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Why does God allow suffering?

In response to my invitation to submit questions to be addressed in this sermon series, one of you asked, “God is all knowing, loving, omnipotent. Why is there so much senseless, tragic pain and suffering in the world? Particularly to innocent people?”

Another person wrote, “Why does it always seem like when it rains, it pours? When we are working on one problem or crisis and trying to effectively solve it, several more seem to pile on top. I know God only gives us what we can handle, and He always gives us the tools and guidance to overcome the problems, but it would just be nice to only have one problem at a time.”

This same person said, “I can answer my own question with—this is just life, God is challenging us to reach our full potential, or we are being trained for a next phase in our life—but I would like to hear your take on it as well as what the Bible has to say about it.”

Both of these questions are, I think, different forms of the question: “Why does God allow suffering?”

C. S. Lewis once articulated the problem this way: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both. This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.”

There are at least five answers to the intellectual problem of painthat have been proposed over the course of human history. First, there is the Docetic Answer: suffering isn’t real. 

Docetism was an early heresy in the Christian Church. The name comes from the Greek word dokeowhich means to seem. The Docetists claimed that Jesus only seemed, or appeared, to have a human body and therefore he only appeared to suffer on the cross. The Docetists could not conceive how the Son of God could suffer. Thus, they affirmed Jesus’ deity while minimizing or eliminating his humanity. The Docetic answer to the problem of pain is to say that suffering isn’t real.

This way of dealing with the problem of pain is just as prevalent in our day as it was two thousand years ago. There are many people today who claim that suffering is an illusion. The way to get through suffering is to exert mind over matter and simply think positive thoughts. Keep reassuring yourself that suffering is not real, and you will feel better.

Then there is the Stoic Answer: keep a stiff upper lip. The Greek Stoics of old believed that everything which takes place in the physical world happens on the basis of mechanistic determination and we have no control over it. According to the Stoic, nothing you or I do, or think, or say, can ever change the course of human events. The only thing we can control is our response to what happens. In response to pain the Stoics tried to condition their emotions to the point where nothing could disturb them. They would try to maintain calm no matter what was happening to them.

A third answer to the problem of pain is the Hedonistic Answer: balance suffering by going for the gusto!Hedonists seek to balance pain with pleasure. When you are suffering, seek an escape, whether that be through drugs, alcohol, or any form of pleasure.

Then there is a fourth answer: that of ExistentialismThe Existentialists of the early twentieth century maintained there is no meaning in life and suffering. They said basically, “Cheer up, for life is absurd.” Suicide was clearly an option for the Existentialists. If life and suffering have no ultimate meaning, then you might as well end it all rather than experience increasing pain.

Finally, there is the Christian answer to the problem of pain. Christianity rejects the Docetic approach. Christianity maintains that suffering is real. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man, the living should take this to heart.” The Bible faces suffering head on. 

Christianity agrees with Stoicism in that we can control our response to suffering. But that is not the whole answer. Christianity doesn’t preach the stiff upper lip approach to life. There is more hope in Christianity than that. Christians recognize that there is a place for weeping and groaning in life when we are experiencing pain. Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Christianity also maintains that the Hedonistic approach is inadequate. Hedonism doesn’t face the ultimate hard question that must be faced: how can a good, all-powerful God allow suffering? Furthermore, pleasure never really gets rid of pain. The more pleasure you try to pile up to counteract pain, the less that pleasure satisfies. Hedonism adds the problem of addiction to the problem of pain. You end up needing a bigger and bigger fi to get over the suffering. But then each fix leaves you less and less satisfied.

A seasoned Christian counselor once said, “It’s my experience that people want to run from their pain. They want to replace pain with another feeling as soon as they can. To recover from pain, you have to face it. You must stand in it and process it before it will dissipate. That’s God’s way.”

Against the Existentialist, Christianity maintains that life, and even suffering, can be meaningful. And the meaning is not simply something we make up. It is objective. God has a purpose for us in life, even in the midst of our suffering.

To fully understand the Christian answer to the problem of pain, we must consider the sources of suffering. The first source of suffering is what Christians call original sin. Paul says in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…”

Sin came into the world through the first human beings. Those first humans were given the choice to obey God or not obey. They had the freedom to choose good or evil. Sadly, they chose evil. And there are few people that would argue over the fact that we have been living in an imperfect, a fallen, world ever since, a world that is filled with pain and suffering.

J. B. Phillips once said, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will.” Thus, some people ask, “Why did God give us free will?” C. S. Lewis answers: “Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.”

Some people wonder why the first human beings chose to sin if they were created perfect. Genesis 3 teaches us that they were tempted by the serpent. Thus, we have another source of suffering in the world: Satan, a fallen angel, one who also had free choice and chose to rebel against God.

All other sins and all suffering has followed from that first sin. As Paul says in Romans 5:12, “death came to all people because all sinned.”

Paul Little once wrote, “Much of the suffering in the world can be traced directly to the evil choices men and women make. This is quite apparent when a holdup man kills someone. Sometimes it is less apparent and more indirect, as when crooked decisions are made in government or business that may bring deprivation.”

Martin Vis tells the following story: “It was still light out, when the young woman left the campus library to walk to her car in a well-lit parking lot. She was accosted, brutalized, raped. God is not to blame for that. Could God have stopped that man from doing what he did to that young girl? Yes, I believe he could have. Then why didn’t he? Because he gave us the kind of world we want to live in. It is a world where people can touch us to make us feel good or touch us to cause us great pain. He made us free spirits in a world of free spirits. God is not to blame when people choose to abuse that freedom.”

If God stopped the rapist in his abuse of free will, where would God stop? Would we want God to eliminate the consequences of every evil choice? If we ask for that, then we are asking for God to eliminate free will altogether.

So we have original sin, Satan’s sin, my neighbour’s sin, and finally, there is my own sin that leads to suffering. Paul says in Galatians 6:7-8, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.”

A lot of our suffering can be traced to the wrong choices we make for ourselves. For example, if I don’t take proper care of my body, I will probably suffer physically, and die sooner than I might have if I had taken better care of myself.

The good news is that God gives us time to change direction, to make a different choice. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

This leads to the question: What is God’s role in suffering?

I do not believe that God sends suffering into our lives, but I do believe he will use that same suffering for good if we let him.Paul says in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Notice that Paul does not say “all things are good”. Nor does he say that God sends pain into our lives. Rather, Paul says that all things (even pain) work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Joseph is one of the greatest examples of this in the Hebrew Scriptures. When Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers he suffered for a long time in Egypt. But God was at work even in Joseph’s suffering circumstances. Eventually, God caused Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to make Joseph his right-hand man. When Joseph’s eleven brothers came to Egypt in a time of famine, looking to buy grain, he could have remained bitter towards his brothers. Or he could have caused them harm. Instead he said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.

A second thing I think we need to recognize when it comes to God and pain is that God is no stranger to suffering. God has taken his own medicine as it were. God understands our pain because he has been through suffering of a greater intensity than we will ever share. God became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a person who suffered poverty throughout his brief life and then took the pain of the whole world upon himself on the cross.

Isaiah 53:3 says, 

He was despised and rejected by others;    a man of suffering[a] and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

And Hebrews 2:18 says of Jesus, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Paul Little writes, “Perhaps the greatest difficulty for faith is to believe that God is good. There is so much which, taken in isolation, suggests the contrary. Helmut Thielicke of Hamburg points out that a fabric viewed through a magnifying glass is clear in the middle and blurred at the edges. But we know the edges are clear because of what we see in the middle. Life, he says, is like a fabric. There are many edges which are blurred, many events and circumstances we do not understand. But they are to be interpreted by the clarity we see in the centre—the cross of Christ. We are not left to guess about the goodness of God from isolated bits of data. God has clearly revealed his character and dramatically demonstrated it to us in the Cross. ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?’ (Romans 8:32).”

This leads to a third thing we need to recognize about God’s role in suffering. That is that the cross and resurrection of Christ reveal God’s triumph over pain and evil.1 Peter 2:24 says about Jesus: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,[a] so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds[b] you have been healed.” Through the cross and the resurrection, God has turned Satan’s weapon of sin and death back upon itself and reversed the consequences of our fall into sin.

A fourth and final thing to note about God’s role in suffering is that God can use suffering in our lives to perfect us. In this regard, I think of what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 about his “thorn in the flesh”. We don’t know what that thorn in the flesh was, perhaps poor eyesight. But whatever it was, apparently it caused Paul some suffering. He writes,

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

J. I Packer writes, “God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with your ‘thorn’ uncomplainingly—that is, sweet, patient, and free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you feel weak—is true sanctification. It is true healing for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace. The healing of your sinful person thus goes forward, even though the healing of your mortal body does not.”

Paul puts the case this way, earlier in his second letter to the Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

What a note of hope! Once suffering has finished God’s perfect work in our lives, suffering will be no more. Suffering is not everlasting for those who trust Christ. John tells us in Revelation 21:4 that in the New Jerusalem God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I do not know if any of this helps as we wrestle with the intellectual problem of pain. And what I have said still leaves open the emotional problem. But here, once again, I find Lewis to be of help. He writes, “when pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”


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