Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Bob Russell  and Rob Suggs
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Let’s be honest: This is no easy question, the relationship of God to human suffering.

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

The wise and the devout have grappled with it throughout history, and not always to a victorious conclusion. St. Teresa of Avila said, “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you don’t have many!” At least hers was less an expression of doubt than of frustration.

Others have taken hold of the Question as a kind of checkmate in the game of rationalizing God out of existence—or at least diminishing our view of him. Their line goes like this:

  • God is purportedly good. Yet there is great human suffering.
  • Since God doesn’t intervene, he lacks either the will or the power.
  • If he lacks the will, he isn’t good after all. (If he’s God, he isn’t good.)
  • If he lacks the power, he isn’t God after all. (If he’s good, he isn’t God.)

It’s a striking line of reasoning. But it’s also a little too cut and dried, right? God, the world, and suffering: These are not simple issues. We all sense that there could be other reasons God would hold back from stopping anything and everything unpleasant in this world.

So we look for other reasons that evil and suffering may exist; we round up the usual suspects.

Six Suspects for Our Suffering

1. Discipline

Maybe it’s simple cause and effect. This is the “you had it coming” argument. Once Jesus came across a blind man, and his disciples immediately asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).

They are hoping, of course, for a lively philosophical debate with Jesus the teacher. They have been taught that disease or disability is mark of someone’s sin. So whose?

Let’s be honest: This is no easy question, the relationship of God to human suffering.”

Jesus tells his disciples they’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about who sinned, but how the goodness of God can shine through the situation. And he proceeds to make that happen. As always, Jesus gets to the root of the subject in a startling way. He shows us an old question from a brand-new angle. As we’ll see, he has hit upon a key element of the problem of suffering.

We’d like to scoff at the disciples’ thinking and say that our God doesn’t work that way, punishing sin with suffering. The problem is, the Bible says that he does—sometimes. Moses wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land because of a certain incident in which he lost his temper and usurped God’s glory, a serious offense. Miriam, his sister, was temporarily struck with leprosy for undermining Moses’ leadership.

And those are not isolated incidents. There’s an important passage in Hebrews 12. It tells us that God disciplines us as a father disciplines his children—for our good. Discipline is simply a part of loving training. We do need to distinguish punishment from discipline. The former is simply a penalty dealt out for a misdeed; the latter is a loving form of training. We impose discipline on ourselves not as punishment but to be better people.

So God disciplines. But there are other angles, too.

2. Poor Decisions

Sometimes we suffer due to our own willful error. Maybe the warning was on the label all along, and we simply ignored it. The sign said the road was slippery, and we pushed the accelerator down.

Let’s say Uncle Bob’s bad report from the doctor concerned lung cancer. He smoked for years, everyone nagged him about it, and he really did mean to stop. But the fact is, he didn’t. He foolishly ignored the warning signs. So it’s not as if God is suddenly, arbitrarily inflicting this bad medical report like a lightning bolt of sheer wrath. Uncle Bob quite sadly brought this upon himself.

Sometimes we choose the wrong friends, eat the wrong foods, make the wrong decisions in business or in family. The old TV detective Baretta used to say, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

But the Bible puts it better: “Be sure that your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). Life comes with any number of hazard labels. We can’t rail against God when we’re given fair warning. Actions have consequences.

3. Satanic Attack

Could it be the devil?

It’s the simplest and most logical of arguments, in a way: All good things come from heaven, all bad things are the work of Satan. The Bible describes how he attacked a good man named Job, who suffered deeply and thoroughly.

Paul spoke of a “thorn in the flesh,” some unpleasant infirmity that God allowed Satan to use as a weapon against the apostle. From the devil’s perspective, it was an attack; from God’s, it was a tool to protect Paul’s humility.

“God must be God, and can’t be reduced to the easy and rational and comfortable.”

Again, here’s a compelling clue to how God relates to our pain. An attack could originate from hell, while shaping us for heaven. The devil himself—as much as he hates it—finds his own place in the vast plan of God, who is all-powerful, capable of using any element as part of the great tapestry he is knitting together.

4. The Sins of Others

The disciples suggested that the blind man may have been blind because of his parents’ sins. This was logical, from their perspective, because the man had been born with his infirmity; it couldn’t be his fault if he was born that way.

Sometimes relatively innocent people suffer out of all proportion to any argument of sin being the cause. A little child dies. A drunk driver steals the life of a promising young lady. An emotionally disturbed man opens fire in a theater or a school. A child is born with a drug addiction stemming from the mother’s use of cocaine.

Surely God is not dispensing “discipline” through such horrendous events; it would be mere punishment, serving no purpose for the victim. No, in these cases, people are clearly suffering for the sin of others. It’s an unavoidable conclusion, but not a very pleasing one: We may suffer as the consequence of others’ sins.

It brings us right back to the question of God’s place in this: Why would he allow the innocent to be victimized for someone else’s wrongs?

And yet we read in the Old Testament the idea that the sins of the fathers are visited on the third and fourth generations. It may not seem fair, but it’s the way the world turns. We must take into account that our sins put out ripples, in the world around us and the future ahead of us.

5. Persecution

Here is another striking idea from the Bible: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). So maybe, bad things happen to good people because they’re good people.

Again, this checks out logically. We know that if we take a stand for biblical values in an anti-biblical world, we will face certain consequences: ridicule, rejection, possibly loss of work or even freedom, in some circumstances. People are still punished or even executed for their faith in some parts of the world. We’ve seen businesses lose income when their prominently Christian leaders stood firm for biblical values. Jesus said this would happen, and there’s never been a time when he wasn’t proven correct.

6. A Fallen World

There’s also the distinctly Christian idea that we live not just among fallen people, but in an entire fallen world. In other words, the rebellious sin of Adam and Eve caused all of creation to be corrupted. Paul teaches, in Romans 8, that all of this world “groans” as in childbirth pains, awaiting the birth of a new creation.

This helps us to account for natural calamities: tsunamis, earthquakes, diseases, floods, and even the attacks of vicious animals. We can suffer through non-human agency, and the Bible teaches us that even in these cases, we are feeling the consequences of a world that has rebelled.

As a matter of fact, we find this subject arising much more frequently in recent days. Monster storms have devastated New Orleans and New York; and even near my home, an F4 tornado twisted its way through the community at 170 miles per hour, killing eleven people and doing untold damage. These are the times when people come to me with haunted eyes and ask, “Why?”

The answer is that our planet and our people suffer from the fall of humanity. For this life, we will see the result of rebellion against God again and again, and we call the natural disasters “Acts of God.”

Even so, I suspect Jesus would point out that we’re still asking the wrong questions. We’re quick to brand horrendous things as acts of God, but what about all things bright and beautiful? What about a gentle spring rain, a day of glorious weather, a field of ripe corn? Are these not also acts of God?

In the same way, we look to the heavens in the midst of a bad day and say, “Why me, Lord?” Bad moments are quickly dubbed “God moments.” But when something good happens, we tend not to see it in that way. Fathers don’t tend to hold a first newborn child, look to heaven, and cry out, “Why me, Lord? Why do I deserve such a beautiful blessing?”

When was the last time you rose in the morning and asked God why he gave you another precious day of life? Three square meals? Family, church, health?

Maybe that’s one of the right questions.

The Question Remains

We can name all these sources of suffering and more, but none of them get to the root of the why question. Wherever the bad things came from—why didn’t God do something about them?

After all, we’re told that God has loved us with an everlasting love. The Bible goes into incredible detail to show us the depth of that love; the fact that he has loved us as his very children, that we are God’s handiwork, created by him to do good works. Meanwhile, we’re also told that God is infinitely powerful, that nothing is impossible with him. He is sovereign, which means that the buck stops here; he created everything, he knows when the smallest bird falls from a tree, and his hand utterly controls human destiny.

So how do we put these two realities together? How can God be both wonderfully good and ultimately powerful, while allowing all the evil that we see and experience?

Like everyone else, I wish God would phone me and clue me in. I know all the big theological issues, but I get frustrated; I long for him to just give me the short answer. I almost wish he wouldn’t trust me so much to handle the hard questions of faith—but that’s exactly what he does.

When I was in school, my mathematics text sometimes had the answers in the back of the book. I knew that no matter how difficult any problem seemed, no matter how inside out it twisted my mind, there was a wonderfully logical, perfectly neat answer on the final pages of that book. I do believe the Bible has the answers. The “back” of the book, known as the New Testament, has the solution to every problem. But these are not encapsulated in simple numbers or a few words. They must be worked out within the human heart, and held together by the glue of faith.

Each one of us, if we intend to be serious about pursuing God, must wrestle through the night with the mysteries of good and evil. Jacob did that in Genesis 32. At a crossroad moment of his life, a dark night of his soul, he was visited by a messenger of God. The two of them literally wrestled until sunset. Jacob fought for all he was worth, and wouldn’t let go until he had his blessing. Neither should we. I believe we are blessed by the courage we show when we squarely face our doubts. Conversely, we are diminished by looking the other way, closing our minds, and “protecting” our faith as if it were some weak and fragile thing.

The way to strengthen faith is to walk forward in it, facing all the hard questions and trusting in the goodness of God for resolution. I’ve tried to do that as long as I’ve known Christ, and here is what I’ve found: The mysteries, to some extent, endure. God must be God, and can’t be reduced to the easy and rational and comfortable.

God wants me to know him; he even wants me to have intimacy with him.”

We can’t make him smaller and easier to carry around in our minds; instead, our own minds and spirits must expand. They must grow stronger and wider, so that they can allow for the things that must be taken on faith. As we walk forward in that way, we do find out just how good, and how powerful, God really is.

As a matter of fact, I find that this is even true of people. They too are mysterious in many ways. Every ordinary person you know is a unique creation, filled with surprises and impossible to pigeonhole— the living sum total of a life no one else has lived, a uniqueness no one but God could have designed. Should we expect to understand every little thing about the Creator himself, when his people are so wonderfully unpredictable?

So God wants me to know him; he even wants me to have intimacy with him. But he doesn’t want me to live under the illusion that I can get him all figured out—he would then be less than God. What he wants is for us to accept his mystery and trust his character. As I’ve sought to do that, I’ve discovered that the other questions often reveal their answers in startling and wonderful ways.

For Further Reading:

Acts of God

by Bob Russell and Rob Suggs

Bob Russell has seen it all—tragedy in his childhood church, broken families in his pastoral ministry, a world torn by war and injustice—the...

book cover for Acts of God