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December 21, 2010 / compassioninpolitics

Why does God allow suffering

He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the camping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it well worthwhile.

Dorthy Sayers (in Alex McFarland the 10 Most Common Objections to Christianity, an apolegetics book for young christians, teens, and college students)

“He has graciously disclosed enough information to help us proces our grief appropriate;y. God has told us where win came from, its unfortunate result and how evil will finally and fully be banished one day. Christ’s empty grave is an incredibly comforting promise from God that essentially reminds us that He is in control. We can safely trust Him.
Not only has God given us knowledge of our pain and a reminded of His sovereignty, but He has also given us hope and purpose.”
Alex McFarland the 10 Most Common Objections to Christianity, p. 201

Others have pointed to the educational and developmental role of suffering–that in any human endeavor a degree of pain and suffering is necessary to push through to “our next self” or a “better self”

20 Reasons God Allows Suffering in the World

1) Suffering uncovers what is really inside our hearts.
2) Suffering breaks us of our pride
3) Suffering can deepen our desire for God
4) Suffering can mature us
5) Suffering can breed humility
6) Suffering may be a warning of something potentially worse.
7) Suffering can jump-start our prayer life.
8] Suffering may prompt a lost person to receive Christ
9) Suffering may lead a Christian to confess sin.
10) Suffering can help us deepen our trust in God.
11) Suffering can help us deepen our appreciation for Scripture
12) Suffering can help us appreciate other Christians who were victorious
13) Suffering can take our eyes off this world and ourselves.
14) Suffering can teach us first hand that God truly is sufficient
15) Suffering can connect us with other people
16) Suffering can create an opportunity for witness.
17) Suffering can lead a person into Christian ministry
18] Suffering can make us grateful for what we had or still have
19) Suffering can position our lives to bring more glory to God
20) Suffering, properly handled, will result in rewards in heaven.

Which of these 20 strikes a chord with your experience or those around you?

Here is CS Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie “Shadowlands”:

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”
CS Lewis

Scripture reverses some of our understandings, assumptions, and preconceptions (we inherit from culture) about pain and suffering. It suggests that pain is an opportunity to test our faith and character. Pain serves as a proving ground. We see this in the Isrealites and Job.

So how do we deal with the problem of pain that CS Lewis spoke to? I recently saw two videos which address suffering from a Christian worldview–one from Os Guiness and the other from three artists speaking on the issue of suffering (both from the Veritas Forum).

Pain, trials, and tribulation often builds us into better people. I would check out two other books on the issue–I also like the insight that Don Miller brings to the issue in his book “One Million Miles” in relation to narrative/story. Rob Bell also took this issue up in “Drops Like Stars” Bell’s book makes virtually the same point, but with reference to “life as art.” (for a philosophical approach to the topic, Timothy Keller in “A Reason for God” also deals with this issue and has a free iTunes podcast on this theme) For instance here are a couple Donald Miller insights on our role in Gods story & in turn his role in our’s:

Enjoy your place in my story. The beauty of it matter, and you can create within it even as I have created you.

We are all like spoiled children no longer impressed by the gifts we’re given–it’s just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over th mountain, just another child being born, just another funeral.

Nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. Thats what makes a story good. If you think about the stories you like most, they probably have lots of conflict. There is probably death at stake, inner death or actual death, you know. These polar changes, these happy and sad things in life, are like colors God uses to draw the world.

Finally, the notion that life would be Candy Land or 100% without pain might not be desirable. Perhaps later, that encounter with less suffering in heaven will be all the more significant, valuable, and meaningful in light of trials and tribulations on Earth.

What does God give us if we live by his Word and ask for forgiveness? Well grace, forgiveness, and eternal life with him. In comparison, earthly pain is miniscule in comparison.

Pain puts us in a position to choose between optimist and pessimist–when we work through it while simulaneously honestly working through it. We can’t always do away with suffering–as its part of the human condition, but:

1) the Word gives us a way to think about suffering in a meaningful way. it gives us Hope for the future.
2) God loves us through (or rather in the midst of) our suffering.
3) The heros of the Bible all dealt with suffering–they became heros by their very suffering. (Noah, Moses, Daniel, Joseph, Shadrack, Meshach, & Abendigo, the Apostles, Jesus, etc…Note some were more ridicule and others were more the risk of suffering and death)
4) If life was Candyland our faith wouldn’t mean anything
5) If life was Candyland our achievements would’t mean as much.
6) If life was Candyland our happiness and joy wouldn’t be meaningful.
7) The earth is temporary and fleeting. (this obviously has a bit of tension with #5)
8] Suffering is a rather perplexing way of coming face to face with reality (gritty reality if you will). It can create reflective “mirror moments” which alter our motivations and trajectory in life. It can serve as a wake up call to re-calibrate our priorities and what is most important to us and what is truly meaningful for us. (by analogy–perhaps we get sent storms to avoid an eternal hurricane)

Obviously the insights of Romans 8:28 are helpful too:

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”

Echoing some of the seniment in Romans 8:28 in terms of Gods purpose for you in His Universe Max Lucado suggests:

God owns everything and gives us all things to enjoy. He is a good shephard to us, his little flock. Trust him, not stuff. Move from the fear of scarcity to the comfort of provision. Less hoarding, more sharing.

And most of all, replace fear of the coming winter with faith in the living God. After all, it’s just Monopoly money. It all goes back in the box when the game is over.

What are your thoughts or quote on the topic of suffering?

1) the Romans 8:28 reference and CS Lewis reference were borrowed from McFarland as well.
2) Max Lucado is from Fearless, p. 112. I have a handful of other quotes from fearless on Compassion in Politics
3) I believe I also have quotes from “A Million Miles” as well (I’ll try to provide a link later)



Leave a Comment
  1. Nathan Ketsdever / Dec 27 2010 5:48 am

    “…suffering also reveals to the sufferer a greater depth of experience and meaning. After the experience of suffering, the person is led to a richer understanding of the meaning of being human, a greater concern for the suffering of others, and away from the superficialities that too often characterize daily existence.”
    E. Cassell

    Suffering creates community
    “Being wounded allows the heart (minister, physician, bioethicist) to show true hopitality”
    Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

    The wounded healer is “…a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering rising from the depth of the human condition which we all share.”
    Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

    Suffering also frees us from illusions of immortality & wholeness. It reminds us of our brokenness.

    Suffering as creating the possibility for resistance and revolution.

    “Take for example, consumer society. I can’t tell you how many patients I’ve sat with who had terrible cancers or other life-threatening problems who’ve said to me, “You know, one of the things about this disease is it’s really made me rethink how I live my life.” Thats a kind of protest, a resistance to the way the world is that comes out of that encounter.”
    A Kleinman

    “…the real revolution in our society begins with the person who can stand with his (or her) own depression. Because then you say no to the whole manic situation of modern society: over-consumption, over-activity, travel.”
    James Hillman, Interviews
    [I’m curious what if by travel he meant vacationing]

    Suffering as quest.

    The sufferer has the option to:
    1) stay put (chaos)
    2) going backward (resistitution)
    3) going forward (quest)
    A new way of seeing themselves..
    From A. Frank.

    He ends with Flannery O’Connors views on suffering in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” although I don’t quite get his application.

    (This represents an imperfect record of what is said from 10 min to 18 min of this Veritas Forum video which I linked to above in the article.)

  2. Nathan Ketsdever / Dec 30 2010 3:14 am

    The following passage is selected from “The Problem of Pain” and deals with so called “undeserved pain”:

    Because we are rebels against God who must lay down our arms, our other pains may indeed constitute God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world to surrender. There is a universal feeling that bad people ought to suffer: without a concept of ‘retribution’ punishment is rendered unjust (what can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it?). But until the evil person finds evil unmistakably present in his or her existence, in the form of pain, we are enclosed in illusion. Pain, as God’s megaphone, gives us the only opportunity we may have for amendment. It plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. All of us are aware that it is very hard to turn our thoughts to God when things are going well. To ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We regard him as we do a heart-lung machine – there for emergencies, but we hope we’ll never have to use it.

    So God troubles our selfishness, which stands between us and the recognition of our need. God’s divine humility stoops to conquer, even if we choose him merely as an alternative to hell. Yet even this he accepts!

    Although pain is never palatable, we humans are in some senses made ‘perfect through suffering’. I see in Johnson and Cowper, for example, traits which might scarcely have been tolerable if they had been happier. Suffering is not a ‘good’ in itself, and we certainly want no Tamberlaines proclaiming themselves the ‘scourge of God’. Very occasionally humans may be entitled to hurt their fellows (eg, parents, magistrates or surgeons)

    but only where the necessity is urgent, the attainable good obvious, and when the one inflicting the pain has proper authority to do so. Only a Satan transgresses beyond these. (Luke 13:16)

    A Christian cannot believe, either, that merely reforming our economic, political or hygienic systems will eventually eliminate pain and create a heaven on earth. God does indeed provide us with some transient joy, pleasure, and even ecstasy here, but never with permanent security, otherwise we might ‘mistake our pleasant inns for home’.

    A longer version can be found here:

    Finally, the following article indirectly deals with the problem of pain and suffering (and evil) via free will & soul making:

  3. compassioninpolitics / Dec 31 2010 2:21 am

    Further Stanley Hauerwas has a great point in this interview:

    So you start asking questions like this one, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The assumption there is that we’re good people and we’re the very center of the universe, not God.

    I don’t see how people who were brought up on the Psalms can think like that! The Psalms are extended training in recognition that God is God—and we are not. Suffering doesn’t need explanation. It needs our presence. It needs the presence of other human beings who are not afraid of the sufferer. That’s the kind of perspective I was developing in that book.

    The interview concludes with a hopeful quote from Stanley which I think is also important to bring to this discussion (because if suffering is to be understood–its only going to be understood or comprehended in context–it seems when that context is lacking–particularly in terms of notions of time and story and soul healing–that we are most prone to temptation):

    I find being a Christian just makes you so joyful—and joy and hope are closely connected—and this gives us a way to go on. Hope is putting one foot in front of the other and I intend to continue doing that. I find being a Christian is such a complex and wonderful way to live.

    [if you cut and paste this quote the original URL for the interview from “Read the Spirit” should show up–I can’t cut & paste it for some reason]

  4. compassioninpolitics / Jan 4 2011 4:52 am

    Another Bible verse which responds to the question of the “Problem of Pain:”

    the Spirit of Truth.

    The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

    John 14:17-18

  5. Nathan Ketsdever / Jan 10 2011 8:43 am

    Peter Kreft makes a compelling cases that pain/suffering provides opportunities for courage, patience, sympathy, charity, and wisdom. In other words, it helps us develop virtues and character.

    Kreft also makes a distinction of the love of grandfathers vs. the love of fathers. The love of the father is at least as much as the grandfather–perhaps more. (Kreft here makes an argument that God is always loving, but not always kind).

    Kreft makes a final argument for Gods deed–which Kreft says is the ultimate answer to the problem of pain ( at 38 minutes to 44:30 here ):

  6. Nathan Ketsdever / Jan 10 2011 9:35 am

    The Book of Job
    8 “Ask the former generation
    and find out what their ancestors learned,
    9 for we were born only yesterday and know nothing,
    and our days on earth are but a shadow.
    10 Will they not instruct you and tell you?
    Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?
    11 Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh?
    Can reeds thrive without water?
    12 While still growing and uncut,
    they wither more quickly than grass.
    13 Such is the destiny of all who forget God;
    so perishes the hope of the godless.
    14 What they trust in is fragile[a];
    what they rely on is a spider’s web.
    15 They lean on the web, but it gives way;
    they cling to it, but it does not hold.
    16 They are like a well-watered plant in the sunshine,
    spreading its shoots over the garden;
    17 it entwines its roots around a pile of rocks
    and looks for a place among the stones.
    18 But when it is torn from its spot,
    that place disowns it and says, ‘I never saw you.’
    19 Surely its life withers away,
    and[b] from the soil other plants grow.

    Job 11 is particularly insightful–some parts of the mystery of God we can’t understand:
    7 “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
    Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
    8 They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
    They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
    9 Their measure is longer than the earth
    and wider than the sea.

  7. compassioninpolitics / Feb 7 2011 8:52 pm

    Os Guiness has written a book on this topic, large portions of which are available on Google books:

    Or you can just search Google books for “Unspeakable: Facing Up to Evil in a World of Genocide” or Os Guinness.


  1. Answers to the Problem of Pain in the Bible « Compassion in Politics: Christian Social Entrepreneurship, Education Innovation, & Base of the Pyramid/BOP Solutions
  2. Christian Theology, Apolegetics and Philosophy « Compassion in Politics: Christian Social Entrepreneurship, Education Innovation, & Base of the Pyramid/BOP Solutions
  3. A short theodicy of suffering & evil « Compassion in Politics: Christian Social Entrepreneurship, Education Innovation, & Base of the Pyramid/BOP Solutions

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