Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow trials and suffering in our lives?  This question was posed to me at a worship at the end of last summer where I had a minute to answer.  I wanted to spend some time reflecting on this question in this blog edition. 
 
One only can to turn on any news channel, look on Twitter or Facebook and see the trials and sufferings going on in our world.  Whether it’s extreme temperatures, hate crimes being perpetrated, abortion or infanticide laws being promoted, cancer diagnoses, cops being shot, school shootings, black people being targeted, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorists exploding themselves killing others in the name of God, you need not go far to experience the pain of this world.  And people immediately ask: “Why?  Why did God allow this?” 
 
These tragic events are just added to the everyday pain and suffer you and I may experience in our individual lives.  There’s illness, abuse, broken relationships, betrayal, sorrow, injuries, disappointment, heartache, crime and death.  We all can easily ask the questions: “Why? Why me? Why now?”
 
It’s not a new question.  It goes back thousands of years.  It was asked in the Old Testament by Job and the writers of the Psalms, and it was especially relevant during the 20th century, where we witnessed two World Wars, the Holocaust, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, famines in Africa, the killing fields in Cambodia, the emergence of AIDS, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.  The 21st century did not start any better with 9/11, the Syrian slaughters, and on and on.  Why do all of these horrific things happen if there’s a loving and powerful God?  Why do bad things happen to good people?
 
Several years ago there was a national survey that asked people what question they’d ask if they could only ask God one thing.  The number one response was: “Why is there suffering in our world?” 
 
I don’t have an exact answer.  In fact, perhaps my best answer is: I DON’T KNOW.  But we have a tradition and perspective that might be helpful for considering suffering in this world.  Jesus himself was honest about the inevitability of suffering.  In John 16:33 he said, “You will have suffering in this world.”  Notice Jesus didn’t say “might”- he said it is going to happen. 
 
I don’t have God’s mind and can’t share his perspective in this world.  Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.”  Someday we will see with clarity, but for now things are foggy.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t grapple with the question of why God allows suffering in our lives.  We can understand some things. 
 
Back in December Amy and I took a trip to Verona to see the play “A Christmas Story.” On our way back home in the dark on 18/151, the conditions were perfect for a thick fog to settle in the area.  I could barely see the white stripe on the edge of the road.  Amy was anxious.  I didn’t want to stop because I was afraid someone might come along and rear-end us.  It was actually frightening!  But then a truck appeared in front of us and we could clearly see the taillights through the fog.  He had fog lamps in front.  I knew if we could just follow those taillights, we’d be headed in the right direction.  I think this might be a good analogy for trying to understand why there is tragedy and suffering in our lives.  We may not be able to make out all the details of why certain things happen, but there are some elements or faith truths that can be points of light for us so that we can remain headed in the right direction. 
 
1.)God is not the creator of evil and suffering.  Turn to Genesis in your Bibles and you will read in 1:31 that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”  If God created all to be good, where did evil, suffering and tragedy come from?  When God created the world in LOVE, he created us with the ability to love and the gift of free will to love or not to love.  Love always involves a choice.  Humans have abused that gift of free will by rejecting God and walking away from him.  Evil is the absence of good.  When the terrorists on 9/11 killed the pilots, took over the planes and flew into the Twin Towers and Pentagon all in the name of Allah, they had a perverted understanding of God.  God never would call us to harm one another.  Those terrorists created and undertook that malicious and evil plan.  You see when we walk away from the ultimate good- God- this allows evil to enter the world.  God knew we would rebel against him, but still created us knowing many would choose to have a relationship with him.  For God, it’s all worth it because of the potential for joy, love and meaning in our lives.  God is pure love and good. 
 
2.) Though suffering isn’t good, God can use it to accomplish good.  Romans 8:28 promises “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  Notice the verse doesn’t say God causes evil and suffering, just that he promises to cause good to emerge.  Also notice the verse doesn’t say we all will see immediately or even in this life how God caused good to emerge from a bad circumstance.  You and I are tempted to say: “No, God can’t bring good out of my circumstance.  The harm was too great, the damage was too extreme, the depth of my suffering has been too much.”  God’s promise is powerful and everlasting.  When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf back in 2005, the world’s eyes were opened to the extreme poverty in New Orleans and the South.  People from all over the world traveled to help rebuild the affected areas.  New relationships were formed and partnerships were made.  We can now look back and see how God’s grace and promise took suffering and used it to accomplish something good. 
 
3.) Our suffering will pale in comparison to the good things God has in store for us.  In Romans 8:18 we read: “I (Paul) consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  Remember Paul suffered through beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, imprisonments, rejection, hunger, thirst- far more than most of us will ever have to endure.  This is not to minimize pain and suffering, but sometimes we need to take a long-term perspective.  Here’s a way to consider this: What if on the first day of 2019 saw you have a root canal, get into a car accident, your stocks take a big dive and your spouse or child get sick?  But then every other day of the year was incredibly terrific.  You get a promotion, win the lotto, your health is good and you take a wonderful family vacation.  When someone asks in 2020 how was your 2019 you’d probably say “It was great and wonderful!”  You’d remember the first day and how bad it was but then look at the totality of the year and put it all in context.  The 364 terrific days outweigh the one bad day.  That day just fades away. 
 
Losing my mom on January 11, 1991 and my dad on January 7, 2017 were two extremely painful days in my life.  But I look back and see all the days I had with them and how much they were such positive, loving people in my life and not even those two days of death can take away the life mom and dad instilled in me.  I miss them every day but I focus on the good God had in store for them and now for me.  That’s the promise of God to us.  Let the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9 soak into your soul: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
 
4) We decide whether to turn bitter or turn to God for peace and courage.  I have sadly witnessed how suffering can cause people to turn bitter, to reject God, to become hard, angry and sullen.  I’ve also seen how suffering can cause another to turn to God, to become more gentle, more loving and tender and willing to reach out to compassionately help others who are in pain.  BLC recently offered “GriefShare”, a recovery support group for those grieving the loss of a loved one.  I saw first hand how those suffering from grief were compassionate walking with the others in the group through their pain, hardship and tears.  They became a support system for each other.  They turned to God instead of turning bitter.  What happens if we run towards God in our suffering and pain?  The possibilities are endless because God’s promise is limitless. 
 
I want to finish by returning to John 16:33. Here is the entire verse: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” God offers us the two very things we need when we’re hurting: peace to deal with our present and courage to deal with our future.  God always has the final word. 
 
 
Amy and I eventually made it through that thick fog by following the taillights of that truck.  The fog slowly began to lift and we made it back home with the lights of town eventually guiding us.  Things became clearer making it possible for us to see our way home.  God’s ultimate answer to suffering isn’t an explanation; it’s the incarnation.  God became one like us in all things…including experiencing and knowing suffering.  Jesus was betrayed, denied, accused, doubted, he cried seeing friends die, and he himself in his last breaths suffered tremendously.  Jesus travels into our deepest darkness.  Every tear we shed becomes his tear.  God doesn’t just sympathize with us.  He enters into us.  Turn to Him.  That’s the promise.  When the suffering comes and it will; when you’re wrestling with pain and you will, make the choice to run into his arms.  It will make all the difference in the world.  The question is not so much “Why,” but rather “Now what?”  I pray you will give your suffering and pain to the One who offers us the greatest promise ever. 
 
~P.J. 

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