Why is there suffering?
God can do anything, so why doesn’t he stop us from hurting?
This article is a collection and re-organisation of the thoughts of loads of different people who contributed to the Wiki page called WhyGodAllowsuffering. Apologies if I’ve messed it up in any way.
Important things to say first
If you’re suffering
If you’re going through real suffering at the moment, it may be that the ideas talked about here don’t help you – what you’re really looking for is love and comfort. We want to pass on to you our very deep sympathy; please contact us and we’ll do our very best to show real concern and help. We’re an odd lot, but we’ll listen and we care.
A lot of people talked about the suffering that God has been through and still goes through:
“Not quite an answer to the question, but important: God isn’t immune from suffering himself. At the very crux of history, God the Son screams in agony at the cross. Whatever the answer is to God allowing suffering, it’s not something he takes casually – it’s at the very heart of his plan for this universe, and he’s suffered more than anyone (I wonder what having a Person of the Trinity amputated feels like?)”
“Add to this the combined suffering of all the people he loves more than we ever can. How does it make you feel when someone you love suffers?”
“Add to this the fact that so many of his beloved people reject him. Even people he has saved and loved for a lifetime turn away from him and betray him again and again.”
Add to this the fact that there are those who believe that Jesus’ death and the fact that he took the punishment for everyone means that he went to Hell, and that perhaps in some sense the suffering he experienced there is eternal, and we begin to get an idea that God is no stranger to suffering.
We don’t know
Lots of people expressed confusion and and worry about this issue – all the ideas in this article are just possibilities and suggestions, not definitive answers.
“I personally find it hard when this question is actually asked. I cannot really explain it cos i know that God knows us inside out, so knows what we are going to experience. I have asked this question so much. I feel like God wants us to find faith in him when we suffer. i cannot really see why it all happens, only God has the answer to that one.”
“God seems to know more about what we are to face that any one ever can. I cannot therefore explain how he can justify it all. We are children and what father would allow his child to suffer?”
God suffers, as we know, and that fact provides some hint of an answer to this question:
“The surprise is that God does allow his child, Christ, to suffer – and we share in his sufferings. So, while it would be very wrong for a human father to stand aside and let meaningless suffering happen to his child, it seems that God judges that it’s right to let some suffering happen. Hard to understand, but again perhaps the Cross is at the heart of trying to figure out the meaning of suffering?”
He doesn’t do it
The weakest of the answers we discussed: God never allows us to suffer, it is the people in the land that actually allow us to suffer.
“Still struggle with that one!!! For example, what does this teach us about natural disasters and disease, etc.?”
“I do find it hard to believe this answer. We see many times in the Bible when God does step in and act to rescue people from terrible circumstances; so when he doesn’t, he is ‘allowing’ suffering in some way. The suffering may come from the hands of other people, but God isn’t striking those people down – so at some level he is allowing it.”
It’s worth it
Several people talked about how maybe suffering can help us, which is a very difficult idea but also seems to be true:
“Maybe some of the answer is that God is changing us through suffering. That is very hard to swallow sometimes though, isn’t it?”
“Some suffering is about learning though isn’t it? I mean with children, if you deliberately cause them to suffer or if it’s for no reason then that’s not cool but no matter how much you love them, you can’t keep them in a protective bubble and there comes a point when they have to learn for themselves that if they touch something hot it burns, or that if they climb up on something they’re not supposed to climb on there’s a good chance they’ll fall off and it will hurt. Ok, that’s on rather small scale compared to some of this stuff but thought the idea behind it made sense when I started writing…”
And others expressed the thought that maybe God can see that it’s worth it even though we can’t really understand that:
“The people who make me feel closest to God when I speak to them are often the people who’ve gone through great suffering or are facing death and still praise God for His goodness, with no negative feelings towards Him. They have learnt what it is to trust in God when it really matters, not just in the minor worries I’ve had to face, and it’s amazing to see their strength and love for Him.”
“Does God choose not to save us at the time? Is that also his plan? … Being outside time it must all seem very different to God. The nearest I can get to what I mean is that if I tell my friend’s little girl she can’t do something she wants to do until the evening, she thinks that’s FOREVER and it really distresses her and is a huge deal. She is very little and doesn’t really have much concept of time. Whereas for me, waiting a couple of hours isn’t something that seems very long. And I’m not saying that that means He doesn’t care about people’s suffering.”
“Sometimes our suffering is through persecution – part of being on God’s side. He could wind this up very quickly, but that would mean bad consequences for the persecutors. I’m reminded of 2 Pet 3.8-9. I guess the same could be said of all suffering, in fact.”
The idea of our suffering being part of a war we are fight for and with God is taken up and explained in Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey – a book that comes highly recommended for people interested in this topic.
This is a controversial idea, but quite a few people were sympathetic to it: maybe God is actually incapable of preventing suffering. The exact meaning people put on this differs:
“Maybe he actually can’t stop suffering. Controversial? Does this mean he’s not all-powerful?”
“There may well be a lot of truth in this. I believe that God is all-powerful; but I think that some ways of explaining what that means don’t make sense, or aren’t true of the Christian God. For instance ‘God is all-powerful, therefore he can lie’ is not right in Christianity. Neither, I think, is ‘God is all-powerful, therefore he can make 2+2=3’. God can’t lie; he can’t do things that are against his character. He can’t alter logic; again, logic is part of his character. A way of explaining what we as Christians mean by ‘God is all-powerful’ is ‘God can do whatever he wants’. It may be that, if you create things like us, and we choose to sin, it’s logically impossible that we don’t suffer. God is all-powerful, but some suffering has to happen. This may not be right – it’s just a guess, but it seems consistent with the picture we’re given in the Bible of an all-powerful, suffering God.”
“Of course, on the “God cannot lie” issue – if God is incapable of lieing, why bother thanking him for not lieing? Perhaps he could lie, but has chosen not to – that would make him worth thanking.”*
So maybe God has deliberately taken away his own ability to prevent suffering (or continually restrains himself from preventing it, because it would have terrible consequences if he did. For example, he might not be able to stop suffering without also stopping our freedom to make decisions for ourselves, and maybe he thinks it’s worth the sacrifice.
* On this issue there is a counter-argument: “I think praising God for His character (including His faithfulness, or not lying if you prefer) is well-justified by CS Lewis’s idea: ‘I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.’ (in ‘Reflections on the Psalms’)”
He has paid us back
Perhaps life actually is fair because God has paid us back in some sense for the suffering world into which we have been born. This payment may include God’s own suffering, but also his actual decision in the first place to intervene through Jesus. Maybe that gift of Jesus simply redresses the balance. Again, this is a controversial idea.
“There may well be a lot of truth in this. I believe that God is all-knowing, and outside of time – so he did know what bad consequences for him and for us would occur if he made the world. I don’t really understand why he’d still go ahead and do it, but presume that it’s because he judges the final outcome to be worth it.”
“One way of looking at the final outcome is that he has some real friends who chose to be his friends. Also we get real friends in him and in other people. If we think this is what God was doing all this for it makes you really value your friends, right?”
Heaven and Hell
In any discussion on this topic the subject of Hell is bound to pop up. After a little bit of thought the consensus was that this is actually a separate topic*, and so the discussion was quite brief – here’s a snippet.
“Maybe God doesn’t stop all suffering because it’s an (admittedly harsh) signpost to the fact that we’re under a curse and facing judgment – this seems to be Jesus’ point about suffering in Luke 13, as well as the point of God’s judgments in Genesis 3 … Of course the suffering on earth is nothing like as harsh as the judgement, so in a way if we can accept that maybe we can accept this world too?”
Heaven, too, came up:
“Again, not an answer as such, but important: we’re assured that God is planning to bring an end to suffering for everyone he rescues, in the new universe that’s coming – and he does this through the suffering of God the Son in this universe. This universe, and our suffering, seem at the moment to last for ages; but one day we’ll look at it as a drop in the ocean in comparison with the ‘time’ that suffering doesn’t exist for us.”
* A fuller discussion took place on the WhatDoYouThinkAboutHell Wiki page.
A lot of people have expressed opinions about this topic, and we’ve heard opinions ranging from simply having no idea, to quite radical and complex questions about the very nature of God. In the end, however, the thing that actually makes it possible to think about this issue at all is that God is here with us in our sufferings and sorrows. He doesn’y just understand or sympathise, he experiences them with us, and has experienced many others for us:
“A poem, expressing how Jesus on the cross helps us to comprehend suffering. In particular, I find the last verse very helpful. This is by Edward Shillito, one of the War Poets. It’s called ‘Jesus of the Scars’.”
If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn though the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.
The stuff on this page was written by the GuiltyExpression community, and re-organised by Andy. I’m really sorry if I’ve moved anything out of context or put a slant on things.