The most obvious place to start when discussing suffering is with sin. The opening chapters of the Bible (Gen 2–3) are an aetiological tale which functions to describe the original state of the world and explain why it is no longer in that original state.
The original state of the world is progressively established in Genesis 2 as one of intimacy and openness, a world without suffering or death.1 As the tale unfolds it is made clear that it is not good that the man is alone (in contrast to all the goodness of chapter 1), yet the animals which are brought to the man and examined by the man (as signified by his naming of them) do not adequately prevent him from being alone. Finally the woman is formed from the man himself and, with a cry of great delight, the man finds the perfect companion.
The woman and the man stand at the pinnacle of creation, naked and unashamed. Together they form a new family in a relationship which takes priority over all other human relationships, even over those with one’s parents. God, man, woman, and the rest of creation are in harmony.
Genesis 3, however, depicts the ramifications of betrayal for the entire creation. The openness and intimacy depicted in Genesis 2 are undone, replaced by alienation, mistrust, secrecy. And the consequences of this primal disobedience extend throughout creation: between God and people, between men and women, between people and creation. Pain, suffering, and ultimately death, are all consequences of this first act of treason.
Suffering is tied to human sin in general elsewhere as well. For example, Paul writes in Romans 1 of one aspect of God’s judgment on the world: that God leaves people to their own devices to bear the consequences of their rebellion. Romans 8:22 refers to the universal consequences of this rebellion: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now.”
So in one sense all suffering is traced back to the Bible’s opening aetiological tale of a treasonous rebellion against the Creator’s authority.
Yet alone this answer to why individuals suffer is usually rather unhelpful and, in pastoral terms, probably not a good place to start.
- See Alan J. Hauser, “Genesis 2–3: The Theme of Intimacy and Alienation,” in D. J. A. Clines et al. (eds.), Art and Meaning: Rhetoric in Biblical Literature (JSOTSup 19, Sheffield, JSOT, 1982) 20–36.