If in the midst of suffering it may best to get through it than try to understand it. It can be helpful though to think ahead how we envision coping with suffering. Many seek to reconcile a belief in God with the harsh realities of sufferings in life. Lack of answers can make tragic times worse. Asking the question “Why is this happening to me or my loved one” can sometimes turn into “why God do you not love me.” How we define God’s role in suffering can determine whether our Creator is a friend or enemy during troubles times. I am writing about this subject in this format, hoping to inspire you to read a more detailed explanation in my book here.
For the purpose of discussion I view suffering as either deserved or undeserved resulting from personal or physical evil. Certain answers or rationalizations in answering the biggest philosophical challenge for the Christian faith – how evil and God’s goodness can co-exist – are totally unsatisfactory in explaining how God really cares since there is so much suffering in the world. Rational and relational coherence is important when it relates to God’s character. God doesn’t say “I am God, you aren’t, so shut up!” God wants us to know them. Close relationships, either personal or spiritual, are what inspire us to be the kind of persons we desire to be.
God is not a mystery – Why would God bother to communicate with words though the Bible if we can’t understand God? The story of Job doesn’t declare God a mystery. God simply rejected Job’s assumption that the wicked are judged or the righteous rewarded immediately. Job finally realized despite his suffering God still was just and had not abandoned him. Job accepted God knew best how to run a free universe. The OT does not suggest God’s ways are unexplainable or incomprehensible to the human mind. God’s ways are not always fully understood until the time of the event such as Jesus’ death and resurrection. Isaiah 55:9 does not say God’s ways are mysterious: “…so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” The context exhorts readers to forsake their wicked ways and thoughts and turn to God’s more moral ways and thoughts. For a biblical defense that God is not a mystery, please see here.
God is not the originator of evil – The presence of evil in our world is obvious, but evil is not something created. Evil originates in the hearts of human beings. Evil is a corruption of a good thing – human life created by God. God knew the first step toward them may be a step away in disobedience, but God desired people who could freely relate to God in love than out of fear. Evil could have only been avoided if God had not created humans or freedom. The view that God causes evil or suffering, rather than God uses evil or suffering to bring good, is morally and emotionally indefensible. God did not secretly will a rebellion against them so God could ride in on a white horse and save the world.
Freedom is important – Freedom, rather than control, is necessary for genuine relationships. Not even God can force true love. Authenticity, the highest good in relationships, is impossible without freedom. Without freedom we could accuse God of not creating the “best” world. God’s interference may actually prevent a superior world from developing as a result of the moral improvement of free creatures. No amount of good resulting from evil justifies the evil actions of others, but God will walk hand-in hand with us through any tragedy to bring good from it. If one assumes we will one day in heaven be unable to sin, why didn’t God simply create us as unable to sin from the beginning? It is plausible that having such choices is a necessary journey so that one day in heaven we are able to choose to not sin. Our moral progress here on earth may make self-centeredness impossible or at least highly unlikely in heaven.
God’s risk was worth it – Only preconceived notions of the meaning of the non-biblical word sovereignty insist God’s knows the future rather than the future is open. God knows what they are going to do but not the choices we will freely make. God not having such foreknowledge gives more integrity to passages that speak of God grieving or giving another chance. God knew the risks of freedom for the possibility of intimacy as do human parents. Are we wrong to bring children into a world hoping they will want to reciprocate our love but knowing our children could cause suffering or suffer at the hands of others? God doesn’t let a few rotten apples spoil the relationships they have with billions of people. Suffering is avoidable only if God had not created or allowed freedom. Few argue that no freedom is better than freedom. Only terrorists think destroying free, moral decisions results in true love.
Drawing the line at degrees of evil is easier said than done – C.S. Lewis suggested that wars, crimes, and injustices – evils that come through bad choices make by cruel and lawless people – account for at least 80% of humankind suffering. If God stops the murdering of millions by an evil dictator, why doesn’t God prevent every murderer, every sexual abuser, and all natural disasters not some? God should kill adulterers in their tracks because adultery destroys lives. Where does God draw the line to not make a mockery of freedom? God preventing freedom may be contrary to their nature. Maybe the destruction of one rebellious child in God’s eyes is one too many. Human parents nor God are necessarily sadistic just because they don’t squash freedom to avoid suffering. I, unlike God, often try to spare my children of any suffering though their pain may evolve into help for them and others. God really can’t win. God caused the flood but evil just grew back. God authorized wars in the OT to combat evil but is called a moral monster. Until we make the assumption that God prevents as much evil as possible without violating freedom and greater good, we may never be satisfied with God.
Preventing suffering requires instant justice and causes more evil – I don’t mean to be flippant by suggesting evil is good because of the end results. God doesn’t cause evil to accomplish good; God is determined to bring good from the evil choices of others. Allowing suffering may be the only way to redeem the world, when sin entered the world, while preserving freedom. We cannot prove there are no good moral reasons for allowing freedom resulting in so much evil. If God stops the bullet, the murderer may never change from killing even more people. A child can never reconcile with their father if God stops the beatings. Only a father can restore the love all children desire from their parents. Paul perhaps saw suffering as joyous because in God’s eternal world no sufferings are in vain. Instant justice doesn’t allow God to save as many children as possible by changing of their own free will. God clearly values mercy and forgiveness over instant justice. God is only guilty of not destroying evildoers instantly before decisions are made. God tolerates evil that God could stop in hopes many will come back to God before self-destructing.
God does intervene – God is tireless in working through individual lives to change the world. Could Hitler have been stopped if a few good people had gotten involved in his life as a child or when plotting his evils early on? Perhaps the only way to defeat evil in us, other than destroying at the first hint, is for us to persevere and overcome evil. God doesn’t derive pleasure by seeing us in pain but I experience greater moral growth during suffering than prosperity. It is best most of my prayers not be answered. Being rich often only leads to wanting to be richer at the expense of others. Jesus’ miracles turn heads but Jesus’ suffering changed the hearts of billions of followers. Lavishing gifts on our children doesn’t necessarily convey how much we love them or that we have an authentic relationship. The truth is sufferings enable us to better help and influence others in a free world that our prosperous times don’t. Personal tragedies or undeserved insults can empower us to be more sensitive to others in similar situations. Martin Luther King’s suffering moved the scales from the eyes of many how they tolerated bigotry. Suffering enables us to be of use to others in a world where suffering is inevitable.
Natural disasters are not easy to explain – Physical evils such as disasters of nature, diseases, or accidents cannot always be traced directly to a human’s freedom to inflict pain upon themselves or others. I lack scientific understandings to explain the cause of many natural tragedies. It does seem human accumulated mismanagement of the earth over thousands of years has brought destruction such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and earthquakes. Many diseases can be explained as not present in the beginning but have been brought on by human rebellion against God’s original design. Our freedom to oppose God led to all sorts of calamity including physical death, relationship problems, and environmental evils. I read that the earth is constructed of tectonic plates and when they collide, what is atop them can be destroyed. The shifting of these plates underground is not related to the changing mood of God. When tectonic plates under the earth collide, atop them may be a particularly densely populated, poorly constructed city in a country which has been poorly governed for centuries. Who made money out of greed in the construction of the city in the manner that it was, and why wasn’t a better warning system in place? It would seem rebellion against God set in motions the deterioration of physical nature as it did human nature.
God does have a solution – God has at least provided a hopeful ending to the mess we have created. God’s ultimate response to suffering caused by evil is the slow, necessary way of the Incarnation. The Bible as a whole suggests the Cross was not to satisfy some need in God at the expense of their Son but to satisfy a need in us at God’s expense. The Cross was to change our attitude about God, not God’s attitude toward us. When evil was chosen, suffering deserved or undeserved became part of God’s story to lead us of our own volition to a paradise appropriate for free beings. The Cross declares God’s unimaginable love and desire to influence us for our own good. Closer relationships, either personal or spiritual, are what inspire us to be the kind of persons we deep down truly want to be. Our demands for an all-powerful, invulnerable God comes at the expense of trusting God know best how to run the universe and change as many lives as possible through their own volition.