A question that seems to stump and puzzle many – even the most resolute of Christians – is how a good God can exist with a world filled with so much pain. How can God allow miscarriages, diseases in children, unexpected deaths, wars, fighting among spouses, divorces, loneliness, horrible afflictions like M.S., and so on? We can all field answers to this, and I will attempt to do so, but on a personal level: it stinks. I think we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t ache in our hearts and souls, longing and wishing for a life free from the constant strain of finances, hunger in this world, and pain lurking in unexpected places. I think regardless of your religious persuasion – if any – we can agree that sometimes life just stinks.
However, I think it’s in that feeling that we can begin to see a clear answer: the longing for more must mean we exist for something more! Renowned author CS Lewis once wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world”. You see, to attempt to answer the question of how a good God can allow suffering, we have to first accept the fact that there is a God, one who created the world, and exercises sovereignty over all things. To dismiss God out-of-hand, or say even that there is a God but that He’s not in control completely nullifies the question of how He can allow suffering. So first we begin with the belief that there is a God, and if there is a God, that must mean that there’s a bigger plan than we’re seeing. That’s what CS Lewis is getting at: I long for something more, thus there must be something more.
The idea that there’s a sovereign God, and something bigger than what we see is naturally assumed in the question of how a good God can allow suffering and pain. If we can’t agree with those basic principles, we can’t ask the question! If, though, we do agree with those two presuppositions, then we’re left with a different question: if God is telling a bigger story, how do I make sure I’m not on the wrong side of it? And really, suffering becomes a pretty clear answer. You see, if God is in control, I want to be on His team! And so I ask, then, what if suffering is His way of saying, “Hey! Do I have your attention? – Listen to me!”. What the Bible – and really, many religions for that matter – says, is that God is good, and to act out against Him leads to His wrath. What Christianity says is that God is perfect, we are not, and because He is perfect, it would violate His very nature to be with someone who isn’t perfect. (Would you wear a white shirt with blood smeared all over it?).
His solution to this problem was to send His son to die on behalf of those who believe in Him. There, Jesus is punished, and we are viewed (in a salvation-sense) by Him as though we’re perfect (even though heaven knows we sure aren’t!). The only way to be saved is to believe in this Jesus, and so if the Lord sends suffering to show us how fleeting this life is, how powerless you and I are, or that we’re simply not the masters of our own fate, isn’t it incredibly gracious? I remember going to the dentist to have a root canal, and before the process started, the dentist pricked me with a needle. I wasn’t overly thrilled with the feeling, but once he started drilling, and ripping around in my mouth, I was so thankful for the little needle of freezing. That little pinch – while entirely unpleasant in its own right – saved me from unbearable pain later.
Can’t then the same be true with God? – What if the suffering in this life is nothing in comparison to what’s coming in the next? What if He’s calling out to us, rousing us from our sleep, to save us from something excruciating that’s coming around the next corner? We ask: how can a good God allow M.S.? How can a loving God allow cancer? But I think a better question is to ask: what if those trials are God’s wake-up call for us? I know that doesn’t answer the question of deaths in children and so on (another conversation for another time), but I wonder if every tragedy is a call for someone to hear the Lord’s gracious voice say, “I know this hurts, but I needed to get your attention!”. What if the pain you’re going through today is the grace you need to see that there is one God who is in control, and His son Jesus is the only way to survive into the next life?
The difference from Christianity to any other religion is that Christians believe we don’t suffer alone, and don’t suffer in vain. The Bible tells us that Jesus came and bore the weight of all the wrong things we’ve ever done, and God punished Jesus on our behalf. He suffered God’s just wrath so we wouldn’t have to experience it. All we have to do is believe that Jesus is the only way to escape the punishment, and the only hope to have a right relationship with God. If it takes a disease in this life, the loss of a limb, financial ruin, or something else in this blink-of-an-eye life to wake me up to see that He’s the only hope for the next life, then praise God for the suffering!
So how can a good God allow suffering or things that seem evil? – It’s precisely because He’s good, and He’s giving the needle today to save you from the drilling tomorrow.