“Why am I suffering?” and “How can I escape from suffering?” Those are the big questions that drive Buddhism. The answer provided is that suffering is caused by desire, and one can escape suffering by detaching oneself from the world through right thinking, right speech, and right action. It may sound fine in theory but in practice most Thai Buddhists find it very difficult. Many Thai Buddhists will admit that they find it a great challenge to keep even the Five Precepts, the most basic moral rules of Buddhism. Being a good person is really hard and even for the most moral of people, suffering still comes. And when it comes, how should we make sense of it? In our own lives? In the lives of others? How can we have hope in the midst of suffering? These are all important questions. But for most people, satisfying answers are elusive. Buddhism says, “Avoid suffering by trying to be good” or “Just suck it up because your suffering is caused by bad karma from a past life.” As the prosperity gospel gains a hearing in Thai churches, quick-fix preachers promise people, “If you have enough faith and do the right things, then God will make you healthy and wealthy.” Some are sucked in by these charlatans, but the promises of the prosperity gospel come up empty and in the end give people a warped and inaccurate impression of Christianity.
There is a desperate need for good solid Biblical teaching on suffering in Thai churches. Christians need to know how to make sense of the suffering in their lives and the lives of others, so they might have hope in the midst of suffering and be able to hold out this hope to those around them who are not satisfied with the answers provided by Buddhism or the prosperity gospel.
Since suffering is such a central theme in Buddhism, I was particularly thinking about suffering as I was preparing to preaching on Exodus 11-12 (the Passover and Exodus from Egypt) this past week. The suffering of the Israelites and the suffering of Christ were part of God’s plan to save his people from sin, suffering, and death. God foreknew the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt (Gen. 15:12-16), heard their cries (Ex. 2:23-25), and delivered them (Ex. 12:33-39) - all according to the promise that He made from the beginning (Gen. 3:15), repeated again to Abraham (Gen. 15:12-16), and ultimately fulfilled in Christ (John 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:7). In the first and second parts of the sermon, we looked at God’s promise to deliver his people, and then His fulfillment of that promise in the Exodus and then more fully in Christ. And at the end of time, Christ will bring that deliverance to its consummation in the new heavens and the new earth. In the last part of the sermon, we looked at three types of suffering and responses to them in the Passover story, and in the crucifixion of Christ:
1. Guilty Suffering: Pharoah
Did the Pharaoh of Egypt ever ask himself, “Why am I suffering from these plagues?” He may have, but hopefully not. The answer should have been obvious. God said, “Let my people go, or I will send plagues upon you and your people.” Pharaoh ignored God’s command and suffered for it. He should have known that he was suffering because of his own sin. Not all suffering is directly caused by our own sin, but sometimes it is. If you get drunk, drive your car into a telephone pole, and become paralyzed, it shouldn’t be a big mystery as to why you are suffering. If we are wondering why we are suffering, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that our suffering may be self-induced.
2. Innocent Suffering: Christ
Fitting Jesus’ death into their worldview, many Buddhists conclude that lots of bad karma must be the reason why Jesus met such a horrible death on the cross. However, Jesus knew that he wasn’t on the cross because of any sin he had committed. He had none. Jesus is the only truly innocent sufferer in the history of the world. So did Jesus ever wonder why he was suffering on the cross? No, he didn’t. Jesus and God the Father had devised a plan from before the creation of the world to rescue people from God’s judgment upon their sin through Jesus’ death on the cross. In his speech at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23). While it may be shocking to think that God intentionally delivered his own Son up to be killed, we need to remember that Jesus was a willing participant in this plan and that God subjected his Son to suffering so that good may result.
God had a reason and purpose for Jesus’ suffering. Jesus trusted God’s good purpose in suffering so he persevered in order to obtain the joy of accomplishing our salvation (Heb 12:1-2). Likewise, God has a good purpose for the suffering of his people. At times, He even designs for them to suffer so that good may result. When in the midst of suffering, it can be extremely difficult to believe that any good could possibly come out of this pain. This is when faith becomes both extremely difficult and extremely essential. Romans 8:28 is sometimes carelessly offered as a quick fix to plaster over the raw emotions of suffering, but it is still a wonderful verse that holds out a clear hope for God’s people in the midst of suffering. “For God works all things together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28). All things - good, bad, and neutral - are used of God for good in the lives of his people. This is a verse that I come back to again and again.
3. Mysterious Suffering: The Israelites in Egypt
Do you think that the Israelites wondered why they suffered as slaves in Egypt? And for 400 years, at that? Generation after generation of Israelites were born, lived, and died in Egypt as slaves without ever seeing God’s deliverance. Why did God decide that they would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years, and not 40 years? We simply don’t know. And neither did all those generations of Israelites either. Many times we suffer and we don’t know the reason. We know that we are not sinless but we also can’t think of any particular sin that would be the cause of our present suffering. Natural disasters, terminal diseases, tragic death of loved ones, on-going financial difficulties, traffic accidents, strained relationships, and a hundred and eight other things may all fall into this category. How then should we respond? Jesus directly answered this question when a group of people came to him for an explanation of a particularly cruel deed.
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”” (Luke 13:1-5).
The proper reaction to unexplained suffering is not to try to figure out whether we are better or worse sinners than other people. That is a futile and dangerous exercise that can result in foolish pride and hurtful accusations. Jesus tells us to take the suffering around us as a warning. We are no better than those people over there who are suffering and the same could happen to us. And someday, perhaps when we are not expecting it, we too will die. And unless we repent from our sins and put our trust in God, then we will meet a worse fate after death when God judges us and consigns us to hell. That is a much greater tragedy than having a tower fall on you.
At the end of the day, regardless of why we are suffering, our response to suffering is the same. We turn away from the sins that we know about, and trust that God has a good plan for our lives that is much bigger than we are aware of. Some may think that this is a simplistic answer to suffering. Please understand me. I am not saying, “Tell yourself ‘God loves me’ and pretend that your pain is not there. That would be a simplistic solution. What I am saying is that we need a realistic answer to the problem of suffering. The Buddhist answer that we need to grin and bear it while trying to be better, more ascetic people, doesn’t work. The prosperity gospel’s answer that we need to just have more faith so that God will take away the suffering and make us healthy and wealthy doesn’t work either. The only answer that works is the one provided by the One who made us and is intimately acquainted with our sufferings. When it hurts, trusting God enough to obey Him in spite of the pain is very difficult but it is better than any of the other alternatives. God is our loving heavenly Father and He is somehow working good out of our suffering. And whether it be short time or long, God will someday fulfill his promise to deliver us from sin and suffering. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4).