Why Does God Allow Suffering?
A one-year-old boy shattered his back falling down a flight of stairs. He spent his childhood and youth in and out of hospital. Gavin Reid, the former Bishop of Maidstone, interviewed him in church. The boy remarked, 'God is fair.' Gavin asked, 'How old are you?' 'Seventeen,' the boy replied. 'How many years have you spent in hospital?' The boy answered, 'Thirteen years.' Gavin asked, 'Do you think that is fair?' He replied, 'God has got all of eternity to make it up to me.'
We live in a world of instant gratification that has almost entirely lost its eternal perspective. The New Testament is full of wonderful promises about the future: all creation will be restored. Jesus will return to establish 'a new heaven and a new earth' (Revelation 21:1). There will be no more crying, for there will be no more pain and suffering. Our frail, decaying mortal bodies will be changed for a body like that of Jesus' glorious resurrected body.
Suffering is not part of God's original created order (see Genesis 1–2). There was no suffering in the world before rebellion against God. There will be no suffering when God creates a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:3–4). Suffering is, therefore, an alien intrusion into God's world.
This, of course, is not a complete answer to the question 'Why does God allow suffering?¹' As we saw yesterday there is no simple or complete solution, but each of today's passages gives us some further insight.
A miktam of David.
1 Keep me safe, my God,
for in you I take refuge.
2 I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”
3 I say of the holy people who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
4 Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
or take up their names on my lips.
5 Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
7 I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
8 I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
See the suffering of this life in the context of eternity
Today’s psalm is one of the few Old Testament passages that foresees the hope of eternity in the presence of God. David writes, ‘because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand (vv.10–11).
This is our future hope. These verses show that the resurrection of Jesus was foretold in the Scriptures (see Acts 2:25–28). This life is not the end. You can look forward to an eternity in the presence of God, to fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. ‘Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18).
The Parable of the Wandering Sheep
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. \\[11\\]
12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
Dealing With Sin in the Church
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Understand the relationship between human freedom and suffering
God loves you. Love is not love if it is forced; it can only be love if there is a real choice. God gave human beings a choice and the freedom to love or not to love. So much suffering is caused by us choosing not to love God or others: ‘The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods’ (Psalm 16:4).
However, Jesus expressly rejects the automatic link between sin and suffering (John 9:1–3). He also points out that natural disasters are not necessarily a form of punishment from God (Luke 13:1–5). But some suffering is a direct result either of our own sin or the sin of others. In this passage we see three examples:
Jesus speaks about a sheep that ‘wanders away’ (Matthew 18:12).
When we wander away from the protection of The Shepherd we become vulnerable. But God will never stop searching for us because he ‘is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost’ (v.14).
Sin of others
Jesus says, ‘If your brother or sister sins against you’ (v.15). So much suffering in the world is the result of other people’s sin – both at a global and community level, and also at an individual one. In this passage, Jesus sets out a way of reconciliation.
He calls his disciples to unlimited forgiveness. Jesus says that when people sin against us we are to forgive them – not just seven times, but seventy-seven times (vv.21–22).
Forgiveness is not easy. The cross reminds us how costly and painful it is. Forgiveness does not mean approving of what the other person did, nor excusing it, nor denying it, nor pretending that you are not hurt. Rather, you are aware of what the other person has done and yet you are called to forgive. In your personal relationships lay aside all malice, revenge and retribution and show mercy and grace to the person who has hurt you.
Sometimes forgiving can be extremely hard. As C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.’
In the final parable, we can see the destructive nature of unforgiveness. The first servant’s unwillingness to forgive a comparatively minor debt (around three-and-a-half month’s wages compared to around 160,000 years’ wages for an average person) destroys his relationship with the other servants, and leads to the second servant being cast into prison. So often unforgiveness destroys relationships between people, and results in them lashing out against those they think have sinned against them. We see the results of this in marriage breakdowns, broken relationships, or in conflicts between different communities.
We do not earn our forgiveness; Jesus achieved that for you on the cross. But your willingness to forgive is evidence that you know God’s forgiveness. Forgiven people forgive. All of us have been forgiven so much by God that we must keep on forgiving the comparatively small offences committed against us.
I’m so thankful that God does not put a limit on how often he forgives me. But when I look at others I am tempted to think, ‘I’m happy to forgive once, or even twice, but if they keep on doing this surely I’m not expected to keep on forgiving.’
Cultivate in your heart the same attitude towards others as God has towards you.
1 In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. 2 He had seven sons and three daughters, 3 and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
4 His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.
6 One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and fro on it.”
8 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you! ”
20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”
22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
2 On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and fro on it.”
3 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”
4 “Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. 5 But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. 8 Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
9 His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”
10 He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
11 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.
3 After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2 He said:
3 “May the day of my birth perish,
and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’
4 That day—may it turn to darkness;
may God above not care about it;
may no light shine on it.
5 May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more;
may a cloud settle over it;
may blackness overwhelm it.
6 That night—may thick darkness seize it;
may it not be included among the days of the year
nor be entered in any of the months.
7 May that night be barren;
may no shout of joy be heard in it.
8 May those who curse days curse that day,
those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.
9 May its morning stars become dark;
may it wait for daylight in vain
and not see the first rays of dawn,
10 for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me
to hide trouble from my eyes.
11 “Why did I not perish at birth,
and die as I came from the womb?
12 Why were there knees to receive me
and breasts that I might be nursed?
13 For now I would be lying down in peace;
I would be asleep and at rest
14 with kings and rulers of the earth,
who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
15 with princes who had gold,
who filled their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child,
like an infant who never saw the light of day?
17 There the wicked cease from turmoil,
and there the weary are at rest.
18 Captives also enjoy their ease;
they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout.
19 The small and the great are there,
and the slaves are freed from their owners.
20 “Why is light given to those in misery,
and life to the bitter of soul,
21 to those who long for death that does not come,
who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
22 who are filled with gladness
and rejoice when they reach the grave?
23 Why is life given to a man
whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.”
Always respond to suffering with compassion
The book of Job is all about suffering. It is primarily about the question, ‘How should we respond to suffering?’
Perhaps we also see a hint about the origin of suffering. When the angels assembled before God, ‘Satan also came with them’ (1:6). He had been ‘roaming through the earth’ (v.7). It is clear that Satan’s objective is to cause as much suffering as he can.
It appears that Satan was a fallen angel. It seems that before God created human beings he created other free, imaginative and intelligent beings and that there was a rebellion within the spiritual realm before human beings even emerged.
A great deal of suffering can be explained as being the result of the fact that we live in a fallen world: a world where all creation has been affected, not only by the sin of human beings, but also before that by Satan’s sin. The serpent existed before Adam and Eve sinned. As a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, ‘thorns and thistles’ entered the world (Genesis 3:18). Ever since that time ‘the creation was subjected to frustration’ (Romans 8:20). ‘Natural’ disasters (such as global pandemics) are a result of this disorder in creation.
Satan was allowed to bring several major tragedies into the life of a man who was blameless and upright, who feared God and shunned evil (Job 1:1). Job suffered loss in the areas of money, material possessions (vv.13–17), family life (vv.18–19), personal health (2:1–10) and, eventually, the support of his friends.
When we face unexplained suffering it can be very easy to blame God. Although Job did not know why he was suffering, he responded by continuing to trust and worship God in his pain, just as he had in his good fortune (1:21,2:10). The writer tells us admiringly, ‘In all this, Job did not sin in what he said’ (v.10b). He remained faithful in the most difficult of circumstances.
Initially Job’s friends respond in the right way: ‘No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was’ (v.13). In the face of great suffering, attempts to rationalise can be counterproductive. Usually the most positive thing you can do is to put an arm around the person and ‘mourn with those who mourn’ (Romans 12:15), entering their suffering and participating as far as you are able.
In the end, God restored Job’s fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. Now we know that, through Jesus, God has all eternity to more than compensate for all your sufferings in this life.
In Psalm 16:7 it says, ‘Even at night my heart instructs me.’
A lot of things come to mind in the middle of the night – often worries. In turning them into prayer, God can speak to us and instruct us, and our body can ‘rest secure’ (v.9).
Verse of the Day
'Keep me safe, my God,
for in you I take refuge.'
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¹For a wider discussion about suffering, see Nicky Gumbel’s booklet: Why Does God Allow Suffering?
It is also available in chapter 1 of Nicky Gumbel’s book Searching Issues.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (William Collins, 2012).
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture quotations marked (AMP) taken from the Amplified® Bible, Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)