Who Causes Us to Suffer?

by Francis MacNutt
Fall 2013

Who causes the suffering in our lives? We open that difficult subject by saying right from the start that the origin of evil (including suffering) has always been seen as a great mystery in Christian life—a mystery impossible for us to understand—second only to the mystery of the Trinity (three persons and one God). How can you reconcile personal suffering with an all-powerful, all-loving God who creates everything that exists? Does God send you the suffering and sickness you endure? Would you as a loving parent inflict your child with terminal cancer to teach him/her a lesson? Jesus himself asks this question: "Is there a man among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread?" (Matthew 7:9)

The Old Testament stresses the point that there is only one God who created the world and causes everything, and most of the ancient Biblical authors assume that evil is caused by God! This leaves us with problems, but if you believe that God causes everything, what else can you say? For example, when King Saul grows jealous of young David's popularity, "an evil spirit from God seized on Saul and he fell into a frenzy while he was indoors. David played the harp as on other occasions; Saul had a spear in his hand. Saul brandished the spear; he said, 'I will pin David to the wall!'" (I Sam. 18:10-11).

The traditional view is that we endure our lives while "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears." According to this view of the universe, God causes everything, so you end up with the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" And how can an all-holy God cause evil, or things such as murder? You can only explain that in terms of God punishing evil people, like Saul, for their sins. This leads you to a further conclusion- if you lead an upright life, God will always bless you, even in this life. If you sin though, God will punish you with suffering. Many of the Psalms reflect this attitude.

"The wicked, enemies of Yahweh, will be destroyed, they will vanish like the green of the pasture, they will vanish in smoke. Now I am old, but ever since my youth I never saw an upright person abandoned, or the descendants of the upright forced to beg their bread." —Psalms 37:20,25

The entire book of Job, on the other hand, calls this pious attitude into question. Job is an innocent man who suffers, and his "friends" give him all the traditional answers: "Job, you must be guilty. Confess your crimes and God will restore your health and property." Job keeps on defending himself by claiming that he is innocent and has done nothing wrong to deserve his miserable fate. At the end of the book, God finally speaks and says, to paraphrase, "None of you know what you are talking about, but Job is closer to the truth than the rest of you, and I'm going to restore everything to Job; more than that, I am going to double it!" It's important to note that Job is one of the last books of the Old Testament to be written (probably in the 5th century B.C.). The culmination of the Old Testament teaching on suffering then, is that its ultimate cause is a mystery. The final lesson is that "faith must remain even when understanding fails" (Introduction to Job, p. 755, New Jerusalem Bible: Doubleday, 1985). It's significant too, that Job's friends think that they are defending God's honor by repeating the traditional argument that you must have sinned to deserve sickness.

These legalist "friends" have many parallels in our own Christian world—some leaders still teach that the only reason you are sick is because you have sinned. They counsel, "If only you had faith, you would have been healed," or "You must harbor unforgiveness or your arthritis would have disappeared." Such teachings remind us of the exhortations of Job's friends. (This is not to say that some arthritis could not be connected to unforgiveness, but many other factors can also be involved, such as diet, stress, heredity, etc.)

But then when Jesus comes on the scene, the teaching on suffering is further refined beyond what we read in Job. In His teaching, you see Him picking up on the mystery aspect when He asks whether the 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them were any worse than anyone else living in Jerusalem. "They were not," He says (Lk. 13:4). He goes further than that when He picks up on the Genesis theme of the Fall affecting all of us with a global evil—ultimately Satan is the one causing our sickness, not God. Jesus always rebuked sickness when He met it; He saw it as an enemy, not as a blessing sent by God. He healed everyone who came to him for help. He never told invalids to suffer patiently because God sent them their illness as a "blessing" to test their endurance.

Humanly speaking, Jesus' attitude is far healthier than the view that God tests the saints by sending them illness—the belief that disturbed C.S. Lewis when his wife, Joy, died of cancer (see his book A Grief Observed). It defies logic to believe in a God who makes us sick in order to test our loyalty. Any parent who acted that way would be seen as sadistic. Isn't this exactly what Jesus is getting at when He says, "If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for a fish, do you scare him with a live snake? As bad as you are, you wouldn't think of such a thing—you're at least decent to your own children. So don't you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?" —Matthew 7:9-11 as in The Message

There is so much more we could say, but for now here are a few simple reflections:
    • God loves us, truly loves us, more than any human father or mother can, no matter how wonderful our parents may have been. When you suffer, know that most of it comes because of the broken, fallen, and evil state of the world into which you are born.
    • Jesus died for us and gave us the Holy Spirit, whose love and power will undo the effects of sin, including sickness. Jesus, through His Holy Spirit, forgives our sins and begins to heal our broken hearts, our broken bodies and our broken relationships.
    • Much healing occurs in this life (Paul calls it a "down payment" on eternal life), but the rest will happen only after Jesus brings us total victory over our ultimate enemy, death.
    • Nevertheless, Jesus tells us we will suffer in this life. The forces of evil will cause us to suffer. We will, for example, suffer rejection and persecution.
    • Nowhere does Jesus say we must endure sickness. Sickness is not the same thing as suffering, but it is a condition that causes suffering. It's just one among many conditions that cause suffering. The Gospel shows us that Jesus wants to heal our sickness—certainly for the most part.
    • There are root causes of sickness that we may have to overcome before we are healed. It's not that Jesus doesn't want to heal us, but we must do our part (see the chapter in my book Healing on the various reasons people are not healed).
Yet, ultimately, we are dealing with mystery. Author Jamie Buckingham, shortly before his death, said, "I understand much less than I used to, but I believe more."

In sickness and suffering, we want to continue to praise God—not because of our sickness, not in spite of our sickness, but we praise God in the midst of our sickness.

"Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death I should fear no danger; for You are at my side. Your staff and Your crook are there to soothe me." —Psalms 23:4

When you experience sickness, some is directly caused by demonic influence, such as the "spirits of infirmity" mentioned in the Bible. But most is indirectly caused by Satan, who has drawn the world into its fallen, broken, wounded state. Ultimately, the cause of all sickness and suffering is Satan, who hates us, not God, who loves us.

*Who Causes Us to Suffer? was originally published in Healing Line, Spring 1996, under the title Why Do We Suffer?
Francis MacNutt Fall 2013 Issue
Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM.