Answering Questions About Suffering

It’s a question asked by any thoughtful person. “How can we be expected to believe in a good, almighty God, when we live surrounded by such decay and ugliness?”

On a large scale, as I write, Europe struggles with the misery of hundreds of thousands of destitute refugees from civil strife and “Islamic State” atrocities in Syria. On a small scale, a young former student of mine dies suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving a husband and two young children, the day before one son’s birthday and four weeks before Christmas. And we are expected to believe that there is a good God in control?

When thinking about how to answer a non-Christian friend who asks a question like this, it’s helpful to consider two things.

1. What do they believe about the world?

Your answer will depend on what they believe or think about the world. Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Is God really in control? In history, there have been perhaps six main ways of “answering” these questions (and none of them is the Bible’s answer!).  

  • Blind fate: Che sera sera; what will be will be. There is no personal higher power. There is just blind fate. “That’s just how it had to be.” Stuff happens. Get used to it!
  • Nature is all there is: We can detect causes and consequences. And that’s all. Don’t imagine some hidden world. Get on with science and technology; try to understand, try to control what we can understand.
  • God within nature: Perhaps there is something beyond – a world spirit inside the universe in some way, a spirit moving along within time.
  • God the referee: God is like a referee or umpire. The game is a bit chaotic at times. But every now and then God blows the whistle, intervenes with a prophecy or a miracle. We just need more interventions.
  • Two gods, or even lots of gods: There are many invisible supernatural powers at work in the universe – call them spirits, demons, gods and goddesses if you will. Perhaps trees, mountains, and rivers have spirits associated with them.
  • God the puppet-master: Suppose that there is just one real and sovereign God, who rules the whole universe directly by his almighty power. He pulls all the strings, and our decisions are not really decisions at all.

2. Is this an armchair or a wheelchair question?

Our response to the question “If God is in control, why does he allow suffering?” will also depend on whether or not they are in the midst of suffering. Some ask this question from the safety of a late-night student discussion or TV chat show; for them it is an “armchair question”. Others ask from agonised perplexity; for them it is a “wheelchair question”. Our response will vary accordingly.

With all that in mind, here are three suggestions for how you might answer your friend’s question.

  • Question them about what they think. Particularly if this is an “armchair question”, help your friend to see that their ideas don’t hold up under pressure. In particular, push them about evil. Where does evil come from? How come human beings are capable of such goodness and such wickedness? What about the paradox of when good comes out of something evil (such as the story of Joseph and his brothers)? How does this happen? Unsettle their certainties, which may be quite shallow. For when they are unsettled, the ground of their hearts may be ready to listen to the Bible’s teaching.
  • Probe the longings they almost certainly have for a perfect world. Why do they long for a world of justice? Help them see that justice will never come until the human heart is changed, and that only Jesus can change our hearts.
  • When they are grappling with suffering – perhaps some terrible personal suffering – take them often to the cross of Jesus. Rather than trying to solve the problem of suffering for them, talk to them about your own experience of walking through this life in fellowship with Jesus, who suffered.

So what exactly does the Bible teach?

That’s not easy to summarise in such a short space! It’s explained a little more fully, I hope, in my book Where Was God When That Happened? (The Good Book Company, 2017). But I guess that eventually I’d want to say something along these lines to my friend:

Jesus makes known the God who is sovereign Maker of everything, who is good, who is all-powerful, and who is Father, who governs all things and weaves together even evil dark things into his good purposes. He deliberately chose that Jesus of Nazareth should be falsely accused, mocked, stripped, and executed, by wicked people with evil motives, in order to achieve the biggest and best good thing human history has ever seen. Jesus teaches his followers to pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. God’s will is done on earth in one way now, with all the puzzles that brings; one day it will be done in a different way, a wonderfully perfect way.

This article is adapted from Where Was God When That Happened? which is available from Christian bookshops and direct from The Good Book Company.