Why does God allow suffering? God allows suffering because it is a byproduct of sin. Sin happens because God gave us free will, even though he opposes sin and helps us overcome it when we are willing. God gave us free will because he loves us. And although suffering is not a good thing in and of itself, God can and does use suffering for the good of those who love him.
It might seem arrogant to attempt an answer at this huge question. The question is often asked more out of agony than curiosity, and a quick article like this might seem like asking for a conversation and getting bulk mail in return. But a lot of people ask the question, and unfortunately some of the answers given in reply just make things worse. As I attempt to offer an answer, I’d like to offer an important caveat: I can’t attempt to answer why you are facing the particular waves of suffering that are slamming into you. The Bible does give us some indicators as to why we face capital-letter Suffering, and that’s the big-picture question we’re looking at in this article.
Now, it’s possible that you might be reading this and you don’t really believe in God. If so, then you might very well not accept the rest of the explanation for why God allows suffering either. But at the least, hopefully you’ll be able to see that believing in a good, powerful God who allows suffering isn’t a contradiction. Perhaps you might even begin to warm up to a possibility that, for me, has become a conviction: that the Bible’s “grand metanarrative” gives a more satisfying explanation for why we suffer than any of its religious or philosophical alternatives. Thanks for taking the time; I hope you find this article helpful.
Why does God allow suffering? Because of sin.
The short answer is, because of sin. Wait…what?! Isn’t that just about the most calloused answer possible when somebody is suffering? Well, the Bible never said that Person A’s suffering always traces back to Person A’s sins (that sounds more like karma). Of course, sometimes it’s because of my sin (e.g. I rob a bank and go to jail). But other times, it’s because of someone else’s sin (e.g. Someone cheats me out of my money). Very often it goes back to the first sin:
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.” (Gen. 2:16-17)
We’ve inherited and contributed to a very fallen world. From Adam and Eve onwards, we find ourselves feeling…
- Embarrassed by ourselves (Gen. 3:7)
- Threatened by God (Gen. 3:8)
- Attacked by each other (Gen. 3:12)
- Frustrated by nature (Gen. 3:16-19)
Why does God allow suffering? “We’ve inherited and contributed to a very fallen world.”
Why suffering? Again, at some level, it traces back to sin.
Why sin? Because of free will.
Sin is made possible because God gave humans the ability to decide whether we would make good or evil decisions. He gave us commands instead of just programming our instincts, and part of our humanity is that God gave us the decision to follow these commands or not. Jesus respected our use of freedom even as he grieved people’s misuse of it:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37)
Why free will? Because of love.
So, why in the world did God give us free will? Didn’t he value our obedience, our submission to his will? Didn’t he want everything to go well? Yes, but as we read through the Bible, we learn that he apparently valued something even more than he valued our conformity to his will. Like what? What could possibly be more valuable than our doing what he says and everything going as it’s supposed to?
Let’s consider parenting for a moment. Parents want all sorts of things for their kids: good character, intelligence, good friendships, safety, material well-being, etc. But what do parents want most from their kids? Obedience? Of course, parents want obedience, but is that what good parents want most—obedience through gritted teeth? No, good parents want something much deeper and more beautiful than mere obedience. What is it?
Good parents desire a lot for their kids, but what do they most desire from their kids? It’s love. They want to be loved, because they want real relationship.
So, back to God. Why free will? It’s because he wants our love, and love can’t be forced. God can’t force us to love him, because forced love isn’t real love. Love has to be free. So, again, why free will? It’s because God wants our love.
Why does God allow suffering? “God can’t force us to love him, because forced love isn’t real love.”
Why do parents desire for their kids to love them? Again, parents want all sorts of things for their kids, but from their kids, they want to be loved. Why?
It’s simple. It’s because when you love somebody, you naturally desire to be loved back. You can’t help it. It’s the way love works. Parents love their kids, and so it’s the greatest feeling on earth to be loved back.
So, why does God want us to love him? It’s because he loves us. And when you love somebody, you naturally desire to be loved back. As surprising as it may be, God really does desire a real relationship with us.
“When you love somebody, you naturally desire to be loved back.”
Here’s another way to put it: What does God want from us? It’s to love God. And what does God want for us? Well, since God is good, he wants what’s best for us, and so what is best for us? Again, it’s to love God. For it’s in relationship with God that everything gets put back together: It’s in this relationship of love that I start receiving grace. I start loving people. I start living purposefully. I start welcoming truth. What God wants from us and for us is the same: to love God.
Why love? At root, it’s because, as I John 4:16 tells us, “God is love.” According to God, love is the most important thing (see Mark 12:29-31), and it’s worth the risks of freedom.
Why does God allow suffering? Consider the good that can come from it…
Suffering is never fun, but it can be a good thing for us, especially for those who love God and are willing to be conformed to Christlikeness (Rom. 8:28-30). Far from being something that should slice away at our hold on God, suffering is something that ought to strengthen our grip and convince us that he is trustworthy, even when life scams us. Here are 5 reasons why suffering points us to God.
1. If we never suffered, we would never hate evil. Without suffering, people could do as much evil as they wanted, but would never suffer the consequences. No one would ever see the ugliness of evil, so no one would ever actually hate evil.
2. If we never suffered, we would never appreciate goodness. Without suffering, everything good that happened to us, we would just expect. We would never thank God for the blessings he gives us because we would figure that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Gratitude, a fuel for so much virtue, would have trouble taking root within us.
Why does God allow suffering? “Gratitude, a fuel for so much virtue, would have trouble taking root within us.”
3. If we never suffered, we would never need God. We would never feel the need to have God in our lives. We would never need to look up and seek him, to get right with Him. We would remain blissfully but hopelessly lost.
4. If we never suffered, we would never hope for heaven. We would never hope for the day that God would come and rescue us. Rather, we would naturally hope to stay on earth, content with an empty and self-absorbed “life.”
5. If we never suffered, we would never grow. How do you become a truly loving person? Not by being around people who are always lovable. Similarly, you grow in courage only through having to face fear. You grow in patience only through being in frustrating situations. You grow in joy through going through tough circumstances. You grow in self-control through being tempted. You grow in peace when you’ve had your world go crazy. You grow in grace through experiencing brokenness.
Why does God allow suffering? “You grow in grace through experiencing brokenness.”
Most people play the movie up to the pain and then say, “Must be a bad thing.” Christians, however, play the movie past the pain. How will God use this suffering for my good and for his glory?