Why a loving God would allow his creation to suffer is one of the most challenging questions to answer. Sometimes God is directly to blame for suffering (e.g. natural disasters), whereas other times human sin creates the suffering – or make natural disasters a whole lot worse. Either way, God has created a world where suffering is permitted. This means that we can exercise free will and choose whether to follow God. God also uses suffering as a ‘tool’ to promote personal growth.
What is suffering?
Suffering comes in many shapes and sizes, but can be loosely defined as ‘The state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.’ Some common causes of suffering include: disease / illness / death, war, accidents, natural disasters, poverty, or human unkindness.
Is God to blame?
Many types of suffering result from individuals doing the wrong thing. For example, the suffering that comes from unkindness in human relationships. Other types of suffering have their root in living in a broken world (Rom 8:22), where the impact of natural disasters, disease, accidents, poverty, death, and other causes of suffering is made a whole lot worse by the inequality of human preparation for or response to these issues. However, fundamentally, God either directly causes suffering (e.g. natural disasters aka 'acts of God') or stands by and lets suffering happen when he could intervene. So, whilst ‘blame’ is a loaded word, I think it’s fair to say that God is ultimately responsible for suffering. Isa 45:7 seems to support this, where God claims responsibility for creating darkness and light, calamity and good. These seem to be paralleled: darkness isn’t a “thing” per se; it’s the absence of light. Could it be that evil isn’t itself a “thing”, it’s the absence of good? This could explain how God, who can’t look upon evil (Hab 1:13), could claim responsibility for its existence!
Why has God created a world including suffering?
Well, he didn’t. At least not at first. Adam and Eve’s existence in the Garden of Eden seemed to be free from suffering, and it was only after they had disobeyed God that suffering entered the world. You can see the beginnings of most types of suffering Genesis 3, which described the fall of Adam and Eve (e.g. lost innocence in v7, separation from God in v8 and v23, fear in v10, blame in v12, deception in v13, enmity in v15, pain in childbirth in v16, a cursed ground in v17-19, toil in v19, and, of course, death in v19). So, the appearance of suffering was a direct consequence of Adam and Eve exercising their free will. Now, whilst it is conceivable that God could have created a different model for the world that permitted the exercise of free will without the suffering, he chose not to do this (perhaps because of the benefits of suffering – see below). It is comforting in a way to know that God shared in our suffering world, through his Son, to secure eternal life for us – the action of an active saviour rather than a distant God.
But why has God done this to me?
Having an answer as to why God allows suffering in the world is not the same as having an answer as to why this particular bad thing has caused me suffering, right here and now. I think there are two possible ways of reconciling each individual episode of suffering: either everything happens for a reason, or sometimes bad things happen for no reason. The idea that everything happens for a reason is supported, on the face of it, by Rom 8:28-30:
‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.’ (Rom 8:28-30, ESV).
This verse certainly does not support the idea that life will be rosy all of the time, whichever way you look at it. I tend to think the verses mean that God will somehow work it out over the course of a Christian’s life, regardless of the bad things that happen. The NIV chooses a translation more along these lines:
‘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.’ (Rom 8:28, NIV).
The idea that sometimes bad things happen for no reason (other than chance) is supported by Jesus’ description of the Tower of Siloam and the Galileans killed by Pilate (Luke 13:1-5) and the man born blind (John 9:3-4). Also, if every single event is orchestrated by God, where’s the free will in that? Finally, believing that God is directly behind each bad thing that happens to you is a pretty unhealthy place to be, and could very easily foster feelings of blame and resentment.
The benefits of suffering?
It might seem bit topsy-turvy, but suffering can have some benefits! God uses the analogy of a parent disciplining a child to explain how suffering can improve character (Heb 12:5). In fact, a few passages teach that suffering is something to be embraced (2 Tim 2:3, Rom 5:3-5). We’re not talking self-flagellation and wearing sack-cloth – but an attitude that anticipates suffering and is prepared to see it as a way to grow as a Christian.
The short answer
There really is no short answer to the question of why God allows suffering. But sometimes one is required (I’m thinking a 2 minute chat with a colleague by the water cooler). Whilst individual and societal human failings contribute greatly to most suffering we see today, God has created a world where suffering happens. This seems to be mainly to allow us to exercise our free will so that we can choose whether to follow God (or not). Suffering also has some ‘fringe benefits’ in developing a godly character. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of Biblical support for the idea that “everything happens for a reason”. Instead, it seems that God will work through all things – good and bad – over the lifetime of a Christian to lead them to glory.
It won’t last forever…
Finally, whatever you have been through, are going through, or will go through, it is only temporary suffering that will be healed when the world is healed after Jesus returns to the earth:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (Rev 21:3-4, ESV)