"We Live in a World of Suffering... Don't Waste It!"
Updated: Jul 1
We’ve all heard people say it: “Everything happens for a reason.” Often this pithy statement is uttered at times when no one really wants to hear it. “Really? That’s your response when someone dies, or a child is diagnosed with cancer, or a family’s house burns to the ground?” We’ve come to see statements like this as if they are band-aids intended to stop someone from hemorrhaging. In other words, it doesn’t work and you get no points for trying.
Yet people, even those without a Christian perspective, continue to use this phrase. This sentiment has been expressed by individuals of varying worldviews, from Marilyn Monroe, to Albert Schweitzer, to the lady standing behind me at the grocery store. Why is this? Because we all have an innate desire for life to have meaning, even in our pain and suffering.
Alister McGrath writes, “Human beings actively seek personal systems of meaning that embrace an understanding of the world, our personal significance, and our capacity to transcend our limits and locations, as we sense we are part of something bigger and greater.” Yes, we seek meaning, as McGrath points out, but is meaning really to be found in every situation? Is meaning to be found in the mundane as well as in the extraordinary? Could there be meaning in, say, a wild fire? How can we know?
While I believe that a Christian worldview offers insight into how one can ascertain these answers, for others, the quest for meaning will be arduous and, unfortunately, lack any real results. In other words, to understand the “why” questions of life, one must have revelation from the God who makes meaning and purpose possible. This is true in the mundane (Proverbs 16:33) as well as in the extraordinary (Genesis 50:20). The human longing for meaning is then only found in the God of meaning. This also remains true when one considers the difficult topic of suffering from a Christian perspective.
However, before I discuss the Christian perspective on meaning and suffering, I would like to highlight an opposing view promoted by one of today’s leading and most popular thinkers, Dr. Richard Dawkins. As an atheist, Dawkins does not believe that anything in life can have meaning, as this world and all that is in it is merely here by time and chance. Therefore, the obvious conclusion is that suffering is also utterly meaningless.
I will quote this fairly long passage from Dawkins in order that you may get a full sense of his thoughts on the topic. He writes, “The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
There you have it, folks! There is no good, no evil, no purpose… simply the pitiless indifference of the universe. So don’t go crying to Dawkins (or other professing atheists) when you suffer. Why should he care? You don’t cry when a lion kills a gazelle: they’re just animals. So why should it matter if one human being kills another, when according to Dawkins, we too are just animals? Why should anyone care if others are hungry or tortured or terminally ill? It’s all the same in a pitiless universe.
The truth is, we don’t live in the world that Dawkins describes. We buck against these conclusions because this is not how we experience the world around us. We do care when suffering and injustice occurs. We do want to help others even if it does not benefit us personally. A firefighter running into a burning building to save a stranger is NOT indifference!
From a Christian worldview I am not only able to account for the suffering in the world, but I am able to understand that suffering is not without purpose, especially for those who are united to Christ by faith (Romans 8:28). Suffering is here because we live in a broken, sin-stained world. We seem to naturally know that there is something wrong with this world. From Dawkins' viewpoint, no one can rightly complain about suffering or injustice. Yet people from varying views intuitively express the idea that this is not the way things should be.
Writing to encourage early Christians who were suffering under the reign of Nero, the Apostle Peter not only wanted to help these people through their suffering but to help them suffer well. Peter achieved his goal by showing that their suffering was not without purpose. However, he didn’t do this by addressing each individual person and telling them why he or she was suffering. Rather, Peter used Jesus as the prime example. Peter writes, “For Christ also suffered…” (1 Peter 3:18). Peter then explains why Christ, the God-Man himself, suffered. Jesus suffered for sins (VS 18), to bring us to God (VS 18), and for His glory (VS 22).
Peter’s point is that if Jesus’ suffering had purpose and we are united with Him through faith (Ephesians 1:10-11), then our suffering also has purpose. Therefore, whether or not I understand why I am suffering now, I can be sure that God is not wasting anything in my life. Sometimes my suffering is to bring me closer to God and to teach me to trust in His grace (2 Corinthians 12:9) and other times my suffering causes me to groan and long for the world to come (Romans 8:18). Either way, my suffering is not without purpose and God will get me through it!
“Everything happens for a reason.” It sure does! However, only those who are in Christ can suffer with hope. For others, I’m sorry to say, suffering will follow you even after death; that is, unless you turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Don’t waste your suffering. Allow it to draw you closer to your God.