Suffering and God


A month ago, as my pastor stood to begin his sermon, he explained that he was going to skip over the latter half of Mark 6 because, “It is an unpreachable passage.” I sat up in my chair and thought, “Unpreachable … really?”

Immediately, I thought, “No, the story of God’s servant — John the Baptist – being brutally beheaded. This story must be preached” because our world is full of suffering.

I have known suffering personally. When I was a teenager, I experienced the misery and suffering of watching both my parents get drunk every day. As a father, I experienced the agonizing suffering of watching one of my sons nearly kill himself from addictive drug habits. Over the last decade, serving on numerous men’s retreats and now — as a hospital chaplain — I hear stories of suffering that cause me to drop my head and bend over.

It happened again recently in a circle of men. One man – I will call him Steve – shared how when he was just a mere six years old, his cousins forced him into a room to watch a man and women having sex. As a young boy, he knew something was inherently wrong. He new he should not be in that room. But he was. And that memory — now 40 years old — has polluted his mind as a man and caused confusion about God’s intent for sex. That day, Steve suffered abuse and continues to suffer with the memory to this day.

Kevin knows suffering, too. As his terribly premature daughter struggled to breathe, and with death imminent, he asked, “Why? Why would God let my daughter get to 23 weeks in the womb and then have her die? Why?” Kevin believes God to be all powerful and good—suffering unfair loss, he cannot make sense of God’s action or inaction. If Kevin cannot come up with a good answer, he will give up on God.

We all suffer. All the people we love suffer. If we cannot come up with a good answer, we will give up on God.

A common belief explains suffering as the consequence of one’s own wrong doing. This does happen. The preliminary word was that Dane caused the accident by crossing the yellow line and hitting an oncoming car. His back was broken and his wife killed. His bad choice = Broken back, broken heart, broken family, broken life.

With different words, this same belief shows up when someone asks, “What did that 6-year-old boy do to deserve his suffering?” Nothing, of course.

And nor did John the Baptist deserve the brutal suffering that he endured. In fact, John was supremely good, the long-awaited prophet to herald the coming of Jesus Christ. He simply obediently served as God asked and ended up being capriciously beheaded by a foolish king trying to save face in front of his guests.

In one of her short stories about a grandmother living with her daughter’s family, Willa Cather speaks her view of life as the family cat comes down with distemper:

“Oh, Gramma, can’t you do anything,” cried Albert, struggling with his tears. “Blue Boy was such a good cat—why has he got to suffer?”

 “Everything that’s alive has got to suffer,” said Mrs. Harris.

For me, old Mrs. Harris gives a crucial answer. All living things have to suffer. Even the good. Since the fall of man, all of creation has been broken … groaning … awaiting redemption.

But why didn’t God stop King Herod from executing his good servant John? That’s a hard question with no good answer. And you may not like mine. God did not stop Herod because God could not stop him. God made us. And He longs for a relationship with each of us. But, God also chose to let each of us decide whether or not to seek Him. Almighty God limited his power by letting every man, woman and child make his own choices. The result is a world that is broken, wobbling, off-balance and marked by suffering.

The English mystery writer and theologian Dorothy Sayers helps me as she writes this:

Jesus has Himself gone through the whole of human experience…when He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.” (Creed and Chaos, 1949)

So God — in Christ — chose to enter the off-balance world that He created and had set in motion. Jesus experienced enormous human suffering — like each of us — and still found it worthwhile.

Though my head drops and knees buckle when I hear stories of suffering, I still believe that life is really good — and really hard. I know God lets us choose and the result is a lot of good and a lot of suffering. I still wish God would stop certain evil and do not fully understand why He does not. And yet, I am comforted by the fact the God in Jesus came to experience the world as He set it in motion.

Some things to ponder…

  • What has been your suffering?
  • What are your current beliefs that are helping you in your pain?
  • Are there some beliefs that are not helping, like “Suffering means I did wrong” or “Pain means God is absent.”

The story of John the Baptist being brutally beheaded—it is not unpreachable — but awfully hard — and our best answers still leave us with ambiguity that won’t be fully answered on earth. But we men must wrestle with John’s suffering and all the rest of the painful stories that we encounter, beginning with our own.

I believe God is supremely good and find life to be good. I love that he lets us choose and still bow my head at tales of horrible evil and ask why. And one day I will have better answers.

– By John Casey

John completed his initial Crucible weekend in 2005, is a graduate of our two-year transformational program and is a weekend leader for The Crucible Project. He enjoys writing about authentic living for men. As a senior pastor for 32 years, he has written and preached hundreds of sermons on God’s character and mission, our purpose and mission, spiritual transformation and effective relationships.

Photo Credit: Azlan DuPree