Why Does God Allow Suffering?Life Lines | Vol. 25 No. 1
By exploring God’s character, we may gain new insights into why we encounter sorrow, tragedy, and trials in this life.
By Jeff Wehr
When terrorists murdered thousands of innocent people by flying planes into the Twin Towers, we didn’t have to wonder whether there was evil in our world. We know that some very bad things happen because of people doing very evil deeds. There are people who steal, rape, murder, gossip, and take advantage of another’s ignorance, weakness, and misfortune. Evil thoughts and actions account for much of the suffering in our world.
When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, and then another one hit Chile, followed by Japan and Turkey, thousands died and millions became homeless. We had no terrorists to blame, no evil forces—only the movement of tectonic plates. Pressure had built up year after year and the pressure became too great.
Whether these things happened due to evil forces or natural disasters, the question is the same for many people—Where was God? The question implies that God could have done something about it, which raises an additional question—Why does God allow these things to happen? Why didn’t God prevent the terrorists from the devastation of 9/11? Or, even if God did not cause the earthquakes, why did He allow them to happen?
Invariably, when bad things happen, God and suffering are linked together. In fact, if you do a Google search with the phrase “God and suffering,” you will see nearly 25,000 references.
At this very moment, people are searching for answers about bad things happening around them. Why did God allow my neighbor to lose his house? Why did my friend lose his job? Why did God allow me to have this life-threatening disease? We can spend a lot of time wondering why a particularly bad thing happened. With many bad events, we may never know. But we can make choices that can change our outcome.
First, when we phrase the question as Why does God allow bad things to happen, we are raising yet another question—Who is God?
If God is all-powerful, then perhaps He is not loving if He allows bad things to happen. Or, if He is loving, perhaps He is not all-powerful and is not able to prevent evil. But what if God is loving and all-powerful, yet chooses not to prevent bad things from happening in our fallen and sinful world? This only makes sense when we understand God’s ultimate purpose for our lives—the purpose of character development, the restoration of His image in us.
The most familiar scripture defining the character of God is 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” He has other qualities as well—wisdom, understanding, power, justice, and mercy. But the divine quality most frequently discussed is holiness. In fact, the word “holy” appears twice as often as the word “love” in reference to God. Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8. The two are related, like two sides of the same coin. God is love because He is also holy, for only holy beings can act unselfishly to love another.
His holiness leads Him to love sinners, but it also leads Him to hate sin. God loves the sinner and desires to save all of us from committing evil acts and having evil thoughts. Could this be why God allows us to face many of life’s challenging events, whether they be good or bad? Can we overcome our selfishness if we face no setbacks in life, no challenges, no trials?
Armed with this understanding of God, I have simplified these various questions about suffering down to two: First, when bad things happen to me, what can I do? Second, when bad things happen to others, how should I respond?
Viewing God as both all-powerful and loving only makes sense when we understand God’s ultimate purpose for our lives—the restoration of His image in us.
WHAT DO I DO?
What can I do when bad things happen to me? Simply raising this question would imply that I have some choices.
Because there are so many things that can go wrong—like losing a loved one, experiencing a major health crisis, discovering that your spouse has been unfaithful—we will need to understand that we have some choices or decisions to make in dealing with the unexpected challenges of life. One day you are on top of the world. The next day the world is on top of you. A storm hits you personally and it seems every bit as devastating as the earthquake in Haiti.
We need to go through the storm. The storm will change us. But it will be up to us how it will change us. Will we be stronger, more compassionate towards others, less judgmental, and wiser? Can I come out like a butterfly, beautiful after the struggle from the darkness of the cocoon?
The oft-quoted Serenity Prayer says, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer tells me that we cannot make things “un-happen.” We cannot undo history. It also tells me that my choices make a difference. It matters how we face life’s setbacks, because we have a choice.
I believe God permits trials so that we can see ourselves as we really are. It is through life’s struggles that character is revealed. Through life’s many hard lessons, we are hewn by the Master who chisels away the rough edges of our character.
How should I respond when bad things happen to others? Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” Matthew 5:7. Jesus’ words imply that bad things happen, and the world needs people who are merciful to their fellow man. Jesus’ words also imply that He has chosen to use people to help those in need. The Lord could choose to carry forward the work of mercy and benevolence without our cooperation, but He doesn’t.
Jesus gave His disciples an important lesson about suffering. “And as Jesus passed by, He saw a man which was blind from his birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” John 9:1–3. Jews generally believed that sin is punished in this life. Every affliction was regarded as the penalty for some wrongdoing, either by the sufferer himself or by his parents.
Notice that Jesus did not explain the cause of the man’s affliction; however, He did correct their misunderstanding of the cause of his blindness. Instead of focusing on the cause, He chose to focus on the results of this man’s blindness, namely, that the works of God would be made manifest. God did not prevent this man from being blind from birth, but utilized his blindness to show His mercy and love.
This is a very important lesson. Jesus did not want His disciples thinking in terms of who sinned or who did not, but to understand God’s power and mercy in giving sight to the blind. I cannot tell you if particular sins caused any earthquakes or terrorist attacks in our world, but I can tell you that a great good is accomplished when people respond by helping their fellow man.
Both the one who comforts and the one who is comforted have a better understanding of God’s mercy and love.
THE BLESSINGS OF BENEVOLENCE
Christ’s work was a work of benevolence. His response to adversity was to go about healing the sick, feeding the poor, visiting the downcast of society, and inspiring hope in the most unpromising of men. It is said of Jesus, “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” Matthew 9:36.
There is a twofold blessing in the work of benevolence. There is a blessing to him who comforts and to him that is comforted. Both have a better understanding of God’s mercy and love.
If you accept the Creation account as I do, you realize that God never meant for misery to exist in our world, or any other world. But God has made men and women stewards of means and talents to alleviate suffering humanity. You might say that the Lord tests us by giving us means, talents, and opportunities to help the poor, the unfortunate, and the sick and suffering.
If God were to prevent all the consequences of evil, violence, intemperance, and malice, would we ever understand mercy, compassion, sacrifice, duty, diligence, virtue, and love? And how about the sufferer? Sorrow does not spring up from the ground. God permits trials and afflictions. If received in faith, the trial that seems so bitter and hard to bear will prove a blessing. How many there are who would never have found Jesus had not sorrow led them to seek comfort in Him.
Consider the blessings that come to him who helps the oppressed. God says, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him: and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward.” Isaiah 58:6–8. When does our light break forth as the morning? When we help the oppressed. When does our health spring forth speedily? When we help those who are hungry, poor, and naked.
It would not be beneficial to the believer if God removed all suffering from the earth. If He did, how would we be able to exercise faith, compassion, mercy, and love? This diversity of conditions is one of the ways God helps everyone to develop character. There are those who are rich and those who are poor. Both are in need of one another to develop character. The rich need to exercise benevolence toward those who are without. The poor need opportunities to work and make use of their mind, bone, and muscle.
There are those who are healthy and those who are sick. Those who have their health have an opportunity to relieve suffering. Those who are sick may not only receive compassionate care from a health care provider, but also sympathize with those going through similar health challenges.
God makes use of the consequences of our fallen world to help us all become like the One who always went about doing good. If we respond as Jesus responded, with compassion and a helping hand, we may all be better for the tragedies and adversities around us.v
Jeff Wehr lives in Coldwater, Michigan.
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