[This is a response to a question shared on a "Talk Back" card at our church.]
When I was in Europe, I took a midnight train from Paris to Zurich. I was too cheap to pay for a sleeping car, so I ended up talking all night with a man named Yacov. Yacov described himself as a secular Jew. He is Israeli and grew up in Israel. He was educated in the Jewish faith.
However, when he saw a documentary on the Holocaust in school, he became an atheist. He said to himself, “There is no such thing as God or the chosen people, or else this would not have happened.”
Yacov is not alone. Many people have lost faith in God because of the suffering they see in the world. How can a loving God allow so much suffering? This is a huge question.
Take a minute and think about one instance of serious suffering. It can be something you went through, something that happened to someone you know, or something you just heard about. You can make it as personal or impersonal as you want.
How can a loving God allow so much suffering? This is one of the hardest questions for both Christians and non-Christians. I want to give a few disclaimers before we set into our discussion tonight.
1. The Bible does not give a complete answer to this question. The Bible is more focused on how to overcome suffering rather than focusing on why there is suffering in the first place.
2. There is no way that I can give a complete answer today. You and I both will probably leave here feeling at least a little unsatisfied with the answers we talk about today. Even though I can’t answer the question completely, I hope that I can at least make this issue more manageable for us.
When we face the problem of suffering in the world, it can be overwhelming. I get sick of hearing the news about all the bad stuff that is happening in our world. When I hear about all the starving people in Africa, I get frustrated because there doesn’t seem like much I can do. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, murders … they all pile up, causing us to wonder how a loving God could allow so much suffering.
Sometimes, the mountain of pain gets bigger and bigger, and we get smaller and smaller, until we can’t see anything else but the pain. One thing I hope to do today is to shrink that mountain. The problem is not as bad as it sometimes seems.
For the next 15 minutes or so, I’m going to talk about different kinds of suffering and their sources. When I get to the kind of suffering represented on your card, try to listen closely to see if my explanation adequately explains how God can still be a loving God even though that bad thing happened. O.K., lets break this down into bite size pieces and look at different kinds of suffering.
First, let’s look at self-inflicted suffering. Some examples of this are liver failure due to alcoholism, STD’s (most of the time), and failing a test due to not studying. This category covers the bad things that come upon us because of our own bad choices. It is obviously not fair to blame God for stuff that we brought on ourselves.
Next is suffering caused by the bad choices of others. This would include a long list of personal crimes or wrongs committed by one person against another. It also includes large scale suffering caused by wars or societal crimes like racial discrimination.
The third category of suffering is poverty related suffering. Things like starvation, lack of medical care, and other ills that go along with chronic poverty fall into this category. Often the victims of this kind of suffering didn’t do anything at all to bring this upon themselves. They were just born in the wrong place at the wrong time. There also aren’t any obvious culprits like there are personal crimes.
However, the hard truth is that almost all of the suffering in this category could be prevented if people would share. The United States alone has the capacity to feed the entire world. The resources are available to humankind to prevent almost all poverty, but we do not share with each other. The suffering in this category isn’t God’s fault; it’s ours.
The next category is seemingly random accidents. Some examples are no fault car wrecks, electrical shorts, and athletic accidents. The accidents are basically random, yet the accidents were a known risk. We know that electricity can cause fires, but we take that risk. We know that people can fall off horses, but we take that risk. This comes down to human choice in relation to human risk.
In almost all of the types of suffering we’ve talked about so far, the root issue is the freedom of choice. C.S. Lewis, a famous Christian writer, estimated that 80% of all suffering is due to human choice.
Why did God give such free reign? Why did he give us free will? God could have made us all robots, so that everyone always did what is right and no one ever got hurt.
To understand why God didn’t make us like that, it may be helpful to project ourselves into the future. Imagine that the technology arose to create human robots. The technology has already been imagined in the Stephen King book and movie Artificial Intelligence. Imagine that someone began to market the perfect spouse that looked and felt like a real human being. He or she would be exactly what we like and would do everything exactly the way we like it. The house is always clean; omelets in the morning; always wants to cuddle however long or short we want to; always looks and acts like the day you were married; no chance of unfaithfulness.
It sounds kind of tempting; doesn’t it? But why wouldn’t we really do that? What would be the cost of marrying a robot? [Get responses from the audience.]
The companionship would be hollow and fake. The other partner in the relationship would have no mind of its own. Because the robot can’t actually choose not to be with us, it hasn’t actually chosen to be with us either. With the loss of the capacity to choose, comes the loss of the capacity to love.
Most of us in our heart of hearts would still choose a real live person, even with all the risks and the work that entails. We want real love and genuine companionship, not something that can be created in a factory.
We are like that because God created us like himself. The Bible says he made us “in his image.” God wants real love and genuine companionship, too. That’s why he made us. That’s why he gave us free will, the ability to choose between right and wrong, the ability to choose to be with him or not.
He knew that involved a lot of risks for us, but the value of relationship out weighs all the risks on God’s scales. He isn’t selfish in this either. The value of relationship is a two way street. Freedom of choice is worth the risks for us, too. We reap the benefits of relationship with God and our fellow humans.
This says a lot about relationship. Human suffering is vast and weighs heavily on the scales, yet the value of relationship outweighs all of that risk and pain. Relationship with God and relationship with each other must be immensely important!
The last category is the hardest to explain. It is natural disasters and diseases, hurricanes, tornadoes, cancer, etc.
However, even some of this suffering is due to human choice. Some people choose to live in dangerous areas. Nobody has to live in Florida or California. We could make room for them. However, some people are forced to live in dangerous areas. Not many Haitians could afford to move to a safer place, yet they are in hurricanes’ paths almost every year.
Another factor is that we could be unknowingly causing our own diseases. Who knows how many of our diseases are due to technology or lack of hygienic development?
We didn’t know about asbestos or Phen Phen. Cell phones and power lines could be major carcinogens. Not long ago, I saw a news report that there is a chemical in deep fried foods that causes cancer in lab rats. Not only do French fries clog our arteries, they may give us cancer, too.
A more traditional theological answer to this kind of suffering is that sin disrupted the way the entire world functions. Not only did Adam and Eve’s sin have personal consequences, the entrance of sin into the world was so dramatic that it disrupted the atmosphere and the working of the earth itself. The idea is that there never would have been earthquakes and tornadoes if no one had ever sinned. I’m not sure I completely buy that, but it’s possible.
I am not completely satisfied. There are other questions and issues relating to this topic that we didn’t have time to get into, but hopefully we’ve made some progress in getting perspective on the size of the problem.
How big is the problem? If you feel that we haven’t dealt with the suffering on your card beyond a reasonable doubt, so that you can see how God can still be a loving God and allow that suffering, hold up your card.
Look around the room. How many of the cards are still in the air? There are fewer maybe even a lot fewer than there were at the beginning. The problem of suffering is real, but it is not as big as it sometimes seems.
What is God’s response to human suffering? What does God do or what has God done about all of this?
First of all, he teaches us how to minimize suffering. Following the teachings of the Bible will not shield us from all suffering, but it will minimize the suffering that we bring on others and ourselves.
He uses suffering. An honest look at the Bible reveals that God causes some suffering as a means of discipline. The Biblical authors use the analogy of a parent spanking a child to correct his behavior.
However, God can use all suffering. Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic after an accident had this to say about suffering. When we suffer, “we become like [Jesus] in that we die to the sins for which he died. Suffering provides a context in which to do that. In suffering we also die to worry. We die to fear. We die to grumbling about the inconvenience of the weight of our [burdens].” God can take whatever has happened to us and use that to make us stronger and/or more able to help others.
Most importantly, God enters with us into suffering. We see this most clearly in the life and death of Jesus. Jesus lived on earth just like we do. He walked, talked, cried, and slept. The Bible specifically says that sometimes Jesus got hungry, thirsty, stressed out, and tired. Human suffering punched him in the face when his cousin John, the Baptist, was beheaded for speaking out for what is right. After three years of public ministry, Jesus was crucified. The Romans nailed Jesus to a wooden cross through his hands and feet and hung him there until he died. Jesus, who is both God and man, knows human suffering because he experienced it as a human.
Joni Eareckson Tada explains it like this, “When we suffer, when we go through hardships or affliction, we may have questions about the goodness of God. But the thing that is so wonderful to me about God is that He does not sidestep suffering. The God of life conquered death by embracing it. Jesus destroyed the power of sin by letting it take Him to the cross. He doesn’t explain away our suffering with a bunch of words. He is the Word made flesh – bruised, bloody, beaten, gouged, spat-upon, scorned. My heart is wounded by my suffering, but it comforts me to know that Jesus was terribly wounded on the cross. I’m in a wheelchair. It means so much that God was wounded on my behalf.”
It is important to remember that God answers “Who?” not “Why?” Rusty Wright follows along that same line of thought, “When I see God, items on my long list of questions for Him will include a painful and unwanted divorce, betrayal by trusted coworkers, and all sorts of disappointing human behavior and natural disasters. Yet in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection I have seen enough to trust Him when He says He ‘causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God’ (Rom. 8:28).”
Well, we’ve looked at a lot today. But what is or ought to be our response to suffering? First of all, voice your complaints to God. We talked about this in our talk on prayer. God is not afraid of our anger. We need to let him have it. Things have gone wrong in this world, and it is good to talk to God about that.
Second, don’t turn away from God. When Billy Graham addressed grieving families after the Oklahoma bombing, he said some very profound words. “Times like this will do one of two things: they will either make us get hard and bitter and angry at God or they will make us tender and open and help us reach out in trust and faith. … I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your souls, but you will turn in faith and trust God even if we cannot understand. It is better to face something like this with God than without Him” (emphasis mine).6
Interview with Stasi Dishman
Next, I want to let you hear from someone who has gone through a lot of suffering yet has held on to her Christian faith. I met Stasi in college when a friend asked me to feed her. I started out as her helper and became her friend. She needs help with tasks that are routine to us, yet she graduated college and is pursuing a masters degree in psychology.
Stasi usually uses a word board to communicate. Perhaps Stasi can help us understand suffering from a different perspective. What follows here is the transcript of an interview with Stasi.
Stasi, tell us about some of the suffering you have experienced.
I was born with cerebral palsy which meant I had to have a lot of surgeries when I was a child. Plus having a disability comes with many social obstacles. I have had a struggle with clinical depression.
Have you ever blamed God or questioned him about the way your life has gone?
Yes, many times, and God can handle it.
How has God responded to your suffering?
He gave me what I needed when I needed it, not what I thought I needed but what I truly needed.
With everything that has happened to you, why do you still believe in God and follow Jesus Christ?
Because God is the only one who knows what true suffering is.
How do you answer the question, “How can a loving God allow so much suffering?”
To me it’s like the old saying of making lemonade out of lemons. God always makes lemonade out of suffering.
It comes down to a trust issue. The basic issue is: Will we trust God in the midst of suffering even though we don’t fully understand?
There is a step of faith. However, the step of faith is not a leap of Evil Kaneval proportions over the canyon of human suffering. Rather, it is more like a jump across a three-foot wide gap that we have seen others jump before us. To top it off, we are not jumping into nothingness. We are jumping into the strong arms of a loving God who has passed through the chasm of suffering when he died on the cross.
Hebrews 6:19 “We have this hope,” that God is good and will ultimately take care of us, “as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
In the final analysis we are in a similar predicament to the disciples in John chapter 6. Jesus had just given some of the most difficult teaching of his life, and many of his followers abandoned him. Then, Jesus turned to Twelve Apostles and asked, “Are you going to leave me, too?” Peter responded wisely, “Lord, to whom would we go? You alone have the words that give eternal life” (John 6:66-8).
When we are faced with the irresolvable difficulties of life, and it seems that life and God are both unfair, our best choice is to bring that pain to God if for no other reason, than that He is the best place to go. Life doesn’t always make sense, but when we look at the available options, Christianity makes the most sense.
After telling about his latest trip to the American Holocaust Museum, one Jewish Christian explained that the Bible’s answer to the problem of suffering still feels incomplete, but that even in its incompleteness, it is still the best answer we’ve got.7
[This answer was originally one lesson in a teaching series called The Journey in which Josh takes an honest look at Christianity's biggest and most challenging questions. Check it out.]