Poole Christian Fellowship
‘The Big Issue’ Series
Why does God allow suffering?
Listen to this talk (or download – right click here and ‘Save as’):
The ‘problem of suffering’ can be especially acute for believers because it highlights the tension between our faith (‘God is good and all-powerful’) and our experience (‘life is bad/sad and my prayers were not answered’). There is also the unfairness of bad things happening to good (or innocent) people, and of evil people prospering (e.g. Hab. 1:13).
The question ‘why?’ contains in itself a useful ambiguity between cause and purpose.
Causes – different kinds of suffering
1. Some pain is the direct result of sin (breaking the moral law), misuse of the body or natural resources, bad decisions. Innate wickedness, particularly covetousness, leads to quarrels and wars (James 4:1-2). ‘The heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart.’ God allows suffering because He allows us the freedom to sin.
2. Some suffering is divine judgement, e.g. Ananias and Sapphire (Acts 5:1-11). To stop all suffering God would have to destroy all sinners, but present judgements should serve as a warning to repent (Luke 13:3), and as evidence of His patience.
3. Much of our pain is the result of living in a fallen world, which is itself ‘groaning’ (Rom. 8:22). We are all under the curse of physical death, and pain is not necessarily the result of an individual’s sin (‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…’, John 9:23). The new heaven and new earth have not yet arrived.
4. Christians suffer pain through persecution. Jesus warned that this would be so; the early church was born in persecution. It is, even, God’s will (1 Peter 3:17) and is an evidence of following in Christ’s footsteps (1 Peter 2:21). ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’
5. Some suffering is Satanic – spiritual forces may be at work about which we know nothing: e.g. Job never knew about Satan’s debate with God. See also Ephesians 4:12.
6. God sometimes allows suffering so that the deliverance can glorify Him. Examples: The man born blind (John 9:3), the death of Lazarus (John 11:4).
Purpose – ‘redemptive suffering’
The bottom line – the sovereignty of God (Romans 8:28)
1. Joseph. ‘You intended to harm me but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’. For many years he saw only ‘the back of the tapestry’ ; later, ‘the beautiful picture’ was revealed.
2. Job. The way he handled his suffering, especially his perseverance (James 5:10-11), proved and refined his faith: ‘Though he slay me yet will I hope in him’ (Job 13:15); ‘When he has tested me I shall come forth as gold’ (23:10). See also 1 Peter 1:6-7.
3. Jonah. ‘All your waves and breakers swept over me’ (Jonah 2:3, my italics). God’s corrective intervention turned his life around. Note also the parable of the prodigal son, and Hebrews 12:4-11 (‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons’).
4. JESUS. The greatest miscarriage of justice in history brought about the greatest good. The link between suffering and salvation – a crucified God – is a paradox that remains a mystery.
Responding to suffering
1. It can either make us better or bitter. The valley of Baca can be made a place of springs (Psalm 84:6). The early Christians were noted for the way they handled suffering (‘most severe trial… overflowing joy’, ‘extreme poverty… rich generosity’, 2 Cor. 8:2). The apostles rejoiced that they were found worthy to suffer for Christ (Acts 5:41); Paul and Silas sang songs in prison (Acts 16). ‘Testing’ is intended to produce perseverance, character and hope (Romans 5:3).
2. It is an opportunity to ‘see’ God. He often gives the greatest revelation to those who are suffering – Job, Habbakuk, John (on Patmos), John Bunyan in Bedford gaol. In fact, we can get a new perspective on the situation when we enter God’s presence (Psalm 73:17-20). Jacob’s encounters with God (Bethel and Peniel) happened when he was at his lowest.
3. God has promised to be with us in our suffering; his love is proved in our suffering as much as in our deliverances (Rom. 8:35-39) – in fact, we can be ‘more than conquerors’ in those circumstances that many would call disasters. Jesus knows all about it because He experienced it (Heb. 4:15). His grace is made available in our weakness, so that ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
4. Most ‘bad’ events can have some positive effects (e.g. volcanoes cause devastation but produce fertile soil). ‘Bad’ experiences give us the ability to identify with others in need and minister with credibility; an individual’s heartache has often driven them to social action. Even if we cannot explain suffering we can help to alleviate it and demonstrate God’s love to others.
5. However, we must be people of faith, believing that God can and does deliver us from our troubles (Psalm 72:12, 2 Cor. 1:9-11). We should be proactive in prayer, not just quiescent.
While in this life it is true that God allows suffering, we must remember that, finally, He will deal with it! He is going to judge sin, destroy death for ever, and wipe away all tears. We should aim to see the trials of this life for what they are:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth
comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us