Why Does God Allow Suffering?
In a recent North American survey, people were asked, what is the purpose of God? This wasn’t just directed towards Christians; people from all belief systems or lack thereof participated. The majority answer for the survey, was that God’s purpose is to make us happy. So, when something bad happens, God must be failing at His job! Or, as the atheistic argument would go, if God’s job is to make us happy, he should not be able to fail because he is all powerful. Since he does fail, he must not exist. These attitudes towards God are built off this presupposition that God’s purpose is to make all of humanity happy. As we go through this whole Coronavirus mess, many people are questioning God, and how He could allow this pandemic.
The Problem of Evil, or the Problem of Contentment
The main problem with thinking God’s purpose is to keep us happy is that our contentment is failing. We live a very cushy existence for the most part. As human history goes, this is by far the most luxurious, pleasured, and well-off generation the world has ever seen. Because of this, we have actually become quite dependent upon our comforts. For the most part, I think this actually works against us, and our greater purposes. God’s goal for us is not to be as comfortable as we can possibly be; it’s for us to grow in relationship with Him. That’s what “faith” is.
When we struggle and go through hard times, often we question, “where is God?” Realistically, we’re turning our backs on God, because He’s “not doing His job” of making us happy. Instead, we should continue to trust in God, especially during those hard times. This is where our faith is proven, which is God’s real purpose for us.
The story of Job is a common story brought up in these sorts of discussions. If you don’t know the story, the basic idea is that Job lived an extremely comfortable life, with everything he could ask for. However, God allowed Satan to destroy all of Job’s blessings, as a way of testing Job’s faith. God knew Job would be faithful throughout all of the suffering he was going to go through. This terrible time for Job was quite literally a test God allowed, for Job to prove himself faithful. Job then starts complaining, and questions God, in the same way we often do, “God, why are you allowing all of this to happen!?” God’s response, ultimately, is to say to Job, “I’m God, you have no idea what I’m thinking, because I’m so far above the way you think about the world.” Now, that’s quite a disappointing answer, but it’s also true. Job’s goal in life was to be comfortable, and God’s goal for Job’s life was for him to depend more on God, and to grow in faith. God had a purpose in the suffering of Job. So, what other sorts of purposes could God possibly have for allowing us to go through the suffering we experience?
Power in Weakness
There are a few different good answers to this question of why God allows suffering. I’ll probably go into more of these answers in future blogs, but for now, especially given this time of Coronavirus and how it’s affecting the world, I think it’s important to focus on the idea of comfort. This idea that God’s purpose is to make us happy completely conflicts with how God portrays Himself in the Bible, and how God describes our purpose in life. In fact, it actually seems at times that God “wants” us to go through suffering.
As an example of God wanting us to go through struggles and suffering, we can look at a letter written by Paul back in the first century called 2 Corinthians. In this letter, at one point Paul is basically bragging about how much he’s suffered for preaching the message of Jesus. He does it in a bit of a joking way, but his overall point is that he’s probably gone through more suffering than most people do in life, and God allowed all of it, in order to keep Paul humble, because he was in danger of becoming arrogant. In other words, God allowed suffering to come into Paul’s life, for Paul’s benefit! For God’s perspective, Paul becoming a better person was more important than Paul staying comfortable. In fact, Paul even writes that he begged God to remove one particular piece of suffering from his life, and he writes that God told him, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Why do we go through all this suffering? Maybe it’s because God’s grace is sufficient for us, and He wants us to grow through the suffering we’re experiencing.
All Things Work Together for Good
Another passage, which is quite famous, is 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.” This is sometimes used by people who are hopeful that nothing bad will ever happen to them. They claim that, because they love God, everything will be good. However, that really doesn’t seem to be what Paul is saying, especially if we look at the other things he wrote. Sometimes God allows us to go through hard times, because it grows us as a person. The other thing that’s even more important, is for us to grow closer to God. If some suffering during this life allows us to grow in our relationship with God, growing in our faith and dependence on Him, then that suffering is worth it in the long run. It’s difficult to appreciate in the here and now, but it’s like delayed gratification; all things considered, in the end, it will be better for us. Imagine for a moment that in order for you to be a Christian, you had to go through suffering. In fact, if you didn’t go through that piece of suffering, God knows you would never have accepted Christ. Wouldn’t you be glad that God allowed you to go through that piece of suffering?
With Romans 8 in mind, to say that “all things work together for good” is actually quite true. In the end, all the things we go through will end up being for our benefit, and we will be better off. One important aspect here is, it might not be during this life that we see that benefit. We should continually try and have an “eternity mindset”, where we don’t view everything in terms of this life, but we look forward to eternity, seeing how everything will work out in the end.
This current world, especially our culture, is obsessed with pleasure and comfort. I won’t go into a rant against pleasure here, but I will say that it’s surprising (and sad) to see how often Christians value pleasure so much, that they won’t give up sinful things, simply because they enjoy them so much. We very often put pleasure and comfort before God. I’ll say this; God has more important things in mind for you than for your personal pleasure and comfort. These plans God has will be even more beneficial for you than being comfortable. In fact, I would argue that any type of growth is uncomfortable, and demands some sacrifice. With this in mind, I want to look at Romans 12:2; “Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” The world is obsessed with comfort, but you shouldn’t be. Instead, let God grow you, changing the way you think and act. By doing this, you’ll grow closer to God, increase in faith, and accomplish the plans God has for you.
There’s a really interesting piece of poetry that spells this out in an amazing way. In Proverbs 30:7-9 it reads, “Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” The writer of this proverb is actually asking for God give him less! Don’t allow me to become rich? Really!? How many of us could actually pray this and mean it? It’s a scary thing to pray! But the writer really gets it; he’s saying that he would prefer to not be rich, to give up all the pleasures and comforts of the world, if it meant that he would remain close to God. The goal in life is not our comfort or pleasure, and it’s not to avoid suffering; it’s to love God. A good prayer for all of us to pray is something like, “God, put me in a place where I need to depend on you more.” The answer to that prayer might be suffering, so many of us avoid praying it.
Doesn’t the Bible say God will spare us from suffering?
A common movement within Christianity today is that people believe God will not allow anything bad to happen to them. Realistically, I think it’s the same worldly mentality as was shown in that survey; God’s purpose is to make us happy. This sort of attitude uses passages like Luke 21:18-19, where it says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Most people read the first half, pay little attention to the second half, and completely ignore the context altogether. The point of this passage is not to say that God won’t allow us to be harmed. In fact, if you actually read this portion of Jesus’ teaching, He actually says that we should expect all sorts of suffering! The larger idea in these words of Jesus was that, as Christians, we will be persecuted. We’ll be put in prison, betrayed by our family and friends, and even killed (while this might not seem like our context, it has happened often in other times, and still happens around the world today). Jesus told us that everyone will hate us for preaching the Gospel, and that at times we’ll even die for it.
In this context, Jesus then says that “not a hair of our heads will perish”, and that “by our endurance we will gain our lives”. Just like the Romans 8:28 passage, this has an eternal mindset, and isn’t focused on the here and now. You will suffer, and you may even die for your faith, but in the end, no one can really harm you, because your faith in Christ will gain you eternal life. When all things are considered, in the end, all things really do work together for the good of those that love God. It’s not saying we won’t suffer, in fact, it predicts that we will suffer! We should then endure that suffering, and allow it to draw us closer to God.
The Importance of Contentment
How do we do this? Sure, I know that in the end things will be great, but right now, I’m suffering. How exactly are we supposed to go through this? The Bible speaks to this idea, and says that contentment is the important thing. 1 Timothy 6:6 says that “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” Comfort and pleasure are far less important. What’s important is being what God wants you to be. Having faith is the most important thing in life. The idea of contentment is that you should be satisfied with what you have, and that you shouldn’t fear it being taken away from you. You may feel like you’re content right now, because you’re comfortable, but if those comforts were removed from you, would you still be content? If not, then you’re not really content right now; you’re just presently comfortable. Contentment extends beyond our personal comfort zone, and allows us to be happy in all states of affairs.
The ultimate answer to the problem of suffering in this life is for us to flip our mentality. God’s purpose is not to give you pleasure and comfort. God’s purpose is for you to grow in faith. In times of suffering, endure it, grow through it, and allow it to draw you closer to God. Realistically, most often, the times that people actually start truly pursuing God is when struggles come in their life. When you go through suffering, a good question for you to ask yourself is, “how might God be using this terrible thing to bring something good out of it?” If you’re truly content in God, then the suffering you go through will grow you in your faith, and ultimately, you’ll even be glad you were allowed to go through it.