be met all the time nor conditions always to be optimum, so we will inevitably experience degrees of suffering.

Everyday suffering

So there is, of course, a normal level of pain and suffering that we all experience just as part of being alive in this world. We all suffer minor knocks, scrapes and bruises – both physically and emotionally. We all suffer small inconveniences, frustrations, disappointments and losses. We all catch colds or get headaches. We all experience growing pains, and the necessary pains of falling over and grazing our knees as we learn to walk.

For the most part we cope with these daily low-level ‘sufferings’ and don’t let them affect us too much. It’s only when they mount up or our resilience is low that these low-level issues become really problematic. Yet their very existence shows us that some pain and suffering is necessarily built into the fabric of the world and of our lives, and while unpleasant and inconvenient is not necessarily always evil.

Then there are the larger but rarer troubles, some of which we are all going to face at some point –serious illness, financial difficulty, unemployment or loss of work, relational problems or breakdown. There is the loss of loved ones and pain of bereavement which we will all inevitably experience. And we must all face our own mortality and ultimately death.

When we experience these things – or when we see others experiencing them – we may feel that they are evil; certainly terrible and awful and tremendously difficult. But they should not really come as a surprise to us; they are just part of life, of all life. They seem to be a form of inevitable and necessary suffering – perhaps the price we all have to pay for the privilege of being alive and conscious and free. We may wish the world was ordered differently, and I believe we can trust that one day it will be, but I think we are better off accepting that this is how things are and perhaps how (for now) they have to be.

But then there are the exceptional cases of extraordinary suffering, which are far more theologically problematic. That’s where I want to start next time.


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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6 Responses to What (and why) is suffering?

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Evan, I think you have a lot of very good insights on suffering here. I look forward to your post on extraordinary suffering.


  2. Chas says:

    Harvey, your post is a very comprehensive assessment of the types of suffering that are possible. I think that it is right to say that all types of suffering have their origins in the actions of destruction. The actions of destruction within the earth itself result in earthquakes and tsunamis; the actions of destruction (and creation) on the sun cause the weather on earth, which in turn causes wind, rain, frost and various other phenomena that cause suffering. Carniverous animals have to kill in order to eat, which causes their prey to suffer. If there is too little food, animals starve. The area in which the actions of destruction do not so obviously result in suffering is in emotional suffering. Here the destruction that initiates suffering can be in the mind of someone, but the resulting suffering might be in someone else. An example of this would be bullying; in which the bully has often themselves been bullied. A positive response, which stops any further bullying, would be to recognise the hurt which they have felt and refuse to inflict that on someone else. The negative reaction, which leads to further bullying, would be to bully others, because they are weaker. Most emotional suffering is the result of events that have occurred during childhood, but a child raised in a loving household is better equipped to resist the emotional damage that causes suffering. This is a very wide topic, which is too large to do more than scrape the surface at this stage, but by using this template, you will be able to recognise many other forms and examples.

    The important thing is that God acts to minimise suffering, e.g. through people helping others who are suffering, but He has given us free will so that everything will be accomplished in its time. The downside is that often people choose to do the wrong thing, nevertheless overall suffering will be minimised. This might be difficult to accept when we look at the slaughter going on in Gaza and in Iraq, but sometimes the benefit has gone before the (lesser) payback. Our problem is that we are not able to see the big picture, which God does.


    • Thanks Chas. Lots to think about here!

      Of course this raises further questions – why is the world set up in such a way that there are tsunamis and carnivorous animals? Are these ‘necessary evils’ in a world that’s not yet complete and perfect, or are they the result in some way of evil that thwarts God’s plans? (Not that the answer has to be either/or…)

      I’m still not totally convinced that God always acts to minimise suffering – but I would say that he generally acts to minimise harm. But I may be splitting hairs here 🙂


      • Chas says:

        The world is this way because it is separated from God, so destruction takes place in and on it. What fits this is the following: God wanted other beings with whom to interact and to love. The problem was that He was the only entity in existence. If He separated something from Him, from which He could then create such beings, He would have to use destruction to bring about the separation. The part that had been separated from Him would then be vulnerable to the actions of destruction. The problem would then be to create beings out of what had been separated from Him, with the attendant problem that this has to happen in the presence of the actions of destruction. What we can see, out there, in the world, is this process happening. Since God is kind, gentle and loving, He takes action to minimise the suffering that is an inevitable result of the process, but we have to look at the balance between suffering and its opposites: pleasure and peace, and these also have a place in the world, so the overall suffering in the world will be reduced by them. Whether there is a full balance of these opposites in the world, I don’t know, since we tend to hear about the suffering more than the pleasure and peace, but the beings who will spend their eternity in the Presence of God will surely tip the overall balance well into peace and pleasure.


      • Chas says:

        The second part first: God knows the suffering that is felt on earth. He acts to minimise it because He is gentle, kind and loving, i.e. compassionate. He would be acting against His own nature if He did not minimise suffering where it is in His gift to do so. However, that is the entry to another question: Does God heal? I have never seen anybody being healed by Spiritual means in a physical infirmity, but there seem to be instances of people being healed of e.g. drug addiction, where the source of the problem is in their mind. Also it is, of course, possible for people to be healed by medical care. However, the processes of healing are knowledge based and it is reasonable to assume that God has been involved in the gaining of that knowledge (e.g. Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin, for which I personally am extremely grateful to God, or I would now be a cripple). Personally, I do not think that God intervenes, or has intervened physically on the earth, with two exceptions: the creation of the first lifeform, from which every other lifeform has evolved (so that that first spark of life is still living in us all), and the creation of the seed/sperm nucleus, which was combined with an egg from the mother of Jesus to bring about the embryo of Jesus.

        Now the first part: tsunamis are the direct result of the forces of destruction acting within the earth. God has not created them, nor has He physically intervened to prevent them. We must conclude that their action is a necessary part of the process leading to a final product, which is beings/consciousness that are to be taken eternally into the Presence of God. Carnivorous animals are necessary to limit the numbers of their prey species, to stop them becoming so numerous that they outstrip their food supply and then starve to death slowly and painfully (i.e. the suffering is minimised).


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