The mystery of suffering

Richard Shumack examines the way Islam and Christianity interpret human tragedy.

Recently we have witnessed disastrous flooding in Pakistan. It is, as disasters always are, overwhelming in so many ways. It is a human tragedy on a scale hard to comprehend. It is a massive logistical problem, a looming health crisis, and a potential political time bomb. Certainly now is a time for action—and many are helping in relief and rebuilding—but the time for reflection will come. At times like these, people of religious belief frequently turn to their sacred texts for comfort and answers. We might assume that such reflection among the (almost exclusively) religious population of Pakistan will naturally raise deep theological questions concerning God’s purposes in suffering. If Pakistani believers turn to their various scriptures for answers, what will they find?

Pakistani Muslims turning to their Qur’an find an unambiguous, if stark, message. Natural disasters are from God, because everything proceeds from the will of God.[1] There are no accidents. In fact, according to Islam, there are no “natural” disasters, just divinely ordained events for the purposes of warning humanity of coming judgment, enacting punishment for sin, or testing a person’s faith.[2]

The Qur’anic vision is of a world where suffering is common, but not through any shortcomings in the creation. The world is perfect as it is,[3] but perfect as a place of testing faith in light of final judgement. The call of the Qur’an is not to question how this vision might work in the mind of God, but to endure patiently, trusting that God knows what he doing.[4] As a result mainstream Sunni Islam has conspicuously avoided the topic of theodicy—justifying the ways of God to people.[5] If the world as an expression of God’s will is perfect, then any sense that things are not right is misplaced, and must be dismissed.

There is an obvious appeal in the theological, if not philosophical,[6] simplicity of this Islamic vision, but it is a lonely picture. In this life at least God has, as a form of discipline, left us alone to struggle in hope of a better eternity. There is here a sternness or harshness that might not sit well with a suffering and questioning human heart. The silence of God is, as scholar Shabbir Akhtar suggests: “a fact both undeniable and religiously disturbing.”[7] In the end, by avoiding theodicy the Qur’an does not avoid a theological riddle. A clear picture of a God who is the author of all things might answer the question of where evil comes from, but it leaves the haunting possibility that God mightn’t care.

Pakistani Christians do not have any clearer answers about their current catastrophe when opening their Bibles. If anything the picture is more complex. The chaotic state of the world is not as it was meant to be. The Biblical narrative is that the early Genesis picture of harmony gives way to a human-induced, profound breaking of relationships between humans and God, as well as between humans and the creation itself.

In the New Testament Jesus makes it clear that there is no obvious correlation between disasters and punishment for particular sins, but such events always stand as a reminder of mortality and a warning to all of us to consider our place before God.[8] Disasters are partly ambiguous. In an ultimate sense God is in control of all things, but such a belief is held in tension with God’s allowing certain events to occur that are contrary to his pleasure. God, then, in a Christian framework, is distanced from direct causation.

The clear message of Christianity, in particular the crucifixion of Jesus, is that God is willing to stand with us in suffering, not just as an example of compassion

But God is not distanced in the Bible from humanity as it deals with suffering. The clear message of Christianity, in particular the crucifixion of Jesus, is that God is willing to stand with us in suffering, not just as an example of compassion, but opening a pathway to redemption from the human failure that led to suffering in the first place. Again the notion that God stands with you in suffering is immensely appealing, and many have testified to such a thing. The riddle comes with the question that if God is God, why did He let things get into the state they did in the first place. Why did God let humans ruin his creation?

Whichever way we turn we are left with paradoxes surrounding suffering. In the Qur’an God is all-powerful, but he is the sole author of our pain and his love is intangible. In the Bible, God stands with us in our suffering, leaving open the question of why he didn’t prevent it in the first place.

Those seeking answers from God in either Islam or Christianity are left with a choice of riddle. I would suggest that, whatever the appeal of either vision, this choice cannot be made well in isolation. Other reasons for faith are less paradoxical and also have a bearing on the suffering question.

But even if Christians and Muslims differ on the suffering paradox they embrace, they clearly agree on two things. First, ‘natural’ disasters shockingly remind all humans that they must one day face their mortality—most often outside their own terms. For the theist, this means they are faced with an urgent faith choice. Which paradox will they carry with them in this life and beyond? Second, until we face that inevitable moment there is a clear call on each of us to do all in our power to alleviate the suffering of those around us—including in Pakistan.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics Portal

Richard Shumack is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, and is completing a PhD at Melbourne University, connected with the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies

[1] Q7:94, 32:5-7, 45:26, 40:68.

[2] E.g. the story of Job found in Q21:83-84.

[3] Q32:7

[4] Q14:9-14, 31:17, 18:65-82. See Watt, p11.

[5] A good overview of the Sunni position is found in “Suffering in Sunnite Islam”, W. M. Watt, Studia Islamica, No.50, 1979, pp5-19.

[6] Early Muslim philosophers wrestled with questions like whether God was obliged to do the best for humanity, or whether those without moral responsibility (children or animals) then deserved to suffer.

 [7] S. Akhtar, A faith for all seasons: Islam and western modernity (Bellew, 1990), 85.

[8] Luke 13:1-5, John 9:1-5.