Why would God allow suffering? Part 2
First, so much suffering humans experience—really think about it—is answered in my first point in my previous post (which you need to read!). That is, being victimized—suffering when we don’t deserve it—is almost always caused from another person’s evil choice. This even counts when family and friends are devastated by someone’s suicide.
That person’s decision is causing the suffering. And it is completely unfair to those affected. They didn’t ask for that pain and suffering and trauma. God didn’t cause the pain; the person who died caused the pain.
This counts for so many millions of children dying of starvation. Evil rulers and despots refuse to care for their people. They withhold food and water. It causes their people to die of starvation.
This counts for a whole, wide range of suffering around the globe. Most suffering humans experience in the world is experienced because another person is causing it or caused it. And that’s the real, awful shame: we humans could do good instead of evil.
Second, this really only leaves natural events: you know, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. That is, some suffering is because of the Laws of Nature. When a construction worker falls off a roof and breaks his leg, it’s the result of the force of gravity. When water fills up a town during a hurricane and people drown, it’s because humans can’t breathe under water. We could go on and on with examples of “natural disasters.” Of course, it’s only a “disaster” when it causes humans to suffer. We don’t call lightning strikes in the wilderness, which can kill trees and the organisms and insects on those trees, a “natural disaster.” It’s just what nature does. It really only bothers us when humans suffer.
Now, it’s crucial to understand that natural laws are necessary for humans. They allow us stability and the capacity to cultivate crops and develop society. Imagine trying to grow crops with dirt floating around in zero gravity. Imagine attempting to build a civilization if there were no natural laws or uniformity: random black holes, fluctuating gravity patterns, stars bursting into existence by the moon, etc. It would be absolute chaos. Human flourishing would be impossible. We need laws. Laws are good for us.
Unfortunately, of course, these laws cause things to happen that can cause humans to suffer, like hurricanes and tornadoes. Hurricanes are wonderful for the ocean’s climate. They feed wildlife in the ocean; they redistribute heat energy in the oceans; they dump millions of gallons of water on land, which is drunk by not only all wildlife and plants, but also humans. I wonder how many millions of gallons of water were dumped into cisterns and wells deep within the Earth when Katrina came to shore.
That is, (at least some) natural events do good (even if we can’t yet know every single way it does good). The only problem is: they can cause humans to suffer. And that bothers us. So, the question goes like this, “God, why did you create the Laws of Nature like the way they are if they can cause humans to suffer?”
The answer is not revealed in Scripture or in revelation. Could God have created a universe or planet with humans on it without hurricanes? Without tornadoes? Without the rise of cancer or H.I.V.? I guess so.
What I do know is that the suffering natural events can cause is necessary for humans to experience a wide range of character-building opportunities. I can develop courage, patience, sacrifice, generosity, humility, etc. when serving those who have suffered.
And this is the point where atheists can get so mad. I mentioned “character-building.” This leads me to my third point.
Third, in the Christian worldview, your physical/emotional pleasure is not the ultimate good. Your lack of suffering is not the ultimate good. Your physical life is not the ultimate good. God (and what He wants) is the ultimate good. We are not God’s pets, brought into existence to be raised in the most comfortable environment possible, given treats whenever “good,” and kept as happy as possible.
I cannot overemphasize this point enough. When Christians say that God is “all-good,” we do not mean what the typical atheist means by goodness: the prevention of suffering. We do not mean that God wants humans to be happy at all times. God is certainly all-good; it’s just that His goodness is not manifested by making sure we never suffer. God’s goodness is manifested by His unrelenting care for our good. This is the whole ballgame. God cares for my good, not for my happiness. My “good” involves a whole range of character-building experiences in an effort to get us to behave, think, and value just as Jesus does.
Any parent with basic, healthy goals for their children understands this point. I absolutely adore my children. What I most certainly do notwant for them the most is “for them to be happy” (the most common expression I hear from parents). What an absurd, childish, silly goal that would be. Crack addicts are happy. Sociopaths are happy. Thieves are happy.
I want my children to develop profoundly healthy, Christian character. And this means that I will deliberately limit their happiness in some areas and even cause them suffering in order for their characters to develop in the way I want.
And to want this is not sadistic. It’s called good parenting. My kids must get ready for the real world. They need to have the character necessary to meet the demands of life. And it’s my job as their parent to make sure their character is ready for adulthood. If I only make sure they are like my pets—fat and happy—then I will have failed them miserably! (Though my pets aren’t fat…spare the emails.)
God, to say it once more, does not want us to be happy all the time. His goal is to form us into the image of His Son. This will involve multiple instances, instances that might include suffering, where I get to develop my character to be like His.
There is simply no way around this fact: the Christian narrative presents God as one who is chiefly concerned with my good, not my happiness. Jesus suffered and died a tortuous death on a cross. Moreover, He guaranteed suffering would occur to His disciples. There is simply no way around this fact. You cannot believe that God really just wants you to avoid suffering while Jesus, God's Son and the Messiah, died a horrible, suffering death. In fact, Jesus's suffering demonstrates another key element of suffering: that is suffering one person experiences so that another person does not.
And that’s a great thing. It’s a really good thing. We live in a world, with other free-willed moral agents and natural events that gives us plenty of opportunities to develop our character and to suffer on behalf of others; to be really, genuinely morally responsible for other people in their pain and suffering; to be able to suffer ourselves so that other people are morally responsible for us; etc. They develop their character; we develop ours. Our planet is a huge classroom. And every day we have the chance to learn something.
The problem is, many people think that God is the progenitor of the “American Dream.” We think God is good only as much as He makes sure we’re blessed, rich, safe, and comfortable…that our dreams come true. (And let me tell you, I know that this message sells millions of books!) Unfortunately, that’s false. It’s simply false (Read the Gospels and tell me that God is chiefly concerned with my happiness…).
Fourth, not one single thing I’ve said so far makes suffering fun, easy, likable, nice, or awesome. Nothing. It takes one single picture in our mind of people drowning in hurricane waters, tsunami waves, the winds of a tornado, the starvation of a person without adequate rainfall or produce, the murder of a child, etc. to give us a visceral response to suffering. Believe me, I hate those realities too.
So, I need to be very clear here: the fact that people suffer is not good. The fact that we have the opportunities to develop our character is good.
If there are good reasons for suffering in our world, then why do I still hate suffering? Why do I still have an emotional response to suffering?
Because it’s suffering. It’s pain. We’re supposed to have emotional/psychological response to suffering so that we go do something about it. And no amount of intellectual answers make our visceral, emotional responses go away. They shouldn’t.
Now, this is a very big deal. Why? Because most who reject Christianity because of suffering do so because no amount of explanation makes the emotional response to suffering go away. It still bothers them tremendously. My point here is: it should. I don’t know any Christian I’ve ever met in my life who is also not terribly bothered by the suffering in the world. If you’re waiting on suffering to feel good before you’ll consider Christianity, then I’m afraid you’ll be waiting forever.
Fifth, understanding why suffering occurs will never ever make suffering easier to experience. That’s not how the psyche works. To be very clear—the very best response to suffering is to grieve, not to seek for answers as to “why.” I don’t like to have my tooth pulled even though I know perfectly well why it needs to be done. Knowing “why” doesn’t make the suffering go away. Suffering still hurts no matter what I understand. Of course it does; it’s suffering.
Sixth, in the Christian worldview, which is true, all suffering will be punished or rewarded. The ancient prophets believed that God caused the ancient Jews to suffer from time to time because of their disobedience. That is, God would inspire certain nations to attack the Jews or cause droughts, etc.. This caused much suffering. In the New Testament, we learn that God no longer does that. God’s punishment for all humans who are not Christians will take place on what we call the Day of the Lord (Yom Adonnai) or Judgment Day. Of course, embracing the gospel obviates judgment.
And for Christians, we will be rewarded for our role in the Kingdom of God by the grace of God (e.g., Matt 16:27). The apostle Paul, who was betrayed, beaten multiple times, shipwrecked multiple times, hungry often, imprisoned constantly, was also concerned, worried, or depressed for his churches at all times. He knew suffering. He knew it well. And he gives a response to his immense suffering in life that only befits the Christian worldview:
“Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2Co 4:16-18 NET).
Seventh, ancient Jews and Christians never once saw suffering as evidence that God didn’t exist. They questioned God’s thoughts. They might question His attentiveness or awareness to a person’s plight. What they didn’t do was become atheists. And we don’t have evidence (though it certainly might have happened) that any Jews ever stopped being observant Jews because of suffering.
The same is true of Christians. They might return to believe in their former gods, but they wouldn’t turn into an atheist. Very few people in the ancient world would qualify as an atheist. However, Christians most certainly could reject Jesus after they experienced suffering (e.g., Mark 4:17; Hebrews 6:4-6). This is why Christian authors constantly encouraged their audience to “endure” or “to conquer” (the temptation to reject Christianity)—to make it to the end faithfully (e.g., Mark 13:13; Hebrews 10:36; throughout Revelation).
Eighth, perhaps the most common reason why a Christian is able to survive immense suffering in life is the one reason that is most allusive and frustrating to atheists: because we trust God.
Now, why in the world would we do that? Is because we’re just stupid? Blind to the truth? Oblivious? Desperate to believe in something? Just because it brings us comfort?
Perhaps. Perhaps there are Christians who believe they can trust God for these reasons. It’s just that I don’t know of any serious, thinking Christian who would espouse such views.
I sure don’t trust God for those reasons.
I trust God during suffering for two reasons: (1) The biblical narrative demonstrates to me that God can be trusted. God uses every single event in history in His grand scheme of establishing the kingdom of God. Jesus’s ministry and life, death, and resurrection tells me that God is profoundly loving. It tells me that in the midst of extreme suffering, He has not abandoned me. It tells me that suffering is to be expected and that He is the best source of comfort I have available. (2) My personal experiences of suffering have been so much more tolerable because of the real, actual presence of God. I haven’t experienced God’s peace all the time or in every experience. Nope. But, I have enough to know that He’s present with me.
And this isn’t unique. You can speak with millions and millions of Christians who will tell you the same thing. They will tell you that they have really, genuinely felt a kind of hopeful peace in the midst of suffering that sustained them. Go ahead. Ask them.
Finally, I want to end on this analogy…a parable if you will. Imagine that you commit to picking me up for work one day because my car broke. But, you never showed. Because of that, I got fired. My boss didn’t care why I didn’t show. It now means I must move to a cheaper place. My kids won’t be able to get those braces they need. My wife will have to work longer hours because of it.
Someone comes up to me and asks me about the suffering I’m going through. They inquire as to why I’m going through it. I tell them it’s because I counted on you to follow through on your commitment to me. This person declares, “You really think that your friend exists?! Really?! Where was your friend when you needed him?”
I respond, “I don’t know. He hasn’t told me yet.”
The person continues: “You really think any friend would do that to you? Either your friend doesn’t exist, and you’re just delusional and seriously need medication; or, your friend is a villain. There’s simply no way around it. Either your friend is a fairy tale or evil.”
(What would you think of this person’s charge against you?)
I might respond, “No…no. You don’t know my friend like I do. And this is crucial: if you knew my friend like I do, you would trust him. I know enough of my friend to trust him when things happen that I don’t understand. Eventually he’ll tell me why his absence caused this suffering. But for now…I trust him.”
Now, don’t miss this: Imagine how hard it would be for me to convince you that my friend is trustworthy without you knowing him like I do.
No matter what I said to you, you’d not be fully convinced that my friend is fully trustworthy. You’d think me a little crazy. Moreover, and maybe more importantly, you'd never place your trust in my friend based solely on my testimony about my friend. The only way to trust a person is get to know the person personally--yourself. So it is with God. You might think I could trust him; you'd not be inclined to put your trust in him yourself. This is precisely why we don’t ever start with someone’s absence when getting to know someone’s character. We start with what we do know about the person.
Christians don’t make some blind leap of faith into the unknown. We don’t begin with absence and just hope we’re right. We trust a God who revealed Himself in Jesus of Nazareth. We start with what we do know and then trust Him with what we don’t know.
And until you know God the way most Christians do, no amount of response to the problem of suffering will suffice. And I don’t blame you! I wouldn’t trust someone I didn’t know.
But, boy…am I so glad I know Him.
I hope you do too.