Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
A one-year-old boy shattered his back falling down a flight of stairs. He spent his childhood and youth in and out of hospital. Gavin Read, the former Bishop of Maidstone, interviewed him in church. The boy remarked, ‘God is fair.’ Gavin asked, ‘How old are you?’ ‘Seventeen,’ the boy replied. ‘How many years have you spent in hospital?’ The boy answered, ‘Thirteen years.’ Gavin asked, ‘Do you think that is fair?’ He replied, ‘God has got all of eternity to make it up to me.’
We live in a world of instant gratification that has almost entirely lost its eternal perspective. The New Testament is full of wonderful promises about the future: all creation will be restored. Jesus will return to establish ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1). There will be no more crying, for there will be no more pain and suffering. Our frail, decaying mortal bodies will be changed for a body like that of Jesus’ glorious resurrected body.
Suffering is not part of God’s original created order (see Genesis 1–2). There was no suffering in the world before rebellion against God. There will be no suffering when God creates a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:3–4). Suffering is, therefore, an alien intrusion into God’s world.
This, of course, is not a complete answer to the question ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ As we saw yesterday there is no simple or complete solution, but each of today’s passages gives us some further insight.
1. See the suffering of this life in the context of eternityPsalm 16:1-11
Today’s psalm is one of the few Old Testament passages that foresees the hope of eternity in the presence of God. David writes, ‘because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand (vv.10–11).
This is our future hope. These verses show that the resurrection of Jesus was foretold in the Scriptures (see Acts 2:25–28). This life is not the end. You can look forward to an eternity in the presence of God, fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. ‘Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18).
Lord, thank you that I can, in Christ, look forward to a resurrected body and an eternity in the presence of God, where there is fullness of joy and pleasures for evermore.
2. Understand the relationship between human freedom and sufferingMatthew 18:10-35
God loves you. Love is not love if it is forced; it can only be love if there is a real choice. God gave human beings a choice and the freedom to love or not to love. So much suffering is caused by us choosing not to love God or others: ‘The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods’ (Psalm 16:4).
However, Jesus expressly repudiates the automatic link between sin and suffering (John 9:1–3). He also points out that natural disasters are not necessarily a form of punishment from God (Luke 13:1–5). But some suffering is a direct result either of our own sin or the sin of others. In this passage we see three examples:
- Wandering away
Jesus speaks about a sheep that ‘wanders away’ (Matthew 18:12).
When we wander away from the protection of The Shepherd we become vulnerable. But God will never stop searching for us because he ‘is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost’ (v.14).
- Sin of others
Jesus says, ‘If your brother or sister sins against you’ (v.15). So much suffering in the world is the result of other people’s sin – both at a global and community level, and also at an individual one. In this passage, Jesus sets out a way of reconciliation.
He calls his disciples to unlimited forgiveness. Jesus says that when people sin against us we are to forgive them – not just seven times, but seventy-seven times (vv.21–22).
Forgiveness is not easy. The cross reminds us how costly and painful it is. Forgiveness does not mean approving of what the other person did, nor excusing it, nor denying it, nor pretending that you are not hurt. Rather, you are aware of what the other person has done and yet you are called to forgive. In your personal relationships lay aside all malice, revenge and retribution and show mercy and grace to the person who has hurt you.
Sometimes forgiving can be extremely hard. As C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.’
In the final parable, we can see the destructive nature of unforgiveness. The first servant’s unwillingness to forgive a comparatively minor debt (around three-and-a-half month’s wages compared to around 160,000 years’ wages for an average person) destroys his relationship with the other servants, and leads to the second servant being cast into prison. So often unforgiveness destroys relationships between people, and results in them lashing out against those they think have sinned against them. We see the results of this in marriage breakdowns, broken relationships, or in conflicts between different communities.
We do not earn our forgiveness; Jesus achieved that for you on the cross. But your willingness to forgive is evidence that you know God’s forgiveness. Forgiven people forgive. All of us have been forgiven so much by God that we must keep on forgiving the comparatively small offences committed against us.
I’m so thankful that God does not put a limit on how often he forgives me. Yet when I look at others I am tempted to think, ‘I’m happy to forgive once, or even twice, but if they keep on doing this surely I’m not expected to keep on forgiving.’
Cultivate in your heart the same attitude towards others as God has towards you.
Lord, help me to use my freedom to love, to search for the lost and to have mercy. Help me not to cause suffering but rather to give my life, following the example of Jesus, for the relief of suffering.
3. Always respond to suffering with compassionJob 1:1-3:26
The book of Job is all about suffering. It is primarily about the question, ‘How should we respond to suffering?’
Perhaps we also see a hint about the origin of suffering. When the angels assembled before God, ‘Satan also came with them’ (1:6). He had been ‘roaming through the earth’ (v.7). It is clear that Satan’s objective is to cause as much suffering as he can.
It appears that Satan was a fallen angel. It seems that before God created human beings he created other free, imaginative and intelligent beings and that there was a rebellion within the spiritual realm before human beings even emerged.
A great deal of suffering can be explained as being the result of the fact that we live in a fallen world: a world where all creation has been affected, not only by the sin of human beings, but also before that by Satan’s sin. The serpent existed before Adam and Eve sinned. As a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, ‘thorns and thistles’ entered the world (Genesis 3:18). Ever since that time ‘the creation was subjected to frustration’ (Romans 8:20). ‘Natural’ disasters are a result of this disorder in creation.
Satan was allowed to bring several major tragedies into the life of a man who was blameless and upright, who feared God and shunned evil (Job 1:1). Job suffered loss in the areas of money, material possessions (vv.13–17), family life (vv.18–19), personal health (2:1–10) and, eventually, the support of his friends.
When we face unexplained suffering it can be very easy to blame God. Although Job did not know why he was suffering, he responded by continuing to trust and worship God in his suffering, just as he had in his good fortune (1:21,2:10). The writer tells us admiringly, ‘In all this, Job did not sin in what he said’ (v.10b). He remained faithful in the most difficult of circumstances.
Initially Job’s friends respond in the right way: ‘No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was’ (v.13). In the face of great suffering, attempts to rationalise can be counterproductive. Usually the most positive thing you can do is to put an arm around the person and ‘mourn with those who mourn’ (Romans 12:15), entering their suffering and participating as far as you are able.
In the end, God restored Job’s fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. Now we know that, through Jesus, God has all eternity to more than compensate for all your sufferings in this life.
Lord, when I see suffering help me to show compassion and weep with those who weep.
‘Even at night my heart instructs me.’
A lot of things come to mind in the middle of the night – often worries. In turning them into prayer, God can speak to us, instruct us, and our body can ‘rest secure’ (v.9).
[For a wider discussion about suffering, see Nicky Gumbel’s booklet: Why Does God Allow Suffering?
It is also available in chapter 1 of Nicky Gumbel’s book Searching Issues]
Verse of the Day
‘In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore’ (Psalm 16:11, NRSV)
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (William Collins, 2012).
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture quotations marked (AMP) taken from the Amplified® Bible, Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
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