Why does God allow suffering?
In a time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets a stranger one night in a bar. The Stranger is an extremely impressive character -- formidable yet noble. The Stranger tells the resistance fighter that he himself is on the side of the resistance and he needs to have faith in him no matter what happens. The resistance fighter is utterly convinced of the Stranger’s sincerity and pledges to trust him.
They never have a personal meeting again. At times, the resistance fighter sees the Stranger from afar helping members of the resistance. This makes him extremely grateful and he declares to his friends: "He is on our side!" Sometimes, however, the Stranger is seen in police uniform handing over revolutionaries to the occupying power. On these occasions murmurs of distrust brew against Him. But the resistance fighter still says "He is on our side." He believes, in spite of appearances, that the Stranger must have good reasons for double-crossing them. The Stranger must be playing the long-game.
Sometimes his exasperated friends say "what would He have to do for you to admit it was a trick and that the Stranger is not actually on our side?" But the resistance fighter refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test.
I’m afraid if you’ve clicked on this post hoping for answers, then I admit that I have very little to offer towards the question of why we suffer if a loving, powerful God exists who could do something about it? I don’t know why children die from cancer; why some are born into poverty; why some have genetic illnesses that cripple them with pain from the moment they are born; why whole families are wiped out in earthquakes. There are no easy answers to reconcile all this with a loving God who made the Cosmos and seems to sit back watching these tragedies unfold.
As Basil Mitchell’s parable articulates above, maybe all we can do is hold firmly to the reasons why we believe in God’s existence and His loving nature. Keep believing that He has "plans to prosper [us] and not to harm [us], plans to give [us] hope and a future” and trust that one day all will be understood – “all will be well”. I am amazed when I hear testimonies of Christians who have suffered horrendous evils in their lives and yet still testify to the love of God and cling to Him with all their might:
Richard Wurmbrand was arrested in Romania by the communist government for preaching about Jesus. He spent 14 years in prison being tortured in solitary confinement; eating meagre portions of mouldy carrot soup; and enduring foul, cramped living conditions. At one point, Richard was beaten so badly on the souls of his feet that his heel bone was exposed causing unfathomable agony. When he was eventually released, he prayed to God to send him back into prison if there was another inmate who needed to hear the Gospel. God answered this prayer and he suffered another stint behind bars. He once consoled a Romanian Priest in prison who had been forced into raw human sewage to perform Holy Communion as jeering communist guards watched. Richard continually proclaimed until his dying day that he “consider[ed] it pure joy [to] encounter trials of many kinds, because [he knew] that the testing of [his] faith developed perseverance”.
Horatio Spafford suffered more trauma than most when his four-year-old son died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which also ruined him financially -- he had an extensive property portfolio that was all destroyed. He decided to move his remaining family to England and sent them on ahead while he tied up loose ends in Chicago. While his family crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the ship they were travelling on, the SS Ville du Havre, sank rapidly after a collision with a sea vessel. All four of Spafford's daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him a telegram that said "saved alone, what shall I do?” Shortly afterwards Spafford travelled to meet his grieving wife and was inspired to write the famous hymn, ‘It is Well with My Soul’, as his ship passed where his daughters had died.
The Bible is full of people who suffered huge traumas and yet never blamed God for what happened to them. Joseph told his brothers who had attempted to kill him and then sold him into slavery, “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” and he forgave them. Job had a similar experience to Horatio Spafford (losing all his money, children and even his health) but didn’t turn against God: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last, He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God”.
Jeremiah was tasked with warning Judah about God’s plan to send them into exile if they didn’t turn from their wicked ways. The Judaeans placed him in a well to die and his body sank into the mud. He was rescued from this fate only to be brutally executed by his people when they fled to Egypt after the exile. Jeremiah also had to endure the two-year famine in Jerusalem when the city was under siege by the Babylonian army. The famine got so bad that Jeremiah witnessed mothers eating their own dead children to stave off the hunger pains. Jeremiah was God’s chosen and beloved servant but wasn’t spared the horrors of living through the fore-warned judgment. Isaiah, like Jeremiah, also met a grisly end when the King commanded he be placed in a hollow tree trunk and sawn in half to shut him up from preaching about God’s impending wrath. And Paul suffered stonings, floggings, jail, hunger and thirst, and eventually a beheading for preaching about Jesus. Paul willingly accepted the divine plan for his life and was warned in advance of what he was signing up for: “the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for [Paul] is My chosen vessel to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake”.
It seems no one is exempt from suffering – not even God Himself when He was born in human flesh to suffer a Roman execution and experience the totality of the world’s guilt placed on His shoulders. Job declared “should we accept only the good days from God and not the bad?” which seems to echo the attitude of the resistance fighter when observing the fluctuations in the Stranger’s conduct.
So, why does God allow suffering? I don’t want to lay out reasons that appear to cheapen anyone’s ordeals with pithy replies. I must admit this is the one major stumbling-block in my Faith that I fail to find a sufficient answer for. But I can’t deny the reality of the personal encounters I’ve had with God, and the conclusions I’ve reached about who He is contained in the posts on this website. So, whatever the reason is for why God allows unimaginable suffering to continue, I trust it will, in the end, be a necessary element for obtaining future glory. Maybe that is a naïve position, like the resistance fighter’s stubborn refusal to quit on the Stranger, but so be it. I’m prepared to look like a fool and trust that as Jesus was willing to subject Himself to suffering, then this must be the only way, the only reality that can complete God’s overriding plan. “We [are] called children of God. And that is what we are” but we are also children who should remember Jesus' warning: “in this world you will have trouble”.
If I spared my children all pain and suffering, how would they turn out as adults? Facing fears and walking through tough times can strengthen character, resilience and resolve. I love my kids, but deep down I know that I can’t protect them from everything they find stressful for their own good in the long run. But what kind of mother would I be if I didn’t explain why I’m subjecting them to these hard times now. “Because I said so!” has never been received well by children. If they can vaguely understand why you won’t let them eat the entire contents of the treat cupboard before a healthy meal then maybe they won’t kick off over your authority as much. Having said that though, there are times when it is inappropriate to explain why you are allowing suffering to occur in their lives. In these situations, I hope that they will instead trust my character rather than needing a full run-down on my thought-processes. I hope they remember all the times I proved myself as a loving mum who cares for them and therefore, I must have a good reason behind my actions. Sometimes I have to say “you can’t know my full reasons. You aren’t mature enough yet to understand. But trust me that what I’m allowing/not allowing is only for your ultimate good”.
That analogy may help to explain why some suffering is necessary for achieving greater goods, but it hardly satisfies why the Holocaust and other atrocious genocides were permitted by a loving God. Here it may be appropriate to explore if human actions have contributed to the evil occurrence. Do we resort to automatically blaming God for events that could have been avoided if humans had made wise and good moral choices? If God always intervened to stop every wrong action, would we still be free? Freedom is a prized asset – we get to choose to believe in God or not and follow His ways or not. If He kept interfering and meddling with our plans (because it could hurt someone else further down the line that we can't foresee) would we be grateful for His intrusion or annoyed? Surely we’d be forced to begrudgingly conclude His reality as fact because He kept intervening at irritating times. That would hardly allow for the conditions of freewill to be met in order to decide for ourselves whether to accept or reject the reality of God. We seem to want him to intervene on the bad days, but on the good days He can leave us alone to get on with our lives, thank you very much!
However, if the suffering is truly something that God has sole responsibility for then that is the crux of the issue in question. Natural disasters, genetic illnesses, children dying of cancer -- these seem to be cruel, unjust examples of suffering that only God could have prevented but didn’t. And to be honest I’m nowhere nearer being able to answer why.
However, will you throw away every other good reason for believing God exists over this one issue? I know many who have – you wouldn’t be the first. However, I cannot. I feel there is no way out for me. I’m in too deep. I’ve seen too much of the goodness of God to turn back now. I know that ‘Job-level’ suffering could hit my life at any point (I am not immune to it just because I’m a follower of Christ) and I’m trying to set my steely resolve to stay committed to the end. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord”.
Call me crazy if you will. I never said this journey to Faith was going to be easy. But what truly valuable prize has ever been easy to attain? When we experience the New Creation, will we look back on our worldly troubles and realise they were over “in the twinkling of an eye” and yet fulfilled for us our Eternal destinies? Do I wish there were some other way to achieve it? Absolutely. Am I God that I get to decide? Lucky for you, I am not.
References  Basil Mitchell, ‘The Parable of the Partisan & The Stranger’  Jer 29:11  Isa 3:10  James 1:2  Genesis 50:20  Job 19:25  Acts 9:15-16  See posts ‘My Story Part One and Two’  John 3:1  John 16:33  Habbakuk 3:17-18  1 Cor 15:51-52  1 Peter 1:6 (whole chapter 1)