How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?

Isolation

The problem of pain and suffering is probably the greatest cause for people losing faith. That makes sense. It does seem like a good God who is also an all-powerful God should snuff out suffering and prevent it from ever happening. Terrible things happen to some really wonderful people, and it doesn’t always make sense. So how can we continue to live by faith and trust in God?

The existence of suffering comes down to these three realities:

  1. We are not robots. God created us with freewill. Every Christian believes this (not only Arminians). It is incredibly ironic to criticize God for allowing suffering while also shaking your fist at him and telling him to stay out of your life. You can’t have it both ways… God gave us responsibility, and we need to own that.
  2. We make a train wreck of our lives and of the world. Pointing all the way back to the first humans, Adam and Eve, we have a way of choosing sin over righteousness. We aren’t as sinful as we could be, but we are all sinners and that has effected everything in our world: our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, and with nature. We know things aren’t “the way they’re supposed to be,” but our efforts often make things worse, not better. God must intervene somehow.
  3. God has a greater dream for our lives than we could imagine for ourselves. While we try to define a successful life by our bank account, or family, or power, or influence, or whatever… God has a greater dream for us. The truth is, our dream is not too big for God, but too small! Because of sin, there will be a day of judgment to make things right, and suffering is often God’s warning light calling us to repentance now before it’s too late.

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A Refuge in the Tragedies of Life

How do we move on after great tragedies? Especially when they seem to happen every week? 27 dead in a church shooting. 8 dead in New York by a man who drive his truck into a bicycle path. 58 dead in Las Vegas at a concert. And that’s all within the last month of this article’s publication.

In a way, asking “How do we move on” is the wrong question. We don’t “move on.” We shouldn’t. But… where do you go from here? How do you continue living without the burden of fear and anxiety at every turn?

People either call for political reform to ensure future safety, or they turn to prayer without seeking worldly solutions. As Christians, how do we think about and process these tragedies?

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What’s Wrong With the World?

Acts of violence and hatred have become so common we’ve become numb. Whether it’s another act of terrorism, a school shooting, or an incident of domestic violence, it has become far too easy to read the story and then move on with our lives.

I doubt anyone can look around and think, “Yeah, this is the way things should be.” No. Instead, we hear people giving their solutions to fix the problem: More education, Better laws, Tolerance of differences. We need to understand the problem before we can offer any helpful solutions.

Christians turn to Scripture to understand the world, and we know this is not the way God created the world. Sin always brings death – not immediate physical death, but death of relationships, trust, intimacy, etc. Christians throughout history have called this event “the fall,” because sin made all creation fall from holiness and shalom/peace. Where there was unity and peace, now there is division and conflict. The opening chapters of Genesis unpack the multiple relationships that have lost shalom because of the curse of sin…

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Suffering is the Furnace of Godliness

 

How can you trust a God who lets you suffer?

That’s a question many people simply cannot get over, and frankly… it’s a good question! The problem of suffering is legit and real and difficult. Rather than  attempting to “solve” the question, I hope to share what may be a fresh perspective.

If we approach the question of suffering with the expectation that God owes us happiness and comfort, then we need to admit we’re holding God to promises he never made. The “American Dream” is never promised anywhere in Scripture. In fact, there are many places where God promises his people they will suffer because of their righteousness. 

Romans 8:28-29 is a much-quoted verse to bring comfort in the midst of suffering. Often it is shared in a way that says, “God will make it all ok. It will turn out good for you.” But that isn’t what this passage says. In fact, it says something much better…

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….”

Like the silversmith who purifies silver in a furnace or with a blowtorch, the impurities come to the surface in the heat. When they are wiped away, the purified silver will reflect the silversmith’s face when he looks into it.

Suffering is the furnace of our godliness. It is the way God purifies his children so they reflect him more clearly in a sinful world. 

silversmithing
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Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attack on New York City and the Pentagon. In the midst of such commemorations, it’s important to ask ourselves (and to allow others to ask) hard questions. The Problem of Evil is among the most difficult topics to address.

Traditionally, the problem of evil is stated in three sentences, of which one supposedly cannot be true:

Suffering exists in the world

God is sovereign and in control of the world

God is good and loving.

Even some Christians attempt to “let God off the hook” by minimizing the pain of suffering. Hope gives strength to endure, but it does not mean suffering isn’t painful. Minimizing the legitimacy of suffering as a cause for doubt is intellectually dishonest and emotionally callous.

Yet, some defend God’s goodness by saying that he would stop all suffering and pain if he could. They determine any number of reasons why God can’t, but in the end, he would stop it if he could but he can’t. This version of God is kind and gentle, but powerless to save and unworthy of reverent worship.

Another response upholds God’s holiness but seems to minimize his compassion for the people who endure such suffering and pain. This God is holy and worthy of worship, but he is difficult to love.

One of the best Christian responses to the problem of evil comes through Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. At this point in the book/movie, all hope seems lost as the Dark Lord Sauron is growing in power and hope seems to be fading in Frodo and his team’s quest to destroy the ring of power. As Frodo is overwhelmed by the impossibility of success, he has the following dialogue with his friend and compatriot, Sam:

(I know you’re probably tempted to skip over this video. Don’t. It’s 2:30 long, and brilliant. If you’re somewhere public so you can’t listen, read the text HERE and watch it later, this scene is really just that good.) 

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Suffering Will Harden or Humble You

I found out last night that one of my neighbors has cancer. He’s going through Chemo-therapy and it sounds like the doctors are hopeful, but your prayers for him are appreciated. I’d rather not share his name, but if you pray for Pastor Mike’s neighbor then I’m pretty sure God will know who you’re talking about 🙂

That conversation made me think about how suffering can either harden your heart or humble you. The great lie, especially for a man who’s still “in his prime,” is that we are in control. Suffering pulls the mask off our weakness so that our weakness is clearly visible to everyone, ourselves included.

What do you do when confronted with the reality of your weakness and lack-of-control? 

Do you shake your fist at God and say “How dare you!” Do you look through your tears and say “Why me?” I’m guessing it’s probably some combination of the two.

But in the midst of the hard questions that you may never have answered, are you able to say, “God, I don’t understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing this, but I trust you and I need you to be my strength?”

Ultimately, Christian suffering finds its hope and meaning through the cross of Jesus Christ. 

He who was innocent (Jesus) suffered for those who were guilty (you and me). We have hope because Jesus not only died, but conquered death.

If Jesus suffered, why do we think we won’t? Do we think a life of comfort is more appealing than a life spent following Christ?

The Christian trusts God’s control, not his own.

We don’t know all the answers. We know some… and we have partial answers to others. But we simply cannot explain why God does some of the things he does. What we do know is that he is good and we can trust him.

The humble heart does not cry out for God to follow our rules, as if God owes us something.

Lament, mourn, and cry out to God with your hard questions. God is not afraid of being challenged by you. He is not intimidated by your shaking fists. You are allowed to question him.

But remember your place. I recently read through the book of Job, where God finally responds to Job’s pleads for an explanation over his suffering (Job 40:7-14):

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm:

7 “Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

8 “Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
9 Do you have an arm like God’s,
and can your voice thunder like his?
10 Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
11 Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at all who are proud and bring them low,
12 look at all who are proud and humble them,
crush the wicked where they stand.
13 Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.
14 Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you.

Here is my prayer for my neighbor:

Heavenly Father,
     In the midst of my friend’s suffering, be his strength and hope. Make yourself known to him and his family. In this time where death is so near, use this season of weakness and uncertainty to give them eternal life through Jesus Christ. Heal and restore him to health. Guide and bless the doctors and nurses who are caring for him and give them great wisdom and skill as they do their life-sustaining, life-healing work.
Give my friend and his family humble hearts, ones that lean into you when they see their weakness. Give them courage and honesty to give voice to their doubts and their questions, and guide them to your Scriptures as the fountain of Truth. And open for me a door through which I may be of service.
AMEN