This is post is by Jeremy Evans (Ph.D., Texas A&M University). Evans serves as Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see the whole series on A God-Centered Worldview here.
Recently a woman asked me why God allows suffering. Her question stems from some circumstances in her life that she cannot mesh with the ideas that God is the loving and powerful creator of the world. It seems to her that God would govern His creation with more care, and attend to the suffering of his children with a greater manifestation of His presence rather than less. In all of this she has not felt God, nor has she received any confirmation that God was ordering these events toward something purposeful. As a result, her faith in God and participation in the church has disappeared. Unfortunately her story is common. In fact, as a pastor I see the darker side of the world on a weekly basis.
So what are we to make of this? I think there are several lines of thought to take concerning the suffering we see in the world, but before we attempt to answer “why” there is suffering it serves us well to remember answers to such questions are rarely satisfying. Admittedly this is anecdotal, but in my experience I have yet to find a person who is suffering admit they would be satisfied with their condition if they only had an answer as to why they were suffering; the problem of suffering is primarily an emotional or existential problem and less of an intellectual one. As such, the greatest need persons possess as they suffer is the comfort of a friend, acts of service to meet their life’s needs, and the mercy and presence of God saturating their body and soul. Even more, persons who are suffering are in need of hope, and answering the question “why” provides nothing of the sort, for the question “why” only illuminates the underlying cause of our suffering. The cancer patient has hope that their attending physician possesses the resources to cure their condition. In such a case the one suffering knows why they suffer—what they are looking for is the cause of their suffering to be addressed and the subsequent hurt to be healed. Accordingly, one can see the need for the Gospel to provide a complete account whereby the problem of suffering is addressed.
In the passion and resurrection of Christ we see both suffering and deliverance. The offer of salvation in Christ is a promise from God that we can, by his work, be delivered from a state of ruin and receive a body that is incorruptible and imperishable (1Cor 15:50-52) and a world that is put back to rights (Isa 25:8-12; Jn 14:2-4; Rev 7:13-17; Rev 21:4-8; Rev 22: 3-9). In other words, just as we go to a doctor with hope that they have the means to solve the problem, so we must go to God knowing that His inexhaustible resources are capable of overcoming our afflictions. This insight is especially important as we consider that only God has the power to address the ultimate concern—death. The gifts with which our attending physicians serve us only delay death, they do not overcome it. The culmination of the Gospel is that death has been addressed, as evidenced in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Hope, then, is based on two things: (1) the promise of God, who is faithful to see His word through, and (2) the resurrection of Jesus that demonstrates for us on this side of glory that God’s original plan in creation will be restored for those who love God (Rom 8: 28, 38-39).
Even though getting an answer to the question why will not likely emotionally satisfy anyone, it is still a question that remains. So what are some helpful ways of thinking about this? First, it must be remembered that the problem of suffering is one aspect of the problem of evil, but evil and suffering are not the same thing. Evil is a deviation from the ways things ought to be. Murder, rape, bearing false witness and hatred are all moral lapses—these things ought not be. However, we cannot say that every instance of suffering ought not be. The imprisoned murderer, isolated from the freedoms he once possessed as well as the benefits of family and home, suffers loss. It does not follow that his suffering ought not be. In fact, if a murderer is not in prison we recognize that justice has been neglected, which is a state of affairs that ought not be. Evil and suffering are therefore not the same. Personally this means that we must exercise care when we think that our suffering ought not be, and that God is derelict in His governance of creation. Our sufferings may demonstrate a lacking in our lives (e.g. a lack of comfort, use of limbs, eyesight), but such is not to say that our suffering should not be a part of our lives. Paul learned this lesson regarding his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12).
A second point, somewhat related to the first—we must remember that some of our suffering is due to the choices that we make. Subsequent to the fall God declared, “because you have done this (Gen 3:14)” and enumerated consequences for each participant in Eden’s corruption. As it pertains to the problem of suffering, God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing us to reap the consequences of our choices. Consequences can provide great insights into our need for moral reformation—to turn from what was lost in Adam’s rebellion and to reclaim God’s plan for creation by realigning our wills to His. That being said we cannot assume that all of our suffering is the result of personal sins. Both Job and Jesus suffered, but in neither case was it due to personal failures. It must be admitted that sometimes we suffer from the moral failures of others, and this is a feature of the messy world we indwell after the fall in Genesis 3.
Finally I propose a challenge. The church must remember that we are called to comfort others as Christ has comforted us (2 Cor 1:3-5). Such comfort requires sacrifice motivated by love. We must, as God’s ambassadors, invest more in caring for others as they suffer. To be fervent in prayer for them (James 5:16-18), to care for their physical needs (Mt 25: 35-40), and to be sacrificial with our talents as we are responsible to care for others in the ways that God has gifted us to do so (Lk 10:25-37). Otherwise the presence of God, which is to be manifested through the church and empowered by His Spirit, fails to be a presence for others in their greatest time of need. The one suffering might ask, “where is God?” God is asking “where is my church?”