Can We Understand Why We Suffer? A Proposal

I have long thought that Christians ought to hold apparently contradictory attitudes toward suffering.  In this post, I’ll say what these attitudes are and why I think we should hold them.  Then, I’d like to think through a way the apparent contradiction between them might be resolved.

Suffering is a Mystery

Job and his three accusers

First, I think we ought to see suffering as a mystery.  Why would an all-powerful, all-wise, all-good God permit the dizzying array of suffering in the world?  Although I believe this question has an answer, I do not think we know it.

It’s true that the Christian tradition has proposed answers to this question.

However, philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder has argued persuasively that, while these answers may explain why God would allow some of the suffering we see in the world, they do not explain why He would allow the extent of suffering that exists or why people suffer in particular situations.  For example, no answer to this question appears to explain why God allowed human beings to conceive of genocide. 

For a full discussion of this point, see pages 15-16 of this excellent paper.

Suffering is Significant

Yet, at the same time, I think following Jesus means interpreting particular cases of suffering as having a divinely ordained reason.  In particular, I think the significance of our suffering is deepest when it is interpreted in relation to Christ’s suffering on the cross (cf. Colossians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 1:5; Revelation 6:9).

I have personally been inspired by Paul’s interpretation of his suffering at the beginning of Second Corinthians.  He and Timothy were “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (1:8).  Yet, Paul interprets their suffering as having a very particular reason: “If we are afflicted,” he tells the Corinthians, “it is for your comfort and salvation” (1:6).

I have also been impacted by the way Takashi Nagai, a Christian citizen of Nagasaki, interpreted the bombing of that city.  The bombing of the city was what lead to Japan’s surrender, which in turn lead to the end of the WWII.  In the aftermath, as the remaining members of the Nagasaki church gathered in their decimated cathedral, Nagai voiced his interpretation of what had happened: God had used their suffering as a sacrifice in order to end the war.  Although this interpretation was met with cries of rage at the time, it turned out to be an interpretation the church in Nagasaki could live by.

Resolving the Apparent Contradiction

How can we see suffering simultaneously as a mystery and significant for the types of reasons articulated by Paul and Nagai? 

If we describe what is involved in each way of seeing suffering, I think we will find that they do not contradict one another.

Jeffrey Stout has argued that most interpretations have an explanatory function.  We often interpret something in order to make that thing less puzzling (104, 05).  However, there are different levels of explanation, and Stout goes on to observe that interpretations often do not explain more than their purpose requires (109).

When we ask how God could allow all the suffering in the world, our purpose requires us to seek an interpretation with an ambitious explanation.  The particular kind of explanation that is sought is a “justifying reason.”  As Howard-Snyder explains, a justifying reason is a reason that God has for allowing the suffering in question that is compatible with His never doing wrong and being perfect in goodness and love (5).  A justifying reason would explain fully how an all-powerful, all-wise, all-good God can permit all the suffering in the world.

The purpose of Paul and Nagai’s interpretations is different.  They both interpret the suffering they endured in light of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, in order to live like followers of Jesus in the midst of this suffering.  Their interpretations have what Stout calls a “normative function.”  The primary purpose of Paul and Nagai’s interpretations is to pose new possibilities for ethical reflection and action (111). 

Their interpretations do offer explanations for their suffering, but only insofar as these serve the normative function that is their primary purpose.  So, Paul explains his suffering as for the sake of the Corinthian church’s comfort, and Nagai explains his church’s suffering as a sacrifice to end WWII.  The interpretations make each man’s experience a little less puzzling – but just enough to allow them to live as disciples.  These explanations are not justifying reasons.  They do not fully explain why God would permit the suffering they are concerned with.

In this way, I think the apparent contradiction is resolved.  Our suffering is a mystery because we do not know the ultimate reasons, the justifying reasons, for it.  Our suffering also takes on significance in light of the cross, as we get just enough light to live by.  

I think my friend Elliot’s description of a good attitude to suffering captures this complexity well.  Elliot describes the right attitude to take toward suffering as “fathoming mystery.”   On the one hand, what is fathomed is, and remains, a mystery.  On the other, to fathom something is, in some sense, to understand it.

It is when we interpret the mystery of our suffering in light of the mystery of Christ’s suffering that we understand how to live well in the midst of it.


Glynn, Paul. A Song For Nagasaki. The Catholic Book Club, 1989.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel. “God, Evil and Suffering.”  In Reason for the Hope Within. Ed. Michael Murray. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Stout, Jeffrey. “The Relativity of Interpretations.” The Monist 69.1. Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1986.