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Why Suffering?

The question I'm asked most frequently as a Pastor is, why does a supposedly good God allow so much suffering in the world? It's a difficult question to answer as a Christian. Even after making allowances for human sinfulness in suffering (i.e. do we blame God for Hitler's actions?) - I cannot deny that much suffering results from "natural" disasters, like tsunamis and earthquakes, which are beyond the control of humanity. Even after making allowances for foolish sinful people exacerbating the suffering, caused by natural disasters (e.g. inadequate government responses in times of natural disasters or civil war in famine-stricken countries, etc.) - I cannot deny there is a lot of unexplained suffering in this world.

Many people who ask me the question seem to think that suffering disproves the existence of God? Their reasoning seems to go something like this:-

  • Assumption 1: An all powerful God would be able to end all the suffering
  • Assumption 2: An all loving God would desire to end all the suffering

Therefore, since suffering exists, it must follow that an all powerful and/or all loving God does not exist.

As a Christian I accept the first assumption is true. I believe that God is powerful enough to end all the suffering on planet Earth in 2008 with a click of his fingers. I know this is easily possible for God, because God created the world out of nothing (Genesis 1), a long time ago, and this world was originally a good world without human suffering.

But I am left wondering, why doesn't an all-powerful God end all the suffering immediately? Why doesn't he intervene every time someone is about to suffer?
I wonder: what kind of world would it be, if every time someone fell into a volcano, God turned the temperature of the lava down, so it felt just like taking a hot bath? What kind of world would it be, if I fell off a sky scraper and bounced back up again? An exciting world? A cartoon world? I'm not sure, but it certainly wouldn't be the real world.

I wonder: if God stepped in every time a human being was about to commit a great evil, what kind of people would we be? At what point would God stop intervening to prevent evil? Where do we want him to draw the line? - When I am about to lie? When I about to illegally copy a CD? When I am about to gossip about a colleague? I don't know what kind of people we would be if God prevented us from following the logic of our choices but we certainly wouldn't be human beings, if he deprived us of our freedom.

[Beware: Spoiler!] In the film The Truman Show, the hero Truman is the ultimate reality TV star. He is born in a large TV studio made to resemble the real world and as he grows up in this fake world, his every action is filmed for an audience. The studio Truman lives in, fully resembles the real world with houses, gardens, cars and even a beach. In many ways, Truman's life is idyllic. A team of back-stage people are working tirelessly to ensure he grows up safely and enjoys a successful career, romance etc. However, despite his idyllic existence, we the audience cheer when Truman finally escapes from this studio into the real world- a real world which is far more dangerous than the one he's grown up in. The reason we cheer is because we recognize that his life now matters. His choices will really mean something in the real world. He is no longer a puppet. He is a real person living in a beautiful/ugly, dangerous/safe, world where his choices really matter.

When we ask: why doesn't God intervene to prevent suffering, we need to realize if God used his power every time in our planet's history to stop suffering, we and our world would be totally unrecognizable.

After accepting that God is powerful enough to prevent suffering, I'm left with the question: Why has God allowed it to happen? Does this really mean that I have to accept the second assumption that God is not loving? Obviously, as a Christian, I cannot because I know God is love (1 John 4:16). Is there any way out of this conundrum?

Let's examine the second assumption a little more carefully. If God has allowed suffering, does that mean that God is not loving?

Imagine if a woman was arrested for yanking her child by the hair and flinging her a distance of 10 feet in the air. Would her action be a loving act or a blatant act of child abuse? The answer to that question would depend on the circumstances. If the mother pulled her child's hair as a "bit of fun" it would be an open-and-shut case of child abuse. However, if the court was subsequently shown videotape footage of a car hurtling towards the young child and from this tape, it is obvious to all that the young child will not be able to escape her doom. At which point the mother, seeing that the child is in peril, runs into the road, grabs the child by the hair and flings her to safety. Would a court be likely to convict this woman of child abuse, even though she pulled a child's hair? I think not. In this case the mother has inflicted pain on a child for a good reason. Could it be that God has his own good and loving reasons for allowing suffering? I believe so, and in a future article I will try and explain some possible good and loving reasons why an all-powerful God would allow pain and suffering to achieve things which cannot be achieved in any other way.

Rev. Dr. Mark Duggan

Published in the Bramley Baptist Church Magazine, July-Aug 2008

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