Suffering is a vast subject, which cannot be addressed fully in a short talk like this.
There is a difference between the questions “Why?” (the intellectual question) and “Why me?” (the existential question).
There is a further distinction to be made between moral evil, and physical pain.
Some popular answers to the question of suffering:
1, The naturalistic answer – there is no purpose, that’s just the way it is.
This answers the intellectual question but we are still left with the pain and we have no hope (“We must live with a philosophy of unyielding despair” Bertrand Russell)
2. Karma – suffering as divine payback for things that you have done wrong (either in this life or in a former life) – this philosophy can be used to argue that it is unjust to alleviate suffering.
There is a Christian version of this second teaching (e.g. that the earthquake in Haiti was divine judgement for things that had happened in the past), however, Jesus opposes this view in Luke 13:1-5. He raises both the issue of moral evil and the issue of physical pain but, while not denying that the people who suffered were sinners, refuses to see them as worse sinners than his hearers. While some suffering can be related to our own actions, other suffering isn’t (cf. John 9:2). Jesus’ point is this, unless we repent, we too will perish. We have a finite period of time in which to respond to God in faith and repentance, and we will be held accountable to God as to whether we do this.
The Biblical narrative is that a loving God created a world which was able to choose to love him (for lifeless love and loveless life are terrible things), and gave the world a moral framework in which to love. Doing whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want is not freedom, it is anarchy. When we violate the moral framework, we have less love and less opportunity. When the moral framework is violated, love is violated (e.g. betrayal). By seeking to break God’s laws, we end up breaking ourselves. We live in a broken world.
Do we doubt God when we witness a disaster on the scale of the Asian tsunami? God promised that such things would happen (cf. Luke 21:25), so they should not cause us to doubt him, but we can be left wondering what it means.
Is it possible that we live in a world where an enemy is at work? An alien intelligence, evil spiritual beings. Not all suffering in the world is our fault. The ancient world saw spiritual activity everywhere. Christ did not come to show spiritual beings to be non-existent but to put them in their place.
The brokenness of the world has broken God’s heart. “Jesus wept” is a polite translation. The original is a word of great outrage and deep emotional pain. But, if this is true, why did God bother to create in the first place?
(1) It is difficult to compare existence and non-existence (what standard are we using?)
(2) We mustn’t think that God created the world (a) out of need (God is not lonely, loving relationships require two or more personal beings, and God has lived in the loving relationship of the Trinity from all eternity) or (b) out of recklessness (God knew that we would rebel and what that would cost him even before he created the world (cf. 1 Peter 1:18-20))
The price that God pays to reconcile us to himself is the highest price that he could have paid.
The message of the cross means that all evil is dealt with and justice will be upheld.
The message of the resurrection means that God is big enough to be able to compensate us for our suffering in a new heaven and a new earth.