It is perfectly understandable for someone experiencing great suffering to ask: Why did God allow it?
Let me begin by saying that God loves you and cares for you more deeply than you will ever know. Therefore, what happens to you matters to God. Jesus wept when he saw the grief of his friends Mary and Martha over the death of their brother, Lazarus. The love of God means that he shares our pain.
There are no easy answers to the vexing question of suffering. There are some things we can’t fully explain. However, the Bible does give enough information for us not to be completely bewildered.
Care needs to be taken, however, when using verses from the Bible to teach about suffering. Giving simplistic answers by quoting just one or two verses of Scripture will not be helpful in most cases. If, for example, you quote James 1:2-4 and tell a mother of a dying child that God allows suffering in order to bring about a greater good, you will justifiably earn her scorn. An examination Scripture shows us that there are many aspects to suffering that need to be appreciated and held in balance if we are to know all the truth that can be known. Like a diamond with many facets, we need to understand each facet if we are to appreciate the whole diamond.
What then does the Bible teach about suffering?
Suffering is one of the sad features of a world that is “off the rails,” i.e. which has been corrupted by our sin (Genesis 3:1-19; Galatians 6:7-8), our bad choices, (Proverbs 10:14; 22:3), and Satan (Luke 13:16). Fundamentally, suffering is caused by humankind’s rejection of God – as the story of Adam and Eve demonstrates.
Whilst suffering does not come from God, he does allow it (Job 1:8-22, 2:1-7). Why?
The cost of God giving humankind freewill to accept or reject a loving relationship with him was the risk that we would choose to reject God and bring on ourselves the consequences of sin, which is suffering.
The imperfections of a suffering creation are seen in two ways. First: it is seen in the suffering that is caused by moral evil. God has given us freewill to accept or reject his lordship. But this freedom has its risks. God risks that we would make bad choices – and suffer the consequences. Hitler made bad moral choices and caused horrendous suffering.
The other thing to remember is that although we may not be saved from hardships, we never need to face them alone.
Secondly: suffering is caused by physical evil (natural catastrophes), e.g. cancer, tsunamis etc. It seems as if the sinfulness of humankind has not only corrupted us, but also nature itself. This truth is taught in the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 3. We need to remember that just as the salvation of Jesus – whom the apostle Paul calls the ‘last Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45-49), reaches both back and forwards in history, so too can the sins of the first Adam, i.e. us, have consequences that flow back and forwards in history, corrupting creation.
A key assurance the Bible gives us is that God understands our suffering. He has shared it as Jesus (Isaiah 53:3-5; Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). But here’s a question: Is God just a compassionate spectator?
No! God works actively against suffering, evil and oppression through his church. Christianity does not simply give a facile response to the problem of suffering based only on a future hope. On the contrary, God’s Holy Spirit directs believers to work at overcoming suffering and injustice wherever they see it.
The other thing to remember is that although we may not be saved from hardships, we never need to face them alone. The promise is that God will never forsake us and, if invited, will walk with us through life, lending us his strength (Matthew 28:19-20; Hebrew 13:5).
Some people are tempted to believe that bad things happen to bad people and are therefore confused when something bad happens to a good person. Jesus corrects this thinking in Luke 13:1-5 and makes it plain that those who suffer are not necessarily more evil than anyone else. He teaches that their suffering is one of the sad consequences of the rejection of God by the people of all nations, and of them going down a path God never intend. As such, suffering points to the need for all of us to repent. As C.S. Lewis said: ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience but shouts in our pains. Pain is God’s megaphone to arouse a deaf world.’[i]
It must also be said that a life without pain is neither possible nor desirable. Some pain is necessary as it is the way our body tells us it is damaged. We also need the risks of life to help us mature.
So, what are the different facets of suffering taught by the Bible? In essence, they are these:
- God is loving and is the perfect definition of love.
- Times of crisis are times of opportunity when we can show God’s love, generosity and self-sacrifice (2 Corinthians 1:4).
- God has the right to bring judgment on us in this life as a consequence of us choosing evil. He has warned us of this reality. But God’s judgment is always aimed at bringing about our repentance so that new beginnings and blessings can follow.
- God is just and is the perfect definition of justice.
- We all live in a broken and fallen world, and we all share in its dangers.
- God sometimes uses a situation of sickness to show his glory by bringing healing (John 9:2-3).
- Times of difficulty can help us grow godly character (James 1:2-4).
- This life is not all there is. Christians can view it from the perspective of eternity. God, and his goodness will ultimately triumph. Evil will be judged and killed off (Romans 8:35; Revelation 21:1-4).
…which is a wonderful place to end.
[i] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Canada: Samizdat University Press, 2016), originally published in 1940, 58.
Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.
Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.
He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net
Nick told his life story to Eternity https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/deadly-storms-heroin-addicts-cancer-and-my-faith/