How Can God Allow Suffering?

Recently, I received a response from a reader extremely distressed that God allows suffering in the world. This was my reply (slightly edited, including her name).

***

Beth, I was captured by your statement:

“I can’t love a heavenly Father, as Jesus refers to him, who stands by and watches his believing children suffer in this physical life.”

suffering

 

Beth, this is an extremely important consideration and has been so since the earliest days of mankind. This accusation against God is often expressed this way: Either God is all-powerful and does not care about our suffering, or he is powerless and unable to prevent it. This issue is so important that it has its own terminology—it is called the Problem of Evil or the Problem of Pain, and the attempt to address this question is called Theodicy.

The issue of suffering is as old as man. The writers of the Old Testament pondered the questions: Why is life so difficult? Why is it so hard to make a living? Why do we die? Why do we kill each other? Why do women have pain in childbirth?

So they wrote a story about a time when things were different and suffering did not exist, and they speculated on how things could change so much–we call it the story of the Garden of Eden. Other cultures have also imagined places where suffering does not exist, but when we finish hearing the stories we walk right back into a suffering world.

Those stories do not provide us with the answer about suffering; in fact I have never heard a satisfactory answer to the question of suffering. However, I will share some thoughts.

You mention that, as a loving parent, you would do anything in your power to prevent your children from suffering. Yet have you ever left them in someone’s care while they cried for you to stay with them? Have you ever allowed a doctor or a dentist to cause them pain? Have you allowed them to play outside where they might step on something sharp, or fall from a swing, or break a leg playing football, or drown while swimming? Have you ever allowed your older children to go away to college or to work in another city? Did you allow them to date or marry someone who might cause them grief or pain? If you allowed these things, then did you do everything in your power to protect them from suffering?

On the other hand, did you allow them to take risks and develop as mature humans? I am sure you did; and this is good, even though they had times of suffering along the way. To completely control a person’s environment prevents development so that they never mature into a healthy person. Perhaps God does not tightly control us and therefore allows us to develop, hopefully, into something better even though there are risks–risks that can cause suffering.

This leads to the question of perspective. You have children, so I assume you carried your children for about nine months and then went through childbirth. This process is quite painful for many women, yet once the pain is over it does not normally consume them, and in looking back it’s simply something that happened in the past—it is no longer a present pain. In fact, many women choose to go through this painful process again.

Suffering is painful as we experience it, but it is a matter of perspective as well. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a dread disease and was not expected to live. The course of the disease and its treatment were filled with suffering. Surprisingly, I survived and my suffering diminished until I no longer suffer; now I look back on that suffering as something that happened in the past. And I can also face suffering in the future because I know that no suffering is forever, and when it is over it should become a mere memory.

I believe Jesus came to eliminate much of our suffering. First of all, he assured us that God is not angry, harsh, and vindictive, as many of us thought, and that God desires reconciliation in our relationships. Secondly he taught us that we can love ourselves instead of carrying a load of low self-esteem and that we ought to just love others instead of following burdensome religious rules. And finally he told us of a place prepared for us in the future—a place of peace, joy, and reconciliation free from suffering.

This certainly changes my perspective. But you ask about the here and now; why does God not eliminate suffering now? My question is how would he/she do that? There seem to me to be two major sources of suffering: nature-based and human.

God is not a nature god. The forces of nature move according to rules of dynamics. Floods, drought, tornadoes, hurricanes, wild fires, and volcanoes are caused by natural forces; God does not micro-manage nature. Disease is similar in that it is also a natural occurrence.

The other major source of suffering is people; people have freedom of will and often hurt other people. If God stepped in to intervene, he would override our independence and our humanity. We would be puppets—all of us. While our freedom of choice sometimes results in terrible acts like human trafficking, child pornography, and war; suffering also includes the lesser pains of a broken relationship, not receiving a promotion at work, or being misunderstood by friends or family.

There is a lot of suffering in the world, and I don’t think God wants or plans suffering. But a time is coming when suffering is a thing of the past and only a distant memory. Our suffering is comparatively short, but our life without suffering will be very long.

I know this doesn’t really answer your question; these are only thoughts on the question. If you have further comments, I am happy to interact with them.

~Tim Chastain

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Have a great day! ~Tim
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23 Responses to How Can God Allow Suffering?

  1. michaeleeast says:

    Tim, I agree with your assessment of the nature based and human causes of suffering. At the same time suffering can teach us compassion. But I don’t think God causes the suffering to begin with. He just takes advantage of it.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, you make an excellent point. I agree that suffering can teach compassion and that God does not cause the suffering.

      Like

  2. Stephen says:

    All very true and a great article. however, we must remember that Jesus showed us a God who heals and so we should always hold out hope for healing. We should ask for it, look for it, seek it. God wills healing. Of us, our minds, bodies, our world, our lives and nature.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Well said, Stephen. When we associate God with suffering, we should keep foremost in our minds the fact of God’s healing. The Father wishes reconciliation among us and the healing of our pain.

      Like

  3. esbee says:

    We want God to stop the bad or wrong things people do, until He gets to our front door.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Look out Esbee! Ain’t it the truth? Recently, I ran across this very pertinent and somewhat related quote:

      “Sometimes I would like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world, when He could do something about it…but I’m afraid He may ask me the same question.” ~Anonymous.

      Like

  4. guero64 says:

    Your post brought to mind something I had read that a Russian missionary wrote several years back. I excised some portions of it related to Scripture and mostly very old Christian writings (e.g. Egyptian monks in the 4th century). Perhaps it might be of interest to others.

    https://evangelistarion.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/writings-of-scripture-and-church-fathers-on-suffering-and-afflictions/

    Like

  5. Eva says:

    I heard (of all people) the psychic John Edward use a similar argument a few years ago and it was the first time that I slightly ‘got it’. It still doesn’t totally work for me, but if we view ‘god’ as having a far more expansive viewpoint of our lives and existence than we do, then maybe in the scheme of things then our suffering isn’t so huge.
    But the I go ‘Holocaust’ and we’re back to square one again…

    Like

  6. consultgtf says:

    Beth, I sorry for the pain and suffering you are undergoing, In fact we are undergoing!

    It was a different situation, I had met with a very severe accident, trying to save someone else, but wait…

    It was on June 21st night, 2009 and till today, I was/am crippled mentally and physically trying to come back to myself from that day…I am still on the verge of getting back my memory fully?

    My skull had broken into pieces, heart had stopped pumping for 7 minutes!,(medically impossible) had a stroke, was in coma, having a double vision,(now also), declared dead, worst and best of all lost all my memory (Antrograde Amenesia) with all this… my wife and only child walked away last year from me in that was very crucial time!

    My aged parents, who are 80 and 75 are talking care of me…Sometimes I feel that God is very is, but..

    Never will He give stone when a son asks for bread or snake when he asks for fish? Then how can He? but He has gaven a lot of insight for which I was blind, now it is almost 5+ years,

    I was traveling at very high speed and blaming the traffic, police and …world for situation I was in but actually I was on the wrong way! which would have taken me nowhere! It was a illusion world which I realised now, He was talking to me but as I was engulfed in the worldly noises/pleasures, I could not hear His voice,but I can hear Him now, even when he whispers!

    My prayers to our Father is to give you courage to take control of the situation, you are now undergoing,
    As you will find out very soon, it was a illusion, but please wait…don’t ever blame GTF for our mistake! Which I can say this only now.

    As HE is same as ever, always caring and loving, … but He wants us to realise this truth.

    Like

  7. Zach Van Houten says:

    I’ve heard this type of explanation, and while I accepted it for a time, I personally think that the concept of God’s omnipotence stands at odds with His goodness. Open Theism probably is a interesting view that may offer some solutions. Also, I do not know if you are familiar with Marcionite theology (2nd century movement deemed heretical by the “orthodox” theologians), but they believed the God of the OT was different from the God of the New, and might be good for study, albeit a little weird at points. But it’s interesting that right off the bat there were Christians held alternative views on how the world could be so bad, yet God be good. Of course the gnostics had their ideas, but that is definitely weirdo territory.

    I think that Jesus’s suffering is key. Because it can be argued that if God Himself suffered (assuming an incarnational Christology) then it helps show that God also partook of suffering. I am personally an agnostic atheist right now, but I certainly wouldn’t mind a good God and still wonder about how that could possibly fit our world.

    Like

    • consultgtf says:

      If your belief is in, “Marcionism” which states very clearly,
      1. Jesus was the savior sent by God,(which God are we talking about)
      2. They believed that the wrathful Hebrew God (God of Israel) was a separate and lower entity than the all-forgiving God of the New Testament.??
      3. They also believe…there are two worlds, one materialist, while other is of spiritual!

      Now, let us face it head-on,
      1. We are trying to bind God with time, and space, which is meaningless.
      2. We can create … but should not create NEW God! and giving the character of what we expect from our protector? We are all His creations, creatures who are born to die.

      Reality:-
      1. God created us, we don’t have choices.
      2. Except Adam and Eve, We all have come with many expiry dates, attached depending on our life style we CHOOSE the date…
      3. We LIVE we have only two choices either, Spiritual and materialist but both are inter-wined, we cannot separate them.
      4. Arguing for the sake of Arguing is different, as we cannot wake-up a person who is awake!
      5. WE ARE SUFFERING, AND The degree of of our suffering depends, on our decisions we take, as we are still not able to control our senses from the time of Adam and Eve.

      Like

    • Chas says:

      Zach, Your comment ‘God’s omnipotence stands at odds with His goodness’ interested me, because I believe that He is omnipotent, but chooses to put His own limits on these powers in order not to destroy, since destruction leads to suffering.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Zach, I think one of the important messages Jesus tells us in his good news is that God is not the angry, hostile god we often understand him to be and that, instead, he loves us very much and cares about our welfare. I believe God IS a good God.

      I am aware of Marcion and comment on his ideas about God at https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/the-god-of-the-old-testament-vs-the-father-of-the-new-testament.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. consultgtf says:

    Let us pray, “God kindly don’t allow Suffering, this year!”

    This new year resolution should be, “God I need your help, request You, to hold the reigns and take us to our me to the destination
    Can we all say this? and surrender completely…

    Only then, We can wish each other, A very HAPPY and PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR!
    (I just, surrendered)

    Like

  9. waywardyeti says:

    I agree completely with this post, but I think the disconnect is with the miracles Christ performed versus the lack of evident miracles in the modern world.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Wayward,

      I think I have an idea what you mean by the disconnect regarding miracles. Would you care to elaborate? I would be interested in hearing more about your thoughts on the subject.

      Like

      • waywardyeti says:

        I don’t think people really question the cause and effect type of bad crap that happens to them. If I smoke cigarettes for 20 years I expect to get cancer. And if I walk through a slum, I expect to possibly get mugged. I think that the disconnect is when a toddler gets cancer, or when a child is abducted, raped and killed. We have this view that God protects children. And we as his children, should receive the same protection from bad stuff, the same as we would shelsheshelter our children.
        Jesus healed the sick, brought the dead to life. Why then would he let these bad things happen? Why would he let an innocent child die? If all things are possible through him, and he is an omnipotent god, it must be that he is letting these things happen then, right? I think all of us have heard that, it’s part of God’s plan, and we aren’t always meant to understand. But when there’s suffering, or pretty much anything bad happening to children, we tend to question why our loving god, our father would let these things happen. Why would christ heal all those folks 2000 years ago and none since? And if god created this world, why then cant he turn that tornado headed towards me and my family? There’s a bible verse somewhere about 10,000 men on your right and 10,000 men on your left shall fall, but you being a man of God shall not be touched (or some such), why then do men of faith die in wars?
        That’s the disconnect. The ascribed promise of protection from bad things, and yet faith doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. If he healed the sick and dying, why then is he not doing so now? Why even perform these miracles if they were a one time deal?

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Thanks for expanding the question, Wayward. This is, indeed, a serious situation to contemplate. In part, you are stating the old quandary we call ‘the problem of evil’ or ‘the problem of pain’, as stated in the article above.

          In the article, I gave the best answer I can; but I know it is not a totally satisfactory answer. I do believe God cares about our pain and our grief, and I believe that he plans for us a time when such pain, sorrow, and distress will no longer be. But it seems that God is not currently involved in interfering with the negative impacts of the natural flow of life. Why, I cannot say, but consider the chaos if God constantly adjusted natural forces; we would not be able to depend on any cause and effect. I think it would destabilize our entire world and existence.

          What I believe God does provide is total peace, reconciliation, and happiness in the end. I am afraid this is about the best I can do.

          Liked by 1 person

          • waywardyeti says:

            I agree. And I think it’s about managing our expectations of God. Personally, I have found peace in my walk with God, and I am content with that. I think that God works miracles through other people, and through chance (chaos theory-the butterfly effect). I don’t expect the sea to part, nor that through him, I will defy the rules of science. I’m definitely open to it, but my expectation of God is based on what I have seen. And in modern times, miracles seem relegated to happenstance. I will still pray for things outside those boundaries, but am accepting of whatever god’s plan is.

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          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            I think this is a healthy approach. It does not seem that God is slinging miracles this way and that, but I do not deny that it is possible for God to intervene on occasion; and when he does, I suppose it is for some specific, non-arbitrary, reason unknown to us.

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  10. Pingback: What Do We Expect God to Do to Prevent Suffering? | Jesus Without Baggage

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