You Asked For It #7: How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?

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Here’s the audio for the message.

Simply turn on the TV, go to CNN.com or open up any newspaper or magazine, and we quickly see that things are not the way they are supposed to be.  Whether it’s images of the earthquake in Haiti, crime reports of yet another murder on our city streets, greed run amuck at the expense of ordinary people trying to make an ordinary living, or even the suffering that we have gone through in our own lives… it doesn’t take long to come to the conclusion that things are not the way that they are supposed to be.  We live in a world filled with suffering, pain, and evil.  At some point in our lives, we will wrestle through this question… and for those of us that believe in God, the pain that suffering and evil produces often prompts us to cry out “God, where are You?”  Here’s the question that can challenge our faith and has even lead some away from faith:  How can a good God allow suffering?

Here’s how we are going to approach this question… from three perspectives and responses: (1) Philosophically where we’ll look at the classic question of the problem of evil and how we can approach it philosophically; (2) Biblically where we’ll look at several biblical texts that point us in the direction of a God who is all-loving and all-powerful; and (3) Personally where we’ll get to the heart of the matter in how we respond in our own lives.

#1 Philosophical

The Problem of Evil. The problem of evil has been used by many philosophers to challenge the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, good God. The problem of evil looks like this: an all-loving God would eliminate evil, an all-powerful could eliminate evil, yet evil still exists.  So one of three things has to be false.  Either God is not all-loving or all-powerful or evil doesn’t exist.

Responses to the Problem of Evil. There are several responses to this “problem.”  Atheism simply argues that an all-loving, all-powerful God must not exist.  Finitism argues that God isn’t all-powerful, and He’s unable to control or stop evil.  This is the approach advocated by the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Illusionism, which is represented in many Eastern religion and philosophies, denies evil all together… evil is simply an illusion.

Types of Evil (Moral & Natural). When we talk about evil and suffering, we tend to speak of two types of evil: moral and natural.  Moral evil is caused by the choices and actions of free moral agents and the evil that results… crime, war, cruelty, murder, racism, etc.  Natural evil does not involve human willing and choice and is seen in earthquakes, tornados, volcanic eruptions, and even diseases that rack our bodies such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Approaches to “resolving.” There are several ways in which we can approach the problem of evil and move towards a resolution of this question from a philosophical and apologetic level.

  • Free will.  This is where many classical apologists will go in that God created humanity with free will and therefore, humanity is free to rebel against God and cause moral evil, and even contribute to natural evil. So evil is caused by human free will, and God is “true” to His design of a free humanity
  • God “permits” evil. What is key to state up front is that God is never the author of evil… He is never the primary cause of evil and a result that is ultimately good never justifies the evil that is perpetrated. J.L Mackie, a philosopher who wrote a book called The Miracle of Theism stated: “if a good and powerful God exists, he would not allow pointless evil, but because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist.”  Now, here’s the fallacy in this type of argument… the hidden premise is that if evil appears pointless to me then it must be pointless.  Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean that there can’t be a good reason… you just can’t imagine it.  With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons and outcomes for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life.  So why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them?

The Evidence for God.  Might the reality that our world wrestles with the problem of evil possibly be evidence for God?  C.S. Lewis originally rejected the idea of God because of the cruelty that he saw and experienced in life.  But as he began to “reason” through his atheism, he realized that his notion of justice in contrast to cruelty was actually evidence for God.  In Mere Christianity, he wrote:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?… Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own.  But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies… Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple (p.30).

The problem of evil is just as much a problem for atheism as it is for theism.  Perhaps the problem of evil, once used as evidence against God, is actually evidence for God.

#2 Biblical

I want to take us to three passages from the Bible that will hopefully give us a different perspective on suffering and evil.  I don’t think they ultimately relieve the tension or even ease the pain experienced in the midst of suffering, but these passages can and will strengthen our faith that we do have a all-powerful, all-loving, good God.

1. Genesis 45:5-8; 50:20.  The background of this passage is the selling of Joseph into slavery by his brothers because they were jealous of him (and partly because Joseph had a tendency to act like a punk… which still doesn’t excuse the evil done against him).  Years later Joseph is in Egypt and in the #2 leadership position of the entire country.  There is a famine in the land of Canaan where Joseph’s family lives, so they go to Egypt to find food… and they find themselves before Joseph, but they don’t recognize him.  Ultimately he reveals himself to them, and here’s how he responds to what they did against him.  Notice that Joseph does not excuse the “evil” that was perpetrated against him.  He has had years to process it, and in those years with everything that have gone on, Joseph arrives at a different perspective in 45:5-8: “God sent me before you to preserve life.”  God is seen as the One who sent Joseph to Egypt.  “God meant it for good” even as Joseph’s brother’s intentions of harming him were evil.  Two thoughts about this perspective.  First, from the Hebrew perspective, everything that happened was from the hand of God.  “God sent…” God is the subject of the action… the One doing the sending.  The Hebrew mindset didn’t differentiate between primary and secondary causes.  They viewed God as sovereign and all-powerful, so whatever happened, whether God caused it or allowed it, He was involved because He is God.  Second thought… once again, God is never the author of evil.  Joseph’s brothers are responsible for the evil that they committed even though God permitted it and ultimately used the tragedy and suffering for a good outcome.

2. Romans 8:28. In the larger context of this passage, Paul is talking about suffering and weakness… especially when we don’t understand the larger picture.  “All things” means “all things.”  God in His all-powerful and all-loving nature causes all things, which includes evil and suffering, to be used for good to “those how love God… to those who are called according to His purpose.”  And then as the rest of the passage goes, God has a huge plan that includes us, and nothing, even suffering and evil, will separate us from God and His great love for us.  Even though this passage doesn’t explain the “why” of suffering and evil, it gives us the perspective that God is huge and actually does have a plan which includes making good out of our suffering… and that plan is ultimately for His glory and for our good.

3. 1 Peter 2:21-25.  Peter is writing to Christians who are going through intense persecution and suffering because of the utterly evil actions of the Roman Emperor Nero.  And even in the midst of that, Peter is telling these 1st century Christians that they need to have the perspective of Jesus.  He tells them of the God who suffers on our behalf. It is the suffering of God through the cross of Jesus Christ, the perfect, innocent sufferer, who has given us the opportunity to have our sins forgiven so that we might return to the “Shepherd and Guardian of your souls”… the One who is all-loving and all-powerful… the One who will take care of you even in the midst of pain and suffering.

#3 Personal

As we get to the personal perspective on suffering, I want to leave you with two final personal and pastoral thoughts:

God has a purpose in our suffering, even when we don’t know what it is. I’ve said this before, but I find in the Bible, in my own experience and as a pastor that God rarely answers the “why” question of suffering.  And perhaps that’s where faith comes in.  We can wrestle through the philosophical and biblical perspectives on suffering and even if we relieve the tension of the question “how can a good God allow suffering?” it often does not relieve the pain.  I do fully believe that God has a larger purpose and plan, even when I don’t know what it is.  We so want to know what that plan is… but I don’t think we’ll see the full extent of the plan on this side of eternity.  That’s what Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.  Our suffering is not pointless and eternal but purposeful and temporary.

I don’t know if you’ve been following the story of Pastor Matt Chandler.  Matt, husband and father of three young children, is a 35-year-old pastor of The Village Church, a church of 6,000 in the Dallas, TX metroplex.  On Thanksgiving Day, he had a seizure, and the tests that followed revealed a massive brain tumor.  For the past three months Matt has been in the battle of his life with surgery, chemo, and radiation.  His fight with brain cancer has been featured in the national news and in Christianity .  Here’s what the Christianity Today article said:

Chandler has been preaching lately about the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, the moving description of leaders such as Samson, David, and Samuel who stopped the mouths of lions and put foreign armies to flight. Chandler said, “I’m 35 years old, and up until this point in my life, we’ve shut the mouths of lions and put foreign armies to flight and we’ve fought against injustice. Nothing but good has come.” But Chandler observed how the passage’s tone abruptly changes… some of these champions of faith were tortured. Some were sawn in two. Some were destitute. How did they still walk by faith? Chandler is learning, because God has now counted him worthy to suffer. If God should allow Chandler to preach from Hebrews 11 again, no one will ever wonder if he truly understands the implications of God’s Word. Speaking as a “guy who could lose everything,” Chandler promised that he would demonstrate through his suffering that God is enough, come what may.

You can also read msnbc.com’s article on Matt’s faith in the midst of his struggle with cancer.

Over and over as followers of Jesus have gone through suffering and pain, somehow in the midst of it all, we discover that Jesus is enough… even as we lose everything.  And perhaps the counterintuitive nature of it all is that until we begin to lose all, until the things that vie for our affections are removed, we have a hard time allowing Jesus to be all.  But as we discover the complete sufficiency of Christ to be all in all things, then we do begin to believe that God can and does have a plan in the midst of our pain and suffering even when we don’t know what it is.

God has suffered for us and with us to reveal His love and His hope to us. Perhaps the reason that we believe and experience that Jesus Christ is all-sufficient, all-good, and all-powerful even in the midst of suffering is that we know that Jesus, God Himself, has suffered for us and with us to reveal His love and His hope to us.  We don’t have a distant, removed, God of abstraction who hasn’t tasted and experienced what we have… He was like us in every way yet without sin.  Some of our suffering (yet not all it) is caused by our sin… but His suffering was not caused by His sin but by our sin.  And even in His innocence, He suffers for us and with us… and His suffering reveals His love and His hope.

  • His Love. Romans 5:8 – “But God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We wrestle with an all-loving God in the midst of pain, evil, and suffering… yet the incarnation, cross, and suffering of Jesus Christ is the proof of God’s love.
  • His Hope. And the suffering of God through the cross of Jesus Christ gives us hope in the midst of our suffering, trials, and pain.  That’s the point of Hebrews 12:1-2.  Right after that famous chapter in Hebrews 11 on faith… hope in things unseen, the author of Hebrews points us to Jesus and His suffering.  “Jesus sufferings serve as a model for us, not simply because He experienced pain, but because He experienced hope and joy, even in the midst of pain” (Robert Pyne, Humanity & Sin, p. 201)  For the joy that was set before Him…

Wherever you are at, whether you’re in the midst of joy or in the midst of pain, there is a God in heaven who is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-good.  And I know that the pain we experience and see creates a tension in our faith and our belief in this God.  Some of you are having a hard time believing in a God at all… the reality that you struggle with justice at all is evidence that there is a God in heaven that has given you the capacity to struggle with justice at all.  And even though you can’t see any good coming from evil, suffering, and pain in the world does not mean that there can’t possibly be any good that ultimately comes from it.  So the question that is put before you is “will you trust in the God who has suffered for you and with you? Will you give your life to the God who demonstrates His love and dispenses His hope even in the midst of life when everything doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to be?”

And some of you are followers of Jesus Christ, but the pain and suffering you’ve experienced in your life has put your faith to the test.  For some of you, the trials you’ve experienced have strengthened your faith and for some of you, you’ve felt your faith get stretched to the breaking point.  So I guess, the same question is before you… will you trust this God?  Will you believe that He is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-good even when you don’t understand why thing things that are happening are happening?  Will you trust in faith that God has a plan and can turn your suffering into good, even if you can’t see or even believe that He can and will do it?  Will you trust and believe that Jesus Christ, the God who has suffered for us and with us will be more than enough to sustain us… that His grace is more than sufficient… that His power is perfected and shown most gloriously so in the midst of our weakness.  We, following the lead of King Jesus, have the opportunity to show the world around us that God is more than enough… in joy and in pain.  Might we be people that truly live out, “For [our] momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison…”

Additional Recommended Resources

The Reason For God, Timothy Keller (especially Chapter 2)

Tim Keller sermon on “Suffering: If God is Good, Why is There So Much Evil in the World?”

Suffering & The Sovereignty of God, John Piper (free eBook in pdf format)

The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis

Where Was God: Answers to Tough Questions about God and Natural Disasters, Erwin W. Lutzer

“Divine Meaning in Natural Disaster” (pdf), Ramesh Richard

Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey

Where is God When It Hurts, Philip Yancey

One Reply to “You Asked For It #7: How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?”

  1. Thanks for the excellent message, Jonathan! I really appreciated your comment that our suffering is not pointless and is temporary. Our family’s experience bears this out. During the last 10 years, our family has suffered the loss of 3 parents (in 1 case, in a terrible way), 2 of us have had bone marrow diseases, and we’ve suffered—as many have—from job layoffs. In the midst of this, I’ve looked to and tried to emulate the example of Jesus on the cross. While He suffered terribly, He led one person to Himself, made sure His mother was taken care of and publicly forgave His persecutors. I think that is the highest example of what Christians should aspire to when suffering—being kind and helpful to others while enduring tremendous pain. When I’ve tried to do this in God’s power (the only way it can be done), I believe people may have been affected positively. I also believe we benefit as this readies us—in my opinion—for reigning with Christ (II Timothy 2:12 seems to speak to this). For the unbeliever, I believe pain can be used to soften one’s heart to Christ. C.S. Lewis said “God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain.” I believe if an unbeliever cries out to God—even in the last seconds of life—God is kind and saves (Joel 2:32). So…pain—while we hate it and wish it would go away—plays a critical role in God’s eternal plans. (P.S. I’m very grateful for the prayers of our sisters and brothers at Northshore—they have helped us endure our problems.)

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