Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why does a good God allow suffering

I have been talking about topics like abortion and evolution with gay abandon under the foolish notion that all those who read this blog thought like me. Brought crashing down to earth by a couple of comments in the last 2 days. Here's an excerpt from one on a post about abortion - 'So lets see - are cancers, genetic diseases, accidents, tsunamis not god's will ?' I tried replying to the comment on the post itself, but found my reply was getting longer than one of my usual posts!! So here is my answer to the question posed by the comment - How can a good God allow so much of suffering.

GOD'S ANSWER TO JOB: The one book in the Bible that deals with the question of suffering in great detail is the book of Job. In fact, some authors claim that the fact that Satan brought suffering to Job ties in with 1 John 1:9, which says that 'the whole world lies in the power of the wicked one (Satan).' But what has always interested me about the book of Job is something I read in one of Phillip Yancey's books, I think. For 35 chapters, Job and his friends debate this very same question - why has this extreme suffering come to the righteous Job. Surely God has something to do with it. And finally God answers in the last 3 chapters. But His answer does not go along the expected lines. All He does is tell Job of His mighty power evidenced in everything that is real in this world - nature, animals, even man's very existence. And when Job's eyes are opened to this small glimpse of God's majesty, his questions all vanish and he confesses that he has 'declared that which I do not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.' I think that the more we reflect on the greatness of God, the less we will think we are capable of answering the existential questions that are way beyond us. So, my preferred response to questions like this has always been that we finite humans can never understand the mind of God and it is foolish to ask these questions (as DA Carson puts it). However, this will hardly satisfy the naysayers and so I will break character and attempt to explain what I understand about this difficult question. And as a disclaimer, let me say, that with no experience or any great interest in Apologetics, this is truly a layman's answer. However, I thought I should post it, fallible though it may be, as my effort to profess my own understanding of this aspect of the Christian faith. (I hope that is enough of a preamble/disclaimer!! Comments, criticisms and additional points I may have forgotten are welcome)

ADAM'S CHOICE: Our ancestor, Adam, made a choice for the whole human race when he chose to eat the apple. The choice he had was to accept the world as God had made it and live a life walking with God in the garden or to decide that he knew better than God and do the one thing that had been forbidden. How much like the young man who knows that smoking a cigarette can only do him harm and yet takes his first puff, just for the sake of trying it out. Or the child who disobeys his father's order not to play on the road and is injured by a passing car. Adam decided that he was a better master of his own destiny than his Creator and that decision has cost the human race so dearly that we are still paying the price and will continue to do so till Christ comes.

OUR FALLEN WORLD: Modern man has made a religion out of his own sovereignty over his destiny. It is so very easy to put God our of the picture and live life with no thought of our eternal future. And every day that we do this we are perpetuating Adam's mistake. With his decision to disobey God, sin came into our world and with it, all its grave consequences. The perfect world that God had created was now sullied with man's sin and would never again be perfect. We will never know (in this life) what might have been had Adam resisted temptation. But I believe that the natural disasters that are the strongest argument of an atheist, as well as the unfortunate disasters that befall people who do not deserve them, are the results of a fallen man in a fallen world, difficult though this reasoning would seem to someone going through the suffering. As Romans 8 says (paranthases mine), 'The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration (disasters, famine, suffering), not by its own choice, but by the will of the one (Adam) who subjected it (to sin, destruction and death), in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.' Only our world's freedom from the bondage of decay, which will be at the dawning of the New Jerusalem, will bring an end to the imperfect system that we chose when Adam ate the apple.

OUR FALL MADE SUFFERING AN EXISTENTIAL REALITY: With the understanding that suffering is a result of man's fall, it is easier to see suffering and disaster as an existential reality of our fallen world, rather than the perfect design which God had planned and man forfeited. God did not cause suffering to enter the world. When He looked on His creation, He saw that everything was good. His plan for man was a life of communion and relationship. But this perfect plan was vitiated when man decided to disobey him and welcomed sin into the world. Even today, each of us falls into the same trap - welcoming sin instead of following God's plan which is the only way to true inner peace and happiness. And so, in this flawed and vitiated world, even an innocent newborn baby may be a part of the existential reality of suffering that mankind's sin has wrought. And every human being will be faced with it at some point in his or her life - some in small doses and others in life-changing or even fatal ones. Our sin destined it thus.

OUR PERSPECTIVE ON SUFFERING: My father has spent the majority of the last 27 years of his life interacting with children and families who are, in the eyes of the world, suffering. Being a child with any deviation from our accepted 'normal' is immediately considered to be a bad thing. And having such a child in the family is inevitably judged as an unmitigated disaster. So bad in fact, that such children are now murdered before they are even born - an act that is considered completely normal in our post-modern civilization.

But while there have been families who are bitter, cynical and full of anger at their situation, there have also been many families who have found the grace to embrace the love of God in their situation. While they have faced difficulties, there is a sense of purpose in their movement through life which belies their so-called suffering. In fact for most of us, the times of suffering draw us closer to God rather than farther away. Reading through Andi Eicher's blog, will give you the same feeling - that in the midst of the suffering that he sees every day, there are those who find meaning and purpose and a deeper understanding of God. Tarun Jacob's blog which chronicles the journey of a surgeon through chemotherapy for lymphoma resonates this same message. Our perspective of suffering may not always be the right one. After all, did not Jesus tell his disciples when they asked why a man had been born blind, that it was so that the glory of God may be revealed in him. There can be no generalisations of course, but in this fallen world, where suffering is an existential reality, our perspective can actually change our prison to a place of soaring freedom, as described by Corrie ten Boom in The Hiding Place (with reference to one of the ultimate places of suffering - the concentration camp).

AND GOD TOOK THE SUFFERING ON HIMSELF: To me, this is the central issue we should discuss and not any other. And the question we should ponder is this - Why would God take man's suffering upon Himself? Meditation on this question is more likely to bring enlightenment than arguing on the question of the causation of suffering. What made God even consider putting Himself through the marred cycle of life that man had brought upon himself. It is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith - that while we were still sinners, Christ loved us and died for us. This is what gives perspective to my understanding of suffering. God was not willing to let man go on suffering down here while He watched from afar. Rather, He took the form of a man, with all the humiliation and suffering that itself entailed, He came down and lived here just as you or I do, facing the normal events of life that are part of every man's existence, chose not to live in hallowed status as a prince or nobleman, but rather as a carpenter, born in a manger, and then to His exceeding glory, took the sins of Adam and all his descendants and underwent the ultimate pain, humiliation and suffering of torture and death on the cross. This picture of the suffering Saviour is enough for me to put aside all my accusations of his unwillingness to help the penniless orphan, the raped and pregnant teenager, the starving, homeless family, the young man dying of cancer, the baby born with congenital anomalies, the millions affected by the floods in Pakistan. Their pain and suffering are all too real, and I may never understand them. But God knows and understands, as He Himself has gone through worse. I can never accuse Him. I can only bow down and worship Him and offer Him my faulty and sinful life to be used as He wills for His glory.... And, as much as I am enabled, to use this life to relieve the suffering of those He puts in my way.....


  1. Who designed the human being ?
    Why do i have to pay fr adam's mistake ?
    its ethical to palliate suffering but not to prevent it ?
    cant question god ? why ? cant question ur own father who loves u ?
    why does religion have to be in the dark? religion shud be making things clear, not shun questions down!
    adam was apparently made in gods image/ as a companion
    to god ? they talked n had conversations in the garden of eden
    right ?
    n now we cant question anything cos we wont understand
    the logic ?

  2. These are important questions to be asking and I asked them myself about 10 years ago before God's love found me. There is no moratorium on questions. In fact, I know at least 2 books of the Bible that are nearly completely devoted to questions similar to yours - Job and Habakkuk, and many parts of other books as well (check out the psalms). So for every thinking mind, it is important to ask questions - that's why God gave us a mind. But the reason we are asking is what is important. If we are asking because of a true, inner desire to find the truth about God, we will search with great energy till we are found. We will read the Bible, read other books about God, and search diligently. If we do this, we will surely find the truth. But if we ask questions just to escape from the effort that it takes for us to lead a God-honoring life, then we are in danger of becoming cynical, angry and frustrated. I have yet to find an atheist who can discuss his or her belief system without getting all riled up and accusatory!!

  3. hehe yeah i guess, fair enuf but u didnt answer my questions. n btw its the angry and the cynical who bring about change

  4. I'm afraid I disagree - it is not always the angry and cynical who bring about change. A certain Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind. As for your questions, let me take a poke, in the hope that the reason for the questions is sincere search, though as I said, I am neither experienced nor terribly interested in Apologetics (answering these questions).

    We were designed by God for His purposes, most of which we cannot really understand, though we can still question and search for the answers.

    We are not paying just for Adam's mistakes, but also our own. Try living a perfect life - if you can do it, then you will be truly happy - it's just that it's rather impossible.

    Of course we need to make our best attempt to prevent suffering - it's just that man is much better at causing suffering than preventing it.

    Like I said before, asking questions is good and seeking for the answers in God will be our salvation. However, once we experience the power and love of God, many of these questions become unimportant and the search for answers futile in the light of His majesty (like in the book of Job).

  5. Mahatma Gandhi, famous leader. Intelligent man. Stubborn man too. Many Indians died because of him. Thousands actually. He isn't really considered a mahatma in north India, esp by Punjabis. And im pretty sure u know, the freedom struggle was dominated by punjabis.

    alexander was great/ Changez khan was a barbarian.
    who decided that? i hope u get the point.

    Anyway - one of us is right, or maybe none of us are right. maybe both of us are right. who's to say!!!

    i like Christian teachings, most of them - they make sense. its the
    arrogance that bothers me. But u'll never label it arrogance -- vicious circle fr me.

  6. The element of arrogance that is perceived by critics of Christianity is, I feel, mainly because of ignorance. If we Christians understood truly what a wonderful gift we have been given, we would be humbled rather than arrogant. It is our lack of true, living 'Christianity' that has diluted our faith and in some cases made us laughing-stocks. But there are enough and more people whose lives demonstrate Christ - some very great and some unheard of. And finally, our decision to follow Christ should never come by observing Christians- who are after all sinful human beings, but by opening our hearts to the loving embrace of a loving Father, which will transform our life. Thank you for all your comments - they have made me think about things that were peripheral to me. I pray that your search for the truth will never end until you find it. But the important thing is to make your decision, to put down your marker on one or the other side and not sit on the fence. As you can imagine, this is the most important decision in life and the wrong choice either way would influence the whole path of life. So the earlier the decision is made the better. Most intellectual people would ask these questions at the beginning of their search. The true intellectuals are those who carry their search till a conclusion by reading and studying these things until they are given the revelation to make the decision. My prayers and blessings for you on your search..... With lots of love, Arpit

  7. thanks fr that. but i don think religion will ever be my thing. god maybe yes, but religion. highly unlikely. but yeah im an open minded guy. you found your niche. good.

  8. Dear Sir,
    It has been an eye opener..after reading ur blogs but I have to ask u this question.I've been told that sufferings are given for people to come closer to God and to realize how powerful and great he is. But why are sufferings given to someone who has a close relationship with God, who walks in his ways...who is so harmless that he/she might not be capable to hurt, even an ant!!???

    1. Dear George, this is a question that all of us grapple with. This is the basic question of suffering - why does it happen to people who don't seem to deserve it. Jesus talks about this when he met the blind man in John chapter 9. He explains that the man did not suffer because of his sin or his parents, but that God may be glorified. While this is a really idealistic scenario, I do hope that I will be able to look at whatever suffering I may face in this way. If I want to glorify God through my suffering, the way I face this suffering needs to be mature and knowing that an all-powerful God is in charge. And however much I may want to escape from the suffering, I may have to live with it like Paul in 2 Cor 12 and allow His strength to be made perfect in my weaknesses. This is, like I said, a rather idealistic way of looking at my own suffering, but most of Jesus' teachings are like that! And the few times I have viewed my difficult situations in this light, I have been truly blessed. So, in answer to your question, someone who has a very close relationship with God may be better equipped to handle suffering and be able to give God glory through it. Following God in a sinful world, being born with a sinful nature is always going to be beset with suffering to ourselves and to those we love and if we are humble, our relationship with our Lord will surely be strengthened all the more. I hope this answers your question. Look forward to more discussion on this.

  9. Sir...i guess there is always another aspect of looking at things. By giving examples from the bible makes it more true n acceptable..May his strength be made perfect by our weaknesses!!May God bless you..

  10. Hi Arpit, It was a pleasure reading your blog. Ravi Zacharias addresses this question from a different perspective which has another insight.