This article is another installment of our Questionable Quotes (?Q) series, where we aim to take popular, commonly used quotes about the church, God, and the Bible and put them under the microscope to see if they really hold up to the truth.
The scenario has occurred too many times to count. We open our Facebook or Twitter accounts and discover a well-known Christian is battling cancer, or we read about a teenager who dies unexpectedly, or maybe it’s a Christian family killed in a car accident. Christians from coast-to-coast begin sharing these tragic accounts with requests for prayers as we watch the story unfold online. For the next few days Christians scour both social media sites as well as the main stream media to learn details and to try to answer the question, “Why?” These particular scenarios hurt the worst because they hit so close to home. These people were a part of the church—and the stories remind us how mortal we are and how fragile life can be. No matter what the cause, a common question that rings through out such tragedies is “Why Lord?”
As texts and social media posts go on through the night and news crews scramble to provide details about such tragedies many individuals began to question: “Where was God, and why did He allow this to happen to such a good family?” Did God momentarily turn His back? The Israelite Gideon asked, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? (Judges 6:13). King David, asked: “Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). Christians need to understand it is not wrong to ask the question “Why?”. The problem comes in how we deal with the evil, pain, and suffering that affects us.
I suspect there has never been a bigger weapon in the atheists’ arsenal than the problem of evil, pain, and suffering. Wielding it like a club, men like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett ridicule Christians—pointing out examples of suffering all over the world. These attacks have taken their toll, as many Christians question God’s existence during times of trial. Rather than leaning on Him during times of sorrow, they abandon Him and become bitter.
The appeal is simple enough to understand: “If there really is a God, then why do so many congregations experience these horrendous nightmares?” Many skeptics ask it this way: “If God is a loving God then why do bad things happen to good people? This simple question frequently becomes a stumbling block for some individuals—who end up making a conscientious decision not to believe in God. Unfortunately, all too often it is during pain and suffering that we forget that God is in the same place now that He was when His own Son was being maliciously nailed to an old rugged cross almost two thousand years ago. And how thankful we should be that on that grim day, God did remain in heaven as the sin of all humanity was placed on His Son’s back and nailed to that cross! Had Christ not died for our sins, we would have no hope of inheriting heaven (1 Corinthians 15). We must remember that while we may not understand every facet of human suffering in the here and now, we can explain enough to negate the charge that misery is incompatible with the existence of God.
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Some suffering comes from previous generations
Much of the suffering present in the world today is a direct result of the misuse of the freedom of choice of past generations. Aside from Adam and Eve, we are currently living with decisions our forefathers made that have greatly impacted our lives. Who knew fifty years ago that filling our schools with asbestos and painting our homes with lead paint would cause cancer? Who knew that spraying our troops in Vietnam with Agent Orange (in an effort to kill the foliage) would have mutagenic effects? Who knew that treating pregnant women with thalidomide would produce infants with gross deformities? Past generations have carried out actions that result in suffering, even today. This does not mean we should blame people of the past or toss up our hands and “give up.” Rather, it simply explains why we see some of the evil, pain, and suffering around us today.
Some suffering is our own fault
But do not think that all the pain and suffering in this world can be blamed on past generations. Each one of us makes wrong decisions and incorrect judgments, and in doing so, we frequently inflict pain and suffering upon ourselves and upon others. Thanks to God’s incredible love (1 John 4:8), humanity has been endowed with free will (see Genesis 2:16-17; Joshua 24:15; Isaiah 7:15; John 5:39-40; 7:17; Revelation 22:17). God loves us enough to allow us freedom of choice. However, consider the young man who decides to “sow his wild oats” eventually will learn that every person reaps what he sows (Galatians 6:7).
Many destitute people have awakened in a gutter because they freely chose to get drunk the night before. And many drunk drivers have killed themselves, their passengers, and innocent victims, because they chose not to relinquish the keys. All of us must understand that actions have consequences! What we do today can (and often does) determine what our life will be like tomorrow. God will allow us to be forgiven of our sins, but He will not always remove the painful consequences of our actions. Let’s face it: much of the pain and suffering that we experience in this world is our own fault!
Some suffering comes from natural laws
Evolutionists are quick to ask why, then, didn’t God reach down and save Christian teenagers on their way home from a mission trip? Why didn’t He just stretch out His almighty arm and cradle those faithful believers in the palm of His hand? As odd as it may sound at first, God did not act in such a fashion because He loves us! We live in a world regulated by natural laws that were established at the creation of this world. For example, the laws of gravity and motion behave consistently. Thus, if you step off the roof of a fifteen-story building, gravity will pull you to the pavement beneath and you will die. If you step in front of a moving bus, the laws of motion will keep that bus in motion, even though it will result in your death. But individuals still ask, “Why?” Why could not God intervene to prevent such disasters? Think for just a moment what sort of world would this be if God directly intervened, suspending His natural laws, every time a human encountered a life-threatening situation. This would cause indescribable chaos and confusion all over our planet. This chaotic, haphazard system would argue more for atheism than it would for theism!
In Luke 13:2-5, Jesus told the story of eighteen people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Did they die because they were wicked or more deserving of death than others around them? No, they died because of natural laws that were in effect. We know that God is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). Fortunately, natural laws are constant so that we can study them and benefit from them. We are not left to sort out some kind of random system that works one day but not the next. Once a car crosses the center line, laws of nature take over—and oftentimes death is the result.
Some suffering may be beneficial
Furthermore, there are times when suffering is beneficial. Think of the man whose chest begins to throb as he begins to have a heart attack, or the woman whose side starts to ache at the onset of appendicitis. Pain often sends us to the doctor for prevention or cure. Without that pain, these individuals would never have their ailments tended to. Also, tragedy can help humans develop some of the most treasured traits known to mankind—bravery, heroism, and self-sacrifice—all of which flourish in less-than-perfect circumstances.
Some suffering is hard to understand
But sometimes there seems to be no logical explanation for the immense suffering that a person is experiencing. Take the Old Testament character of Job as an example. He lost ten children and all of his wealth in a few short hours. Yet the Bible describes him as upright and righteous. Why would God allow such a man to suffer? James 1:2-3 helps us see the answer: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” Jesus Christ was the only truly innocent individual ever to live; yet even He suffered immensely. The fact is, pain and suffering have benefits that we sometimes cannot see and therefore do not appreciate. But God knows what is best for us in the long run.
Instead of blaming God for pain, or denying His existence, we should be looking to Him for strength, and let tragedies remind us that this world never was intended to be our final home (read Hebrews 11:13-16). James 4:14 instructs us regarding the fact that our time on this Earth is extremely brief. The fact that even the Son of God was subjected to incredible evil, pain, and suffering (Hebrews 5:8; 1 Peter 2:21ff.), proves that God does love and care for His creation. He could have abandoned us to our own sinful devices, but instead, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Remember, God is still in control and knows everything
When Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth, the women of the city are excited and ask: “Is this Naomi?” “But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20). Think about it:
Naomi and her husband had to leave their homeland and move to a pagan land because of a famine.
Naomi’s husband, Elimelech dies.
Naomi’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion die.
Naomi has nothing to offer daughter’s in law.
This is a woman who is in the pit—the valley of her own existence; so much so, that when the women of Bethlehem call her by her name she corrects them and asked to be called Mara (or bitterly). Yet, how do you think Naomi would have felt in that moment if you could have grabbed her by the shoulders and told her that one day through her lineage a man named David would arise and serve as king. But not just David. What about the fact that Jesus would one day come through the same lineage. God was still in control and He was using Naomi, even at her weakest point. So the next time you experience evil, pain, or suffering, remember Jesus Christ and the suffering He endured for you, and ask yourself how God may be using this tragic event for good.
By Brad Harrub, Ph.D.