About Alister McGrath
Alister Edgar McGrath is a theologian, priest, intellectual historian, scientist, and Christian apologist. He currently holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and is Professor of Divinity at Gresham College. He is an Anglican priest, ordained within the Church of England. He holds a doctor’s degree in Molecular Biophysics as well as a doctorate in theology and one in Intellectual History. He was formerly an atheist.
Questioning God’s Goodness
In his introduction to the Second Edition to his book, A Journey through Suffering, McGrath begins with a discussion of the goodness of God being called into question since suffering exists in the world. He observes that Christianity, far from evading the pain and sorrow of suffering we find in this world, faces it head-on by “declaring that God himself knows what it is like to suffer and shares in our suffering” (1). The Christian faith, he asserts, focuses on “the image of pain and suffering,” that being the cross of Christ.
At first, suffering may seem to question God’s goodness (1), but a deeper understanding of the cross and Christ’s suffering makes us aware of God’s deep compassion and love for us. The essence of the gospel is that God loved us so much that he sent his Son into the world to suffer and dies for us.
The Christian’s viewpoint and outlook on suffering must be grounded on the self-revelation of God and “is not the product of despairing human imagination” (8). God suffers with us just as “we suffer when those whom we love suffer” (13).
The Suffering of Christ’s Followers
McGrath affirms that becoming a Christian in the New Testament meant to experience the suffering of God’s people (95). Very early in the New Testament writings it says that we will suffer just as Jesus suffered (John 15:20). Jesus learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8) and so shall we. It is a part of the process of spiritual growth toward maturity.
To be a Christian, then, means to suffer with and for Christ. In the process of being made more Christ-like, God must at times break us and then remold us into the shape of Christ. We must not seek out suffering on our own, we must allow God’s wisdom to guide our lives and bring on the suffering when it is right for us (92). Suffering is seen as a “potential mark of God’s favour and presence” (92).
Theology of the Cross
McGrath thinks that the finest discussion of this topic is by Martin Luther and his theology of the cross. Luther made the suffering of Christ and of his people the central focus of his theology of the cross. Any thought about the nature and purpose of God must be “grounded in the cross of Crist” (31). Martin Luther believes that the love of God is shown through the sufferings of Christ and not despite those sufferings. The Christian church came into being through these sufferings, it is presently sharing in his sufferings, and will finally share in his glory. God is present (although often hidden) in human suffering and is able to transfigure and transform it (32-33).
God and our Suffering
As McGrath so aptly says: “God decided to be hurt by our pain. God allowed himself to suffer” (21). God is moved by our sadness and pain much like Jesus who wept over the tomb of his friend Lazarus. The cross, of course, shows his extreme solidarity with the suffering of the world. God chose to experience and share our pain (21). God expects us to have the same commitment toward suffering as he had (9).
Dying with Hope and the Age to Come
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ enables us who are believers and the followers of Jesus to die with hope, hope in our future resurrection and with the knowledge that suffering has no place in the coming kingdom (2). Christian suffering provides a window through which the world can look to see why we react to hardship, suffering, and dying as we do (88). It is important that we affirm to the world that things are not the way they are meant to be nor are they the way they will remain (96).
The sufferings of the present age will be ended at the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness (Romans 8:18-25). The present sufferings are like birth-pangs and will usher in a new age, when the kingdom will come and every believer will experience bodily resurrection unto eternal life. This is the hope that keeps believers going in this life (36, 37).
Suffering, then, is not pointless. If we share the sufferings of Christ, we will see it leads to glory, a new blessed existence where suffering, evil, sin, and pain disappear. It is difficult to comprehend all that God has in store for his people (98-100).