The question of “Why does God allow suffering?” has been present throughout history. This is an issue I’ve faced multiple times, and I’m guessing you have too!
Have you reached a conclusion? For those who have yet to wrestle with this issue, it could be a stumbling block in their journey of faith, a reason to question the very nature and existence of God. Addressing the question doesn’t mean we need to understand or explain the suffering we see around us, only that we can reconcile the presence of a loving God in a painful world.
A Piece of My Story
Growing up on the mission field included a lot of joy and pain. It was great to see God work in incredible ways, but I also experienced losses and loneliness in the midst of transitions. During my family’s second term in Central Asia, I was the only teenager on the team (and likely the only American teen in the entire western half of the country), with my older sisters remaining in the US. About five months in, a series of investigations began, despite the overall positive relationship with authorities in the past, as we ran an educational center that was helpful to the community. Soon the government was (illegally) demanding files from the NGO and showing up at the local church for a lock-down followed by interrogations.
Months later a team member was informed that the investigation report recommended prosecution against us. Soon we were discussing potential ways to sneak out of the country with “clean” passports and my father was staying out of the home to avoid court summons. It all seemed surreal, like living out a novel. The local ferry was not yet running that year and there was not enough room for the whole team to fit on the weekly international flight. The first group got out by air, but a week later the rest of us were stopped at airport security, and after hours in a cold cement room (as they attempted to obtain highly official signatures at 2am), we were sent home.
The trial of the men on the team was scheduled for the Monday of Holy Week, then postponed a couple times before taking place the day after Easter. Somehow, thinking about being on trial made Good Friday feel different that year. The verdict was assumed before the trial began; they were judged guilty of “distributing religious materials” (from the coloring books in the Christmas shoeboxes), “assisting religious groups” (when mentoring new believers), and “illegally participating in religious rites” (because one of the guys played guitar at a church service). Ugly stamps soon decorated the men’s passports and we had ten days to leave the country. Family birthday celebrations were eclipsed by scrambling to pack bags and say goodbyes. Then the news cameras saw us off at the airport, the security officials unpacked our bags (including birthday presents), and a numbness slowly descended to replace the ongoing adrenaline.
When we arrived in the US, our team members, the people whose friendships had become deeply forged through the struggles, were dispersed to their sending churches and families. We were welcomed “home” by well-intentioned people, who obliviously poured salt on an open wound when commenting how glad we must be to be home, to be “out of there.” We were just kicked out of our home and separated from our family.
“Why did You let this happen??”
Countless times those words ran through my mind. In the midst of loneliness and grief, I struggled to make sense of it.
If we were answering God’s calling, why did He allow that whole investigation to happen?
If God was all powerful, why did He let them win?
If we had many people praying for us, not to mention our own pleas, why weren’t those prayers answered?
If our work was to spread the gospel, why did God allow it to be stopped?
It seemed like defeat on all sides, a very painful defeat. And no one around us seemed to have an explanation.
That’s exactly what we humans want: explanations, resolutions to overcome the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability we feel when things don’t make sense.
The root of the “why” question is our own desire healing in the mind, through rational explanation, and healing in the heart, through finding comfort to replace painful emotions.
The Reasons Why
Sometimes we hear the encouraging stories about how God turned something ugly around to make it beautiful. We see the ways God worked powerfully in Biblical stories: Joseph went from being sold as a slave to leading a nation. Stories continue all the way to recent history, such as the death of Jim Elliot and his friends leading to the salvation of many in the tribe that killed them.
But getting kicked out of the country wasn’t really one of those stories (for the most part). I never heard of a revival happening in that city because of our expulsion. I honestly have no idea what the repercussions in the city were. Does that mean it wasn’t “worth it”?
Here are two ways I believe God answers the “why” question.
1) For His glory
God using suffering for His glory might seem to contradict the example I just gave, where I haven’t seen any positive results. But God can and does use our painful experiences as a testimony, even though we often don’t see an inspiring story on this side of heaven. The reality is that we have an extremely limited perspective when constrained by time and space. What stories we read in the Bible are much more understandable now, after seeing long term repercussions, than at the time hardships were being endured. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years; the majority who escaped from Egypt died without seeing the outcome of God’s victory in the Promised Land! We see it now as part of the big picture, but often see very little of how our own struggles fit into the big picture.
Fortunately, God does know the final outcome, and has provided us with promises to hold on to and examples from the past. He has and will glorify Himself through history. We can’t see it all in the present, so we are challenged to hold on to hope through faith. That is the second place where His name is glorified: when our own response to suffering is governed by faith instead of self-pity. That doesn’t mean that we keep a smile plastered on our face in the midst of grief; it means we draw near to God and let Him share in our sorrow and healing.
That brings us to the second reason for suffering:
2) For our transformation and sanctification
A couple months after getting back to the US our team gathered for a retreat, and during that time I was impacted by the passage in II Corinthians 1:3-7:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort” (NASB).
Already I had felt God directing me toward a career in mental health care, and I realized that the experience gave me a whole different perspective, insight that doesn’t come in any textbook. I had to wrestle with this question of suffering early on, to come to terms with God’s sovereignty even when we can’t understand it, and to better be prepared to comfort others. And in that context I experienced God’s comfort in a way that doesn’t come in “easy” times.
Just as gold is refined in the fire, when we go through difficult times God can use those experiences to shape us, to reveal weaknesses, places of pride and brokenness, and areas of sin, not to bring shame but to bring cleansing and healing. It is in those times when we cannot sit in comfortable apathy; we are pushed to embrace or reject God. The outcome partly depends on us. God does not force us to believe, but freely offers His love, reminding us the He too experienced suffering (far greater than ours), and is by our side, not observing from a distance.
The reality of God’s love is what brings the two answers together. He loves humanity enough to work all the pain caused by sin into part of the beautiful tapestry that tells the story of redemption, paying the price with His own death and bringing victory through His own resurrection. He loves each individual enough to walk beside us in the darkest hour of pain and weakness, and offers His comfort and strength. All He asks is that we put our trust in Him and hold on to His promises, especially when we don’t understand the circumstances.
Instead of a reason to question God’s love, suffering becomes an opportunity to witness, experience, and trust in God’s love.
What about you? Have your experiences of suffering shaped your perspective?
wonderfully written, Emily. I remember our talks during that painful time. What a gorgeous blossom of faith and strength you have become since then, and an inspiration…. suffering continues I know. I have learned so much as well. The New Testament teaches the opposite of Western culture’s Christianity…. suffering is to be expected, is prophesied, is the norm for those seriously surrendering their lives to the Lord, and is a privilege in following Jesus. I love Paul’s picture of suffering, throughout his letters. But I think our culture and upbringing, church teachings etc. make us continually have to grapple with this issue. May our faith grow with each fight. God bless you, sister!
email listed is one I don’t use… just for mail I don’t need. Use my cox one.
Thank you, Denise! Your words mean a lot to me; I know you have much to say on the subject.
Yes, there is such a warped expectation for relief or avoidance of suffering in the church (not just in the Western culture!). I am at times worried because of how ill-equipped the Body of Christ seems to be when dealing with the question of suffering. Fortunately, God’s grace is ever-sufficient, and I must continue to trust in His sovereignty.
1 John 5:19 “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one”.
Revelation 12:9 “So down the great dragon was hurled, the original serpent, the one called Devil and Satan, who is misleading the entire inhabited earth; he was hurled down to the earth, and his angels were hurled down with him.”
Satan is here on earth with us. He is controlling the world right now. This is what the Bible tells us.
James 1:13 “When under trial, let no one say: ‘I am being tried by God.’ For with evil things God cannot be tried, nor does he himself try anyone.”
God is not testing us Satan is. Just as in Job, Satan is causing us pain.
Revelation 20:1-3… tells us Satan will be taken away someday. And there will be a “new heaven and a new earth” Revelation 21:1
Emily, this is beautiful. I’ve been struggling with this question for a while. Thank you for sharing!