A Loving God and SufferingSeptember 13, 2005
My friend John asked me the other day how I would respond to the dilemma of “why a benevolent (ie. loving) God would allow pain and suffering”. We have posted several responses to aspects of this question, but never a long, general response.
The problem with answering this question is that though it seems like a simple question, it is actually a complex amalgam of inquiries. Therefore, to answer it completely, each of these trains of thought needs to be explored.
First, is God loving? The Bible does clearly state that God is Love, so if that is one of the essential descriptions of his nature, then we have to conclude that he loves us. And if God loves us (that is, those reading this) we must assume He also loves everyone else. It would be hard to imagine that God would love me and my failures and not love someone else with their failures. But we also must ask, “what is love, when the question applies to God?” To us, love can mean everything from that feeling you got in fifth grade when Amy Watters winked at you and your insides turned to tapioca, to the dog who refused to leave the blind woman’s side in the hurricane, to a man who brings flowers to his crippled wife every day in the hospital so she will have color in her life. We would not have the same expectations of each of these three. The fifth grader would not give his life for the girl. The dog would not hold long, intimate conversations with its owner. Every definition of love also has its attendant expectations.
The Greek word for love that is used when it says “God is love” is the word ‘agape’. This speaks about a love which keeps promises and never abandons someone in need. We understand God to be a Covenant-making and Covenant-keeping God. That means that God will do what He said he will do and will not do what He said he won’t do. Beyond this, we’re not sure. God may or may not like us. God may or may not have affection for us. God may or may not want to protect us. It all depends on what God promised us. And no matter how much we may dislike what God has promised and not promised, there is no arguing with the Being who created the Universe (at least, we are assured no one will win that argument).
God’s love means He will keep his promises. Plain and simple that is it. It also means that God will provide for our eternal needs. What does it *NOT* mean then? It does not mean that God promises we will be comfortable. It does not mean that God promises we will not die. In fact, God promised that we will die. God never promised all of us would see the same length of life. Therefore, death is not inconsistent with a God who makes promises.
But God’s love is more than just making promises. God also created us and has a vested interest in the welfare of all people. But, once again we have to assume that this means something to God that it may not mean to us. God wants the best for each of us. What if that means it disagrees with what we want? Will God do something on our behalf that we might hate? Those of us who are parents know very clearly that sometimes parents do things their children hate simply because it is the best thing for them. The child may even scream “why do you hate me?” but it won’t be true.
So where does suffering come from? I understand suffering to have two primary sources. First, suffering comes from man’s inhumanity to man. Human beings have almost infinite capabilities to torture one another. Every time wars cease for a few years – and there have been very few periods of time like that – people begin to think that mankind is improving. Then, along comes some group of people who practice genocide on another group that differs slightly from them. The whole concept of man’s goodness usually collides with genocide and is flattened. From the attempted destruction of the Armenians by the Turks in 1912 to the current genocidal tendencies of the Sudan Government in Darfur, we have seen millions and millions slaughtered for no reason that can be defended. The primary source of suffering in this world is man’s evil efforts toward other humans. So what should we expect God to do about that?
This is really the first apologetic for God’s love in the midst of suffering. God has created a world for us that limits God’s ability to act. God gave mankind a gift that most of us cherish, but occasionally would like to send back to God. I speak of “Freedom of Choice”. Freedom of Choice is absolute, even when other freedoms are not. We are always free to choose, even when the choices all seem bad. The doctor in a hospital who witnesses suffering patients may want to give them overdoses on morphine to spare them pain, but the resulting death goes against their Hypocratic Oath. But the doctor still has a choice in every circumstance. Some people would like God to intervene in the affairs of man to stop some people from exercising their freedom of choice. For instance, they wonder why God didn’t just kill Hitler in his sleep one night and have Mengele die in an auto accident. It seems like a just and loving decision.
But the question arises: Which actions of man do you choose to veto? And can a just God only veto certain actions and not others? Wouldn’t God, to be fair, have to intervene any time any person acts out of line with God’s will? Wouldn’t God have to stop every abortion, every act of fornication, every liar, every person who holds bitterness in their hearts? God would not only have to do it once or twice, but for all eternity. There would no longer be freedom of choice. We would resent and hate those who prevent us from what we want to do, no matter how much what we’re doing may be wrong. We like to decide what is right and wrong. But someone would say “But everyone knows genocide is wrong!” If that were the case, there wouldn’t be millions who practice it. God cannot prevent the sinful actions of one man solely on the basis of his love. He would have to prevent them all.
This is the easier of the two questions about suffering. The second involves Natural Disasters and sickness. There are things that happen to us that do not involve the direct actions of other humans. The latest disaster involving Hurricane Katrina has people speculating on the nature of Nature and why God allows things to happen the way they do.
In actuality, there are times that God does intervene both to use Nature for judgment and to prevent nature from being too strong. We know of the Flood in Noah’s day. That was certainly caused by God. God reserves the right to judge people that He deems to have crossed the line morally. That judgment is never given to humans, except to governments who make laws to protect people. We also know that Jesus stilled a storm that threatened to overpower his disciples. So why doesn’t God intervene all the time?
There is no simple answer to this. I wish there were. In honor of the “Chronicles of Narnia” coming out, I adjure to C. S. Lewis for the rest of our answer here. Lewis, in several books, but most notably, “The Problem of Pain” states that there are no direct cause and effect relationships between sin and suffering. The Bible clearly states that the Garden of Eden was a perfect place. It was what all of the Earth was supposed to be like. But when the first humans sinned, sin affected the very DNA of the planet. Plants that God created for food and beauty now became ugly and full of thorns. The animals no longer lived in harmony with man. We are left to assume that this changing of the DNA structure of every living thing also affected the smallest organisms: Viruses and bacteria. Just as the animals now feared man instead of serving him, so too the viruses and bacteria began to work against us. Every generation more and more superviruses and diseases are created which seek to wipe us out. Are any of these the result of one person’s sin? I don’t think so. Mankind in general is responsible for this slow degradation of all of humanity, but no one person is. As each generation turns away from God, the very nature around them changes. We can hardly blame New Orleans for the disaster wrought upon them. But we can take a look in the eye at our nation over the last 200 years and ask if our selfish pursuit of happiness, pleasure and wealth has not added to the climactic changes we see.
So to summarize: Mankind sinned and the whole of Creation is groaning as it becomes more and more dangerous. This planet is reeling from sin, and will not be healed until Jesus remakes it.
However, we also know that God does heal sometimes. God does rebuke the wind and the waves sometimes. God does protect some people by sending angels to guard them. Why some people and not others? It has nothing to do with God loving them. God does it because it suits some plan of His own. He heals people that still have more to do for God. He protects people who still have more service to offer God. It has nothing to do with loving them. As Harold Hill used to tell people when he would get onto airplanes: “If God has more work for me to do, then this airplane is the safest one in the skies”. Then he would grin and add, “But if God has no more work for me to do, I wouldn’t want to be sitting beside me”, and then he would wink.