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.”
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.
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Have a great day! ~Tim