What Does Suffering Tell Us About God?

Occasionally I’ll hear an argument that goes something like this:

 If God is all-good and all-loving, how can there be so much suffering in the world?  Maybe God is not all-good since he allows suffering?  Or, perhaps God is not all-powerful since he doesn’t stop evil or suffering?

 These arguments can sometimes stump even the most faithful of Christians – because suffering can be so intensely personal.  I once heard an atheist say: God is like a doctor who lives next door to a sick and suffering child.  He sees the child each day and knows how he suffers.  He hears his neighbor’s child cry at night in pain, and the doctor has the skills and knowledge to end the suffering – yet he does nothing!

I will admit – this argument, and ones like it, carry a heavy punch.  Therefore, I believe it is important to carefully consider our response.

First, I think it is important to avoid the emotionalism of the argument.  The question is not about innocent children who are suffering, rather it is about whether God is all-powerful or all-loving.  The innocent child is often added to make the argument more convincing.  Notice that the argument is never: How can an all-powerful God do nothing while a convicted pedophile is suffering in prison? To pack the emotional punch the person with the argument will generally insert “innocent” and “little children,” which only serve to take the focus off of the question being asked.  So, as hard as it is, we have to diffuse the emotional aspect from the argument to maintain the focus.

Most critics of God will likely be willing to concede the point that God is all-powerful – meaning that God has the ability to save the child.  In fact, they want to believe that God *can* save.  And this is a point that Christians will take too – that God is indeed all-powerful. If any being is not all-powerful, then by definition we do not assign Godhood to that being. So, that is usually not the point of the argument.

The crux of the argument, in my mind, is this; how can an all-loving God allow suffering?  And this is where it gets a little difficult.

The argument presupposes that an all-loving God and suffering/evil cannot co-exist.  And, since suffering plainly exists, the result some reach is that God cannot exist – or is simply unloving.

But, there is another option; namely, that there is a purpose for suffering.  This is the view that Christians have always held – that God is indeed an all-loving God but that He permits suffering because it fulfills some type of purpose. The problem in convincing people of this response is that the purpose of suffering is not always seen.  In fact, sometimes it is *never* seen.  Bad things often happen with seemingly no purpose or reason, and it results in no obvious good.  Therefore, it is hard to hold to the conclusion that suffering has a purpose when it seems we cannot find one.

But, even if we cannot find a purpose to suffering, does that necessarily mean that one does not exist?  Of course not.  It would be incredibly arrogant of anyone to assume that something does not exist if we cannot find it.

Now, I believe the Bible teaches that there is a purpose for our suffering.  But, what if someone does not trust the Bible? What if they feel the Bible is just a self-serving document?  Well, I believe that there are other evidences which anyone with an open mind can consider.

I believe the best evidence for purposeful suffering is the world around us.  On some scale, we see this all of the time.  The phrase “no pain; no gain” suggests that without suffering there can be no benefit.  Also, if we go in for surgery to have a tumor removed, we know that we will suffer. But, the suffering will produce a good result, and so we are willing to endure it.  Another example of purposeful suffering is punishment.  Jails and prisons are meant to cause suffering in order to produce better behavior.  Admittedly they do not always produce a good result, but, often times they do.  Parents will allow children to suffer the penalty of their misbehavior so that they become better children. These evidences make it clear on at least a small scale that suffering can have a purpose.  Everyone can recognize that.  And, if we can recognize some benefits of some suffering, than we are forced to allow that there could possibly be larger reasons for greater suffering.

There are probably a multitude of reasons why God could allows us to suffer.  None of these, in my estimation, impinge upon the concept of God’s ultimate goodness. I suspect that God does not even view suffering as we see it.  Paul wrote, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).  In other words, God sees it differently.

So … what does suffering tell us about God?  Well, because we have suffering in our world we know that God is permitting it.  If God permits it, then it must be part of a larger plan.  If it is part of a larger plan that we can know that it is a tool in His hands.  And in my mind, this brings a lot of comfort; knowing that God is in control.






Leave a Reply