God, Suffering and Grace

Where is God when things hurt so much?

There is not a person on the planet who does not suffer in one form or another. It is a universal experience. How we cope with it and understand it can make all the difference. And some worldviews are less helpful than others. As a Christian, I of course believe the biblical worldview best deals with the matter – not only as to why we suffer but how we can deal with suffering.

Because suffering is a universal condition, it of course has been thought about and discussed in countless books, articles, films, works of art and so on. Being a book guy, I tend to focus on them, and needless to say, I have a large collection of volumes on the topic.

When I teach on the subject I will often hand out a somewhat large bibliography for those wanting to read and study more. But most folks have no time nor interest in so many volumes, and instead will want me to tell them which one I most recommend.

Well, I seldom can mention just one. So I usually say that I have a top five or a top ten list. Indeed, in one biblio I have on this site, I feature 55 books all up, but I highlight eight of them that I especially recommend: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/09/21/readings-in-theodicy/

That reading list is now 11 years old, and if I posted an updated version today, there would be at least 80 titles I would want to make folks aware of. But I think I still would offer those same eight books again as my top picks. That is because they offer a good blend of theology, Scripture and useful help.

The volumes by Carson and Lewis that I list, for example, are quite strong on things like theology, whereas some of the others are a bit less so. But all offer a lot of very real and practical help. One of those eight titles that I would still run with is a somewhat older but still popular work by Dr James Dobson.

Titled When God Doesn’t Make Sense (Tyndale, 1993), it is not a philosophical or theological heavyweight as are some of the other books that I recommend. But as a committed Christian, and as someone who has worked in a major children’s medical centre as a psychologist and family counsellor, he has filled this book with plenty of down-to-earth help for those trying to make sense of suffering.

Image of When God Doesn't Make Sense by James Dobson (1993-07-02)
When God Doesn't Make Sense by James Dobson (1993-07-02) by unknown author (Author) Amazon logo

I have shared it with others over the years. When I used to teach classes in Bible colleges and elsewhere on apologetics in general, and theodicy in particular, I would always begin by reading to my students one very moving story that had impacted me deeply. And it comes from Dobson’s book.

I don’t think I ever managed to read that story all the way through without choking up along the way. As a father of three young children at the time when I was teaching so much, it always greatly left a mark on me. This is the bit I would read out to my students:

In my first film series, “Focus on the Family,” I shared a story about a 5-year-old African-American boy who will never be forgotten by those who knew him. A nurse with whom I worked, Gracie Schaeffler, took care of this lad during the latter days of his life. He was dying of lung cancer, which is a terrifying disease in its final stages. The lungs fill with fluid, and the patient is unable to breathe. It is terribly claustrophobic, especially for a small child.


This little boy had a Christian mother who loved him and stayed by his side through the long ordeal. She cradled him on her lap and talked softly about the Lord. Instinctively, the woman was preparing her son for the final hours to come. Gracie told me that she entered his room one day as death approached, and she heard this lad talking about hearing bells. “The bells are ringing, Mommie,” he said. “I can hear them.”


Gracie thought he was hallucinating because he was already slipping away. She left and returned a few minutes later and again heard him talking about hearing bells ringing. The nurse said to his mother, “I’m sure you know your baby is hearing things that aren’t there. He is hallucinating because of the sickness.”


The mother pulled her son closer to her chest, smiled and said, “No, Miss Schaeffler. He is not hallucinating. I told him when he was frightened — when he couldn’t breathe — if he would listen carefully, he could hear the bells of heaven ringing for him. That is what he’s been talking about all day.”


That precious child died on his mother’s lap later that evening, and he was still talking about the bells of heaven when the angels came to take him. What a brave little trooper he was! His courage was not reported in the newspapers the next day. Neither Tom Brokaw nor Dan Rather told his story on the evening news. Yet he and his mother belong forever in our “Heroes’ Hall of Fame.”

And even now, typing this in, it brings tears to my eyes. Any parent would feel the same. Imagine going through that sort of grief as a mother or a father when a young child has to suffer in that way. But this story is not unique of course. As I mentioned, we all suffer, and we all have sad stories to tell. Says Dobson:

It is important to recognize that you are not alone. Your pain and discouragement, which might lead you to ask “Why me?” are not unique. You have not been singled out for sorrow. Most of us are destined, it seems, to bump our heads on the same ol’ rock. From ancient times, men and women have grieved over stressful circumstances that did not fit any pattern of logic or symmetry. It happens to us all sooner or later. Millions have been there. And despite what some Christians will tell you, being a follower of Jesus Christ is no foolproof insurance policy against these storms of life….


My concern is that many believers apparently feel God owes them smooth sailing or at least a full explanation (and perhaps an apology) for the hardships they encounter. We must never forget that He, after all, is God. He is majestic and holy and sovereign. He is accountable to no one. He is not an errand boy who chases the assignments we dole out. He is not a genie who pops out of the bottle to satisfy our whims. He is not our servant—we are His. And our reason for existence is to glorify and honor Him. Even so, sometimes He performs mighty miracles on our behalf. Sometimes He chooses to explain His action in our lives. Sometimes His presence is as real as if we had encountered Him face to face. But at other times when nothing makes sense—when what we are going through is “not fair,” when we feel all alone in God’s waiting room—He simply says, “Trust Me!”


Does this mean that we are destined to be depressed and victimized by the circumstances of our lives? Certainly not. Paul said we are “more than conquerors.”

He quotes Philippians 4:4-7, and then continues:

Clearly, what we have in Scripture is a paradox. On the one hand we are told to expect suffering and hardship that could even cost us our lives. On the other hand, we are encouraged to be joyful, thankful, and “of good cheer.” How do those contradictory ideas link together? How can we be triumphant and under intense pressure at the same time?  How can we be secure when surrounded by insecurity? That is a mystery, which, according to Paul, “transcends all understanding.”

In the next chapter he offers four principles on how we might approach all this, which I simply offer here in outline form:

1. God is present and involved in our lives even when He seems deaf or on an extended leave of absence.

2. God’s timing is perfect, even when it appears catastrophically late.

3. For reasons that are impossible to explain, we human beings are incredibly precious to God.

4. Your arms are too short to box with God. Don’t try it!

As mentioned, some might prefer deeper philosophical or theological treatments of this topic. But for those wanting a very helpful and practical look at this universal problem, this book is still well worth getting, even nearly 30 years after its original release.

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7 Replies to “God, Suffering and Grace”

  1. Thank you so much for this. I have been struggling with severe pain all year and the last few days have been rough. I needed this encouragement today as I stayed home and followed our church’s livestream as I just couldn’t cope with the pain going out. The story brought tears to my eyes too.

  2. Yes – things seeming unfair and things not making sense are not the same. Why should someone gaining first class honours in particle physics be unable a few months later to concentrate because of fatigue syndrome? It is not so much unfair as just crazy. We stagger blindly – just as well our hand is in His, but I am tempted to let go when I see these things.

  3. Dear Bill,
    Another brilliant article. We can trust you to deliver them. Yes, suffering is a big obstacle to belief in God for some but who suffered more than Our Dear Lord Himself? We should always keep that in the forefront of our minds because Jesus was truly human as well as divine. The story of the mother with her dying child also brought tears to my eyes too as God obviously gave the mother strength to deal with what must have been a terrible anguish at seeing her child suffer so much.Finally, one of our goals as Christians should be to try and have empathy with those who are obviously suffering. I came across a very scruffy looking man begging outside the shopping centre yesterday with a very complicated sign which said he wasn’t homeless but had his father’s funeral to pay for and didn’t have any money. I realised he could have been making it all up but on the other hand it could have been true so in cases like that I think you should give someone the benefit of the doubt which is a kind of empathy isn’t it?

  4. We see through a mirror darkly so there is so much we don’t understand but I have found the older you get if you’re growing closer to God sometimes he shines up a part of that mirror and you see that part a bit more brightly. We won’t be able to see everything brightly here on earth or even see the bright parts perfectly but he can give clues to you. Sometimes we just have to remember what God told my namesake in the Bible “my grace is sufficient”.

    That mother’s faith was amazing and touching such a SHARP CONTRAST to the lash out and blame everyone victimhood culture of today.

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