Some honest answers to questions about pain and suffering:
Many atheists and non-believers use the excuse of pain and suffering to not want to believe in God. Some believers too can get tripped up here. The truth is, it is not an insurmountable problem by any means. And other religions and worldviews also somehow need to make sense of evil and suffering.
Still, Christians of course can have many questions and concerns. I do, especially with my wife’s cancer. So I write about these matters often. And I get comments about all this often as well. I just recently got one from an anonymous person, asking lots of questions. So I will answer those questions here as best I can, since a short comment reply would not do it justice. This person had commented as follows:
I am very troubled by the idea that God causes suffering. I used to get around this by saying He “permits” or “allows” suffering, but knew that this was an intellectual slight-of-hand. Obviously, an all-powerful God could end suffering if He chose to do so, thus I’m faced with the fact that He has chosen for me to suffer, as well as chosen NOT to alleviate my suffering.
Plenty of Christian deny this by saying that God, as love, would never choose suffering for His children, that suffering qua suffering is a consequence of the fall, not His will. He’s described as our Father, one who gives His children good gifts, not snakes or rocks. He’s a shepherd who protects us … not a shepherd who throws us to the wolves.
This morning, during devotions, I read about Agabus, the prophet, who predicted Paul’s death in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was the case that Paul willfully disregarded the (unanimous?) opinion of those in the church who counseled him not to go, but also it could be the case that Paul had heard directly from God, was sure of His voice, and knew he had to travel to Jerusalem. Perhaps Paul knew, too, that He would die there.
And so, assuming that Paul acted obediently not willfully, Paul submitted to God’s will and … was murdered. God could have preserved Paul’s life, but instead caused Paul to suffer. God willed his suffering and murder.
Was God a good Father in this case? Here’s where I wobble in faith. I would never send my children to a brutal death. I can’t conceptualize how this could be consistent with divine love and goodness. I can understand (through a glass darkly) how suffering can crank us to the next level of sanctification, but I can’t grok why an omnipotent and omniscient God is unable to come up with a gentler and kinder work-around.
I hope you don’t mind me admitting this.
And all that follows is the response I want to make to this person:
Thanks KR. Too much needs to be said, but let me try. The first thing to mention is I just returned from hospital again, where my wife is dying from cancer. Her suffering and pain varies but is of course there. So for me this is not just theoretical.
You raise a number of points that have been carefully and thoroughly dealt with in over 4000 years of Judaeo-Christian wisdom, so I will not satisfy your queries and concerns with a short comment response! Thus I do need to turn this into a full-length article if I want to come anywhere close to offering a useful response.
As always I must ask myself, ‘Are these legit and honest questions, or just rhetorical or trollish questions?’ I will assume you are in the former camp, although I am always rather surprised that such folks have not availed themselves of the tens of thousands of excellent books and articles already penned on these matters. My own site has hundreds of articles devoted to all this, including 114 pieces here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/apologetics/theodicy/
Indeed, if you simply had carefully read the article that you are commenting on, and look at the resources recommended there, you would have pretty much all the biblical material you need to answer your questions! But here are some points to run with:
-As to suffering being due to our sinful choices, yes that is where it all starts. Had no one sinned, we would not have suffering and death. So lots of suffering IS simply a consequence of our actions. For example, smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and you may well get lung cancer. Cause and effect. But having said that, not all suffering is the direct result of sin. The book of Job makes that clear.
-As to “a shepherd who protects us” – well yes, he does, but how he protects us depends. He may allow us to escape the edge of the sword, or to die by the edge of the sword (see the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11). He may allow Daniel’s three friends to be thrown into a fiery furnace, and as they rightly said:
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18).
That is biblical faith: not telling God what to do, nor demanding what we want, but trusting him to always do the best and most loving thing for us. We find this throughout Scripture. So yes, God can even ‘throw us to the wolves’ – eg., throw Jonah into the mouth of a whale – but for very good purposes, including the salvation of a pagan city.
-As to God at least “allowing” suffering, of course he does. And well he should. There is not a loving parent anywhere in the world who does not do the same. If a young child is wounded or infected, prompt action including cleaning the wound and applying antiseptics or stitches or whatever is obviously required.
Does that cause suffering to the child? Of course it does. But parental love and wisdom is behind this pain. The child may not understand why the parent or nurse or doctor is inflicting this pain on him, but the adults know exactly why it is needed.
-As to God causing suffering, the issue for any Christian is simple: do we believe God and his word, or do we sit in judgment on it, thinking that we somehow know better? The texts on God bringing about suffering to achieve better outcomes and higher aims are far too numerous to mention here.
But yes, God DOES allow, and even cause, suffering. But when he does it for his own people, it is always for a good purpose and for our own very best good. (The issue of the eternal suffering of those who reject God and want nothing to do with him I will here not enter into.)
As you should know, God likens himself to the caring father who will discipline his children out of love and a desire to see them have the very best, and not wallow in what is much worse for them. The discipline is painful at the time, but much-needed (see Hebrews 12:4-13). Again, all parents would know about these sorts of things. Love and suffering are NOT polar opposites in other words, but often go together.
Jesus himself was fully innocent, yet God caused him to suffer – for our sake. Jesus is known as the “suffering servant” and Isaiah 53:10-11 says this about him:
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
It was “the Lord’s will”! Perhaps you think God was wrong here and you can somehow “come up with a gentler and kinder work-around”. But not me. There was no other way, and it was so painful and involved so much suffering that it cost God his only beloved son. That is the way a perfectly loving and wise God dealt with the problem of my sin and yours. If we arrogantly think we could have come up with a superior solution, we are living in fleshly delusion.
So if we really believe that God should never cause or allow anyone to suffer, then we would all still be dead in our trespasses and sins headed to a lost eternity. Thankfully God was willing to strike his own son for us. Our God is not aloof from suffering – he takes it upon himself. So I have no problems at all with God allowing suffering, since he does not exempt himself from it, and it is pure and overwhelming love that allows all this to happen.
-As to the idea that God could end all suffering at any time, that too I and others have addressed plenty of times. (Again, I am somewhat puzzled that anyone asking honest questions here would have no idea of the countless helpful answers given over the centuries that are intellectually satisfying, biblically and theologically sound, and pastorally useful!)
But let me just reply once again. Just yesterday I wrote a piece using Tim Keller’s helpful book on suffering (a book – along with many others – that anyone serious about getting good answers on this should be aware of). One of his quotes that I shared was this:
Do you see what would have happened at Jesus’ first coming to earth if he’d come with a sword in his hand and a power to destroy all sources of suffering and evil? It would have meant there would be no human beings left. If you don’t think that is fair, I would argue that you don’t know your own capabilities, your own heart. But Jesus did not come to earth the first time to bring justice but rather to bear it. He came not with a sword in his hands but with nails through his hands. Christian teaching for centuries has been this: Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment our sins deserve, so that someday he can return to earth to end evil without destroying us all. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/06/23/tim-keller-on-suffering-and-evil/
-As for Paul being told ahead of time by God how much he would suffer for Christ, Paul fully embraced that and rejoiced in it. One cannot read his letters without seeing how often he tells us to rejoice in our sufferings. Philippians, for example, the “epistle of joy” was penned when he was a prisoner.
So his views on suffering are far different than most of ours. We want to avoid it at all costs. Paul said we should accept it, embrace it, and thank God for it. Indeed, anyone who knows a bit of New Testament Greek knows that Paul actually said suffering is a gift of God: “For it has been granted to you (gifted) on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29).
-As to the old debate about God “allowing” or “causing” suffering, I can give you a list of many dozens of books looking at that debate from biblical, theological and philosophical angles. It is part of the old discussion of how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility cohere. As usual, I have plenty of articles on those matters on my website as well for those who are really interested.
-Respectfully, the bottom line really is this: if we, as fallen, finite and sin-soaked creatures think that we are wiser than God and more compassionate than God, then our main problem is overwhelming, sinful pride. And God of course resists the proud.
Our only safe place must be one of trust and belief in an all-wise and all-loving God who knows what he is doing, and who has the very best in mind for us. That does not mean we will not or cannot have questions, but it means we will understand that his version of events is far superior to our own fallen and finite solutions.
-As I keep reiterating, if you are asking honest questions, there are thousands of excellent resources out there offering honest answers, including on this site. The question you need to ask yourself is this: Do I really want God’s answers or not?