What Do We Expect God to Do to Prevent Suffering?

Recently, a reader brought up perhaps the most difficult possible question about God. Multiplied millions of people, over thousands of years, have asked this same, very serious, question. You probably have asked it yourself—or at least thought deeply about it:

Why doesn’t God do something about suffering?

Almost exactly a year ago, I responded to a similar concern by another reader at How Can God Allow Suffering? But Linda comes from a somewhat different angle and requires a different response. The interchange is slightly edited (including her name).

Grief and suffering

Photo Credit: allspice1 via Compfight cc

Linda’s Statement

I love the thought that the OT God is misrepresented by it’s authors. But the NT God of love, forgiveness, and compassion has never stopped human pain and suffering; it just continues. It’s been two thousand years since Jesus paid the price. The explanation of the reward of eternal life that Jesus provided for believers is supposed to give us so much joy. But the hard truthful reality remains: the unbelievable suffering that He allows, watches, and does nothing.

I’m still searching for this God of love, as a caring Father.

My Response to the Question

Linda, you have touched on what many consider the most important question of all: Why does God allow suffering?

I don’t have an answer to this; I don’t think anyone does. But I wonder what we expect from God. What specifically is he supposed to do?

Most of our suffering comes from two main sources–nature and people. Should God control the forces of nature so that no one is affected by tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, and floods? Should he magically provide food for the hungry or stop car accidents? Should God counteract the effects of nature that produce aging, defects, and disease?

Should God take away our freedom of will in order to prevent us from harming each other? Should he micromanage relationships so that no one hurts another? Should he take sides in conflicts to protect one group from another?

The question you ask is a serious one, but my question is: What is it we expect God to do?

What God has already done is to send his son with the good news that God loves us and wants us reconciled to him and to each other to eliminate that unnecessary suffering. God wants to bring peace and happiness to our personal, natural lives right here on earth. The promise of eternal life is a big bonus, but it is not the main element of the good news.

I certainly don’t belittle your important question, but I am interested in your thoughts on what God should do. I am serious. Can you share them?

Linda’s Reply

I appreciate your comments. You mention, “God wants to bring peace and happiness to our personal lives here on earth.” (I wish I could believe that, I really do. I feel like Mulder on X Files…..I WANT TO BELIEVE.) But how is that possible with miscarriages, infant death syndrome, cancer killing even children not just the elderly, deformities, Downs Syndrome, Dementia, etc.?

I so often wonder why our Christian prayers for healing of other Christians doesn’t work. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if sick Christians were prayed over with faith, anointed with oil, and got up and walked right out of the hospital being healed like James mentions? I also wondering why God lets the havoc of nature exist at all, when Jesus could calm a storm instantly? And I’m also wondering why God does not provide food for His children that are in need; Jesus said to pray for our daily bread.

Christians in third world countries are praying that every day but, instead, they and their children die. It was announced in church a few years ago that a pastor in Africa, known indirectly by our pastor, committed suicide because the members of his congregation were dying off due to lack of water and starvation.

Why doesn’t water just spring up out of the earth or a rock? Why doesn’t He bless their crops and animals to multiply? This pastor believed God would provide as Jesus said. It didn’t happen. God sent bread and meat from heaven to the Israelites; where are these miracles today? I just don’t understand.

You asked, “What is it we expect Him to do?” Wouldn’t it be fantastic if he did some of the things he used to do in both Testaments? I just don’t understand why he is so silent now. He did it then—why not now?

Sincerely

My Response to Her Reply

Linda, suffering is an awful experience—often heart-wrenching. Life is not perfect, and things go terribly wrong all the time. You might have experienced unusual suffering yourself, perhaps even a great loss, and I would never discount that pain.

It would be great–fantastic!–if these things were not so. People throughout history, including the Old Testament, have considered such scenarios where there is no suffering or conflict.

The Garden of Eden is a beautiful example of an imaginative story of a place without suffering. Yet that story ends with the reality of human experience. The story of the Garden is reflective of the human condition everywhere and in every age. Much suffering is caused by other people, but God does not force us to make good choices toward others, nor does he prevent us from acting out of our own selfishness.

But you focus more on suffering from natural causes such as illness and defects, especially in children. You also wonder why God does not heal sick Christians who receive prayer (just curious but why just Christians?) and why he does not control nature as Jesus did and provide food for all Christians everywhere as he did for the Israelites in the wilderness.

I wonder these things too. I think all of us do. It would, indeed, be fantastic if God made our lives perfect and free of suffering. But that would require God to micromanage the Universe instead of allowing it to function according to natural physics.

Jesus did heal people, and he did provide food for them. But these were isolated incidents; he did not do this for everyone. It had to do with his personal presence among them and the bringing of the kingdom of God to earth.

It would be great if we lived in a perfect world like Eden with everything handed to us, but we would be forever dependent and unable to mature as individuals. I yearn for a world without suffering, but I cannot blame God for not making my wish into reality here on earth today.

The Conclusion

I did not hear further from Linda. Her anguish is real, and her question is more than legitimate. I am afraid I did not answer to her satisfaction. How can any of us answer that? Pain and suffering are always with us, and God never swoops in and changes the way the world is in order to eliminate suffering.

Perhaps you can offer a better answer.

*****

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24 Responses to What Do We Expect God to Do to Prevent Suffering?

  1. Edie Taylor says:

    I don’t believe that God is all-powerful, that he can magically wave a wand and “fix” things.

    I think God is dependent on us, imperfect human beings, to act for him. This may sound heretical to some, but I think that God lives in our emotions; that when we respond in love we are acting for him, but when we respond negatively we turn way from him. Such things as disease and natural disasters are part of the human condition, but are made worse by our collective refusal to make the sacrifices to mitigate them. We must learn to move beyond the revenge and hatred and greed that fuel most wars; most importantly we all need to learn how to forgive. At the core of the New Testament is ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ It’s often said by rote, but not so easy to do.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Edie, I don’t think the idea that God is not all-powerful is heretical. Other believers think God doesn’t know the future, so he cannot intervene in calamities before they happen; this isn’t heretical either. The fact is, there are several speculations on the nature and attributes of God.

      I think you are right that much of our suffering is due to the actions of humanity–including each of us. We should be careful to avoid causing suffering in ourselves and others; and we should forgive those who cause us to suffer.

      Like

  2. Tim, I think your responses to Linda were some of the very best that I’ve ever heard on this incredibly difficult subject.

    In the end we don’t have any answers, only hope in Christ that all our suffering will ultimately be redeemed. Suffering is an inevitable part of life in this present world, but I do not believe it has to have the final say.

    I’ve blogged a lot about suffering, but this one is perhaps the most relevant:
    https://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/suffering-iv-why-doest-god-just-rescue-us/

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks, Harvey, for the kind words! And thanks for sharing your post. I read it when it was published, but I read it again just now. I think it is an extremely good approach to this issue of God and suffering, and I recommend it highly to the readers of my blog.

      Like

  3. Lana says:

    I personally think that suffering is some of the strongest “evidence” for atheism, so I try not to be too dismissive of it. But yes, because God does not interrupt the order of the universe is the reason that we need to act urgency on behalf of suffering. We can’t say “God why are you allowing war,” when we aren’t even willing to take in war victims into our country.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Very well said, Lana. And I agree with you that we often ask why God does not relieve suffering while, at the same time, we do little to help reduce suffering ourselves.

      Like

  4. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    An anonymous reader responded by email:

    The problem of pain.

    Tragedy and suffering can bring out the best in people, and sometimes the worst. It is said that character is who we are in the dark, when no one is watching. I have come to believe that character is who we are when all hope is lost and it doesn’t matter if anyone is watching.

    The theocratic utopia implied in “Linda’s” question is an ideal state like the Garden of Eden, as you said, or like Heaven as many people see it. It is also the idealistic goal of small, close communities, subcultures, monastic orders, and movements, most of which fail because of social, organizational complications when they grow over 100 members or reach the third or fourth generation.

    Suffering and tragedy are unfairly, perhaps randomly, distributed. No one is spared, it appears. Who can say who suffers more? The third world mother who loses her children or the spoiled trust fund brat whose birthday Bugatti arrives and the leather seats are the wrong shade of ecru? Their worlds are turned upside down. The brat’s world may be very tiny and filled only with herself, but the suffering may feel just as real.

    Pet owners (childless ones) have insisted to me that the death of a pet is as bad as losing a child. No parent who lost a child said it was like losing a pet.

    When Mark Twain was angry at God, he said God could have made every single one of his creatures happy, yet he made none of them happy.

    What do we expect from God? An answer to the question, “Why?”

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  5. Chas says:

    Tim, all I can do is write what I believe to be true, it is up to anyone who reads it to make up their own minds whether it seems reasonable to them, or not.

    God has chosen to limit His power, by choosing not to destroy. In order to produce beings able to have a relationship with Him, He has separated something from Himself and created the universe out of it. Because there is no destruction in Him, what has been separated from Him contains the forces that cause destruction, but because it was out of Him, it contains the force of creation too. We can see this in action in the universe, as suns form, burn and then die, and we can also see it on the earth, because wind, rain, volcanoes and earthquakes destroy, yet they can also make the environment suitable to sustain life. The destructive events associated with radioactive decay also give rise to mutations in DNA that enable life-forms to adapt to changes on the earth and God has made near-infinite possibilities in DNA to make this possible. Through the action of these forces of creation and destruction acting on lifeforms the tendency is that lifeforms have become more and more complex and intelligent in order to survive and reproduce. To avoid food supplies becoming exhausted and leading to starvation, predator species are necessary, although they become fast and deadly, which avoids excessive suffering to their prey. What can be seen is that God creates by having set up a means to create, without destroying anything Himself.

    There appear to be two ‘rules’ that God generally applies, these are that He chooses not interfere physically on the earth and He has given people free will. There are two exceptions to the first of these, namely that He produced the first life-form on earth, complete with its DNA, from which all other lifeforms have descended. To believe that this event happened by chance is so far-fetched as to be not credible. The second time on which He interfered physically was to create a half-cell equivalent to a sperm to bring about the conception of His Son Jesus. Although God has given us free will, He exerts influence to persuade us not to do things that we know might lead to suffering in a person or animal. However, since we have free will we can still choose to do them.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I failed to mention this option in my comment: God as chosen to limit his power. And I agree with you that a Universe controlled to avoid all pain would be sterile and forever undeveloped and immature. Thanks for this great response!

      However, he did send Jesus top tell us that God wants to bring about reconciliation between us and him, and Jesus also tells us about eternal life both as enrichment on earth and a time of peace and happiness after our resurrection.

      I love your statement: “All I can do is write what I believe to be true, it is up to anyone who reads it to make up their own minds whether it seems reasonable to them, or not.” This is exactly my perspective. And you present excellent insight in saying, “Although God has given us free will, He exerts influence to persuade us not to do things that we know might lead to suffering in a person or animal. However, since we have free will we can still choose to do them.”

      Thank you!

      Like

  6. gcleaver2014 says:

    After four decades of contemplating theodicy, I now describe myself as a “deist Christian”: I believe that, while God spoke/speaks to us within the life and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God does not otherwise directly intervene within this universe (or within any other universes that likely exist). While I believe in God as Source responsible for, and Sustainer of, all that exists, I am not able any more to believe that God intervenes directly within our physical reality. Often times some people will view God as currently acting within a specific event (or events), but the problem then becomes explaining why God did/does not likewise act in other similar circumstances. I have found no other self-consistent explanation than that in truth God actually does not act at all in any meaningful way that we can identify. Instead, it seems to me that God’s message through Jesus is one telling us how we should seek to live in the world, not that living in the world will be without pain and suffering. Although I continually wish our conditions of existence, with all of the suffering and pain, were not as they are, it seems we can do no more than first accept that God allows things to be as they are, but then we seek to make things better. Perhaps this is the general mission God grants to us all.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Gerald, as you know, Deism has been rejected and dismissed by some believers as long it has existed. I have certain Deistic tendencies regarding God’s immediate interference in the Universe (or other possible Universes), but I also believe in some sort of immanence regarding his love and care for us as individuals and as a group.

      By the way, did you receive my question a short time ago about recommendations of beginning level books on string theory for those without advanced scientific background?

      You pose an important question: ‘Often times some people will view God as currently acting within a specific event (or events), but the problem then becomes explaining why God did/does not likewise act in other similar circumstances.’ I frequently ask the same question.

      I also wish life was easier, but I do not demand from God something that doesn’t respond to reality. It IS our place to address suffering as much as we can ourselves.

      I always enjoy hearing from you when you comment!

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      • Chas says:

        Tim, I think that this point of God acting, or not, in similar circumstances is a reason why He does not intervene to heal. If He did so once, then why wouldn’t He do so in a similar circumstance. To be consistent, you would expect Him to heal all physical illnesses right down to the common cold. These latter, trivial cases, not healed, might provide instances in which God required people to make choices (e.g. whether, or not, to go to work with a cold.) Even a small choice can have large consequences, e.g. if, in this case, the person had an accident going to work.

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Good thoughts! You mention God acting in ‘similar’ situations. I think the situation in which Jesus healed was closely tied to the initiation of God’s kingdom on earth–as one-time event. And the healings were selective; Jesus did not heal everyone. Perhaps this is why it is consistent that healings are not widespread today.

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          • Chas says:

            A further complicating factor is that, if God were to heal and the event became seen as a miracle, people would be jealous of the one healed and would say: ‘I’m as good as them, if they were healed, why not me too? The one healed could also come to feel superior to others.

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          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Chas I think you are right. When I was a Pentecostal for many years there was another type or situation. Many people who obviously needed healing (they didn’t have a cold or a headache) were never healed in contrast to those who claimed healing.

            In some cases the person felt they were not good enough or devoted enough for God. In other cases believers accused them of not having enough faith; both of these are harmful, nonproductive results.

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          • Chas says:

            Tim, another thing that keeps coming to my mind is that, although we see many cases in which people suffer, we can never see those instances in which God’s influence prevents accidents and even illnesses. The suffering from Ebola in Sierra Leone would have been greatly reduced if the authorities had taken the warnings more seriously. In practice, the principles applied by the people out in the villages, in which the people who became sick were just sent to the other side of the road, thereby forming a simple quarantine system, was probably vital to the tide of infection being turned back. So which group was listening to God, the government officials, or the uneducated people?

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            This is a good question, Chas.

            Like

    • Chas says:

      gcleaver, I suspect that, while God may not intervene physically in our lives, nevertheless He influences decisions e.g. to prevent accidents, since ALL accidents at some point are the result of decisions made by a person. When God exerts influence toward making the decision that will minimize the suffering, but the person chooses to do something that is different, suffering will be increased. While we can easily see the result of people making the wrong decision, we can never know how much suffering has been prevented by God influencing things where the person has responded to His prompting, but we can be sure that it outweighs the suffering that has occurred.

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  7. michaeleeast says:

    My understanding of this question is that nature functions autonomically God does not interfere with it. And neither does He interfere with our free will unless called upon. Most of our suffering is caused by people’s ignorance and mistakes. We must accept that and forgive.

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  8. gcleaver2014 says:

    Hi Tim,

    Unfortunately, my schedule hasn’t left me much web discussion time for over a month, but I have been wanting to answer your question about what string theory books and/or websites I would recommend. I think one of the best general introductions is a website my Ph.D. dissertation advisor, John Schwarz set up for that a thttp://superstringtheory.com . This site has great introductions to string theory and associated physics.

    Happy New Year,
    Gerald

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Gerald, thanks for the link to the superstringtheory site. I poked around a bit today and look forward to reading the basics series systematically. Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. consultgtf says:

    My last chat session…please help me, He is still on-line waiting for my REPLY…
    1.I will live a life as per his expectation?
    Ans:-Why should I?
    1a. Because you want God to stop all YOUR sufferings.
    Ans:- But it should be “One Way” I suppose.
    1b. How can, We expect from someone with giving?
    Ans. He is God, I expect him, to Give, To die, To raise again and come back to save me and sinners like me.
    1c. You are defying law, Only for a action performed, you will have reaction?
    Ans: So will God not save me, all sinners for being born as Christian?
    1d. When did I say this, When you don’t carrying any food for YOUR travel, you should never complain of hunger!

    Like

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