This is certainly an ambitious topic to write about–one I’m sure I won’t even be able to truly uncover. However, it is a topic that has been coming up again and again with my students, in my Sunday school class, in my personal Bible study, and even in conversations with friends. How can God be good and allow suffering?
Truly, there are hundreds of books out there that have dealt with this question in more depth and with more clarity than I can even attempt; nevertheless, I will put my feeble answer out there because it might just help someone face whatever difficulties he or she might be enduring.
The first place in Scripture that you would most likely be pointed to in order to answer these questions is the book of Job. Job is living a righteous life and is prosperous. So good, in fact, that God even offers him up as an example of all that is good and noble in man. But then after this bold statement of affirmation God does something completely surprising, He gives Job over to Satan and allows him to test Job through the crucible of suffering. Satan wagers that the moment Job begins to suffer, his faith in God will disappear. But Job doesn’t give up. Granted, he isn’t happy. He even says he wishes he wasn’t born. And, more than anything, he desperately wants to know why God is allowing this. If you’ve read the book of Job, you know his friends don’t really help him either. They are confident that his suffering is a result of his sin no matter how vehemently Job denies any known wrong-doing. And then God shows up.
God doesn’t come on the scene sheepish and embarrassed for what he’s put Job through. He comes to remind Job and the others of a very important fact. They don’t have all the information.
“Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Job 38: 4-7
The resounding answer is that only God can tell us these things. Only He was there in the beginning. Only He has the knowledge needed to understand how the world began. And that’s not the limit to His understanding.
When we look at our world, we imagine suffering to be the worst thing that could possibly happen to us. We live in fear of it, in fact. We do everything we can to avoid suffering at any level: from managing the temperatures in our homes to planning and saving so that we are never in want. But what if suffering as we know it really isn’t the worst thing we can experience? What if there’s something worse than suffering? And what if it’s God’s highest goal to save us all from this fate that is worse than anything we can imagine?
If we understand that the true threat to us all is living in spiritual blindness and never really seeing, we might not be so afraid of pain. If we believed that pain could actually open our ears, so that we might hear God’s voice, we could fulfill James’ injunction to “…count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” (James 1:2) not because we are demented and actually enjoy pain, but because we can see that difficulties can be used to make us more real, more able to do something that really matters.
For those in the midst of real-life horrors, these words are probably no real comfort. But we have a host of witnesses who have gone before us and left us an example of how to walk when the way is dark and the heart is suffocated. In these times of darkness, there’s no reasoning with yourself that can be done. There’s only the cry of the heart to God for help to make it through each breath and a reaffirming moment by moment that we can, we will trust God no matter what we feel.
When it’s over, and the wound isn’t so raw, we can begin to learn and to grow. We now know how to comfort those who walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We now have a tenderness that we lacked before. We now have a trust in God’s ability to walk with us that will be a comfort for the future. And experience by experience, we learn to not be afraid. We learn to put our faith in a God who redeems all difficulties and who never, ever leaves us.
And like Job, we can say, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.” (Job 42:5). Job never got his questions answered–but he did get a better understanding of God. And it was enough.
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain