Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Last week we introduced the theology of suffering with the general idea that the Bible, far from promising us the unlimited blessing of success and prosperity that some have found in isolated verses, has a dominant theme of preparing us to expect suffering.

While this emerges most strongly in the New Testament, with its context of a minority church resisting attempts by both Jewish and Roman authorities to make them submit to anything other than the kingdom of Jesus, the Old Testament has plenty of suffering too.  While much of this is interpreted by the Bible writers as God’s just punishment for Israel’s failure to follow God faithfully, much of the suffering is undergone by the faithful through no fault of their own.  We only have to think of Abel, Joseph, David, Job, Jeremiah and many of the prophets to realise how many were persecuted for their faith.

Let’s examine the case of Joseph.  He seems to have been an arrogant youth, bragging about his dreams, so it’s no surprise that he earned the hostility of his brothers.  But he didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery or to be falsely accused of attempted rape by a rejected woman.  Yet the outcome of his misfortune was the survival of the Egyptians through an unprecedented famine, the rescuing of his own family from starvation, and character growth in himself and his eldest brother Reuben, who took responsibility for the youngest son of Jacob, when he had not been able to save Joseph some decades previously (Genesis 42:37, cf 37:22).  And after the brothers had been reconciled, Joseph comments:

You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.

(Genesis 50:20)

Does that mean God caused all that suffering?  We in the West hate such an idea, because it implies that we are merely pawns in God’s game, to be moved or sacrificed as God sees fit.  It affronts our sense of democracy, individualism and personal sovereignty.  If however, we came from a number of other cultures across the world, we wouldn’t even be asking this question.  It wouldn’t even occur to us.  We would simply assume that God has the right to do anything God chooses with God’s creation.  We would have a far less inflated impression of our own importance.

But since we’re not from such a culture, we have to deal with that question.  We don’t believe that God is an unfeeling, distant despot, but rather a loving Father who wants the very best for us.  This is certainly what Jesus teaches us in his parables (Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 15:11-32).  But we also believe in the forces of evil, whether at work in selfish or malevolent humans or personified in Satan.  We believe in God’s law of cause and effect at work in this world, and the freedom for all of us to choose to do harm or good.  This creates a world when it becomes very easy for bad things to happen to people, whether accident, abuse or sickness.  Does that mean God causes these things?  No!  But it does mean that God didn’t stop them either.

The plain fact is that God allows suffering to continue in this world.  Why?  While we cannot determine what is going on in each individual case, we can find in the Bible some reasons why suffering might have a purpose.

  • For some, suffering might drive us towards God, perhaps for the first time, and we know of people who have found God because a believing community reached out to support them (2 Corinthians 1:9).
  • For others who observe suffering, it is an opportunity for them to show compassion and develop their own character
  • It may be an opportunity for the victim to develop character and grow more like Jesus (James 1:2-4).
  • For some it is their chance to demonstrate to a watching community the grace of God at work in their lives as they suffer (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
  • We can encourage others who suffer, turning our experience of hardship into a resource (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Many of us who have suffered and come out the other side will say that it was worth it for what we learned of God and ourselves in the process.  That doesn’t mean we deny the pain of it, or even understand why God allowed it.  We simply recognise that the benefits outweigh the cost.  As Jesus himself did (Hebrews 12:2).  In this life we will probably never know the reasons why God allowed our particular suffering.  What we can know however, is that one day every injustice will be righted, and we will be comforted:

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be and death, there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying or pain – these things have passed away.

(Revelation 21:4)