How Do We Believe in God Amid Suffering?

Erwin Lutzer
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Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in Ellenberg, Germany, back in the seventeenth century. This was at the beginning of what is called the Thirty Years’ War, and his town became a focal point in the battle. Soldiers came and went, often living in the town in crowded conditions. In 1637, a terrible plague came to Ellenberg, and Rinkart was the only pastor alive, so he presided over all of the funeral services. The estimate is that 4,000 died in one year.

Rinkart gave leadership, sometimes burying fifty people in a day in joint funeral services.

Yet it was in those dark times that he wrote the hymn,

Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things have done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

Here is a man who was able to give thanks to God in the midst of devastation, untold grief, and many unanswered questions. He never lost sight of the fact that God reigns and is to be praised even in the midst of uncontrolled sorrow.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.

All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.[1]

What would you do if you had God’s power for twenty-four hours? Of course, we’d all answer that we would rid the world of poverty, war, disease, and disasters of every type. We would put an end to all forms of evil and create a paradise for all. If only!

On the other hand, if we were also given God’s wisdom, I’m convinced that we would leave things as they are! For our all wise and all powerful heavenly Father has a hidden agenda that makes sense out of it all.

No One Answer Will Satisfy

There is meaning in the madness.

However—and this is important—if we ask the next question as to what God’s ultimate, hidden purpose is in these devastating events, then we can only say that He is relentless in the pursuit of His own glory (Jeremiah 13:11; 2 Thessalonians 1:9–10). Enough has been written in this book to show that we have some insight into the divine mind, but let us humbly confess that we see only glimpses of God’s eternal purpose.

“For our all wise and all powerful heavenly Father has a hidden agenda that makes sense out of it all.”

After years of reading and thinking about the problem of reconciling the suffering of this world with God’s mercy, I have concluded that there isn’t a solution that will satisfy the mind of a skeptic—especially a dishonest skeptic. God’s ways are “past finding out.” He has simply not chosen to reveal all the pieces of the puzzle. God is more inscrutable than we care to admit.

After all the theological essays have been written, after all of the debaters have become silent, we still won’t understand; we have no choice but to stand in awe of great mystery. John Stackhouse has written,

The God of predestination, the God of worldwide providence, the God who created all and sustains all and thus ultimately is responsible for all—this God has revealed to us only glimpses of the divine cosmic plan. God has not let us see in any comprehensive way the sense in suffering, the method in the madness. God has chosen, instead, to remain hidden in mystery.[2]

Yes, God has chosen to remain a mystery.

In his book, On First Principles, the influential church father Origen of Alexandria, Egypt (AD 185–254), described what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote that God’s judgments are “unsearchable” and His ways “unfathomable.” Read these words:

Paul did not say that God’s judgments were hard to search out but that they could not be searched out at all. He did not say that God’s ways were hard to find out but that they were impossible to find out. For however far one may advance in the search and make progress through an increasing earnest study, even when aided and enlightened in the mind by God’s grace, he will never be able to reach the final goal of his inquiries.[3]

God really meant what He said: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8–9). We should stand in awe of both the mystery and the wonder of His ways.

“There is meaning in the madness.”

We Can Believe Without Understanding

I am thankful that it is not necessary for us to understand the hidden purposes of the Almighty in order to believe that such purposes exist. If we believe only when we understand, our faith is small; when we believe even when we don’t understand, such faith brings glory to God. Yes, someday we might be granted the ability to understand. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We see the jumbled bottom of the tapestry, only God sees the pattern from above.

Read Paul’s words: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). In the future, the unseen will give meaning to that which is seen. Eternity will interpret what happened in time. Meanwhile we live by promises, not explanations.

A Call to Prayer

As war continues to devastate Ukraine and its citizens, let’s pray in some specific ways:

  • Ask God to calm the hearts and minds of the women and children who have had to leave behind husbands, fathers, and other loved ones who stayed in Ukraine for fight for its freedom.
  • Pray for the safe delivery of food, medical supplies, and other items that are needed for the health and well-being of the people who are stuck under threat of violence in Ukraine.
  • Ask God to give a special measure of strength and endurance to the relief workers who are tirelessly working to protect and support the people of Ukraine both in- and outside of the country.

This is part of a series of resources we have provided from Dr. Erwin Lutzer to help us process and pray about the war in Ukraine. Here are the other resources in the series:

How Do We Believe in God Amid Suffering?

These Are Not Unprecedented Times

[1] Martin Rinkart, “Now Thank We All Our God,” 1636, https://hymnary .org/text/now_thank_we_all_our_god.

[2] John G. Stackhouse Jr., Can God Be Trusted?—Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 117.

[3] Origen, On First Principles (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

For Further Reading:

Pandemics, Plagues, and Natural Disasters

by Erwin Lutzer

Where is God When We Suffer? God’s silence in the midst of human suffering is a great mystery of our existence. Faced with mass...

book cover for Pandemics, Plagues, and Natural Disasters