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Why does God allow suffering?

Two very different people will ask this question for two different reasons. The first truly struggles with the existence of God in the face of a universe filled with pain. The second, having already put his faith in God, struggles with something else. This person is asking why God allowed certain suffering in his or someone else’s life. So, I’m going to answer it in two parts. It’s important to do it this way, because some people confuse the two answers. You’ll see what I mean.

Part 1: Why does pain even exist?

The real question is this: if God is perfectly good and absolutely powerful, why do evil, suffering, and pain exist? So, because there is evil, suffering, and pain, God, if He exists at all, is either not perfectly good or not absolutely powerful, or some unknown mix of the two.

It’s obvious that our world is filled with horrific pain. Every minute, children die of starvation; really bad things happen to people; terribly evil people do terribly evil things. Accidents happen that change the lives of many. Cancer, AIDS, and other diseases cause tremendous pain and death. Financial loss, corruption, famines, wars, poverty, the list goes on and on, are a part of our everyday lives. Tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and volcanoes wipe out tens of thousands of people. Finally death itself exists. The question on almost everyone’s lips in the face of all this and many more kinds of pain is why.

Two principles help me make sense of pain in general.

Freedom

I’m a dad to four children. My oldest is almost fourteen and I’m a bit nervous. He’s really getting to know our world. He spends time with his friends in a world that is outside of mine. I’ve told him about the dangers of that world. He is aware of the temptations that he may face. When he opens up the computer and gets ready to click the "Search" button, he’s aware that there are very dangerous things close at hand. But we have sheltered him enough to know that he has never really been tested.

When the test comes, what will he do? He will meet an acquaintance whom he looks up to and really wants to please. He knows my words of warning and advice. But at that moment, when he’s asked to do something his heart tells him is wrong, what will he choose to do? Perhaps he’s alone in a room with his computer and his adolescent hormones are working hard inside of him. What will he do?

That ability for him to make a choice terrifies me. I could almost wish he would never have to choose. Imagine having a robot for a son! He does everything I want him to do. He cleans his room. He washes his laundry. He always does the right thing. He even wakes up each morning to tell me, "Good morning, dad. I love you." He’s the perfect son because I’ve built him to be perfect and do everything I want. Honestly, do you think that when my robotic son tells me he loves me, I would actually believe him? Of course not! He has no choice.

But my real son does. I certainly don’t want him to make a bad choice and live with the consequences. But like every parent, I have to come to a point of letting go. Why? Because even though the possibility exists that he will choose unwisely, the possibility also exists that he will choose what is right and honorable and good. Yes, he may choose wrong. But how amazing it would be if at that moment- when I can neither see him nor he, me- he chooses to trust, to honor, and to bring pleasure to me, by doing what I’ve told him is the right thing.

Is the ability for him to make that choice worth the risk of his choosing to do wrong?

The answer to that question is the first real answer to the problem of suffering. Apparently God believes the answer is yes. God did not invent suffering, but he did invent the possibility of suffering, by giving us the ability to choose between what He wants and what we want. My son can tell me that he loves me and honors me and trusts me all he wants, but the real test of whether he does comes when, being far away from me, being really tempted, having enough freedom to make a choice, he chooses me.

The first principle in understanding why suffering exists is that each of us has been given the freedom to make choices. And God has given us this profound freedom in order that we may, entirely of our own will, honor Him, choose Him and His will over ours.

The third chapter in the Bible records the story of Adam and Eve, the first human beings, created by the hand of God. They were given a choice. God had told them not to do something or else it would have a disastrous consequence. "Don’t eat from the fruit of one tree." There were no other rules; nothing for them to do or not do except this one thing. Of course, God could have chosen to put that tree a thousand miles away from the garden they lived in. He never had to create the tree at all. And the serpent? God could have kept the creature far away, even if it had to exist at all. If God had not allowed the possibility of a fall, there would have been no fall. But here is the catch. If there was no possibility of dishonoring God, there could never have been the possibility of truly honoring Him. If they had no choice to love, they could not have loved at all.

But because that choice really existed, they now had the potential to truly say to God, "I love you," not as programmed robots, but as a son and daughter to a father. And, in the face of that choice, they made a decision that would affect all humanity, in fact, all the universe, for all time.

The Result of Freedom

The tragedy of the fall is two human beings saying to God, "I don’t trust you." "I don’t believe you." "I choose my will over yours." If they would have chosen to say to the serpent, "You’re lying. We will obey God," and walked away, unimaginable joy and glory and love would have been the story of human history. They would have passed the test.

But God let the choice have its natural consequence. He could have, even then, taken away their freedom. But He didn’t. He still wanted them to come back to Him, to trust Him, to believe Him, to choose His will over theirs. However ridiculous this sounds, God has been extraordinarily gentle with us. He has moved time and space to keep us from becoming the horrors we would have been if we were left alone, entirely without Him. Yet he has given us freedom.

And in that freedom, the inevitable consequence of choosing our will over His, of doubting Him, of loving ourselves more than Him or others is suffering. Though it doesn’t give us the whole picture, our freedom to choose and the resulting choice account for a great part of human suffering. But that is only the beginning.

Jesus once told a story about two sons. They were both children of a very wealthy father. The older son worked very hard. But the younger son decided that he wanted to live his own life. So he asked his father for his share of the inheritance. Completely self-centered, the boy was shamefully insulting his own father! He was saying, "I can’t wait until you’re dead to inherit my half of your property, so I’d like it now." The son was making an obviously bad choice. But what is astounding is that the father allows the son to make a choice that would cause him great pain and suffering. He gives him the freedom to rebel. And the result? Disaster! In fact, the son goes through tremendous suffering. He squanders all the wealth in wild living and ends up a beggar in a foreign land.

The father could have said, as I probably would have, "you’re insulting me. Work hard like your brother. Wake up to real life, son." But he doesn’t. He lets him choose the really foolish thing. But notice what happens. The son has absolutely no interest in the father or his concerns. He cares nothing about what the father wants. His entire life is consumed with himself. And his father finally lets him have what he wants- himself. The result? Total and utter loss. The starving boy is forced to find work feeding pigs on a farm and comes to the point of actually longing for what the pigs were eating. It is at this point, that the son, realizing his own pride and selfishness, for the first time, looks at his father with love. He remembers his dad. He wakes up from the spell of his own arrogance and looks toward home.

You may ask, whether this is a good father? The answer depends on how you define the word good. If you think a "good" father is someone whose highest goal for his son is temporary happiness and pleasure, then, no, this father was not good. If that is how you define the word good, then what you really want is a grandfather who showers his grandchildren with sweets and presents and hugs and money and all things nice. But a real father who really loves his son is not like that. He wants his son to be truly good, honest, a man of integrity, kind, faithful, hardworking, diligent, loving, who truly thinks of others ahead of himself. Of course he wants him to be happy, but above all he wants him to be a man of character. He wants him to be good. He knows that his son's deepest joy and eternal peace will come, not by getting what he wants, but by giving all that he is and has to One who is eternally good and the Source of all joy.

This is the father we see in the story. He allows great suffering in his son’s life in order that his son may one day wake up to become a real man. And that is precisely what happens.

There in the mud, he wakes up to what he had lost. He had thrown away his father to indulge in the selfish pleasures of the world. All was now clear. He was the fool. He was the wretch. But then, he realizes something. He sees that a servant in his father’s home enjoyed a greater life than his own in that filthy place. So he gets up and begins to walk that long road home. He would go and beg his father if he could become his servant.

Imagine that long walk home. Filthy, tired, in pain, hungry, empty, ashamed, and forgotten, he walks every step of that journey in tears. And with each step, he is becoming more of a man.

But while he was still a long way off, his father (constantly looking out for his son) sees him. He throws off all dignity and runs to his son! He holds him tight to himself, in tears. "Oh, my son. My son!" In complete contrast to what the son now deserves, the father welcomes him, not as a servant, but as what he really is: his son. He celebrates! He gives him the best. He restores him. He forgives him. He loves him who was lost and is now found!

Right here is the real heart of the God who allows suffering to exist. In the father’s response, we see the very heart of our Father in heaven. He is waiting for us to come home. God has not given up on you or I or on any one.

God did not remain a spectator. Throughout human history, he has been completely involved with humanity. His one goal has been to bring us back to Himself through our own choice. From the moment of that first act of disgrace and dishonor, He had a plan. He would not start over. He would buy us back from the consequences of our miserable choices. What the Serpent, and our pride and selfishness, intended for evil, God turned around and made into something good. And so, He became a human being, born into poverty, into terrible suffering. He experienced thirty-three years of our pain. In the end, He was betrayed, laughed at, spit at, beaten, and discarded. He was cruelly tortured. He was killed in one of the worst ways possible.

And He did that because He loved us.

A day will come, soon, when God will bring all things to an end. The fact that this day has not yet come, says nothing about His power. Today, this moment, God can end all suffering. We severely underestimate His power if we believe otherwise. But God, in His wisdom and love, waits for us. He waits for us, in the midst of our suffering and pain, to get up out of the mire, and walk back home.

There are those who, while feeding the pigs will say, "this is all my father’s fault." "Why did he give me what I want?" "He never really loved me." "I will never go back." If that is you, then you are still full of your "self." You are still the center of your universe and are still a child, under the spell of this world. Yet, even now, your father still hopes that you will return. That is the only reason you are still alive. The fact that you are breathing, as you read this, means that God is not finished with you.

God has not given up on us. He is not passive. He is actively moving in the lives of each one of us, to bring us back to Him. But he does not take away our freedom. He never forces us to choose Him. But He waits and He works.

Many times, a person will only come to God when things go wrong in their lives. That is not a bad thing. To come back to God under whatever circumstance is always His will. If that is you, be assured that God can make a way out for you, whatever you are going through. Put your faith in Jesus and see what He will do in your life. Are you in trouble? Ask Him for help and wait and see what God will do.

Part 2: Why do those who walk with God suffer?

Wait a minute. Just a moment ago, I said God moves mountains to draw people to Himself. Then why this question? If the point of suffering was to bring his children back to Himself, why do His children suffer? Do people who walk with God actually suffer? The answer is an absolute yes. Once again, the question is "why?"

Pause. It’s easy to argue and debate about suffering when all things are well. But when I’m actually going through pain, the last thing I want is someone telling me why it’s happening. There are those whose perennial answer is, "It’s your fault," or "I told you so," or "You reap what you sow," or "Karma." Or perhaps, "You’re simply cursed." A new, but equally shallow answer is, "You just lack faith to believe. God has made a way for you to be happy, healthy, and prosperous. All you have to do is believe, and this pain will just disappear." That is not the faith the Bible speaks of! Pain is no illusion for those who endure it. It is real and what I really want in the midst of it (whether I or anyone else thinks I deserve the pain or not) is the presence of someone who loves me. I really don’t want words. I just want silent friendship or just plain silence. So if that person is you, right now, stop reading this. Save it for another day. Let me know what you’re going through and I will pray for you.

In boarding-school, when the teacher asked a Math question, and I got it wrong, I felt the pain of a ruler on the back of my hand. If I wasn’t paying attention when he called on me, he twisted my ears. If I did something really bad, well, you get the point. I knew what was coming. Crime and punishment. Cause and effect. Easy. But, life and the pain we endure in it are not so easy. Many times, we simply cannot find a connection between anything that we’ve done and the pain that we are enduring. I still don’t know why my friend Amy-Jo, a committed follower of Jesus who along with her husband gave up their lives of comfort in the U.S. and lived in a slum in New Delhi to love people, died of a brain tumor.

Why?

When she died right after giving birth to a baby girl, I (and almost everyone they knew) asked that question. When we lost our second baby during a miscarriage, we asked it. When a company I started sunk, I asked yet again, why. My father-in-law, who was my hero, died unexpectedly. For me, the pain was utterly real. Grief desperately searches for purpose behind pain that it may gain some comfort. But purpose is so rarely found, and we are left with so many unanswered questions.

God is Working

When Jesus died for us, he did not just die so that we would be freed from the penalty and power of sin. He gave His life for us and rose again in order that we might become like Him. He wanted us to be good- truly good. His ultimate purpose for us is that we might reflect His glory.

He tells us, through Paul, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers"*

Nothing is happening in your life or mine without purpose. Simply nothing. God is diligently working through the joys and pains of our lives for our good. You have asked Him, again and again, to take away the pain, and yet after a thousand prayers, all you hear from Him is silence. Know this. He is at work in you through the pain. And He expects you to do one single thing. And that is to trust Him! Sometimes, God answers, and the pain goes away. But many times, He answers by asking us to trust Him in the pain. Trust this about Him: He is all-powerful and completely good, in total control of your life, and He wants your best. And He has a purpose in your pain.

Here is what He tells us, through Paul and James:

"...but we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." - Romans 5.3-4

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers,whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking anything." - James 1.2-4

Whatever the difficulties we are facing, we are asked to rejoice. How strange! But listen why. Something is happening in us through the act of endurance. Perseverance means to get up, trust Him, and keep going. As we do so, we are gradually being transformed into different people. We are not becoming harder, but truer, more real. We, like Moses, are beginning to reflect His glory. We are actually becoming mature and complete, people of character, filled with hope.

Here are some harder verses:

"Though he slay me, yet I will hope in Him." Job 13.15

"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior." Habakkuk 3.17-18

"Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." Psalm 73.25-26

Job, Habakkuk, and Asaph have each come to the place where God is the center of who they were. And this is the place where He wants us to be. He wants us to trust Him not only when things are going well for us, but especially when our world seems to be falling apart. He wants us to find all our joy in Him.

God is on your side! He is unspeakably good. He is all-powerful and in absolute control of your life. He is your Father- a better father than you can ever have. He loved you enough to go through horrible pain and suffering and death on your behalf. If that is what He did for you, don’t believe the lie (in the midst of your pain) that He has abandoned you. He is not taking revenge on you. You’re not trapped by a curse. You are a child of the living God. He is closer to you now, in your pain, than you can ever imagine. And He allows it and uses it to make us into people of unimaginable beauty and glory. You are being put through the furnace to refine you, as gold refined in the fire. You are being built into the image of His likeness. JUST TRUST HIM!. He makes no mistakes. Trust Him and you will see what He does in you and through you.

Sometimes, God brings healing and restoration. Many times He doesn’t. All He asks is that you put your faith in Him, in His goodness and power and purpose. Don’t believe those who tell you that you lack enough faith to be healed. Don’t believe the lies that you are a prisoner of curses and are reaping what you’ve sown. They are lies from the Father of Lies and the Accuser. "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."** If you have trusted in Jesus and placed your life in His hands, you are set free. You have entered into the Almighty Fortress that is our God. And, more importantly, He has entered into You. He is now your Shield and Defender. Believe it!

He tells us:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."***

Know also that the pain and suffering will end. Though it seems like an eternity as you endure it, it will end. And then, we will be with Him, face to face. We will be like Him and all will be clear. Everything will make sense. God is making you into something wonderful, something beautiful, something unimaginably glorious. He, in His amazing wisdom, is using suffering and pain to do it. We don’t have to figure out how. We just have to trust Him.

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."****

If you are going through suffering, right now, it is the greatest opportunity you will have to honor Him- when you least feel like it. When all the world shouts, "Curse God and die," there is no greater way to love and honor God, your Father, than by trusting Him. It is in this place, more than any other (ironically), where we find the greatest joy imaginable. But you cannot understand that joy unless you trust Him. Trust Jesus. It is the path of joy.

* Romans 8.28-29
** Romans 8.1
*** Romans 8.31-35, 37
**** 2 Corinthians 4.16-18
+ For an indepth study, here’s a great resource. C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is an outstanding guide if you would like to work through an understanding of Christianity in the face of suffering.
Pradeep Rendall  | August 14 2013
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