THERE IS NO DOUBT at all that the problem of suffering is one of the greatest problems a Christian has to face. It has probably caused more people to lose faith, and prevented more people from finding faith, than almost any other problem. It is the argument most often used by atheists when they want to try and prove that there is not a God. Their argument is usually something like this:
Christians believe in a loving, all- powerful God. But such a God would want to stop all the suffering in the world. He has not stopped the suffering, therefore either:
- He is all-powerful but not loving, or
- He is loving but not all-powerful, or
- He does not exist.
On the surface this seems a very strong argument, and we must never belittle the problem of suffering. All of us are touched by it at various points in our lives. No true follower of Christ can see or hear about a child born deformed, or people starving, or an entire town destroyed by an invading army, and not be touched by the distress of the victims. And when the suffering is our own it becomes even harder to accept.
But when we analyse the atheist’s question, we see that it is neither accurate nor fair. It assumes four things which are not necessarily true:
- that God is in some way responsible for suffering,
- that suffering is necessarily bad,
- that if God allows suffering when He has power to stop it, He is therefore lacking love, and
- that because God has not so far stopped suffering, He therefore never will.
What I want us to do is to look at each of these points in turn, and I hope that then we will have a more complete picture which will help us to understand suffering, and accept it. What we should not expect though is to fully understand everything. Do not expect every problem to be fully solved—to do that we would need to fully understand the mind of God.
1. Is God Responsible for Suffering?
If we think about it carefully, we find that there are basically four kinds of suffering in the world:
- Suffering caused deliberately by humans
In this category are included war, robbery and murder. If a person (or a nation) sets out to deliberately kill, maim, rob or cheat, then a great deal of suffering will be caused. Is it then fair to blame God and ask why He does not stop it?
- Suffering caused unintentionally by humans
In this category we have the likes of famine and starvation. The fact is that there is enough food produced in the world to feed everyone adequately. The problem is, who gets it? Some have more than enough, while others starve. (At this point we may all start thinking of other people we know who have too much. Poor countries blame rich countries, poor people blame rich people. We can all think of someone better off than ourselves, and it’s easy to point the finger and say “Why don’t they give up some of their wealth?” But that really is no use, because the fact is there are also people who are poorer than us, so we need to point our finger at ourselves and ask whether we are prepared to give up some of what we have.) So whose fault is this suffering? God provides and we refuse to share—we can hardly turn round and say “Why does God allow such suffering?”
- Suffering caused by human foolishness
If, for example, someone crashes their car while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who is to blame? (Incidentally, much suffering could be avoided by following the wise guidance that is to be found in God’s instruction book, the Bible.)
- Suffering that appears to be out of our control
It is the case that some suffering in the world—probably a small percentage—is not our fault. For example, children are born with deforming conditions which have no identifiable cause. It is this kind of suffering which is most difficult to understand.
We must go back to the beginning and ask the question, “What is the overall cause of suffering anyway?” And as with every important question of life God gives us the answer in the Bible.
We read in Genesis 1:31 that when the works of creation were finished, ‘God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’. So clearly the world cannot have been full of suffering at that point. In Genesis 2:17 God gave the first man Adam a clear warning: ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ Adam and Eve decided not to believe God, but instead to believe the serpent’s lie: ‘You will not surely die’ (3:4). As a result of this disobedience God brought the curse upon humanity: ‘By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (3:19).
That is the cause of suffering. Suffering is a symptom of our mortality. It is not the disease, it is the effect of the disease. We suffer because we are mortal dying creatures. We are dying creatures because of sin: ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). And we all sin. Therefore ultimately the present state of creation is a result of human wrongdoing.
2. Is Suffering Necessarily Bad?
Initially this seems like a foolish question, after all no one likes to suffer. It is unpleasant, but that does not mean it is bad. It is possible for something to be unpleasant and yet useful at the same time. Remember that particularly nasty medicine you probably had at some time? It was unpleasant—but it did you good.
There are people who are born without the ability to feel pain. This is actually a grievous disability. They don’t notice when they burn or hit themselves, and it often leads to serious bodily damage. Pain is beneficial. It is a built-in warning signal to tell us that something is wrong. It’s not pleasant, but it is a good thing.
Someone once asked Jesus about the troubling case of some innocent people who had been killed. ‘There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:1–3). When you suffer, or see other people suffering, it’s not important to wonder whether the suffering is deserved or not. Instead, let it remind you of your frailty and mortality. Just as pain is a danger signal to remind us to seek some remedy, so suffering is a danger signal that we are dying creatures—and we need to seek a remedy!
The Apostle Paul knew what it is to suffer. In 2 Corinthians 11 he recounts a list of the things he suffered during his preaching work. He continues in chapter 12 to describe a particular infirmity he had. (There are various suggestions, but we don’t know for sure what this infirmity was.) Surprisingly, this handicap is called a gift from God—it was given to Paul to prevent him becoming conceited (v. 7). But he wanted to be rid of it. ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:8–9). Paul realised that he was suffering for his own good, and so he learned to accept it.
3. Does God Allow Suffering Because He Does Not Love Us?
We have already seen that we cannot blame God for causing suffering, it is our fault whether we like it or not. But if God has the power to stop it and does not, it might be argued that He must take some of the blame. Suppose you were an expert swimmer, and you saw someone fall into a river and drown and did not try to help them. Even though you were not responsible for them falling into the river, would you not bear some responsibility for their death? Is God like that? Is He standing back and watching us all drown when He has the power to save us?
Once again the atheist’s argument is not justified. Allowing (or even sometimes causing) suffering does not mean that there is a lack of love. For example, if you see someone stepping into the road in front of a bus, and you dive to save them and they fall over and hurt their shoulder—you have hurt them, but saved their life.
In a sense our suffering is like that, on a much larger scale. When Adam and Eve first turned away from God in spite of a clear warning, God would have been quite justified in wiping them out. Instead He made them mortal, suffering, dying creatures. He did this out of love, as an incentive to make them turn back to Him.
4. Will God Ever End Suffering?
This is the whole point that is so often missed. The assumption is made that God is to blame for suffering (which, as we have seen, He is not); that all suffering is bad (which is wrong); that if God allows suffering He therefore does not love us (when it in fact proves that He does love us)—and the conclusion is that He is doing nothing about the situation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ask yourself the question, if God wanted to remove suffering how could He do it? The answer is by removing sin, since that is the cause of suffering. It is no good a doctor treating a symptom—they must treat the disease, and suffering is just a symptom of sin and death. So how could God remove sin? There are two ways in which He could do it.
- By making it impossible for us to sin. Sounds reasonable, but think a little more—the only way that could be done is by taking away our free will! How would you like to be a robot? Programmed by God just like a computer! No thank you! I want my free will. Take it away and I am no longer a human being, I am less than an animal. Neither is it what God wants. He wants love, from a willing heart, not an automatic response from a thing that has no choice. He wants us to respond to His Love willingly—and for that there must be free will! So this option is no good. What is the alternative?
- By setting up a plan which would reveal to humankind how to find the way out of the death-trap into which we put ourselves. By showing us how to live, and by providing a way of salvation for those who choose to take it.
That is what God is doing. That is exactly what Jesus meant when he said ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:3).
Right at the beginning when God first pronounced the death sentence because of sin, He also promised a way of escape. The Bible is a revelation of that plan, and the culmination of the plan is Jesus Christ, His Son:
God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16–17).
Yes, amazingly God not only loves us, He was willing to suffer Himself because of His love, when He allowed His Son to suffer and die on the cross—so that our suffering might end!
If you doubt the love of God, just read this: ‘God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved’ (Ephesians 2:4–5). Despite our weaknesses, in spite of our continual disobedience, in spite of our many sins God loves us. Christ died for sinners like you and me, because God loves us and does not want us to perish. The whole of the Bible is a wonderful unfolding of God’s love, extending to us the opportunity to find eternal life. Of course it takes time, because God is not prepared to use the one thing that might speed up the process— force! He wants us as children, not as pets.
If you want to see the future, read Isaiah chapters 35 and 42. A world of peace, safety, plenty and righteousness. Paul knew what suffering is, as we’ve seen. But he knew the reason, and he knew the love of God. He concluded: ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Romans 8:18).
Of course suffering is difficult to bear. But never let anyone persuade you that it is God’s fault. And never let anyone tell you that God does not care. We need to understand the true cause of suffering and to turn to God in humility so that He might cure us. Then our suffering is put in the right perspective, and we can look beyond this present evil time to the wonderful promise which God has prepared for those who love Him.
He will not force us to believe in Him or accept Him—but when we really see His love and know His plan in Jesus Christ, the only sensible course is to accept His offer of salvation with gratitude.