Psalm 107: 28-30 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.
It’s no secret that our world is in pain.
Families are torn apart by apathy, sickness, car accidents, substance abuse, and suicide. Our nation is plagued by racism, gun violence, and terrorism. Around the world, even as we speak, people are dying from war, famine, poverty, disease, natural disasters, and a myriad of other terrible circumstances.
One of the most common challenges directed at Christianity by unbelievers is the age-old question: “Why does God allow so much suffering?”
The argument goes that the Bible presents us with an image of a loving, benevolent God, and yet billions have suffered throughout all of human history. Unbelievers ask why anyone would choose to believe in a God that claims to be compassionate but permits such grief.
Even believers – perhaps experiencing suffering in their own life or witnessing the misfortunes of others – find themselves struggling with this conundrum. Indeed, suffering is a great challenge to faith!
Faith in the Face of Disaster
Recent disasters have prompted unbelievers to ridicule believers by mocking their “thoughts and prayers”. Believers questioning their faith in the will of God sometimes ask why God doesn’t miraculously act to prevent disasters from happening to begin with.
A good starting place for anytime we don’t understand something that God does (or doesn’t do) is to remember:
Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Indeed, sometimes it’s difficult to understand God’s will. Some things we may never comprehend in this life. Yet, this is what faith is all about, trusting God even when we don’t understand His workings. We can rest assured in our faith in God. He knows what He is doing, even if we don’t see the clarity of His plan through the fog of our day-to-day existence.
But at the same time maybe we fail to give God proper credit. Many will point to disasters as evidence that God either doesn’t care or He simply doesn’t exist. But that reasoning can be turned in on itself: Surely the good of this world outweighs the bad - so by the same logic, all the good that happens is evidence for the existence of our benevolent God.
Matthew 5:45 …For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
In fact, our very sense of justice points to this inescapable reality.
“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?” – C.S. Lewis
Additionally, we should consider that perhaps God is involved when disaster strikes, maybe even minimizing the damage in ways that we fail to recognize. We have all heard stories of people who have somehow avoided disasters due to seemingly coincidental circumstances. I always think of the man who reported running late and got stuck in traffic the day that the Twin Towers fell. Just the other day my wife missed being at the scene of a terrible car accident because she was struggling to fix my daughter’s hair.
Rather than wonder why God allows bad things to happen I find myself often wondering how much worse situations would be had God not been involved at all. Perhaps the damage would have been greater, the body count higher, all tragedies all the more heartwrenching if God were not present!
The True Source of Suffering
1 Peter 5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
When one blames God for suffering they are pointing their finger in the wrong direction.
We live in a fallen world and Satan is a very active force. He is constantly working behind the scenes to sow discord and malice. Certainly, the devil has amassed a large number of followers and it is clear to see that most suffering is perpetrated by humanity against itself.
“…In fact, a commonly estimated figure is that as much as 90 percent of suffering in the world comes through human causes: wars, genocide, human trafficking, murder, torture, racial discrimination, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and the list goes on...” – Mark Mittelberg
“In the past hundred years or so, the most powerful atheist regimes – Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany – have wiped out people in astronomical numbers… Focusing only on the big three – Stalin, Hitler, and Mao – we have to recognize that atheist regimes have in a single century murdered more than one hundred million people.” – Dinesh D’Souza
One must concede that even the most devastating of natural disasters do not wreak as much havoc as humans have unleashed upon each other... And in response to this, unbelievers choose to blame God – the very God who warns against and condemns such evils?
But believers can be just as guilty in wrongly assigning blame for suffering... We’ve all heard of preachers who have declared that a disaster has occurred because of a particular region’s religion, politics, etc.
Luke 13:1-5 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
We know that various natural disasters occur haphazardly as a result of weather patterns, plate tectonics, and other natural processes. We do not know the mind of God in these situations and therefore cannot allow ourselves to make such proclamations. It only serves to disturb and hurt others, making them far less willing to listen to the Truth of the Gospel that we should be proclaiming. When others are suffering, we should not presume to know God’s will for the situation, but reach out to them and love them as God commanded.
It’s difficult to think of a Biblical example of one who lost as much as Job did, and yet through all of the hardships and loss that he faced, we see that even he recognized that God was not the source of his suffering.
Job 1:22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
Blessings in Suffering
We simply have to accept that suffering is a part of life. In fact, Jesus spoke of this truth on a number of occasions.
John 16:33 These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation…
John 16:33 …But take heart! I have overcome the world!
1. Suffering can bring out our Best
Romans 5:3-4 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
If you’ve ever exercised in your life, you’re probably familiar with the cliché: “No pain, no gain.” To word it a bit more eloquently:
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller
Many have pointed out the process by which caterpillars change into butterflies, sand into glass, and coal into diamonds, it is through time and pressure, adversity that these things turn out so beautiful and stronger than their beginnings.
1 Peter 1:6-7 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Our faith is tested by the fire of suffering, but in the process it is purified like a precious metal.
James 1:2-5 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
Sometimes our suffering is brought on by our own failures or even by our own sin. In this way suffering can make us examine our faults.
No matter what the cause of the suffering we face turns out to be, ultimately God will turn a bad situation to good if we allow Him to. Suffering can force us to mature as Christians. The testing of our faith produces patience, perseverance, and a stronger faith in God.
2. Suffering makes us Appreciative
Paul suffered much in his journeys to spread the Gospel, yet we see that even when he was imprisoned that he had a deep appreciation for those around him.
Philippians 1:3-8 I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ.
Suffering can make us more thankful. It puts things into perspective and makes us recognize God’s blessings, causing us to truly appreciate all that God has done for us.
As a byproduct of that appreciation, suffering can also teach us how to pray more genuinely. We sometimes fall into the habit of saying the same prayers over and again. But when we suffer we pray more earnestly and more frequently. In those difficult moments we are praying because we want to, not because God wants us to.
Ephesians 6:18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
Romans 8:26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.
Suffering causes us to rely on God and acknowledge that He is the source of our strength.
Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
3. Suffering helps us to be Sympathetic
We couldn’t understand the hurts of others without going through some manner of suffering ourselves.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
By going through suffering ourselves we are better equipped to help and comfort those around us who are going through rough times.
Of course, it is important to remember that Christ can sympathize with us because He Himself suffered too!
Hebrews 2:17-18 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Christ’s suffering is probably the definitive example of God being able to bad to good. God could even bend the evil of Christ’s crucifixion into the ultimate act of love and mercy!
It’s truly amazing to consider that God, through Jesus, loves us so much that He would be willing to humble Himself and suffer as one of us just so He could save and comfort us!
Hebrews 4:14-16 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
4. Suffering keeps this World from becoming too Attractive
It’s only natural that we consider this world our home; it’s all we’ve ever known!
But when suffering rears its ugly head, we’re reminded that it’s a fallen world. In times of hardship, it’s a wonderful comfort to know that our ultimate goal is Heavenward.
Philippians 3:20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…
We would do well to be mindful that we are “just a’passing through” and that if we are faithful that Heaven can indeed be our home once we’ve left this mortal plane.
Hebrews 11:13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
God Promises an End to Suffering
As we’ve learned through this lesson, suffering is something that we will all face. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why we’re going through dark times and we may even question God in trying moments. However, it’s important that we remember the true source of suffering in this world is the devil and his agents, more often than not, other people.
As difficult as it may be, we should look at suffering as being a blessing and recognize that through Christ trials can actually strengthen us by making us more thankful to God and more sympathetic to others. Through it all, we need not lose sight of our final objective: A home in Heaven, a place that is free from suffering.
Revelation 21:3-4 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
In the meantime, we can rely on Jesus to be our strength in times of weakness, to comfort us when the grief is too much to bear, to remind us that our sufferings are only temporary and when we are with Him in Heaven it will all have been worth it.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
“Why Does God Allow Suffering” a sermon outline by Steve Burdine
“The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask” by Mark Mittelberg