The following is a comment I posted as part of a conversation on my Facebook page yesterday. I though I would post it on my blog as well. I have edited the original comment slightly but the gist of what I said is still the same..
I once was asked to speak on the question of “Why Do Children Die” as part of a Faith in Crisis series at the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis, TN. My short answer was and still is “I don’t know” (and believe me, I wish I did).
I did however suggest three reasons for suffering in scripture. The three reasons are redemptive, pedagogical, and punitive. We see all three reasons displayed in the suffering of Jesus’ death. His death brings about redemption (i.e., Jn 3.16), teaches his disciples a new way of living (i.e., Phil 2.5-8), and assumes the punishment for sin/evil since it is God’s way of both being just and the one who justifies sinners (i.e., Rom 3.25-26).
With that in mind, I believe we still can see in hindsight the redemptive and pedagogical meaning in suffering (cf. Rom 5.3-5). However, I am somehwere between hesitant and unwilling to say that God is still using some suffering to punish individuals and communities for whatever sin they have done. First, if the sins (past, present, future) of the world have been nailed to the cross (cf. Isa 53.4-5; Col 2.13-15; 1 Pet 3.18) then why are people being punished for that which Jesus has taken on in the cross? This is why I love the 2nd stanza to the hymn It Is Well with My Soul (“My sin…Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought…My sin, not in part but the whole. Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more…”). Secondly, if we think about events of suffering such as the systematic rape of women in the Congo or the children who will never leave the oncology ward alive, then our theological reasonsing about human suffering falls woefully short.
That is why in a recent seminar class I taught on “A Christian Response to Human Suffering” I advised those present that it is best if we would just refrain from making judgments about why someone is suffering. Even when someone is dying, say from addictive & dysfunctional behaviors (for which we are tempted to think there are obvious reasons for such suffering), we don’t know what all has happened to that person throughout their life that has had an affect on continueing in negative behaviors.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe our simple Christian response to suffering is first, to join with the sufferer in thier suffering, however that is possible. It may be listening to their complaints (lament), serving them, or some other way. Secondly, when appropriate we ought to pray with them and even if that would not be appropriate (there are such inappropriate times for prayer), we can still pray for them.