The economy is in tough shape. The culture seems to be more and more hostile to Christianity. Many regions of the world appear to be on the brink of war with growing turmoil in North Korea, Syria and Iran. Some of our friends are ill or suffering loss. How are we, as Christians, to respond to the pain and suffering we see all around us? Many skeptics point to this suffering as an evidence that God does not exist. If there is an all-powerful and all-loving God, why would he allow His children to suffer so? This objection is perhaps the most common complaint that non-believers level at Christians, and I’d like to offer a few thoughts to help you respond to the challenge. Along the way, I also hope to stimulate your own thinking as you try to make sense of a world where God seems to allow significant suffering.
OBJECTION: Christians claim that God is good, all-powerful and all-loving. If this is the case, why does God permit the pain and suffering that we see all around us? A good God would not allow the kind of suffering we see in our world.
RESPONSE: The answer lies in the priorities and values of God. Those of us who have tried to comfort a gravely sick child understand the difficulty of explaining how a good God could allow such agony, particularly when the people suffering appear to be innocent or helpless. If an immaterial, immortal God does exist, however, it is reasonable to expect this God to value immaterial and transcendent priorities over the physical and temporal pleasures we often seek as humans.
Humans Often Overvalue the Pursuit of ‘Comfort’
A good God values character over comfort. Creature comforts are temporary, but character transcends time. It shouldn’t surprise us that a transcendent God would understand the difference, even when we don’t. Unfortunately, character is often best developed as a result of our temporary pain and suffering. Patience, determination, the will to persevere and ability to retain hope all result from the trials and tribulations of life. God allows some level of temporary pain and suffering in order to develop our eternal, transcendent character.
Humans Often Misunderstand the Nature of ‘Love’
A transcendent God understands that ‘love’ is the perfect balance between mercy and justice. We, as humans, often hold a very temporal understanding of love; we think of love as that warm instantaneous feeling, that lustful desire, or that passionate season of romance. But God understands that true love transcends the moment and often requires discernment, discipline and judgment. We could hardly say we loved our children if we didn’t care enough about their future to discipline them, and discipline often feels painful. Love requires a concern for justice that focuses on the future, and justice sometimes requires the infliction of pain and suffering in order to achieve the greater good. God, therefore, allows some level of pain and suffering in order to maintain the just and transcendent character of ‘love’.
Humans Often Underestimate the Danger of ‘Immediate Gratification’
An eternal God provides humans with an existence beyond the grave. We usually want our desire for comfort, love, mercy and justice to be satisfied in this life (and immediately if at all possible!) But our pursuit of immediate gratification often leads us to do things that are ultimately harmful to ourselves and to others. Most crimes, for example, are committed in an effort to immediately satisfy some perceived need. If there is a transcendent, eternal God, our desire for happiness, love, mercy and justice need not be satisfied in this life; all these desires will be satisfied in eternity. God, therefore, allows some level of pain and suffering because he knows (and has communicated) the fleeting, short nature of our mortal experience.
So, how can a loving all-powerful God allow pain and suffering? The same way a loving father can allow his infant child to suffer the doctor’s needle. From the child’s perspective, the shot is terribly painful and unwanted, but the father knows that the pain of the injection will result in something that benefits the infant. And the father also knows that he is acting in love, even though a painless day (from the child’s perspective) might seem like a more loving approach. And finally, the father knows that the pain of the shot is fleeting relative to the life of the child. For these reasons, it is reasonable to surmise that a good, loving God might allow pain and suffering in our own lives as well.
The Christian God is not unfamiliar with hidden value of pain and suffering. Jesus suffered pain that was far greater than most of us will ever have to endure in order to accomplish something beautiful and valuable: He paid the price for our sin and made forgiveness possible for all of us.