Among the most important and persistent questions we ask as human beings is the question of suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? The question is “If God is good and loving, and all powerful, why doesn’t God put a stop to suffering?”
Entire volumes have been devoted to the problem of reconciling the goodness of God with the evil that happens in our world. Discussed here will be two of the most common answers to the problem of suffering and a third alternative as presented by Adam Hamilton.
Common Thoughts on God and Suffering
The first common answer is the concept of Deism. It holds that God created the universe and set in motion the laws that govern its operation, but beyond the initial work, God is not directly involved in the workings of our universe. God does not intervene in our affairs. Suffering happens because of the human violation of the laws God established and the natural processes that make our planet work—storms, earthquakes, etcetera. God neither causes suffering, nor does he intervene to stop it.
The second common approach is known as Theological Determinism. According to this view God is not only involved in our world, God has predetermined everything that will happen on earth. God is sovereign, he controls all things, knows all things and is all powerful and everything that happens does so according to his plan. He has written a script, and we are merely actors in God’s play. Since God is ultimately good, loving, and just, we can trust that everything that happens will ultimately result in good; If things do not seem to be working out now, it is simply because we do not perceive all of God’s plan at this moment. Though God is not the direct agent acting to bring about a certain action, because God planned it, he is the ultimate cause of the events. This view is commonly accepted without question by many Christians, and it is often expressed by the phrases “everything happens for a reason,” or, in resignation in the face of suffering, “it must be God’s will.”
The Bible Doesn’t Support Deism
The challenge with Deism is that it undermines the entire premise of the Bible which tells us that God knows us by name. He shapes us in our mother’s wombs. God choses Israel as his covenant people, led them out of slavery in Egypt, hears an answers the prayers of his people, and is at work in Israel’s story as it unfolds. Additionally, the Christian gospel proclaims that God is so involved in our world that he became flesh and walked among us, teaching, guiding, healing, and ultimately suffering and dying to redeem and save the world. Christianity teaches that God’s spirit dwells in us and comforts, guides, and empowers us.
The Heresy of Predeterminism
Determinism dominates the thinking of many Christians today and needs to be seriously questioned as we consider news stories like the following.
An 8-year-old girl was brutally raped by two adults. The torture she endured left her body so damaged that it would require multiple surgeries to repair. Emotionally, it will take years of therapy for her and her entire family to begin to heal. The news article indicates that the two who committed this crime also raped and murdered two women on their killing spree. According to the Determinist, God predetermined that this would happen. God wrote it into the script. Yes, there were two human agents who actually committed the crime, but they committed the crime because God had predetermined that they would. Does this sound like the plans or purposes of a loving and just God?
Presumably, God predestined that these rapists and murderers would do what they did for some greater good that God had planned, and that we cannot see. But can there be any greater good that would justify brutalizing a little girl, and torturing and killing two women? If we learned that some person had hatched this plot and put these two murderers up to it, that person would be imprisoned. If God is just and good and loving, then the means he uses to accomplish his plans will also be just and good and loving.
If, when we say, “everything happens for a reason,” we mean that the world is based upon cause and effect, I can accept this. The cause of the little girl’s torment was a very sick man and woman who were very broken. These are the “reasons” behind what happened. But if by saying “everything happens for a reason,” we mean that God wills everything, attributing such evil to God should be considered the worst king of blasphemy.
Our Tragedy Used by God
So where is God in all of this? He created the world along with laws that govern it. He created us with a capacity to reason, to make choices, including the choice to risk and sacrifice ourselves to save others. God also promised that he would force good to come from tragedy (see below Roman 8: 28). God doesn’t kill people in order to bring about good, but he promises, in the face of tragedy, to use it for good.
God has given us a universe and certain rules—rules we can discover and count on. He has given us the freedom to make decisions, to take risks, to do things that are exciting and dangerous. He has given us the potential to do good, but God himself also takes a great risk in giving us the potential to do harm. God allows us to build our homes in the floodplains and hurricane-prone areas. He lets us smoke cigarettes, overeat, or become addicted to alcohol. And God will allow us to abuse our freedom, to hurt and even kill one another.
And yet God has a way of bringing about his redemptive purposes through the tragic things that happen on our planet, and the terrible things we sometimes do to one another. The cross of Christ is the prime example of this. Human beings crucified Jesus. They abased him, humiliated him, and then killed him. Evil seemed to triumph. But God used this human evil as an instrument of reconciliation, atonement, and salvation for the world.
Can God intervene in the world directly, stopping accidents from happening, protecting us from the harm others would do to us, averting natural disasters, and miraculously healing our diseases? Yes. God can do anything God wishes to do. But God’s ordinary way of working in our world is less direct than that. His ordinary way of working is to guide us by the scriptures, the church, and the Spirit’s witness and to use doctors and medicine and others who seek to do what is right in order to help us and sustain us. God’s ordinary way is not to intervene directly, even though a million times a day God must grieve over the terrible things that humanity does. And God’s ordinary way is to clean up after us, and to use the pain and tragedy in our lives, to accomplish his purposes.
Suffering is not God's desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to accomplish his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life. (Author unknown)
In God’s eternal perspective, all our suffering, and even our death, is but a “slight momentary affliction that is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Corinthians 4: 17).
God comforts those who mourn, walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and redeems the suffering that happens in the world, forcing it to serve his purposes. He calls his people to work towards alleviating suffering and to act as instruments of healing in this world. But God has also given us one antidote to death: the promise of the resurrection. He not only gave us a verbal promise of the resurrection, he came and walked among us, was himself subjected to the evil that we experience, suffered, and died, and then rose again in order to demonstrate that death is not the end. This is God’s solution to the suffering and evil and tragedy in this world.
For further discussion on pain take a look at
How We Endure Persistent Pain.
An additional perspective on the topic of suffering is presented in
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And we know that God causes everything to work together[a] for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (Romans 8:28)
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15: 54)
For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! (2 Corinthians 4: 17)
There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? (John 14: 2)
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha? (John 11: 25-26)
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. (2 Corinthians 5: 1)
Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White by Adam Hamilton
Image by Goran Horvat