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Does God allow suffering?

I’m going to start posting columns of mine that appeared in a Christian website I used to write for. I may create a separate bookmark at the top of the page and provide links to each one…we’ll see.

(Originally appeared in the San Antonio Christian website Saworship.com)

Does God Allow Pain and Suffering? What Does the Bible Say?

By Richard Zowie

If you listen to some people, God has a lot of explaining to do.

In an episode of Friday Night Lights, a Christian teenager is involved in a jail ministry. One of the prisoners tells her, “If God is such a loving God, why is there sickness and death in the world?”

In the suspense film 1408, a troubled writer (brilliantly portrayed by John Cusack), learns that his beloved daughter has terminal cancer. He asks his wife, “What kind of a God would do this to a little girl?”

The now-defunct cartoon Boondocks had a strip one day where Huey, the acerbic grandson, spoke to his grandfather about church. Grandpa says that he never goes to church and speculates-incorrectly-that by doing so, he is probably going to hell.

Huey replies: “I don’t see what the big deal is about God. I mean, if he’s really all-powerful, he’s got a lot to answer for. I mean-war, famine…”

All three quotes are derivatives of the age-old question: why would a loving God allow suffering in this world? The Christian girl on FNL stumbled for an answer, and I’m sure many Christians might prefer to shy away from this question. No worries, though. The answer is much simpler than you realize.

All the suffering in this world is not God’s doing. It’s the result of man’s disobedience to God. Since the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, man has wanted to become God. All the ugliness in this world-suffering, pain, heartache, death, injustice, and so on-are the result of man trying to run the world his own way. Mankind, though it may wish to become God, is inherently unable to do so. Suffering didn’t exist in the perfect creation, but in the fallen world it is alive and well.

To understand this, let’s backtrack about 6,000 years. God creates the universe, the heavens and the earth. All of it is made and designed perfectly and beautifully. Among the creation was a tropical paradise of earth called the Garden of Eden. Man was created, and he had a beautiful world in which he could serve God, enjoy the delicious food and commune with God. As the years passed, man would grow closer and closer to God. Evil, pain, torment and heartache were things man would never have to know about.

But somehow, man found a way to mess this up. This utopia ended when Adam and Eve, with the encouragement of the Serpent, chose willingly to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil rather than the Tree of Life. They wanted to become like God, and at that moment, their eyes were opened to evil. They were driven out of the garden and had to work hard to provide for themselves. As the generations passed, mankind became very evil on many occasions, fueled by a desire to become God.

Entering into the world were sickness, disease, death, murder, rape, thievery, and many countless other evil acts. These acts were not because God caused them to happen, but rather are the result of man wanting to follow after himself and run the world his own way rather than God’s way.

But even though God didn’t bring pain and suffering into the world, that doesn’t mean He doesn’t use it for good purposes when needed. I am convinced that all the things we go through in life have two purposes: for the unsaved, to receive as many opportunities as possible to receive Jesus Christ as their personal savior as possible; for the saved, to receive as many opportunities as possible to grow in Christ. Sometimes pain and suffering are parts of the roads to salvation and becoming more conformed to the image of God.

Can’t God at least minimize life’s miseries? Again, they can be used by God. The Bible gives us countless examples of this, from Joseph to David to Job to Hosea to the Apostle Paul. Joseph tells his brothers in Genesis 50:15-21 that God used their wrongdoing of him (which included selling him into slavery and faking his death) for God’s glory. We read in verses 19-20:

“And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God?
“But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

Besides wrongdoing, sometimes even physical infirmities can be used by God. Jesus tells His disciples in John 9 about how a blind man was born blind to show God’s glory. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:1-13 makes reference to his “Thorn in the Flesh” (likely a problem with his eyes) that he prayed for deliverance from. God chose not to heal it. Instead of being bitter, Paul writes this in verses 8-10:

“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

Joni Eareckson Tada, a Christian author, commentator and artist, has spent decades living as a quadriplegic as the result of a swimming accident. She has been asked countless times if she would like to be out of the wheelchair. As nice as it would be to ride horses again, Joni talks about how God is able to use her infirmities for three purposes: to reach the disabled around the world with evangelism and encouragement and to help her grow spiritually.

Some may angrily think of how God has a lot of explaining to do for things like famine, war and injustice, but someday all of us will have to stand before God. For Christians, we’ll have to answer for our mistakes and shortcomings. For the lost, they’ll have to explain to God why they chose not to receive Jesus as their personal savior. There will be a lot for them to explain, especially since all the evidence that points to Jesus.

We can take comfort in knowing that as Christians, our days of pain and suffering are limited. Once the antichrist is defeated and Satan and those who follow him are thrown into the lake of fire for all eternity, the last chapters of Revelation describe a perfect world that will be the new heaven and New Jerusalem. It’s a place of peace, happiness and wealth, a place where God is in control and all the Christians have glorified hearts and bodies. Simply put, it is world of eternal perfection-a place that exists for those who love and follow after God. In New Jerusalem, there will be no war, no famine, no crime, no murder, not even bitter feelings. It will truly be a world beyond explanation.

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