Why Suffering? – Asking God the Tough Questions

On Easter Sunday at Gateway Church in Austin, we started a new series called “Why God: Asking God the Tough Questions.”

Next Steps:

These discussion questions are designed for your life group or family dinner to help you apply the message to your life.

Audio of the Message I Shared at Gateway Church in South Austin:

Here are notes from the message by me and John Burke:

Suffering can powerfully push us in two opposite directions—they shove some away from God, concluding God can’t be loving and all powerful and allow this. But Pain pulls others toward God seeking some redemption of it—it makes them a believer.

Over the years, we’ve surveyed Austin asking, “Why don’t you believe?” Many said the same:

  • “If there truly is a God who loves us, then how can there be so much trouble, hate, crime, etc. in the world?”
  • “If God exists, and God is all loving, why does he allow us to suffer?”
  • “Terrible things happen to innocent people, especially small children. I watched my mom die a horrible death from cancer, your “loving God” let her suffer for three years, how is that love?”

This is a very important question, because it’s personal.  It’s not just philosophical, it really hurts when we watch those we love suffer, and we think “If I were God, and I loved my children, I wouldn’t let them suffer like this if I had the ability to stop it.” As a result, many have turned from God not understanding why.

And if that’s you today, there’s no answer I can give that can take the pain or hurt away, but I want you to know, this isn’t just a theoretical question for me either.

I’ve suffered and experienced loss, and I have seen others suffer as well.

In the midst of all the pain and loss, I have seen your faith prevail and grow and inspire others towards faith.

Why do the same things turn some people toward God and turn others away?

I don’t fully know the answer, but let me tell you what I’ve discovered that turned me to faith in God, because of all the suffering. When my father was dying. I was not yet a follower of Jesus. In fact, I wasn’t sure if God existed. It was in the midst of my father’s terminal illness that I had a realization:

Suffering happens–period! I had come from not believing in God, but what caused me an even greater problem with less satisfying answers was the question: ‘Why DO we suffer if there is no God?’ If there is no God, there’s no reason for suffering at all—it does no ultimate good, it will never be made right, so it’s purposeless. I knew the evolutionary answer—it’s just how nature insures survival of the fittest. Pain and suffering help us survive better and adapt better. But why?

Insects have no pain receptors like humans—they’ve had no problem populating or surviving. And the greatest suffering is emotional pain—pain caused by relational hurt—which is absolutely not essential for procreation. Love is not needed, and just complicates life. So what went wrong with evolution that us more highly evolved humans suffer way more than the insects? Makes no sense.

But even more troubling is why suffering bothers us so. We do—yet we’re more evolved?

Suffering happens (the bumper stick says it more graphically). It’s a fact that’s been consistent for all humanity, so why do we complain about it as if it’s the sign of something wrong. It’s just life. And yet, humanity has consistently protested suffering—as if wired into us is the realization—something’s wrong. Our protests about suffering are a sign that something’s wrong. But the most troubling thought is that I’ve watched and experienced all this pain and suffering, yet if there’s no God of love, there’s no good that will ever make sense of it. The Biblical answer makes much more sense of the question: Why Suffering?

Here’s what I found:

Evil and Suffering are not God’s Ultimate Will.

God is not the enemy. I have found that the Only satisfying explanation for why there is evil and suffering is that God is Love, and Love is His ultimate motivation for creating us and even for allowing evil, pain and suffering for a season—that’s the key, it’s only for a season.

That’s hard to grasp, so let me explain. Throughout the 66 Books of the Bible, for 1000’s of years, God’s Supreme Motive has been revealed, so we wouldn’t mistake God as the enemy—which often happens when we don’t know what he’s revealed. God said to Moses:

“I am the LORD, the merciful and gracious God. I am slow to anger and rich in unfailing love and faithfulness. I show this unfailing love to many thousands by forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion.” – Exodus 34:6-7 

The first of the 10 Commandments – put God first, and be faithful to him—letting God be God of your life is Numero Uno. The creed of Israel:

“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” – Deuteronomy 6:5  

Through the prophets, God uses every human relational metaphor to explain his heart and motive:

“I thought to myself, `I would love to treat you as my own children…I looked forward to your calling me `Father,’ and I thought you would never turn away from me again. 20But you have betrayed me…like a faithless wife who leaves her husband,” says the LORD. – Jeremiah 3:19-20 

God created us for love, and somehow experiences the pains of a gilted lover when we ignore and reject him. And the New Testament claims that Jesus was the ultimate demonstration of God’s sacrificial love to win back our hearts:

This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” – 1 John 4:10 

100’s of times throughout the Scriptures God makes it clear that love is his motivation for everything.

But if Love is God’s Motive, why is suffering and pain Necessary?

The only way for God to create creatures truly capable of loving God and others, is to create us Free. You could hold a gun to someone’s head and make them say “I love you,” but that’s not love—love cannot be forced. If we have the capacity to Love God, we must also have the equal and opposite capacity to reject God and his ways, and to do great evil, causing pain and suffering. So God limited himself by creating people who could love him, but have the potential to reject him and do things against his will.

Think about it this way—you were created for loving relationship. You could buy a mechanical dog—a robo-dog. It looks and feels like a real dog. It’s programmed to bark and wag it’s tail when it sees you. It obeys every command, never pees on the carpet or chews your shoes. It can even fetch the paper. But do you think you would experience a loving, fulfilling relationship with it?  Why not?  Because it has no free will—it’s programmed-it doesn’t really need you or desire you. That’s not love.

Now, lets say you were willing to take a little more risk for the sake of love—you decide to get a real pet. You consider getting a cat…but since your motive is a loving relationship, you get a real dog. This real dog has greater capacity for relationship than a robot (or cat)—but with it comes greater risk. My dog has greater capacity for intimacy and affection, but not like my children. Our dog, Emma is so excited to see me when I come home every day, she jumps up and down and barks and barks.  She’s done this for almost 9 years!  My dog has a greater capacity for relationship, but with greater capacity for love, comes greater capacity for evil and suffering.

My dog has disobeyed and destroyed carpet, shoes, clothes – she has a will of her own. She knows her Master has said, “On every piece of furniture you may climb, sit or lie down; but on My Bed, thou shall not go; for in the day you get in my bed, you shall surely die.”

Knowing this, she still wants to get on our bed. She’s peed on our beds, scared people, run loose and chased cars and almost got killed, which would have caused untold suffering to my kids. But is it worth the risk? Yes! Love is always worth the risk.

Now, let’s say a dog was all you had for companionship.  Would that satisfy the longings of your soul?  No. A dog doesn’t have the capacity to love like a human. A dog can’t listen, or understand your heart, you’ll never feel truly known or loved—that requires a human capacity for love. But if you risk relating to a human—you risk much greater potential hurt and suffering. A dog can’t deceive, cheat, be unfaithful, turn against you, or say deeply hurtful words, a dog can’t be manipulative or vindictive, reject and abandon you. It doesn’t have the capacity. We know this is the risk every time we enter relationship or have children—but is it worth the risk?  Yes, because love, we know intuitively, is the greatest good. IT’s what we’re here for.

Here’s the point:

Love alone makes sense of suffering.

Not even the greatest human love fully satisfies our desire to know and be known, love and be loved, because God has created us with the capacity to experience a Divine love. But for that to be true, we must have an equal and opposite capacity to reject God’s love—to disobey his ways and consequently, we see the capacity of a Mother Teresa’s sacrificial love—and we see the equal opposite capacity for a Hitler’s self-centered evil.  Mother Teresa choosing to love God and seek God’s will, Hitler choosing to Play God and Force his Will on others.

Some philosophers estimate that 95% of the evil and suffering of the world comes from Human choices. Just think about how much pain and suffering could be prevented if we could all truly Love God and Love people according to his will.

  • Think about a world with no pride-driven wars, no business-abandoned inner cities, no sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, or unwanted children, no drunk-driving accidents, no angry, lust-driven dads who abuse their children.
  • If hoarding didn’t prevent sharing with those dying of starvation.
  • If pride and selfishness didn’t destroy our families, if we didn’t cheat and lie and steal and gossip and back-bite and harbor resentment.
  • If no kid was ever mocked or devalued or torn down—only encouraged, loved and built up.

No, the truth is, human choice is the primary source of most all evil, pain, and suffering in this world.

Consider this quote:

“Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine, and injustice when he could do something about it,  but I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”

To judge God as unloving or unjust by the evil of this world would be a tragic mistake when we create most of it by ignoring God’s will. If anything, the evil should drive us toward God, because He loves us and wants to deliver us from its deceptive grip.

But some might ask, If God is all-powerful, why couldn’t God just create a loving world without Evil and suffering? It’s not that God’s not powerful enough, as Boston College Philosopher Peter Kreeft explains:

“It’s not logically possible to have free will and no possibility of moral evil…God did not create evil, he created the possibility of evil; people actualized that potentiality.” – Peter Kreeft 

I’m convinced God is in the process of Creating a loving world without evil and suffering—but this life is just the 1st chapter of the real story.

God is creating a world of no suffering.

If God is going to create Creatures who eternally choose to love and follow God (thus cause no pain and suffering), we must start from knowing life without God for a time. The first chapter starts from the knowledge of good and evil (as it says in Genesis). It’s not quite heaven (where God fully rules), not quite hell (where God doesn’t interfere at all)—but a taste of both, in hopes we will forever choose God.

So God allows pain and suffering for a short 70 years because it warns us—something’s wrong, God’s missing, God’s will and ways are rejected, we need God. The reason people of faith and atheists protest suffering is because it’s a warning sign — something’s wrong in this world. Pain is always a warning of something wrong.

The reason we protest suffering is because it’s the sign that something’s not as it should be.

Dr. Paul Brand worked for years among Leprosy Patients in India. For 1000s of years we thought Leprosy causes ulcers, infections and loss of limbs. But what Dr. Brand discovered is that Leprosy causes loss of pain.  Something we think would be good–to feel no pain, but in our world, no pain is horrible.

  • He once watched horrified, as an Indian Villager with leprosy reached directly into a charcoal fire to retrieve a potato someone had dropped. The man was clueless that he was hurting himself without the pain sensors properly working to alert him.
  • One day, Dr. Brand was trying to get supplies out of a small storage closet behind the hospital. He tried to open the door, but the key would not turn in the rusty lock.  Just then a small, under-sized 10-year-old Leprosy Patient strolled by and said “Let me try.” With a quick jerk of his hand, the 10-yr-old turned the key in the lock and opened the door.  Brand was astounded.  How did this weak youngster exert such force?  Then he noticed the boy’s hand.  Blood was dripping on the floor—the key had gashed open his index finger to the bone; yet the kid was completely unaware that something was wrong.

Brand went from seeing Pain as God’s biggest mistake, to seeing it as His Greatest Mercy.

“If evil is present, then pain at the recognition of the evil is relatively good.” – C.S. Lewis

Because let’s be honest—it’s not often we turn to God out of thanksgiving because of all the good, beautiful, loving things we experience. It’s only with the painful wakeup call of a broken, evil world that we wake up to reality—something’s wrong. Jesus said:

What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? – Matthew 16:25-26 

God cares more about you and me than we can ever imagine. When we judge God based only on this short 70 years, we miss the fact that God’s thinking about who we are becoming for eternity. God sees something much better than this life will ever give us—God is preparing us for Life that Lasts and Love that satisfies. After studying to write Imagine Heaven, I’m convinced that God sees something much worse that’s possible than even the worst evil or pain we could experience on this planet. In Love, he allows a reduced pain for a short while, so we don’t destroy our souls believing the greatest lie of all—that we are really okay without God—the very Source of Life and Love and every good thing.

But what about evil and suffering we don’t cause? Tsunamis, earthquakes, disease. And When people say things like “Well, it was God’s plan. God’s will. Or God’s trying to tell you something.” They don’t know! God rebuked Job’s friends for thinking they knew why Job suffered! Jesus was asked the same question.

“Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” 3 “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered.” – John 9:2-3

In our pain we ask, “What did I do wrong.” Sometimes it’s not due to any wrong, it’s just a broken, chaotic world. What the Scriptures say is that there’s not always a direct “reason.” It’s just a broken, evil world, and good and bad people suffer, and things do not always go according to God’s will…not yet!  IF it did, Jesus would not have taught us to pray: “Father, Your will be done on earth, as in heaven.”

God allows a chaotic world, because he can use it for a greater good—the creation of an eternal family. Romans says:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration…the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time…28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  – Romans 8:18-22, 28

This life is a birth canal.

We live in the pains and travails of the birthing of eternal beings, but that process is painful. But the only way God can create people who are eternally free to love Him, but will never choose to reject him once they see him, is by creating us in the knowledge of both good and evil. We see glimpses of His Glory—his love, his beauty, his goodness, but we also feel the painful horrors of his absence. Like darkness is the absence of light, evil and suffering remind us of God’s absence. If we could see God, we would not be in this temporal space. Then you could no more deny God than you could the Sun.

  • But your choice to go your way against God’s ways would be eternal and irrevocable—because God exists eternally. The angels choice of rebellion was eternal, there is no second chance.
  • So God created a soul-making time capsule—a place for second chances for about 70 years—that’s why now is the time of choosing.
  • But God allows the whole creation to be in chaos–Bad things happen to good people for no good reason. Babies are miscarried and it was no one’s fault and God didn’t cause it. There are accidents and mishaps and there’s not always a one to one reason why.
  • But God promises not only to make it right—but to reward us for faithfully following him through the suffering.

Mother Teresa, who knew the depth of suffering on earth, once said:

“In light of heaven, the worst of suffering on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.” – Mother Teresa

Let’s say that on the first day of 2017, you had a terrible day. You had a painful root canal, You crashed your car, you lost all your investments, your fiance betrayed you. From start to finish, it was like Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. But then every other day of the year was just amazing.

  • You get promoted to your dream job, invent a product that helps many people, you make $10 million in one year.
  • Time magazine makes you “The Person of the Year.”
  • You fall in love and get married.
  • You’ve never felt so alive, full of love and purpose.

Then next New Year’s Day someone asks, “So, how was 2017?” You’d undoubtedly say, “Incredible, Wonderful!” I had one bad day not worth comparing to this banner year. And the same will be true in God’s presence for eternity. That’s not to deny the reality of pain in this life. It might be terrible. It might be chronic. It might go on for all 70 years. But 1000 years into eternity—if multidimensional time works that way, you will look back on these painful days and say, “In the light of all God’s outpouring of goodness to me, those bad days aren’t even worth comparing with the New life I now experience in God’s family.”

The last thing I realized:

We overcome evil and suffering by trusting God through it.

Pain and suffering do come—Apart from God, there is no ultimate good, but God promises He will bring something of eternal value out of it as you trust Him through it! God has gone to great lengths to assure you, when the pains and sufferings of this life come, God doesn’t stay removed and unaffected.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.
– Psalm 34:18 

In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years.
– Isaiah 63:9 

You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.
– Psalm 56:8

Why? Because He’s going through it with us, and He will redeem, make it up to you, as you stay faithful to him through it.

When Paul was arresting Christians and having them stoned to death. The risen Jesus appeared to Paul as a brilliant light brighter than the sun, and Paul said, “Who are you?” He said, “I’m Jesus, who you’re persecuting.”  When we suffer, he feels our pain. You’re not alone in it—let him take you through it.

As Peter Kreeft says, in the end God’s answer to why he allows pain and suffering is personal—he doesn’t just allow it, he goes through it with us to overcome it in us.

  • “Are you broken? He was broken for us.
  • Are you despised? He was despised and rejected.
  • Do you cry out “Why God?” He cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • Do people betray you? He was sold out by a trusted friend.
  • Do you experience poverty? He had no place to call home.
  • Do you suffer at the hands of an evil world? He was mocked, tortured, and nailed to a cross saying “Father forgive them for what they do.”
  • He was sneered at in Soweto, mocked in Northern Ireland, enslaved in the Sudan, murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
  • He alone understands our pain and feels it with us. And he promises he will deliver us from it—as we choose His loving Leadership.
  • As I stood there in the middle of Auschwitz that day, I thanked God that Evil would not prevail. I recalled the final answer to the problem of evil pain and suffering.”

Galvin Reid tells about meeting a young man who had fallen down some stairs at the age of one and had shattered his back. He had been in and out of hospitals his whole life — and yet he made the astounding comment that he thinks God is fair. Reid asked him, “How old are you?” The boy said, “Seventeen.” “How many years have you spend in hospitals?” he asked. The boy said, “Thirteen years.” Reid demanded, “And you think that is fair?”

The boy replied: “Well, God has all eternity to make it up to me.”

And He will. We Overcome suffering with loving trust. Because God’s ultimate answer to Why Suffering? is coming:

“Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever.”  – Revelation 21:3-4




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