Part of the pain of suffering is its apparent absurdity. It is not as if every affliction were the obvious outcome of a chain of responsible choices that could have been different. Sickness seems to hit unpredictably. Accidents happen in safe environments. One’s life can be ruined simply because one was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such an observation can be made by believers and nonbelievers alike. It is an existential problem that every intellectually capable human being must face at some point. Can there be meaning to suffering, even in such cases where it seems to be gratuitous and arbitrary? That is the fundamental question with which Job was forced to wrestle (see Job 2:3; 9:17).

Suffering may be the ultimate test of one’s worldview. If everything is finally meaningless, suffering itself is meaningless. That may be philosophically conceivable. But from an experiential standpoint, it is hardly tenable. The sudden loss of a loved one, debilitating illness, falling victim to betrayal or abuse—the pain of one’s circumstances will often scream louder than one’s neatly ordered presuppositions.

There is a point at which one cannot survive in a meaningless universe where suffering exists. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche allegedly broke down mentally the day he witnessed the flogging of a horse in Turin, Italy. The unbearable yet irresolvable tension between the nihilistic worldview that Nietzsche had reached at that point, in which there is no ultimate meaning to anything, and the sense of outrage that came over him in the face of cruelty and the suffering of an innocent being moved him uncontrollably to throw his arms around the horse in a sort of primal impulse to do something despite his belief in pain’s futility. Nietzsche lost his sanity in the process.

Bible-believing Christians view the world in a very different manner. To begin with, Christians are theists. Belief in the existence of God entails, by necessity, that everything must have meaning, insofar as God is a personal, intelligent being. If there is a God, then all reality apart from Him is subordinate to Him. Nothing exists nor happens by chance. Nothing in reality can be gratuitous or arbitrary, if God truly is God.

Thus, since experience of suffering exists in the universe, that experience itself must have a purpose, even if that purpose is imperceptible for the time being. Belief that there is a God in the classical sense means that nothing in a human being’s existence can possibly be absurd. If God exists, absurdity cannot.

This has profound implications for the perennial problem of evil. Evil itself, whether it is defined as a moral category (as the opposite of good) or simply an experiential category (as the opposite of well-being), is by definition subordinate to the author and ruler of the universe. The book of Job illustrates this by depicting the Leviathan, arguably a representation of Satan himself, as the Lord’s creature (Job 40:25–41:26; see also Ps. 104:26).

Theism, in and of itself, already provides a powerful response to the aching, apparent futility of suffering. If there is a God, at least the hypothesis of meaningless suffering can be definitively discarded. That is to say not that the experience of suffering is less painful for theists but at least that suffering has meaning is a stronger foundation on which to stand than the shifting sands of humanistic existentialism that leave the afflicted in a philosophical state of despair.

Yet Bible-believing Christians can go further. Not only do they believe that there is an intelligent, personal being who transcends the universe, but they also believe in a God who has revealed Himself. They believe that the true and living God has certain attributes that can be known truly, if imperfectly. And it is critical that the Christian’s worldview be informed by the study of those attributes, especially in relation to the experience of suffering. At the risk of sounding simplistic, there is real comfort in the study of theology.

It is remarkable that Job found peace, not in any kind of explanation that was given to him for his ordeal (which is what his pseudo-friends wrongly attempted to offer), not even in his glorious restoration that is recounted in the epilogue, but primarily in his contemplation of God Himself and His majestic works through which He makes Himself known (Job 38–41).

In fact, even in young Elihu’s four discourses that come immediately before God’s intervention, theology proper is an important component of the arguments that are given to Job as prophetic wisdom and comfort (Job 32–37). These arguments, according to Calvin, must be understood as a truthful response to Job’s protests. (Some interpreters see Elihu as following in the footsteps of the other three “friends,” but that is not Calvin’s opinion.)

The study of God’s attributes through His works and His Word can be one of the best practices in the face of suffering.

What if Christians spent more time meditating on the character of the true and living God, who reveals Himself in His works and in His Word? What impact could such a spiritual exercise have on a Christian’s experience of suffering?

For example, God is sovereign. Nothing is able to resist Him. Evil itself is subordinate to His providence, which means that there is no suffering in one’s experience that could ever be outside God’s control. Since God is sovereign, every affliction is in His hand, and He is able to take it away or let it last according to His will.

Furthermore, God is just. Since He is just, there is no way that anything unjust can last indefinitely. Even if one’s representation of justice may not be accurate, at least one can be certain that because there is a God, then justice exists also. And it is impossible that God will not one day exercise complete and perfect judgment over all His creation. It is a theological certainty that one way or another, everything will be made right one day, according to God’s justice, which is the only perfect justice.

But God is also wise. Everything God ordains is part of a perfect plan. The worst afflictions on earth are part of a perfect plan—this too is a theological certainty. Although such knowledge does not necessarily diminish the experience of pain, it can nevertheless be reassuring to know that what seems gratuitous, arbitrary, and cruel, is in fact subject to perfect wisdom, even if one cannot comprehend such wisdom at the moment.

God is impartial, immutable, impassible. He does not change, nor do His plans, His decrees, or His promises. This means that He is perfectly trustworthy. He is reliable. In that sense, He is the only truly safe reality that exists. Yet while being impassible, He nevertheless is relational. He condescends to His creatures, so that they can know Him.

And God is omniscient and merciful. He knows His creatures, and He knows their suffering even though, according to His divine nature, He has never suffered Himself. But because God is God, nothing is unknowable to Him. He knows every pain, He sees every tear, He understands every cry, and He does so completely. But the marvel of biblical Christianity is that God, in His mercy, also took on a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ, and experienced human frailty, except for sin. Therefore, it can truly be said that God sympathizes with the suffering of His creatures.

God is so merciful that He went all the way to the cross, where He bore the cost of His children’s redemption. The cost was such that Jesus, according to His human nature, experienced ultimate suffering, which was to be forsaken, as a man, by God, so that all those who trust in Him not only will be delivered from that torment that would have been the just penalty for their sins, but will also, one day, receive the inheritance of a new creation where they will be perfectly comforted and satisfied forever.

The study of God’s attributes through His works and His Word can be one of the best practices in the face of suffering. Even if final answers to the problem of evil and suffering are still to come, even if no sense at all can currently be made of certain pains and afflictions, at least Bible-believing Christians are able to write their suffering into a worldview where, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it,

God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, make willing, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and unchangeable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. (5.1)

And there is comfort in that knowledge.

Why Do We All Die?

On Spiritual Fathers and Sons