This week suicide bombers once again committed mass murder in a European capital. For those of us in the UK, it makes the issue of terrorism seem closer to home and brings back unwelcome memories of the London bombings in July 2005. Beyond Europe, tragic events like this occur on a regular basis. Countries such as Syria, Iraq and South Sudan are currently being ravaged by acts of terrorism and war. The sheer amount and extent of suffering in our world can be hard to get your head around.
Adversity often strikes even closer to home, of course. For you, it might be a health issue, or coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, or an intractable problem at work, or perhaps persecution, derision or scorn that you’re facing simply for being a follower of Christ. Whatever form suffering may take, articulating a response to it is difficult. Questions such as ‘why does God allow so much suffering?’ or ‘why me?’ are not easy to answer.
In the Bible, Job’s friends offered various answers to try and explain his suffering. They believed he must have done something to cause the adversity and urged him to repent. For this advice (amongst other things) God says to Eliphaz (one of Job’s friends) “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Sure, Job’s friends got some things right – they were at least with him in his mourning. But when it came to explaining his suffering, they got it all wrong.
At Easter, rather than kindling God’s anger by looking for trite and simple answers to explain away suffering, we can look to Jesus who entered into this world and took on our humanity. He willingly suffered in our place and on our behalf. Not so that we never have to suffer again, but so that no matter what trials we face, we can look to Christ and gain resurrection hope from the events of Easter.
We’re not forsaken when we suffer
Jesus came to be “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). After his resurrection he said to his disciples, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). His disciples, who were being commissioned to spread the good news, would face trials. But Jesus assures them that, whatever they might face, he’s going to be with them to the very end.
Jesus could be with them because he bore their sins and reconciled them to a holy God. On the cross, he drank the cup of God’s wrath, so that everyone who believes in him will not be condemned by God’s holy anger. Jesus was abandoned by his followers (Matthew 26:31), but he will never abandon those who trust in him. The disciples were promised that he’d be with them always. In this life, we may never fully understand why we’re suffering. But we can look at the cross and dwell on the extent to which Jesus suffered to reconcile us to God, remembering that this same God will be with us in and through every trial.
The silence of Saturday doesn’t last
Despair. Depression. Silence. Imagine that you’ve just witnessed Jesus being crucified. What now? Pete Grieg, in his book “God on Mute”, unpacks this idea of the silence of Saturday. What were the disciples thinking? How how did they face this dark Sabbath day?
Saturday is the one day of Easter that I tend not to think about. But, as Grieg points out, it’s the day that I live most of my life in. I acknowledge that good Friday is behind me. I know the resurrection lies ahead of me. But what about the Saturday in-between? What about this time when suffering persists – so if we’re ill perhaps and don’t experience God’s healing in the here and now?
Thankfully, even if our prayers appear to be going unanswered, Easter reminds us that the silence of Saturday doesn’t last. This is the hope we rest in. We know that a day is coming, which will eclipse the pain and confusion we face today. Sunday will come. The resurrection of our bodies will take place when Christ returns. So we cling to the sacrifice of good Friday and we remember the joy of Easter Sunday. And we do this knowing that the no man’s land of Saturday will eventually be brushed aside. Our afflictions are light and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17), but our joy will be eternal.
The resurrection empowers us to suffer
The resurrection to come will free us from all pain and death. But we’re currently living between two ages. Between the now and the not yet, or between the lightning and the thunderclap. Death has already been defeated and yet will only be fully defeated when Christ returns to wrap up this world. Until then, we’re not going to be free from suffering. Instead, the resurrection of Christ gives us the power to endure it.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes about having a righteousness that comes from Christ through faith. This righteousness enables Paul to “know [Jesus] and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). Wow. Knowing Jesus and experiencing the power which raised Christ from the dead; but what does that power look like? Does it manifest itself in believers overcoming all personal suffering? Well, no. What Paul says next is somewhat of a surprise “…and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. The resurrection power in us doesn’t empower us to evade all suffering, but rather to share in Christ’s sufferings. We get power to endure. So as we face terror, disability, sickness or disease, for example, we can experience peace and joy from the Holy Spirit. The peace that can only be found through this resurrection power which is at work within us.
The events of Easter ought to transform our suffering. Because they teach us that God is with us through whatever we have to endure in this world, that our suffering won’t last and that we’re empowered to share in Christ’s suffering. At the end of the age, there will be no more death, mourning, tears or pain. The old order of things will pass away and the morning star will rise.
But until then, we can look to the message of Easter and learn that even in our suffering, there is great hope. Hope in the midst of war and terrorism. Hope through personal adversity such as bereavement, depression, or disability. Hope given to all people, because the sovereign Saviour of the world suffered under Pontus Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He suffered so that suffering will not have the last word. No. Instead, we’re assured that “joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).