By L. Alfred James
Last week, we saw that one reason why God allows people to do evil things is because of his decision to give human beings a free will. Without freedom, genuine love is impossible. If human beings were pre-programmed to always do the right thing, their love would be a sham.
However, this does not solve all problems pertaining to suffering. Even if true love requires the possibility of doing evil, why does there have to be so much suffering in the world? Just think about how much suffering people have endured during times of war, famine, or natural disasters. Think about how many people live in poverty at the present moment. According to the world bank, half of the world’s population lives on less than $5.50 a day.1 Or think about how many people are suffering terrible pain from disease right now. In the United States alone 1.8 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year.2
In light of so much much suffering, many people ask, “How could there be a God? Or if there is, how could he be good if he allows these kinds of things to happen?” Some have even said, “If I have the power to help someone who is suffering horribly, to fix their problem, I use it. I help them. Or if I have the power to prevent some tragedy from happening, I use it. I keep it from happening. Why doesn’t God, who is all powerful, use his power to prevent these kinds of things from happening? Why doesn’t God just heal people who are in horrible pain?”
These are the questions that most of us ask at some point in our lives, especially when someone we love is suffering.
An Important Assumption
There is an assumption that usually stands behind questions like these. The assumption runs something like this:
If God loves us he will ensure that we are comfortable, and that we live long happy live. The goal of human life is comfort and pleasure.
One reason that the problem of mass-suffering seems so puzzling is that we tend to think that God, if he exists, must want human beings to be perfectly comfortable and happy in this world. If God is good, then he must believe it is necessary for us to be really happy right now, right?
Although it isn’t explicitly stated, it is assumed that we are basically God’s pets, and his job is to give us a nice comfortable and cozy life. Therefore, if he is not doing everything in his power to prevent us from experiencing pain, discomfort, or even tragedy, then he is not doing his job. Indeed, he is guilty of gross negligence.
Of course, if that is true then I will be the first to admit the suffering we see in the world really does present a problem for belief in God. I don’t see how in the world it could be God’s purpose for us to be happy and comfortable in this life while, at the same time, there is so much suffering in the world.
But where do you find human comfort being prioritized in the Bible? Where are the Bible passages that make a pain-free life out to be so important? You can’t find them because there aren’t any. In the Bible we find God allows suffering in this world for a lot of different reasons. Here are three:
- In order to spread his kingdom in this world
- In order to lead us to rely on him, and
- In order to force us to grow so that we will love him and love others better
If you study the Bible and if you study history you can see how suffering is necessary for all of these things to happen.
Where There Is Suffering, The Gospel Spreads Quickly
Did you know that those parts of the world where people suffer the most—from hunger, malnutrition, disease, lack of water, the ravages of war, etc.—are the very same parts of the world in which the gospel is spreading the fastest? God does not force people to repent and trust him. He lets them have a free will. But he uses all kinds of means to draw them to himself. One of those means is suffering.
It is precisely in countries that have endured severe suffering that evangelical Christianity is growing at its greatest rates, while in the comfortable and cozy United States (and Europe) the church has been shrinking for decades.3
- El Salvador: Over the past 60 years this nation has suffered a 12-year civil war, numerous earthquakes, and the collapse of the price of coffee (the nation’s main export) so that more than 80% of the population has been living in dire poverty. But consider what has happened to the church during that time: a huge spiritual awakening. In 1960 only 1 out of 50 people in El Salvador were Christians. In 2020 it is 1 out of 5.
- China: Mao Zedong killed 20 million Chinese during his cultural revolution, and Christianity was outlawed. When China’s government discovered an Underground Church its members were beaten and fined while their leaders were tortured, sent to labor camps, executed, or they simply “disappeared.” What has this done to the church in China? The church has not shrunk under this kind of oppression. It has flourished. In 1970, there were only 1.5 million Christians in China. There are now at least 50 million, maybe as many as 70 million. It’s hard to get good numbers in a country where evangelical Christianity is illegal.
- Ethiopia: This nation has consistently struggled with famine, oppression, and war. Deaths have numbered in the millions. However, the effect this has had on the church has been predictable. In 1960 less than 1% of the population claimed to be born-again Christians. But by 2015, that number had exploded to almost 19 million. Indeed, 19% of Ethiopians now claim a personal relationship with Christ.
- Why do I have cancer?
- Why do I have diabetes?
- Why do I have chronic pain?
- Why can I never get ahead financially?
- Why is my family going through such a difficult time?
- Those who let their suffering deepen their dependence on God—those who turn to him in faith for strength and the power to endure
- Those who get bitter about it, who waste their suffering.
Because of suffering, millions of people have come to know God. That means they will have an eternity of happiness after this life. And it means that, no matter how difficult this life may become, they still have a sense of meaning and purpose.
Human beings have a strong tendency to want nothing to do with God when life is going well. If we feel no need to depend on God, our spiritual lives usually are pretty lame, if we have any spiritual life at all. But when things fall apart, we are very inclined to depend on God, to seek his face, to call on him for mercy, and to begin a relationship with him if we don’t have one yet. Comfort moves us away from God, suffering moves us towards God. It is a principle of life.
This principle is not only applicable to abstract philosophical questions about God’s goodness. It is also applicable to your own personal spiritual life. You might be wondering why God is allowing serious troubles in your life. I can tell you: He is allowing suffering in your life to get you to the point of desperation so you will seek him and depend on him, and grow closer to him. Why? Because nothing in this life is as important (or as satisfying) as knowing God.
This is echoed by the Apostle Paul himself, writing to the Corinthians. He mentions severe life-threatening troubles, and then explains why God ordained that these things would happen.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8)
Notice what Paul says: “God orchestrated these difficult events to force us to depend on him.” Again, this is not just an abstract issue. It is very practice. It gets real personal, real fast. Some of you are who are reading this are probably wondering, “Why is my life so difficult right now?” You might be wondering…
I can’t give you a complete answer to this question (only God can), but I can give you part of an answer: It is so that you might not rely on yourself but on God. God is trying to knock out all the props from under you so that you have to rely on him. That is what deepens your relationship with him, and what transforms your character. Suffering provides an occasion for a deeper dependency and trust in God.
But here is an important point: Your hardship, your suffering is meant to accomplish something—to increase your dependency on God. To spread God’s kingdom over more of your life. To bring more of your heart and your habits into submission to him. But you don’t have to respond this way. If you choose, you can just get bitter and angry with God, and to waste your suffering. And if that is how you choose to respond, I have no comfort for you. You are wasting your suffering.
In the end, there are two kinds of people in this world, and the two kinds are not people who suffer and people who don’t. Nope. Everyone has suffering enter their life. Everyone suffers. The two kinds are:
Whether or not God’s purpose is achieved through what we suffer all depends on how we respond to it. This is why the author of Hebrews exhorts us:
Hebrews 12:6 the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?
3. I am indebted to J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview for the following examples.