National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from FaithNet NAMI

Dear All –

Because of the frequency of the question, "Why does God allow us to suffer," I am forwarding a talk that I gave two years ago that touches on this topic.


Why Suffering ???

What Does The Bible Say

(Presented at the Orange County MHA Conference, 5/29/03)

by: Gunnar E. Christiansen, MD

The Bible claims that God made the world perfect, but this perfection was lost when Adam and Eve took a bite out of the apple. It points out that, as a consequence of this breakdown in the relationship between man and God, that disease, suffering and death became part of our lives.

In the Book of Genesis 3:16-17, God first tells Eve, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children." He then tells Adam, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life."

In the Book of Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah expresses sorrow for the defeat of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem: In chapter one verse 12, we find "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see, Is any suffering like my suffering ………?"

How great it is to have things go just right. Why do you suppose God doesn’t make sure that everything goes that way every time?  Why does he sometimes allow things to go so badly that we have suffering?  Why does he allow us to have pain? Why do we have illness?  Why do we have mental illness?

When we were children, we had many questions that started with the word, "Why." It seems that we still do. When we were children, our parents would sometimes answer our questions with the sentence, "Just wait, you will find out in time." I believed my parents then and I now believe that in time God will give us answers to the questions that I have posed today. I don’t expect the answers in my time, but I do in God’s time.

Despite the lack of complete answers, I am convinced that there is value in thinking about, discussing and praying about these and other questions that are seemingly unanswerable.

Understanding suffering poses a significant challenge. It seems what causes suffering for one person may not cause it to occur in another. With challenges that most will agree will cause suffering in anyone, such as intense and persistent pain, there appears to be a variation in the intensity of the suffering experienced by different people. In addition, at times the intensity of suffering appears to vary in the same individual even though the cause for the pain remains unchanged.

I have purposely repeated the word appears and used it advisedly, because it is my experience that one cannot accurately gauge the suffering of another. Even the person that is suffering has great difficulty in clearly communicating the amount of suffering that he or she is experiencing. Thus it is my opinion that the expression, "I know just how you feel" should be outlawed.

Nevertheless, I believe it is fair to conclude that suffering does exist, that it is experienced by everyone, and that its severity can be modified by an individual’s response to its cause.

We have the ability to respond to challenges, because God has made us in a very special way. We are not limited to the ‘knee jerk" type of reactions of "fight or flight" of lower animals. We have been given the opportunity to have time between whatever affects us and our response. It is during this interval that we can turn to God in prayer asking for guidance and strength.

What a wonderful gift it is to be able to modify our responses. When we put the words able and response together, however, we see that there is a "catch" to this capability. We are responsible. Being responsible, however, is far from being a curse. It is a very special gift.

It is my experience that the sense of responsibility combined with a response, which is guided by our understanding of God’s expectation of us, gives meaning to life.

Can suffering have a positive effect on our lives? If so, how?

The Bible indicates that God allows suffering in order to promote the development in our lives of perseverance, character, sensitivity for others and patience.  James wrote the following to Jewish Christians who had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world because of persecution in the Book of James 1:2-4 "Consider it pure joy my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance."

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:3-4 "… we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,"

In 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, Paul writes "………. the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God."

Paul Tournier, the famous French physician and theologian makes the statement, "The purpose of life is not the absence of suffering, but that suffering should bear fruit."

In searching for meaning for myself concerning our son’s illness with schizophrenia, I found help in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner states that we should avoid asking the questions "Why did this happen to me?" or "What did I do to deserve this?" He suggests that we should ask instead, "Now that this has happened to me, what should I do about it?"  Serving others has been of immense help for me in finding solace and meaning in my life.

I only have a glimmer of the intensity of the suffering that those of you with a mental illness have experienced in your lives. With timidity, however, I would like to discuss it as seen from my perspective.

Suffering of serious mental illness is of two types. First is the deep despair from having the potential for abnormal thoughts and having the uncertainty of not knowing when or where one might have a sudden exacerbation of his or her illness. Second, but equally productive of suffering is the unfair treatment of those with one of these disorders by the vast majority of our population.

This discrimination pushes many of those with a mental illness to the margins of society, which limits their opportunity to contribute to society. This, in turn adversely affects the development of self-esteem and self-worth, without which one will undoubtedly suffer.

The causes of mental illness seem unavoidable, but the discrimination against those with these disorders is obviously avoidable. Man need not blame himself for the existence of mental illness, but he is responsible for the suffering that results from the stigma and discrimination that surrounds it.

Rather than having the question, "Doesn’t God care?", it would seem more appropriate to have the question, "Don’t we care?"

What direction does the Bible give us for responding to those who are suffering?

The prophet Isaiah makes it clear in the Book of Isaiah that God is dissatisfied with failure to respond to the needs of others. He states in chapter 1, verse 17 "Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed."

David makes it clear in Psalm 37 that God wants to aid us in advocating for that which is just.:

"Commit your way to the Lord;

trust in him and he will do this:

He will make your righteousness

shine like the dawn,

the justice of your cause like

the noonday sun."


In the New Testament, Jesus showed his love and compassion through action. As we see recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus did not wait for Legion, who was found screaming, raging and harming himself, to come to him. Legion with behavior, which was typical of that manifested by those suffering with psychosis of mental illness, was sought by Jesus. Against the better judgment of his disciples, Jesus directed them to take him from where he was speaking to the multitudes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee where Legion was kept in chains. After meeting him, Jesus put Legion in his "right mind" and returned him to full membership in his community.

I believe that Jesus with his actions and words has made it clear that he desires for us as individuals and corporately as members of a congregation to participate in the rehabilitation of those with mental illness. Just as Jesus healed Legion and sent him back to his village, I believe he expects us to assist those with mental illness to achieve a meaningful and rewarding life in not only our congregation, but in the secular community as well.

But are the doors of our congregations open to those with a mental illness? Will those with a mental illness find a welcome environment that provides an opportunity for spiritual growth? Do our congregations recognize the importance of one’s faith in recovery from a mental illness?

I cannot visualize how one can avoid or reduce the intensity of suffering without having the assurance of God’s constant presence. Where better to develop this assurance than in a place of worship with those of a common faith. The conviction that God loves us and is with us even in our most difficult times is the best antidote for suffering that is available to us in this world. It may not totally eliminate suffering, but it will empower us to limit the effect that the cause of the suffering will have on our lives.

Is suffering the result of sin?

Some of those with a mental illness and some family members needlessly suffer, because they are concerned that their illness or the illness of a loved-one is a result of sin.  Some are led to this understanding, because God did allow our world to become imperfect following the bite out of the apple by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and also because the Books of Moses describe God’s threat of suffering for the Israelites if his laws were disobeyed.  For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy 28:58-59, we read, "If you do not carefully follow all the words of the law, ……………..the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants …………." This early belief of the Israelites, that illness and other causes of suffering are punishments from God, is known as Retribution Theology.

Repudiation of this earlier understanding of the Israelites, is found in the Book of Job. This Old Testament book is a profound story about human suffering. It must have been considered revolutionary at the time it was written, because the leading character is righteous, but suffers nevertheless.

The plot of the story revolves around God’s accepting a challenge by Satan. Satan insists that the only reason Job is righteous is because God is protecting him. Satan argues that Job’s godliness is self serving, because he is righteous only because it "pays to do so." Satan accuses Job of being devoid of integrity and succeeds in getting God to allow him to make Job suffer in order to prove his point.

To make matters worse for Job, his three close friends insist that he must have sinned in order for him to be suffering.

Job, however, continues to defend his integrity and will not accept his misfortune and disease to be the result of sin. He states his objection to God, but, at the same time, maintains an obedient relationship.

In the end, Satan loses the challenge. Job’s integrity is intact and he remains righteous before God. Retribution Theology is also a loser.

God expresses his anger at Job’s friends for insisting that Job’s suffering is because he had done something wrong. He is also pleased with Job for his determination to speak honestly before him.

Although at the end of the story, God blesses Job’s life with more possessions than he had before the onset of his suffering, I feel this is an anticlimax. The high point of the narrative is early in the last chapter when Job makes the statement, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you." Through his suffering, Job sees God with eyes of faith and understanding.

Many theologians insist that one cannot truly know God without having personally experienced suffering or having cared for a suffering fellowman. This was certainly the case with Job.

Job’s feeling of assurance of God’s justice and fairness despite suffering was a spiritual gift, which is just as available to us today. I can’t visualize how someone with a mental illness or any severe chronic illness can have serenity and a sense of wholeness without this confidence in God.

Job was able to accept God’s plan for his life, which included suffering.  By knowing God, he was able to accept this plan even though it was beyond his understanding. This is my prayer for those affected by mental illness and all others who are suffering.