By Lee Strobel
But if you’ve never asked why our world is infected with pain and suffering, you will when they strike you with full force or they come to a loved one. And Jesus said they are coming. Unlike some other religious leaders who wrote off pain and suffering as just being illusions, Jesus was honest. He told us the truth. He said in John 16:33, “You will have suffering in this world.” He didn’t say you might – he said it is going to happen.
I cannot stand in the shoes of God and give a complete answer to that question. I don’t have God’s mind. I don’t see with God’s eyes. First Corinthians 13:12 says, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”
So when you ask about specific individual events and want to know why this particular thing happened, we won’t get the full answer in this world. .
But for us, let’s focus on the big, overarching issue of why God generally allows suffering in our lives – your life and mine. Friends, this is important: even though we can’t understand everything about it, we can understand some things.
We may not be able to make out all the peripheral details of why — they may be obscured from our view — but there are some key Biblical truths that can illuminate some points of light for us. And if we follow those lights, they will lead us in the right direction, toward some conclusions that I believe can help satisfy our hearts and souls.
What are those points of light? Let me go through five of them that I’ve personally found helpful whenever I’ve been prompted to ask the question, “Why?” The first point of light: God is not the creator of evil and suffering.
This answers the question you hear so often: “Why didn’t God merely create a world where tragedy and suffering didn’t exist?” The answer is: He did! Genesis 1:31 says: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
But if God is not the author of tragedy or evil or death, where did they come from? Well, God has existed from eternity past as the Father, Son and Spirit, together in a relationship of perfect love. So love is the highest value in the universe. And when God decided to create human beings, he wanted us to experience love. But to give us the ability to love, God had to give us free will to decide whether to love or not to love. Why? Because love always involves a choice.
So in order for us to experience love, God bestowed on us free will. But unfortunately, we humans have abused our free will by rejecting God and walking away from Him. And that has resulted in the introduction of two kinds of evil into the world: moral evil and natural evil.
Moral evil is the immorality and pain and suffering and tragedy that come because we choose to be selfish, arrogant, uncaring, hateful and abusive. Romans 3:23 says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
So much of the world’s suffering results from the sinful action or inaction of ourselves and others. For example, people look at a famine and wonder where God is, but the world produces enough food for each person to have 3,000 calories a day. It’s our own irresponsibility and self-centeredness that prevents people from getting fed.
In other words: look at your hand. You can choose to use that hand to hold a gun and shoot someone, or you can use it to feed hungry people.
It’s your choice. But it’s unfair to shoot someone and then blame God for the existence of evil and suffering. Like that old cartoon said: “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”
The Bible says it’s because of sin that nature was corrupted and “thorns and thistles” entered the world. Romans 8:22 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In other words, nature longs for redemption to come and for things to be set right. That’s the source of disorder and chaos.
Let’s make this crystal clear once more: God did not create evil and suffering. Now, it’s true that he did create the potential for evil to enter the world, because that was the only way to create the potential for genuine goodness and love. But it was human beings, in our free will, who brought that potential evil into reality.
Some people ask, “Couldn’t God have foreseen all of this?” And no doubt he did. But look at it this way: many of you are parents. Even before you had children, couldn’t you foresee that there was the very real possibility they may suffer disappointment or pain or heartache in life, or that they might even hurt you and walk away from you? Of course — but you still had kids. Why? Because you knew there was also the potential for tremendous joy and deep love and great meaning.
Now, the analogy is far from perfect, but think about God. He undoubtedly knew we’d rebel against Him, but He also knew many people would choose to follow Him and have a relationship with Him and spend eternity in heaven with Him — and it was all worth it for that, even though it would cost His own Son great pain and suffering to achieve their redemption.
So, first, it helps me to remember, as I ponder the mystery of pain and evil, that God did not create them. The second point of light is this: Though suffering isn’t good, God can use it to accomplish good.
He does this by fulfilling His promise in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Notice that the verse doesn’t say God causes evil and suffering, just that he promises to cause good to emerge. And notice that the verse doesn’t say we all will see immediately or even in this life how God has caused good to emerge from a bad circumstance. Remember, we only see things dimly in this world. And notice that God doesn’t make this promise to everyone. He makes the solemn pledge that he will take the bad circumstances that befall us and cause good to emerge if we’re committed to following Him.
The Old Testament gives us a great example in the story of Joseph, who went through terrible suffering, being sold into slavery by his brothers, unfairly accused of a crime and falsely imprisoned. Finally, after a dozen years, he was put in a role of great authority where he could save the lives of his family and many others.
This is what he said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” And if you’re committed to God, He promises that He can and will take whatever pain you’re experiencing and draw something good from it.
You might say, “No, he can’t in my circumstance. The harm was too great, the damage was too extreme, the depth of my suffering has been too much. No, in my case there’s no way God can cause any good to emerge.”
He can and He will. God can use our suffering to draw us to Himself, to mold and sharpen our character, to influence others for Him – He can draw something good from our pain in a myriad of ways…if we trust and follow Him.
Now, the third point of light: The day is coming when suffering will cease and God will judge evil.
A lot of times you’ll hear people say: “If God has the power to eradicate evil and suffering, then why doesn’t He do it?” And the answer is that because He hasn’t done it yet doesn’t mean He won’t do it.
And the Bible says that the story of this world isn’t over yet. It says the day will come when sickness and pain will be eradicated and people will be held accountable for the evil they’ve committed. Justice will be served in a perfect way. That day will come, but not yet.
So what’s holding God up? One answer is that some of you may be. He’s actually delaying the consummation of history in anticipation that some of you will still put your trust in Him and spend eternity in heaven. He’s delaying everything out of His love for you. SecondPeter 3:9 says: “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”To me, that’s evidence of a loving God, that He would care that much for you.
I certainly don’t want to minimize pain and suffering, but it helps if we take a long-term perspective. Look at this verse, and remember they were written by the apostle Paul, who suffered through beatings and stonings and shipwrecks and imprisonments and rejection and hunger and thirst and homelessness and far more pain that most of us will ever have to endure. These are his words:
Second Corinthians 4:17: “For our light and momentary troubles” — wait a second: light and momentary troubles? Five different times his back was shredded when he was flogged 39 lashes with a whip; three times he was beaten to a bloody pulp by rods. But he says, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
Paul also wrote Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
And if they said, “But didn’t you have a tough time before you got here,” you’d probably think back and say, “Well, yes, it’s true that those days were painful, I can’t deny that. They were difficult, they were bad. But when I put them into context, in light of all God’s outpouring of goodness to me, those bad days aren’t even worth comparing with the eternity of blessings and joy that I’m experiencing.”
God promises a time when there will be no more crying, no more tears, no more pain and suffering, when we will be reunited with God in perfect harmony, forever. Let the words of First Corinthians 2:9 soak into your soul: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” That’s absolutely breath-taking, isn’t it?
Finally, Point of Light #5: We decide whether to turn bitter or turn to God for peace and courage.
We’ve all seen examples of how the same suffering that causes one person to turn bitter, to reject God, to become hard and angry and sullen, can cause another person to turn to God, to become more gentle and more loving and more tender, willing to reach out to compassionately help other people who are in pain.
As one philosopher said: “I believe all suffering is at least potential good, an opportunity for good. It’s up to our free choice to actualize that potential. Not all of us benefit from suffering and learn from it, because that’s up to us, it’s up to our free will.”
We make the choice to either run away from God or to run to Him. But what happens if we run to Him?
I started this talk with part of what Jesus said in John 16:33. Now let me give you the entire verse: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. But be courageous! I have conquered the world.”
In other words, He offers us the two very things we need when we’re hurting: peace to deal with our present and courage to deal with our future. How? Because he has conquered the world! Through His own suffering and death, He has deprived this world of its ultimate power over you. Suffering doesn’t have the last word anymore. Death doesn’t have the last word anymore. God has the last word!
And then the wise man told me this: it’s not just that God knows and sympathizes with you in your troubles. After all, any close friend can do that. Any close friend can sit beside you and comfort you and empathize with you. No, Jesus is much closer than your closest friend. Because if you’ve put your trust in Him, then He is in you. And, therefore, your sufferings are His sufferings; your sorrow is His sorrow.
So when tragedy strikes, as it will; when suffering comes, as it will; when you’re wrestling with pain, as you will – and when you make the choice to run into His arms, here’s what you’re going to discover: you’ll find peace to deal with the present, you’ll find courage to deal with your future, and you’ll find the incredible promise of eternal life in heaven.
God doesn’t want you wondering. He doesn’t want you steeped in anxiety over whether you’re headed for heaven. His infallible, inerrant Word says you can know for sure.
Lord Jesus, I believe that You are the unique Son of God. I confess to You that I’m a sinner. In repentance and faith, I reach out right now and receive the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that You graciously purchased on the cross when You died as my substitute to pay for all of my sins. Please, Lord Jesus, lead my life – because from this moment on, I am Yours. I pray this in Your name. Amen.