If God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, why does He permit so much human suffering? If God is all-powerful, it is in His power to stop suffering. If He is all-loving, it would seem that He would care enough to stop suffering. So why doesn’t He stop suffering?
Why does God allow suffering? This question has been raised in every generation. People often ask why God would allow a natural disaster, a painful illness, or a tragic killing. If God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, why does He permit so much human suffering? If God is all-powerful, it is in His power to stop suffering. If He is all-loving, it would seem that He would care enough to stop suffering. So why doesn’t He stop suffering?
Sometimes believers raise this question, and sometimes unbelievers raise this issue as a challenge to the Christian faith. As believers, we are called to “give an answer” for questions like these and for the hope that is within us (1 Pet.3:15).
The Bible does not answer all our questions about suffering. It is quite possible that we would not be capable of understanding the complexities of this mystery even if God explained everything to us. But Scripture does not leave us without any explanation concerning why God allows suffering.
Human suffering is experienced in at least three major categories – moral evil, physical suffering, and natural disasters. Moral evil is the result of people doing things that are harmful to themselves or others. Physical suffering is any form of physical or mental disease. Natural disasters cause suffering through storms, floods, fires, or earthquakes. An effective answer to the question of suffering must address all three of these categories.
The Bible offers at least four themes in response to human suffering:
The first theme is that God cares. In talking with those who are hurting and are asking “why” questions, it is important to stress three important truths: God cares for us always; Jesus knows what our suffering is like because He too experienced suffering; God has provided the ultimate solution to suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. These biblical affirmations are foundational to any Christian explanation of human suffering.
A second response to suffering is human sinfulness. One major biblical explanation for human suffering is that we bring suffering on ourselves, and others, by the sinful exercise of our free will. God could have created a “puppet world” in which people had no freedom, but He created us in His image with the capacity for fellowship with Him. To possess God’s image and to be in fellowship with Him imply that we must have the freedom to choose. Love can’t be compelled; it must be freely chosen. Freedom is a “necessary evil” for persons to have a truly meaningful relationship with God. By creating a good world with human freedom, God created the possibility of evil, which was actualized by sinful humans. Human depravity leads to countless evils. God evidently viewed freedom and fellowship with Him to be worth the price that these require in human suffering.
The overwhelming majority of human suffering is thus due to self-inflicted wounds. People suffer as a result of their own poor choices and fallen values. The Centers for Disease Control have estimated that about 80 percent of human suffering is caused by our own actions and lifestyles. Natural disasters were one of the effects of the Fall and because of our fallen values we often pay the price for our inadequate preparation for potential disasters. Much human suffering results from human sin.
Another response to human suffering is Divine discipline. The Bible teaches that God sometimes sends or allows suffering in order to teach us something. God disciplines those whom He loves. His discipline is a sign of His love rather than His wrath. As we suffer, we should ask ourselves what God is trying to teach us or what good can come out of it. If God rescued us out of all suffering, our faith would never be tested. Growing in godliness and faith requires that we learn to walk by faith without knowing all the answers. God’s goal for our lives is not perfect comfort, but spiritual maturity. We know God by faith, not by sight. In some ways He is “hidden” from our view so that we must learn to live by faith, not by our own strength. As C. S. Lewis put it, pain is God’s megaphone to get our attention. Natural evil and physical suffering make us aware of our human finitude and our need for dependence on God. Suffering rips away our self-sufficiency and drives us God-ward.
Sometimes we suffer because we are believers. We should rejoice when we experience persecution, knowing that such challenges produce spiritual fruit in our lives.
A fourth theme concerning human suffering is eternal reward. We are assured in Scripture that however severe human suffering may be in this life, it is small against the backdrop of all eternity. All wrongs will be righted, the faithful rewarded and the evil punished. As the old hymn says, “We’ll understand it better by and by.” Whatever the evil of this world may be, it will be more than compensated for in the world to come.
We are not given answers to all of our “why” questions; much is left to mystery. But the Bible affirms that the suffering of the righteous is not without compensation. Suffering is not pointless and it is not the final word. However unjust the suffering of the righteous may seem in this life, our heavenly reward will provide incredible blessing through all eternity.