Where is God when it hurts? Why does God allow suffering?

May 16, 2016 | Blog, Suffering | 0 comments

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” ~ C.S. Lewis

 

Many people’s lives are full of suffering. How do we make sense of this suffering? Why does God allow suffering? Why does he allow the innocent and righteous to suffer? Where is God when I’m hurting?

An elderly man groans in pain, longing for release. A young woman loses her husband in a motorbike accident, leaving her to raise her three children alone. We cringe at the horror of Auschwitz.

We’re confronted and offended by such misery. We often search for hidden meaning contained within suffering itself, or we seek explanations from other places.

What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?

The breadth of suffering in the world raises profound questions about the nature of God, and his involvement in human life. If God is all good, all-powerful, and all loving, then why do the innocent suffer?

Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament provide complete answers to this question. But some answers are given, and these ideas can be explored.

The Bible teaches that we suffer largely because of the fallen, broken, wounded, sinful nature of humanity.[1] Sin has entered the world and brought death, disease, division, and destruction. Human beings rebel against God and his holiness, righteousness, and justice. And, human bodies and the creation are frail. But, in spite of this very real struggle, we are assured that God remains King. We are assured that when Christ returns all things will be eternally restored—and this includes the end of all suffering and evil.[2]

In this life, we experience suffering and pain. These affront our sense of the world’s fairness. They raise questions “about the goodness, the compassion, even the existence of God.”[3]

My friend Steve Frost recently taught from Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.[4] We often misunderstand the parable of the mustard seed. In a world addicted to the shiny, successful, eye-catching, and exponentially-growing, the kingdom of God is almost embarrassingly ordinary. But it’s perfect for rest and shade and food. The sun continues to beat down on people, scorching them and causing them to suffer.

The kingdom of God is rest and shade and renewal and hope, but it isn’t some kind of giant umbrella that protects us from all pain. But there’s hope! Even as the sun beats down, in that very same moment, the kingdom of God provides rest and shade and food. It provides healing and hope and new life in the midst of pain and suffering. That’s the good news.

What Does Job Say About Suffering?

The Old Testament book of Job is one source that Christians and Jews turn to for explanations to human suffering and pain. Job is a stunning ancient text. It helps us engage with both the conceptual problems of suffering and the human, interpersonal, gut-level experiences. The misery of innocent, defenseless, and good people is a very real dilemma.

Job is a righteous man who lives a blameless and upright life; fearing God and shunning evil. In spite of this, he suffers greatly. He looses livestock, friends, property, health, and his sons and daughters. One calamity is added to the next.

In the story, Job’s three friends come to “comfort” him in his suffering. Job’s friends believed in a doctrine of divine retribution—a belief that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked in this life. But Job questioned this theology when his experience seemed in blatant contradiction to its proposals and convictions.

Why do some people embrace the doctrine of divine retribution, in order to explain pain and suffering?

  • To understand, control, and protect God’s image as both omnipotent and good
  • To preserve religious and theological traditions
  • To use an ethical or moral motivation

But what are some of the results?

  • The condemnation of fellow human beings
  • The sufferer is forced to blame themself
  • God is relegated to the position of adversary
  • No satisfactory answer is provided for the sufferer

When the Righteous and Innocent Suffer

The book of Job denies the doctrine of divine retribution. Job’s friends hold rigidly to the doctrine of divine retribution, and encourage Job to repent. They say that if he repents he’ll escape his suffering and receive God’s blessing. In doing so, they “unsuspectingly tempt him to use God for his personal gain, [which is] the essence of sin.”[5] If Job had followed their counsel, he would have vindicated his accusers who claimed that human beings seek personal gain in their worship of God. Using the words of the three “comforters”, the author of Job “strongly denounces the practice of using deceptive arguments to defend God.”[6]

The book of Job offers no definitive answer to the problem of human misery.

The issue is ventilated, and partial answers are offered by Job’s friends. But, in the end, “readers cannot discover from the book any one clear view about what the reason for their own particular suffering may be, nor any statement about the reason for human suffering in general; for the book is entirely about the suffering of one particular and unique individual.”[7]

Suffering isn't about divine judgement. The innocent & righteous will & do suffer. Click To Tweet

The book of Job doesn’t deny that sufferers deserve suffering sometimes. Yet, it contradicts the idea that this is always the case. Job exemplifies the innocent sufferer, whose innocence is asserted by the story’s narrator, the holy God, and himself.

The book of Job tells us that the righteous and innocent may suffer terribly, and that adverse circumstances do not necessarily witness to an individual’s moral corruption. Righteous and innocent people may suffer deeply in every sphere of life (physical, social, spiritual, and emotional).

Forget Those Clever Answers to the Meaning of Suffering

Job doesn’t portray the suffering of the righteous, innocent, and good as something that’s necessarily cleansing, educational, testing, or edifying. The author upholds the goodness of both God and Job. But human will, the laws of nature, human sin, and the brokenness of the world all combine to contribute to the suffering of the innocent; exculpating God and the sufferer from responsibility.

Yet, even these “clever” explanations don’t heal the wounds nor satisfy the objections of the millions who suffering. There is no clear answer to the question of human suffering in the book of Job.

The mistake of Job’s friends was that they offered complicated explanations to an innocent sufferer who, in fact, needed comfort, support, and sympathy. He didn’t need their clichéd or “clever” answers.

Job’s friends offered clichés for suffering. He needed friendship, listening, empathy. Click To Tweet

We learn from Job that God is not predictable, and it is completely acceptable to question God when we are in pain. But no thorough explanation to human misery is provided nor attempted in the book.

The problem of suffering (as distinct from the experience of suffering) is a problem for the monotheist only. Only the monotheist asks, “How can the one true God be omnipotent, good, and compassionate when the innocent and righteous suffer?” A polytheistic, pantheistic, or atheistic view of the world doesn’t need to ask such a question. For the monotheist, misery has a moral or ethical quality attached to it. It is seen as bad, wrong, and unjust, and it need to be reconciled with our understanding of the one good God.

But the book of Job, to the frustration of many monotheists, is not a theodicy. A theodicy is an attempt to justify the ways of God to human beings (or an attempt to vindicate divine providence in the face of evil and suffering). Theodicies strive to resolve the problem of evil and suffering for a theological system. They seek to demonstrate that God is omnipotent, all-loving, and just—despite the existence of misery and evil.

Job, however, is primarily the personal account of one man’s unique experiences of suffering.

The book is about his wrestle with the meaning of human misery. It’s far removed from the Augustinian theodicy (the free will defense), the Irenaean theodicy (the soul-building theodicy incorporating a consequentialist ethic), or the Leibnizian theodicy (the best of all possible worlds theodicy). It’s not a theodicy, because Job doesn’t attempt to explain the problem of suffering and evil.

At the same time, Job rejects the doctrine of corruption (everything suffers because everything is corrupt). And it rejects the stoic idea that we are required to transcend our misfortunes in this life and receive our reward in the next.

Tilley was correct when he wrote that the book of Job “displays the cost of providing the ‘systematic totalization’ a theodicy requires: silencing the voice of the sufferer, even if s/he curses the day s/he was born and accuses God of causing human suffering.”[8]

In the book of Job, theodicies are at best represented as the impetuous young Elihu, who is full of hot air. Or, at worst, they are “not quite torturers, but all the forms of intimidation, all the psychological conditionings, are good for them to obtain the famous spontaneous confessions so dear to dictatorial societies.”[9] The book of Job develops no coherent theodicy. It provides no theological foundations for establishing a modern theodicy. That is not the purpose of this ancient drama.

It’s OK to Question God

In the book, Job is never condemned for questioning God. In desperate anguish he gropes for answers in the dark abyss of his misery. He laments his bitter feelings and grievous calamities. He cries to God for a response.

Job questions God vigorously—not in a logical or consistent manner, but in one motivated by grief and inner turmoil. “Job thus legitimates for sincere believers their ambiguous feelings toward God and religion when they suffer intensely for no discernible reason.”[10]

Job is convinced that he’s become a mockery to his neighbor. He knows that, although he is blameless, he is a laughing stock, while “the tents of robbers are prosperous, and those who provoke God are secure.”[11] He is sure that the beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish will testify that God is to blame for his calamity: “Which of all these does not know that the hand of God has done this? In his hand is the soul of every living thing, and the life breath of all humankind.”[12]

Job exclaims that God negates the expectations of the religious establishment. God makes fools of judges, silences trusted advisers, and takes discretion away from the aged. Job, based on this evidence, concludes: “I want to speak with the Almighty; I wish to reason with God.”[13] God then allows Job to question him unashamedly, forthrightly, and openly.

God is more offended by unauthentic piety or dogmatic orthodoxy than by those who love him and who ask him direct questions—including questions about the meaning of their misery. God doesn’t require that we repress our anger or grief. He doesn’t requires us to settle for petty or trite answers about the nature, meaning, and origins of evil and suffering.

The book of Job legitimates “the quest of believers for self-understanding and meaning, while at the same time encouraging them to display emotional integrity and candor in their relationships with God and others. It also validates their moments of skepticism in the face of commonly accepted certainties as well as pessimism as a frank response to an implacable experience, and perhaps even cynicism in reaction to unmerited abuse from others.”[14]

Once Job has aired his criticisms and questions of God, he encounters God’s majesty and is overwhelmed that God would even reason with him. In his encounter with God, he finds profound personal meaning, amidst undeserved suffering and ambiguity. God responded to Job’s cries of anguish in this encounter. This is because the author of the book of Job believes that God responds to human misery—sometimes incomprehensibly, often unfathomably, but never negligibly.

God responds to Job’s questioning. But, he doesn’t do it in a manner that would silence through fear, persuade by love, placate with logical explanations, or bribe in order to keep Job silent. Instead, God responds in the divine-human encounter, allowing Job to glimpse the respective places of God and human beings in the universe.

The book tells us that God permits evil and chaos for a season, but that they are kept in a leash.

In the face of suffering and injustice, human beings have the responsibility to pursue and display morality, compassion, justice, freedom, and hope. No concise theodicy is given in the book, however, since God won’t be constrained by such theologically rigid constructs.

The book of Job is scathing of Job’s friends, and their easy, clever, and clichéd answers to the problem of evil and suffering. Job shows us that when people suffer we should listen to them compassionately, instead of offering them clichéd answers that do not satisfy their pain. We also learn that we should trust in the goodness of God to work everything out in the end.

Job tells us we don’t have to settle for superficial answers to suffering & evil Click To Tweet

The message of the book is that there’s no rigid answer to these difficult questions and it’s acceptable to question God. We don’t have to settle for superficial answers to the problem of suffering and evil. Life is full of contradictions and pain. The righteous and innocent sufferer may find hope and peace in trusting God, even if they can’t find satisfactory answers to their painful questions.

So, Where is God When it Hurts?

The question remains, if God takes pleasure in us then why do the innocent suffer?

Here are some responses.

But keep in mind what has been written above about the unsatisfactory nature of simplistic answers when we, or someone we love, is experiencing suffering.

God Suffers

The Bible shows us a God who is not distanced from human suffering. God himself suffers. And he suffers greatly.

Jesus experienced profound suffering: physical (from hunger, weariness, flogging, crucifixion), emotional (he wept for Lazarus, and he grieved for the fall of his people), and mental and spiritual (such as his agony in the garden and his torment on the Cross).

Jesus identifies with innocent sufferers because he himself was an innocent sufferer.

Jesus identifies with innocent sufferers because he was an innocent sufferer Click To Tweet

Paul describes Christ as our intercessor in heaven who deeply understands, shares, and experiences our sufferings—because he himself has suffered. God himself is a suffering God. He’s the “crucified God.” God won’t know the end of his pain and heartbreak over our suffering until the restoration of all things through Christ (i.e. the second coming). We are not alone in our pain, for when we suffer he suffers with us.

God is Present in Our Suffering (And Suffering Shapes Us)

Since God is involved in our suffering he is able to work through it for our good (even though suffering is never good in itself).

Since God’s presence is with us when we suffer, he may use suffering to draw us to Christ, develop in us Christian maturity, and to accomplish his purposes. (Note that I’ve said he uses not causes suffering for his people. It’s still a terrifying thought, though—God uses pain to bring us to him).[16]

As C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, “God whispers to us in out pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[17]

C.S. Lewis says that suffering can lead us to humility and dependency on God. (But, suffering can also lead us to final and unrepentant rebellion). Suffering can also break down our wrong ideas about God. Suffering can (but doesn’t always) lead to hope. And suffering only makes sense in the light of the final chapter—the new heaven and new earth in Jesus Christ.

It’s important to reflect, then, on our response to suffering.

A first response is to ask ourselves some questions:

  • “Is this a result of my sin or lifestyle, and if so what should I change?” (Note that the answer here may be yes, but it’s often no. Often, it’s the righteous and innocent who suffer).
  • “Is God trying to speak to me in the midst of this suffering?” (Not causing the suffering, but speaking to me in the midst of it).

Once we’ve asked those questions, here are some things we can do (I recognize how difficult some of these things are, especially when we’re in physical pain and emotional anguish):

  • Hold on to the promise that God is with us in our suffering
  • Cling to the hope of eternal healing
  • Show others compassion in their suffering
  • Refuse to offer sufferers simplistic or clichéd answers
  • Resist suffering through medical intervention
  • Pray for healing (which may or may not come through prayer, depending on the will of God)
  • Change our lifestyles and habits, if appropriate
  • Minister to those who suffer
  • Remember the Cross, the Resurrection, and Christ’s Return (The Cross shows us that God suffers and shares our pain. It shows us the incredible suffering of Christ to redeem and restore the world. The Resurrection witnesses to the new life and the new creation in Jesus Christ, and to the resurrection of our whole, healed, and restored bodies. Christ’s Return gives us hope for the new heaven and earth at the end of the age, through the rule and reign of Jesus Christ).

God Takes Pleasure in Us

The Bible teaches us that God takes pleasure in his children. He delights in us. The reality of suffering doesn’t change that.

It is this delight in us that caused Christ to endure the suffering of the Cross, and that causes God to be both a “suffering God” and a “crucified God.” He offers us eternal freedom from pain and suffering, even though we often suffer greatly in this lifetime. He is present with us in our suffering. He brings comfort, hope, loving friends, and, sometimes, but not always, even physical healing.

God Gives Us Hope

The New Testament brings a completely new perspective to our understanding of suffering: the perspective of eternity. Paul wrote, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”[15]

We suffer in this life. Faith doesn’t protects us from that. Indeed, we’re promised suffering if we follow Christ.

But the Bible says that we can hope in the new heaven and the new earth, where there will be no more pain or suffering. This life is as a drop in the ocean compared with our eternal peace, joy, and wholeness with God. Such thoughts don’t always comfort us when we suffer, or when we’ve lost someone we love. But, at times, such hope does help make the suffering of this life more bearable—and direct our hearts and minds to our eternal hope in Jesus Christ.

Even within pain & suffering, God can fill our hearts with faith, hope, love, joy. Click To Tweet

The meaning of human misery will perplex us for as long as suffering exists. Why does suffering exist? What is its origin or cause? Why am I personally suffering? Why do the righteous and innocent suffer if God is just, all-powerful, and all-loving? What is the meaning of human misery?

I began with the book of Job, and I’d like to return there. Job legitimates our natural tendency to question God when undeserved calamity strikes.

The message of the book of Job is that there’s no rigid answer to these difficult questions. And, it’s acceptable to question God. We don’t have to settle for superficial answers to the problem of suffering and evil. Life is full of ambiguities, paradoxes, and uncertainties. Yet, somehow, in the midst of this chaos, God works out his purposes—bringing hope, healing, peace, and new life.

The righteous and innocent sufferer may find hope and peace in trusting God—if not answers to their painful questions. The Christian God is a “crucified God.” He is a “suffering God.” He takes pleasure in us, and he’s present with us in our suffering. The Christian God has suffered, and continues to suffer.

But, he is also the “resurrected and returning God,” who offers the hope of the new creation and the restoration of all things. His glory will be revealed in us.

Suffering only makes sense in the light of the final chapter—the restoration of all things, at the end of the age, in Jesus Christ. You and I will suffering in this life. But, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”[18]

Further Reading

Billheimer, P. Don’t Waste Your Sorrows. CLC, 1993.

Bromiley, G.W. (ed.). “Suffering”, in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol.4. Eerdmans, 1995.

Carson, D.A. How Long Oh Lord. Baker, 2006.

Gumbel, N. Searching Issues: Suffering. Alpha, 2008.

Habel, N.C. “The Book of Job”, in The Old Testament Library. Westminster, 1985.

Hartley, J.E. “The Book of Job”, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Eerdmans, 1988.

Kushner, H.S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Anchor, 2004.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. HarperOne, 2001.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. HarperOne, 2015.

Keller, T. Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin, 2015.

Graham Hill

Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.

© 2016 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites, or in any other place, without written permission is prohibited.

 

[1] Gen.3

[2] Col.2:15; cf. 1 Cor.15-54-57; Rev.12:10f.; etc.

[3] Kushner, Harold S. “Why Do the Righteous Suffer? Notes Toward a Theology of Tragedy.” Judaism 28.3 (Summer 1979): 316. See Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Anchor, 2004.

[4] Matt.13:31–32.

[5] Hartley, J.E. The Book of Job: The New International Commentary. Eerdmans, 1988. p. 48.

[6] Ibid. p. 49.

[7] Clines, D.J. “Job” in Word Biblical Commentary. Word, 1989, p. xxxviii.

[8] Tilley, T.W. “God and the Silencing of Job”, in Modern Theology, 5, April 1989, p. 267.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lella, A.D. “An Existential Interpretation of Job”, in Biblical Theology, 15, April 1985, p. 51.

[11] Job 12:8.

[12] Job 12:7–10.

[13] Job 13:3.

[14] Lella, A.D. Op.Cit. 55.

[15] Rom.8:18

[16] See Heb.5:8; 1 Peter 1:7.

[17] Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins, 1996. p. 91.

[18] Rom.8:18

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