Why Does a Good God Allow Suffering?
Even as i write, the headlines scream out at me from the front page of the Dallas Morning News: “Rescue Teams Search Tornado Debris.” Subtitles remind readers of the “23 still missing in Central Texas,” “Death toll at 30,” and “Survivors hang on every scrap of news.” Details of the tragedy in Jarrell, Texas, captured the spotlight in the national news for more than a week. Where 50 homes once stood on the flat Texas prairie, none remained. Nearly 10 percent of the town’s citizens lost their lives.
If God is good, why would He allow a tornado to level Jarrell?
Millions have pondered that kind of question as they faced other natural disasters, family tragedies, and personal despair. In 1983 Rabbi Harold Kushner leaped to fame with his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by emphasizing that we have only two options to explain such events. Either God is not good and our Judeo-Christian theology has been sadly misinformed, or God is good but quite incapable of handling events in a world gone mad. Kushner opts for the second choice, holding on to God’s love while dethroning His power. He asks, “Are you capable of forgiving and loving God even when you have found out that He is not perfect, even when He has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in His world, and permitting some of those things to happen to you?”
But Christians who know their Bibles cannot wander down the Rabbi’s trail, as attractive as it might seem in times of tragedy. Indeed, few Christians lack an intellectual sense of God’s power and presence. The difficulty comes in trying to transfer that knowledge into practical and emotional reality during times of crisis.
None of that explains why God allows suffering, pain, and heartbreak in a world He claims to control. Natural disasters and personal tragedy defy explanation, particularly when we stand in the quagmire of grief. Most of them contain riddles we cannot answer until we get to heaven. But one principle stands firm to those who believe God’s Word: through every tragic experience God calls us to look up and trust Him with the outcome, however bizarre it might seem at the time.
But what about prayer? Didn’t Hezekiah ask God for a longer life, a request honored with 15 more years (2 Kings 20)? Yes. But we may also assume that James cried out to God in prison (Acts 12) only to die at the hand of King Herod. For reasons we often do not understand, God sometimes chooses to heal or save His people on the basis of prayer…and sometimes He chooses not to.
Perhaps the financial blood drains out of a business and a Christian goes bankrupt. A believer may lose his job or get sued. Marriages break up, or children take drugs. Why does God allow such things to happen? Perhaps the Joseph epic in the last 14 chapters of Genesis can help us remember the struggles of life, even when maliciously caused by other people (or by our own stupidity), cannot thwart God’s ultimate goals. Solid believers hold on to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, which simply means, “God knows what He’s doing and He’s doing it.”
It may help us to realize our Lord faced terrible personal grief before He was nailed to the cross, even though His perfect understanding of God’s will surely had all the pieces of the Father’s plan well in place. Mark tells us, “He began to be deeply distressed and troubled” and told the disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:33–34). The possibility of being separated from the Father horrified Jesus Christ.
Why does God allow pain and suffering? Though we too often utter the words as a cliché, biblical truth assures us that God’s plan for our lives may at times seem incomprehensible and desperately painful, but it will always work out for our own good. Jesus’ sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane turned into His death on a cross. But that awful tragedy gave way to resurrection and glory, defeating Satan and opening the doors of heaven to all who trust Christ for salvation.
The people of Jarrell, Texas, struggle with the loss of property, but genuinely grieve over the loss of life. Contrary to what some contemporary experts suggest, death is not a normal part of life, it is an enemy destined for ultimate destruction by the King of life. In the deepest darkness of the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26), when we face the death of a loved one or even find ourselves on the precipice of eternity, we must grab hold of Jesus’ words: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25–26).
Where is God when we need Him? Precisely where He always has been—in His heaven taking complete charge of everything that happens in His world (Ps. 103:19). We don’t have to understand God’s plan, for it often may not make sense to our limited, finite, human logic. In tragedy, our response to the omnipotent King of heaven must echo the attitude of those brave young men in the Book of Daniel: our God is able to deliver us from any suffering. But even if He chooses not to, we will still serve Him.