Friday, July 23, 2010

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

That question has been around since the day God’s curse fell upon the earth because of sin. Suffering has multiplied over the years through famines, diseases, wars, and the wickedness of man. Children are abused and die of starvation. Women are raped and forced into prostitution. Men are beaten and made slaves in some parts of the world and terrorists kill their fellow humans in brutal fashion simply to make a point. Tragically, Keenan Cooper (the son of a friend) lost his life on account of such evil. Then there is the slow, miserable death that cancer inflicts upon its victims.

My wife’s aunt battled with cancer for years, as we slowly watched her waste away and eventually succumb to that evil disease. Recently, a dearly loved resident in our town also lost her battle with cancer. In both instances, people were praying and trusting in Jesus to heal, yet the healing people looked for never came.

How can we as Christians shout, “God is good all the time!” when we see the tremendous suffering in this world? How can God be all powerful and loving, yet allow the horrors of disease, war, famine, and natural disasters? We struggle with that even as Job and others have struggled with that. Job had lost all his children, nearly all his earthly possessions, and suffered from an excruciating and painful disease when he said, “Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure, who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave? Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?” (Job 3:20-23)

Job wanted to die in the midst of his misery. He felt God had hedged him in and abandoned him. Why did he have to go through this suffering? That’s the age old question. Why?

In order to try and get some kind of handle on this, we must remember where suffering came from. It actually came from us. When humanity rebelled against God and chose to rule the world in our own wisdom apart from God, the earth and our labors were cursed. The world was doomed for disaster under man’s care apart from God. Weeds began to grow and choke out nutritious plants. Viruses and bacteria mutated into harmful diseases. People no longer provided themselves with the proper nutrition and habits that promoted optimal health. Jealousy and carnal appetites drove humanity to murder, rape, slavery and host of other cruel sins. Earth itself began to quake and unleash cataclysmic disasters upon man. Humanity’s choice to call the shots and be like God has had horrendous effects on this planet and its inhabitants ever since. If we want to understand suffering, then we must understand that reality. Humanity brought on its own suffering through our rebellion against God, which started in the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps God allows suffering to emphasize the horror of sin and our desperate need of Him. Maybe that’s one reason God allows suffering.

Yet, I still wrestle with this issue, because even if suffering is self-inflicted, would I, as a loving father, sit back and do nothing when my son has brought suffering on himself? Doesn’t that seem cruel?

I certainly don’t enjoy seeing my child suffer, nor does God enjoy the suffering of humanity. Yet, there are times that I may permit the suffering of my son for a greater purpose. I may permit a small amount of suffering as a parent to prevent greater suffering in the future. I may let my son experience some of the negative consequences of his action so he avoids it in the future. If I always guard him from suffering, he will never learn from those hardships. I may let him touch the hot pot so that he learns the dangers of fire.

In fact, in this world, experiencing no pain can be quite dangerous. My mother had a cousin with a rare disease that did not allow him to feel pain. One time he took a hard fall on the playground and his mother worried something might be broken. He didn’t feel a thing, but the x-rays revealed he had a broken collar bone. He died from an infection that developed from a deep punctured wound in his foot. He probably stepped on a nail and never knew it.

Even that story may bring us back to the question of God’s role in suffering. If God is so good and loving, why did He allow that boy to have that disease that doesn’t allow pain? Or why did He allow the boy to step on the nail? God allows humanity to make choices and allows us to experience consequences for those choices. Sometimes the consequences are negative and sometimes they even affect other people negatively. If we never experienced pain or suffering, would we ever see our need for God and His salvation? No, we wouldn’t. Pain and suffering can lead us to the LORD.

But what about those people that are believers and do love the LORD? What about those that are serving Him and they have to endure great suffering?

Sometimes God can use one person’s suffering for the benefit of others. Of course the ultimate example of this is the suffering and death of God’s own Son, Jesus the Christ. Yet, other examples exist where the suffering of one or a few has brought about the conversion of others. Jim Elliot and the other men who were martyred by the Waodonis serve as such an example. The majority of the tribe later came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ because of their deaths. So sometimes, God allows the suffering of one for the benefit of others.

I read a story about a father who worked as the drawbridge operator on a train track. He had a young son that he often took to work with him. He would have his son play down by the river in a location that he could keep an eye on him in the operator booth. The boy loved going to work with dad and seeing the bridge go up and down. His dad loved the opportunity to spend time with his son and play with him during breaks.

One day, the father received a phone call from a ship asking for permission to pass through the bridge. The train was not scheduled to arrive for some time and the father gave the go ahead and raised the bridge. Unfortunately, the train was early and ignored the red warning sign indicating the bridge was up. The son heard the train whistle and noticed that the bridge was up. He yelled at his dad, but his dad couldn’t hear him. He remembered a lever his father had showed him that would lower the bridge in an emergency. He ran up onto a platform above the gear room of the bridge and spotted the lever. He rushed over to it, but in his hurry he slipped and fell into the gear room, wedging his leg in the gears.

Now the father heard the train as well. The train whistle startled him, but he knew there was enough time to lower the bridge. He looked out to check on his son and couldn’t see him. The train whistle blew again. He needed to lower the bridge quickly to avoid a major disaster, but he didn’t know where his son was. It suddenly dawned on him where he might be. The whistle blew again in the distance. He didn’t know how many passengers were on board, and he wasn’t sure he cared. His son could be trapped. He looked again outside. No one was there. He couldn’t make it down to the gear box in time to check and pull the lever. The train was coming too quickly. There could be hundreds of passengers on board. He glanced one more time outside. Nothing. So he closed his eyes and pulled the lever. The bridge lowered and the passengers crossed safely, but that was the last day he spent with his son.

Sometimes the suffering of one is necessary for the benefit and protection of others. The suffering and death of Christ has provided eternal life for believers. Sometimes the suffering of a believer can also lead to the salvation of others. Suffering at times serves the greater purpose of saving the many.

Suffering can also sometimes bring healing to relationships as well. The suffering of my wife’s aunt brought healing to her relationship with her husband. The question often asked is “Why would God bring healing to a relationship and then not let that relationship continue for years to come?” Perhaps God allowed the healing of the relationship in this life to bring closure those left behind before the suffering one finishes his or her suffering on this earth and enters into glory. We must remember that, for the believer, eternal life with Christ is the true life.

Finally, in wrestling with this question, we must realize that our perspective is so small. Look at this painting.

Would you consider this a masterpiece?

Probably not. It’s dark, bland, and makes no sense. That’s how we often feel about suffering, because we look at it from such a small perspective. We can only see from our limited time frame and our limited context. God views the suffering from a timeless perspective and a universal context. He sees the ultimate consequences over the ages and around the globe.

Here is the rest of the picture that you couldn’t see earlier.

The Mona Lisa, of course, is considered a masterpiece, but the little snippet I showed looks nothing like a masterpiece. God sees the whole of life and the beautiful portrait He is painting. We, unfortunately, only see the snippets now.

I don’t think we will ever in this life fully grasp the why of suffering. But I do believe that we can get a better handle on it and move from doubt to hope. Paul wrote in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” We’ll quickly forget the sufferings of this life when we enter the glories of the next. And it is comforting for us to remember that those who have already entered the glory of the next life have already forgotten the sufferings of this life.

No, I can't give all the reasons why someone had to suffer. But I can say that God is good, loving and all-powerful even despite the suffering we have to endure in this life.


  1. I try to praise God no matter what the circumstances.

  2. My sister asked this very question last time I was in Minneapolis. I'll email her a link to this.