How Can We Help Unbelievers When They Face Various Sufferings?
During this last year, India has endured its share of suffering. Since only 2% of its population claims to be Christian, it’s fair to say that most of the suffering in India is borne by unbelievers. As a tiny minority of Christians in India, how do we understand and act with regard to the suffering of our unbelieving friends, family and neighbours? First, we need to understand their view of suffering; second, give them the hope of the gospel; and third, share in their suffering.
Understand Their Worldview Of Suffering
India is home to a plethora of worldviews, particularly with regard to suffering. In Hinduism, the doctrine of karma teaches that every soul is reincarnated over and over, bringing its past deeds and their latent effects, including suffering into the next life. If you are suffering now, it is likely your just punishment from your previous life. If you live now with decency, courage, and love—then your future lives will be better. In short, everything must be paid for. Your soul is released into the divine bliss of eternity only when you have atoned for all your sins.
Islam addresses suffering from a high view of fate and destiny. Life circumstances are seen as set by the unchanging will of Allah. In Islam, surrendering to God’s mysterious will without question has been one of the central requirements of righteousness. To submit to a difficult divine fate without compromise or complaint was the highest virtue and therefore a way to find great meaning in suffering.
Buddhism teaches that suffering comes not from past deeds but from unfulfilled desires. The solution to suffering is the extinguishing of desire through a change of consciousness. We must detach our hearts from transitory, material things and persons. Buddhism’s goal is “to achieve a calmness of the soul in which all desire, individuality, and suffering are dissolved.”
However, a large minority of Indians identify as secular or agnostic. They might nominally identify with an established religion but their belief system is primarily that of an atheist or agnostic. How does the non-religious person understand suffering? In the secular view, this material world is all there is. However, in that view of things, suffering can have no meaningful part of your life story. In this approach, suffering should be avoided at any cost, or at least minimized. Other religions see evil as having some purpose as a punishment, or a test, or an opportunity. But for the atheist, suffering is senseless, neither bad nor good. Suffering always has a material cause and therefore it can and must be “fixed.”
So in summary, Hinduism tells its followers to live differently (to accrue good karma), Buddhism calls its followers to think differently, and Islam calls its followers to embrace suffering nobly, and the atheist calls its followers to avoid suffering at all costs (although many don’t live consistently within their belief system).
So how do we as Christians interact with these varying views on suffering from our non-Christian friends? From the Christian perspective, all of these cultures of suffering have an element of truth. But Christianity also differs from each religion in their view of suffering.
Unlike believers in karma, Christians believe that suffering is often unjust and disproportionate. Unlike Islam, Christians are permitted—even encouraged—to express their grief with cries and questions. Unlike Buddhists, Christians believe that suffering is real, not an illusion, and it does not see suffering as a means of working off your sinful debts by virtue of the quality of your endurance of pain. Unlike the atheist, suffering is used by God for our good and (ultimately) His glory.
Clearly Communicate The Gospel
So how do we help our non-Christian friends? The first and the best thing we can do for them is to share the good news of how Jesus, being fully God came to defeat the root cause of all suffering—our sin. Our sin has offended a holy God, and we all should not ask, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ but instead, ‘Why should God spare me any suffering?’
Yet God in His great mercy sent His Son to pay the penalty for sin, and with it the solution to the problem of suffering. Jesus was God in human flesh, and even though He was sinless and deserved only blessing, He suffered. He often was homeless, rejected and was called a ‘Man of Sorrows’. He suffered not only in life, but also in death. He was beaten, mocked, and crucified. While on the cross, He bore the full wrath of God against our sin. His suffering was not deserved by Him, instead, He bore our suffering. He cried out to God in anguish as He suffered, yet he endured the cross, looking to the joy set before Him. Jesus knew that His suffering was for God’s glory and our ultimate good. And because God raised Him from the dead we who have believed in Him can be assured that suffering will one day be completely removed from this world in the new heavens and the new earth. Being united to Jesus (through repentance and faith) gives the hope for ultimate freedom from suffering (since Jesus will wipe away your tears) as well as the means for enduring suffering (because the Spirit of Christ indwells you).
Share In Their Suffering
Historically, Christians were radical in their willingness to share in the sufferings of others, even unbelievers. When the great plague ravaged Europe in the early church period, it was the Christians who stayed behind to take care of the sick, to the bewilderment and amazement of others. I would encourage you to identify with your non-Christian friends and family in their suffering. What might this look like? Well, it would vary greatly depending upon your relationship with the other person. If, for example, the other person was a family member, then you have obligations to help him/her in their suffering (1 Tim. 5:8). The obligations would be financial or the sacrifice of your time, or even career advancement.
For others like friends, even though you might not have an obligation to share in their suffering, but an opportunity instead. If the quote by C.S. Lewis is true—‘“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain,” then God can use you as a megaphone to speak to your friend. Don’t feel intimidated by these gospel opportunities because you’re afraid of what to say. Ask God for help and reach out to your friends in these situations. God will give you wisdom as you seek to reflect Jesus in your care of your friend.
In our engagement with our lost friends and family who are in the midst of suffering, we must constantly be seeking to understand how they think about suffering, look for opportunities to clearly communicate the gospel, and practically find ways to share in their suffering. Without God’s grace and wisdom, we cannot do this, but by His strength, we can bring God glory in our personal ministry to the suffering.