Why would a loving God allow pain and suffering?

I had the opportunity to see Vince Vitale,  co-author of Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, when he visited my church. I first reflected on this challenging question a couple of years ago and was interested in how Vitale’s insights meshed with those of C.S. Lewis and others who have tackled this question.

Skeptical theism

I have a niece who is an atheist. She says that she can’t stand it when people say that bad things happen for a reason. I understand her reaction. The people who say this have good intentions but this ambiguous answer provides little comfort in the face of suffering and grief.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, he said that Christianity creates the problem of pain (in an apologetic sense). We Christians believe in an all-powerful God who is both loving and righteous and yet we live in a world where people experience great pain. How can you reconcile the reality of pain, suffering, and senseless tragedy with belief in a loving God who has the power to make life easier for us?

In Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothius asks: if evil appears to be pointless, is it? If you can’t conceive of a reason for pain and suffering, does that mean there is no reason for it? Vitale introduced me to the term skeptical theism, “the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.”

Just as a child cannot understand the reasoning of an adult, we as limited human beings cannot understand God’s reasoning. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

What kind of love is this?

Many people reject the Christian God because they question how our God can love people and yet allow them to suffer. How can our God be good if he lets people feel pain? If he is really all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something to prevent suffering? Why should anyone trust a God who lets people suffer?

Vitale asked an interesting question: if it is evil to create a world where pain and suffering exist, then how is it good to bring children into this world? We know that children will experience pain and suffering in their lives but we still choose to have them.

The love of God is analogous to the love of a father for his child. It is the love of the Creator for the created. We are an expression of God’s love and creativity. I believe he loves us more than we can fathom. He forgives us over and over again, even as we reject him. He does not enjoy seeing us in pain but he is present to guide, protect, and comfort those who love him.

Vitale writes, “The loving parent is not the one who never allows suffering in a child’s life. The loving parent is the one who is willing to suffer alongside their children. And in Christianity this is exactly what we find.”

Christians believe that God became human to redeem mankind from our sinfulness. No other religion makes this claim – that God became fully human and experienced human suffering firsthand. Jesus subjected himself to temptation, rejection, ridicule, pain and death. He understands our suffering because he experienced it himself.

The Laws of Nature Versus the Power of God

Death and destruction are part of the natural world. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of natural selection weeds out the weak. Forces of nature like floods, fires, blizzards, tornadoes, famine and drought cause pain, suffering, death and destruction. So with or without a supernatural creator, we accept the destructiveness of nature. As Groothius writes, if you believe that the natural world is full of evil, then you must have in mind a supernatural ideal as the basis for your belief.

The rejection of the Christian God based on the problem of pain presupposes that God lacks the power to make things right. For those of us who believe that God is omnipotent, we believe that God is capable of suspending the laws of nature to prevent pain. We believe in miracles and that on occasion God changes the course of events. But we don’t expect God to break the laws of nature.

If I did something dangerous like drive my car straight into the path of another vehicle, I believe that God could intervene to prevent an accident. He could instantly change the mass or velocity of the vehicles to lessen the impact. He could make my car fly over the other car and land gently on the other side. But if God interfered with natural laws, they would not be laws. We couldn’t count on nature to behave in predictable, measurable ways. If we expect God to prevent the suffering that nature and free will make inevitable, life, as we know it, would no longer exist.

Vitale challenges us to imagine living in a world where there is no suffering. Everything and everyone would change. You wouldn’t be you. Think about a great person that you admire. If you subtracted out all of the pain and suffering that this person ever experienced, they would not be the person you admire. In a world with no suffering, there would be no heroes. There would be no courage, no compassion, no empathy, no determination -qualities that make people admirable.

The Cost of Free Will

As difficult as it is to understand the cruelty of nature, it is even harder to understand the pain humans inflict on each other. As C.S. Lewis noted, we cause pain when we’re born, we inflict pain on others while we’re living (and suffer on the receiving end), and we often experience pain and suffering in death. Humans have a long record of committing crimes, abuse, and other unspeakable acts against each other. We intentionally hurt each other physically and with words. We can be extremely cruel and indifferent to the pain and suffering of others. What’s worse, because we have the ability to reason and to feel, we understand the pain we cause.

God created us as intelligent beings with the free will to choose. That free will came with a risk – the risk that we would choose evil and reject God. The biblical story of Adam and Eve describes the first sin as an act of disobedience to God – the choice to eat fruit God had specifically forbidden. This was a choice to turn away from God and turn to the self. C.S. Lewis said that as soon as we become aware of God as God and self as self, we have the option to make God or the elevated Self the center of our universe.

God’s Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

The apostle Paul wrote that he was given a thorn in his flesh to prevent him from exalting himself, to keep him from becoming conceited about all the amazing things that had been revealed to him. We don’t know what this affliction was but Paul pleaded with God to take it away. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul said that he was delighted in his difficulties and hardships (which included being beaten, stoned and imprisoned) because “when I am weak, then I am strong.” He knew that there is purpose in suffering. Suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Pain is God’s Megaphone

C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When things are going well, we have a tendency to push God aside and to put ourselves at the center. We live with an “illusion of self-sufficiency.” God reveals what we lack by letting our lives become more difficult. Sometimes our illusion of self-sufficiency must be shattered to save our souls.

Sometimes our surrender to God takes pain. Many people call on God when they are at their lowest point, perhaps struggling with loss, a crippling addiction, or a broken relationship. The good news is God is merciful. He has what Lewis called “divine humility.” He is not proud; he does not mind our choosing him as a last resort. His love never fails. He heals hurting souls.

As a Christian, I can see for myself that bad things happen to good people and that the world I live in is often cruel and unjust. As much as I try, I cannot fully explain the reasons for pain and suffering. But I have seen a glimpse of the purpose of pain in my own life and in the lives of others. When we look back through painful experiences, we see that they made us stronger. We see the building of character, the smoothing of our rough edges. We learn humility in our struggles. We see the light in the darkness. And we see the goodness of humanity in the face of tragedy and adversity.

Sometimes it takes the healing hands of time for us to see the big picture. When we’re in the midst of pain and suffering, we see the puzzle but we don’t necessarily see how the pieces fit together. In this life, we see only in part, but someday we will know fully.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

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Vitale’s response to the question of pain and suffering is summarized in an article he wrote on the RZIM website – If God, Why Suffering? 

Ideas for going deeper in your faith

The pastor of my church preached a sermon series on Living Deep and then gave us a list of 14 practical steps to help us go deeper in our faith. I took the liberty of rephrasing a few of them. The most useful piece of advice for me is to look beyond what I can see to the deeper reality of what God is doing behind the scenes.

  1. Trust in God’s loving plans.
  2. Trust in God’s loving protection.
  3. Depend on the Holy Spirit.
  4. Look beyond what you can see to the deeper reality of God’s work.
  5. See yourself through God’s loving eyes. (Examine yourself accurately  based on God’s truth.)
  6. Come out of hiding and confess your brokenness.
  7. Simplify your life and make time with God a priority.
  8. Dive deep and immerse yourself in Scripture.
  9. Remember who you once were and embrace your new identity. (Learn from your history and get wiser.)
  10. Focus on who you are (and can become) rather than on what you should do.
  11. Replace unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones.
  12. Choose the right path each day. (Choose a new direction and start on it again each day.)
  13. Cultivate thankfulness, generosity, and kindness.
  14. Become an everyday vessel for God to use.

And here’s one of my own to grow on:

  • Seek God’s truth and wisdom.

Become an everyday vessel for God to use

For the past five months, I have been studying a list of steps my pastor gave the congregation of my church to help us go deeper in our faith. His last piece of advice is: “Become an everyday vessel for God to use.” A vessel is a hollow container, a pitcher or vase, for example, that is used to hold something. How do we become a container that is useful to God?

Become like clay in the hand of the potter

The people of Judah turned their hearts away from God, just as people do now. God told the prophet Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house where he would receive God’s message (Jeremiah 18:1-6).

So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel…” 

We are the clay and God is the potter. Those who are fully committed to God, who have given their hearts to the Lord, are like clay in his hands. The clay is marred. It is not the finest material for the potter to work with. Yet God can shape and transform the most imperfect materials into something beautiful and useful.

To become like clay in God’s hands, you must submit yourself to his handiwork. Give yourself fully to the work of his hands. Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always (Psalm 105:4).

In God is the Potter – We are the Clay, Michael Bradley points out that the potter can only work with the clay if enough water is added to the clay to make it soft and pliable. Bradley explains that water symbolizes the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26). If you really want God to shape you into the person He wants you to be, you must spend time reading the Word of God.

When I see Word capitalized, I think Jesus. Jesus is the Word. If you want to know what God wants you to become, look no further than Jesus. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12

Painted in mercy’s hue

The potter and the clay is a great analogy for God’s transforming work; a painter and canvas are another. Danny Gokey’s song, Masterpiece, reminds me of a few powerful truths. God is moving in ways that I cannot see. What I will become is not known. It takes time to create a real work of art.

Heart trusts you for certain
Head says it’s not working
I’m stuck here still hurting
But you tell me
You’re making a masterpiece
You’re shaping the soul in me
You’re moving where I can’t see
And all I am is in your hands
You’re taking me all apart
Like it was your plan from the start
To finish your work of art for all to see
you’re making a masterpiece
Guess I’m your canvas
Beautiful black and blue
Painted in mercy’s hue
I don’t see past this
You see me now
Who I’ll be then
There at the end
Standing there as

Your Masterpiece

God is the painter and we are the canvas. God paints us in mercy’s hue – the color of love. He sees the potential in the ordinary canvas. With every stroke of his loving hands, he adds something beautiful to our hearts.

Fill me up, Lord

In the introduction to Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Richard Rohr wrote that the first task of life “is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second task is to find the contents the container is meant to hold.” Many people, even religious people, never figure out what the container is supposed to hold.

The premise of Rohr’s book is that we grow spiritually by stumbling and falling. “Until we are led to the limits of our present game plan, and find it to be insufficient, we will not search out or find the real source, the deep well, or the constantly flowing stream.”

I have found that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the real source. He said, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them (John 7:38).” The Lamb will guide them to springs of living water (Revelation 7:17).

When you recognize your own sinfulness and need for redemption and throw yourself on God’s mercy, he fills you with living water, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit infuses the believer with grace. God’s grace gives you the power to become the person he wants you to be.

A work in progress

I know what it is to be painted with mercy’s hue. I have been forgiven for falling and stumbling and making a mess of things, over and over again. I know what my container is meant to hold – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I have been filled with God’s grace and want to extend it to others.

And yet, God is not finished with me. I am not a masterpiece. The words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart are not always pleasing to God. Sometimes, I want to hide my imperfections or to retreat in shame. But I think that having the courage to be real is one way to be an everyday, ordinary vessel that God can use.

Reading List

Psalm 105:4
Jeremiah 18:1-10
2 Chronicles 16:9
Matthew 5:16
Acts 13:36
Romans 12:11
1 Corinthians 15:58
Ephesians 2:8-10
2 Timothy 2:20-21
1 John 2:1-2; 3:1-2
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Photo Credit – By Creator: Euphiletos Painter – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57852656
Per Wikipedia, the image is a “Panathenaic ampora,” a large ceramic vessel showing runners, awarded to a victor in one of the Panathenaic Games, c. 530 BC. This vessel would have been filled with oil from the sacred olive groves in Attica.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cultivate thankfulness, generosity and kindness

My pastor’s advice to believers who want to go deeper in their faith is to cultivate thankfulness, generosity, and kindness. Of course, you don’t have to believe in God to be thankful, generous, and kind. But if you have been touched by the grace of God, there should be evidence that you have been changed.

The Vine and the Branches

To “cultivate” means to develop a quality or sentiment or to prepare the soil for a crop or garden. The second meaning reminds me of the parable of the vine and the branches. Jesus is the vine and the Father is the gardener. Followers of Jesus are the branches. The branches do not bear fruit alone; they only bear fruit if they remain attached to the vine. We remain in the vine when we keep the words of Jesus in our hearts and keep his command to love each other as he loves us.

Jesus wanted his followers to cultivate fruit of the spirit, qualities like kindness and compassion, that flourish when you are deeply rooted in love. When we cultivate good fruit, we “spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere (2 Corinthians 2:14).”

Thankfulness

In a letter to the Colossians (2:7), the apostle Paul wrote, “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Why do those who have been redeemed by Jesus overflow with thankfulness? Because he touched us and made us whole. Because we were once lost, but now we’re found. Because we were blind, but now we see! Because we have been promised a kingdom that will not be shaken!

As I know too well, it is easy to forget to give thanks when you’re going through something difficult. Paul reminds us to be thankful in all circumstances. No matter how bad things are, do not be anxious. The Lord is always near.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7

Generosity

As a child, I was taught that what you give comes back to you. This is the wisdom of Proverbs 11:25: a person who blesses others will be abundantly blessed. Jesus said, “For if you give, you will get! Your gift will return to you in full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over. Whatever measure you use to give—large or small—will be used to measure what is given back to you (Luke 6:38, Living Bible).”

Even if you are poor and have little to give, God will bless you for giving. Jesus promised that God will provide whatever you need. If you have the means to give and you have no pity on people in need, how can the love of God be in you?

Kindness

Kindness is underrated. A simple act of kindness or a kind word can mean the world to the person who receives it. Kindness is a gift that every person can afford to give. To be kind is to be gentle, caring, considerate, helpful, generous, gracious, merciful and forgiving. Kindness is uplifting and encouraging.

If you have been encouraged by Christ, if you have received any comfort from his love, if you have been touched by his tenderness and compassion, then be like-minded. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:3-4).”

Kindness is more than just being nice or pleasant. The essence of kindness is the ability to look to the interests of others, to treat other people the way you want to be treated. Let someone else go first. Let someone else have something that you wanted for yourself. Bear with each other. Forgive others for not being perfect just as you are not perfect.

Paul describes the spiritual attire of a person who is dearly loved by God and shows how grateful they are by being kind, compassionate, humble, gentle, forgiving and patient:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. – Colossians 3:12-17

Pay it forward

The phrase “pay it forward” is credited to Lily Hardy Hammond who wrote (The garden of delight, 1916), “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” Long before she coined this phrase, Jesus showed us how to pay his love forward. Be Jesus-minded. Be kind. Be merciful. Be forgiving. See to it that no one misses out on the grace of God.

Reading List
Leviticus 27:30
Proverbs 11:25
Mark 12:41-44
Luke 6:38
Acts 2:46
2 Corinthians 2:14, 9:11
Galatians 6:20
Ephesians 4:32
Philippians 2:1-4; 4:6
Colossians 2:6-7; 3:12-17
1 Thessalonians 5:18
Hebrews 12:28
James 1:7
1 Peter 3:9
1 John 3:17

Choose the right path each day

This summer, after completing a sermon series called “Living Deep,” my pastor gave the congregation a list of practical steps to help us go deeper in our faith. He called step twelve, “Choose a new direction, and start on it again each day.” I like the idea that every day is another chance to change your life. But instead of choosing a new direction, I prefer the path metaphor that appears so often in scripture.

In Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, he wrote about the choice he made between two roads in a wood. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” We all get to choose between completely different paths in life. Our choices make all the difference.

Joshua told the people of Israel to fear the Lord and follow him faithfully. “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” God doesn’t force anyone to follow him; we get to choose. Moses told the people of Israel, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses..” In other words, you have a choice between two very different paths. Listen to the Lord. Choose life.

Jesus said that there is a wide road that many people follow. Unfortunately, the wide, well-traveled road leads to destruction. Fewer people find the narrow road that leads to life.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14

One day when I was hiking with a group, two of us went the wrong way at a trail junction. There were signs that we weren’t going the right way; the trail wasn’t as worn or maintained as the trail we had been on. A large tree had fallen across the path. We should have turned around but we continued on even though it didn’t seem right. The path we were on did eventually take us to a trail head but we went miles out of our way, ran out of water, and worried the other hikers.

It is not always easy to follow a path in the wilderness. I have been led astray by other hikers – people who confidently went the wrong way. I’ve relied on my own faulty sense of direction and had to backtrack when I realized my mistake. When the trail is not clearly marked, it is easy to miss a switch back or lose sight of the trail completely. Every year, I hear about someone getting lost and not being as fortunate as I was.

Jesus is the new direction. If you want to find the narrow road that leads to life, you have to follow him. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Following Jesus isn’t a walk in the park. People will ridicule you for believing in him. People will automatically assume that you are a hypocrite because they have seen so many “Christians” talk the talk without walking the walk.

If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. –  1 John 1:6-7

The word of God is the trail map to living a deeper life of faith. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path (Psalm 119:105). Show me your ways Lord, teach me your paths (Psalms 25:4). Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).

Let God be your compass. Walk with him faithfully each day. He will make your paths straight. He will keep your feet from stumbling. He will guide you along the right paths. Even when you walk through the darkest valleys, he will walk beside you.

Reading List

Deuteronomy 30:19-20
Joshua 24:15
Psalm 18:2; 28:7; 118:24; 119:11
Proverbs 3:5
Romans 8:31-31; 12:1-2
Acts 17:28
2 Corinthians 5:16-20
Ephesians 1:11; 2:10
1 John 3:1-10; 5:1-4