This has to be one of the most common subjects when a ‘religious’ element enters our discussion. It’s an issue with which every Christian struggles. And it’s a popular reason not to take Christianity seriously. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Christians feel the tension far more than others because we believe passionately in a God of love and a God of power. The non-Christian believes in neither.
But once again we’ll think about the answer to four questions
- What do people mean?
- Why do they say it?
- What’s wrong with what they say?
- How can we progress the conversation?
1. What do people mean when they say that?
People could be asking this question for one of two reasons
- It could be asked for personal reasons. In which case they perhaps don’t need answers. They want a companion to sympathise with them. They want support and help not an argument or philosophical debate. I still remember with shame my attempt to deal with this issue at the funeral of a friends’ twin boys who died in childbirth. What I said wasn’t untrue, it wasn’t awful; it was just not what they needed.
- It could be asked for theoretical reasons. They have intellectual issues that need to be answered. The assumption that underlies some people’s objection is that if God were all powerful and all loving then surely he’d both be willing and able put an end to all suffering. The fact that suffering continues in the world provides reason for some to assume that God is either not all-powerful, or that he is not all-loving, or that he does not exist.
How we advance the discussion depends on having the discernment to work out how and why people are stating the question.
2. Why do they say that?
It seems logical. And it seems unanswerable. Therefore it provides reason for keeping Christianity at arms’ length.
And so many unbelievers think that it’s their issue. In truth it’s not. It’s ours. We feel the issue more acutely than anyone!
- We worship a loving and compassionate God who cannot enjoy the pain of His world.
- And we also worship an almighty and powerful God who directs the course of His world.
Christians share a desire with non-Christians to know why this loving God doesn’t use his power to change this world. But the Christian accepts that there are some things we don’t know. But that what we know about God is sufficient to persuade us that suffering, though painful, isn’t pointless. And in the end we have to trust that God has His own good reasons for sending suffering but humbly acknowledge that those good reasons are often kept from us.
3. What’s wrong with what they say?
Here are four issues that I have with the objection
1. It fails to realise that we’re to blame for suffering
All suffering is ultimately our fault. None of it is God’s.
That’s obvious for moral evil. Most of the suffering people experience is directly attributable not to God but to human selfishness. Vengeance, hatred and selfishness cause wars. Indifference and exploitation cause famine. Selfish ambition, neglect and self interest breed injustice. The existence of suffering in the world questions not so much God’s goodness but humanity’s innocence.
But it’s also true for natural evil. We’re to blame for natural disasters or personal sickness, because of our sin. When God created the world there was neither evil nor suffering. But the world has been caught up in our rejection of God. We’ve rebelled against our Creator and are suffering the consequences in a corrupted creation. Our sin caused God’s curse on creation.
The Christian admits that God is not the one to blame for suffering, we are.
2. It fails to realise that God is involved in our suffering
God is not detached, remote and unfeeling. He cares for His creation. The image of God as a remote deity who delights to smite his creatures with pain and destruction is a million miles away from the Bible’s depiction of him as a compassionate saviour.
- He knows what it is to face suffering through the life and death of Jesus Christ knowing firsthand what it was to suffer.
- He experiences humanity’s pain in suffering and promises comfort
- He provides the resources we need to cope
The Christian rejoices that God is not detached from our suffering.
3. It fails to realise that God can use our suffering
God permits suffering to happen because there’s good that can only come through the experience of bad things.
- Suffering can produce character. The experience of hardship, persecution and suffering can create maturity and depth of character that we would otherwise never know.
- It can force us to consider the realities of life and death. As CS Lewis said, ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our consciences, but shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world’. God is being very good to us as He rouses us from our slumber.
The Christian trusts that God is accomplishing something good even in the midst of painful personal anguish.
4. It fails to realise that God will end our suffering
God has already demonstrated that He’s going to do something wonderful for us and end our suffering. He sent his own Son to endure the suffering that sinful humanity should experience for the way we’ve treated Him. But God has acted so that we won’t have to face the worst suffering of all time; the outpouring of His righteous anger. This is the act of a compassionate God who loves those whom He’s created.
But one day God will end suffering once and for all. He will destroy this world and create a new one. Of this future physical place, the Apostle John wrote that it was a place where there would be no more crying, mourning or death (Revelation 21).
This life isn’t it. Suffering reminds us that there’s another world coming. God has done something wonderful to secure our eternity in a world of painless perfection. And so the Christian is convinced that God will act to end suffering.
4. How can we make progress?
These are a few lines of enqury worth pursuing.
Do you understand how the cross unlocks the issue of suffering?
Do you think it’s possible for a God worthy of the name to be all powerful and all loving and yet to have reasons to permit suffering?
No one knows why God allows suffering but the Bible calls us to trust him. Do you think that the God of the Bible is worth trusting?
Have you realised the awfulness of the alternative?
If we ditch the idea of God then the problem of suffering disappears. It’s an easy solution. But I don’t like where it takes us. In a godless universe, suffering can be viewed simply as a necessary feature of life, rather than as a rude intruder. Suffering is an essential part of the natural selection which brings about the evolution of the species. If the lion eats the antelope, that’s just par for the course in the survival of the fittest. In atheism we’re simply animals with clothes on, so suffering is the way to weed out the weak. And so the consistent atheist should rejoice in suffering not revile it. Are you really happy with that?