I'm not trying to convert skeptics on the issue of suffering today, just giving some thoughtful reflections I've found helpful.
In four days, I will be part of a faculty panel discussion during our school's chapel time. The purpose of this event is to field questions from students about their doubts, their questions about faith, etc. Students have been given an opportunity to write down their most pressing questions of life and Christianity, and we panel members were given a sneak peek at the cluster of questions yesterday.
Except for a few word choice issues, they were almost exact the questions I was expecting (by the time you turn 43, you can pretty much figure what queries will float to the top). And of course, there was the big one: Why does evil/pain exist? If God is sovereign, then why doesn't he immediately fix our trials and hardships? If God created everything, did he create evil or suffering?
Nothing like a loaded question to get your day started.
There's a lot I could pull out of the realm of theology to answer these questions. I could talk about the human rebellion against God as the answer to the existence of pain and evil. As far as the "Fix" question, one could always reference C.S. Lewis' "divine megaphone" statement from The Problem of Pain (excellent resource, by the way) or Peter Kreeft's redirect of "Would fixing our pain and sheltering us from hardship truly make us better or would it make us spoiled brats?" I know the arguments about how suffering builds up character; heck, St. James makes that point in his biblical epistle. And on the whole "Did God create evil and suffering?"...well, that's another post for the future, but suffice it to say a perfect God cannot create something contrary to his character.
But the thing that binds those above questions together is they are "cause" questions; they are asking for a reason why something exists. Don't get me wrong; those are decent ruminations. But are questions of "cause" the ones we should primarily ask?
For some time, I've felt my arms are too short to box with God. I live in the realistic valley between two lands: (1) the comfort that God welcome my questions and lashings and confusion and lets me throw the punches in his direction, and (2) the knowledge that eventually I tire out and have to eventually fall into his embrace. It was comforting years ago to run across Philip Yancey's Where Is God When It Hurts? and read through his chapter "Arms to Short to Box With God." Yancey is convinced that we spend a lot of time looking for the cause or reason behind suffering. Someone suffers the loss of a loved one and people comfort the survivor with "Some relatives came to Christ at his funeral--that must be why God took him home." Or--even more unhelpful--people can assume that some hidden sin set off the suffering and pain one is experiencing: "You should have mended your relationship with your mother years ago; that's why you have cancer now." (I wish I could be making this up, but Christians can say the cruelest things just like that.)
It is true that suffering can produce good results, but I don't think we should strategize what those results could be the moment tragedy strikes. When a child dies, the parents need to grieve, not think in advance about the positives that will results years down the road. In fact, when I look at the record of God's work in the world (i.e., the Bible), I discover that neither the cause nor the specific result of suffering gets as much press as something else: the response God wants as we slog through our painful trials.
A young lady who endured ten years of sexual molestation by an uncle may never know exactly "Why?" She may not see "productive results" for awhile, although such an experience can lead to her going into a vocational field that deals with the prevention of sexual abuse. All I'm saying is that knowing the cause or seeing the result of suffering will only take one so far.
What God wants from his children is a response of trust as we go through the valley of the shadow. When Job lost his children, his cattle, his property, and all his wealth and was sitting in mud asking God why these things happened (although he dealt with his suffering more constructively than his friends did in "supporting" him), God didn't display the cause or reason for Job's hardship. God showed up...He displayed himself. The implication to me seems to be that as we participate in trials, we don't primarily seeks answers (meaning that's not #1 on our list) but rather what supremely counts is trusting God in the fog. It doesn't change our circumstances, but slowly, eventually, such trust can change us.
Yancey even asks the question Would it really help us to know exactly why God permits a specific instance of suffering? The implicit answer is no, and Yancey even says that knowledge "may engender even more bitterness. But it does help our actual condition when we turn to him in trust." He includes a prayer by Blaise Pascal (whose "Wager" I reference in the next-to-last chapter of Litany of Secrets) at the end of the chapter. I hope you find it assuring even if it is beyond the amount of control you are willing to let go.
"I ask neither for health nor for sickness, for life nor for death, but that you dispose of my health and my sickness, my life and my death, for your glory...You alone know what is expedient for me; you are the sovereign master; do with me according to your will. Give to me, or take away from me, only conform my will to yours. I know but one thing, Lord, that it is good to follow you, and bad to offend you. Apart from that, I know not what is good or bad in anything. I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom."