How can a “good” God directly cause suffering?
(Question 5 of 8 in the Goodness of God series)
The world is full of pain and suffering, but not all pain and suffering is the same. We’ve already talked about the fact that some of the sources of suffering in our world come from sin (ours and on the part of others) and some is more or less in our heads. Some of what we call “suffering” is rooted in a failure to have our expectations met. I wanted a relationship to work out, but it didn’t. I wanted a promotion, but it didn’t happen. I lost big on a financial deal. Etc. This suffering is very real, but is probably best addressed by training ourselves to fix our hearts and eyes upon Jesus … to increasingly reorient our lives away from worldly desires and toward seeing the world the way God does.
Other suffering is so serious and painful that I can hardly bear to describe it, and can only be explained by the presence of evil in human suffering. For example, how many shootings and other violent public acts (racially motivated or otherwise) are we up to in 2016 alone? And I was just reading about a teenage girl named Elisabeth who had been kidnapped at the age of 16 and sold into forced prostitution in South Asia, until she was rescued by International Justice Mission. THAT is suffering. And evil! And it doesn’t even get into all the wars and famine and oppression that goes on every day in our world.
In all these cases, when we feel that the world is collapsing around us or are watching injustice play out so vividly in the lives of others, it’s easy to question our theology, “Is there a God? If so, who is He? What is He really like?” and to ask, “Where is God in the midst of all this suffering?!”
The Question of God’s Sovereignty
Given these questions, we could quickly and easily quagmire into a debate about what it means for God to be “sovereign”. Does God cause everything or does He simply “allow” certain things? Does God do and know everything, or position Himself to react to our choices out of His exhaustive knowledge of all our possible choices? How do we understand the concepts of predestination and free-will? Etc.
Many thousands, perhaps millions, of pages have been written on this topic over the course of thousands of years, so I’m not going to try to tackle it here. There is a sense in which God allows the suffering that Satan or the sinful choices of others inflicts on our lives, as we’ve discussed. But there is also a very real sense in which God actively causes suffering in our lives. And it is with this presupposed reality that I would like to contend for a moment.
God directly causes suffering
Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t buy it! Why in the world would a good God intentionally cause me to suffer?!”
As I see it, there are five important reasons…
1) … In order to warn us about sin
God uses pain and suffering as a megaphone to get our attention. They are guardrails on the road of life. Just as fire burns us when we get too close, causing us pain to prevent our doing serious damage to our bodies, so the burning pain of this life prevents our doing serious damage to the next. Would a loving God allow us to walk around without those safeguards in place?
Read more about God’s Megaphone.
2) … In order to wrestle our idols away from us
God uses pain and suffering to wrench our idols away from us … to draw us away from worshipping useless things to worshipping Him. How unloving would it be of God to allow us to be fat, dumb and happy in our idolatrous lives, as we careened into hell? So He introduces suffering to create dissatisfaction with this life and longing for Him and His Kingdom.
Read more about Idol-Snatching Ninjas.
3) … In order to perfect us
God isn’t interested in making us just good enough to have a better next Tuesday. There’s no such thing as being a little bit redeemed. God’s vision for us is total and complete perfection. If we wanted the perfect body, we would have to work and sweat and bleed to get it. We’d spend a LOT of time at the gym, and it would hurt! Why do we think perfection of heart and soul would be any less painful?
Read more about God’s House of Pain.
4) … In order to perfect others
God is no less interested in the sanctification of others than He is in yours. But we can get so fixated on ourselves, that we never consider what sacrificial love might look like and how valuable it might be to God. The ultimate example of this kind of love is Jesus, who, though He was God, suffered immeasurably for us. If we claim to love Him, wouldn’t we insist on being at least a little like Him in the way that we sacrifice for others?
Read more about Painful Love.
5) … In order to bring Himself glory
God is the great Artist of this universe. In the same way that a sculptor is due the glory for what he creates from gloriless lumps of stone, so God is due the glory for His work in our lives. Through the artist’s creative genius, even the stone (once crafted into a beautiful sculpture) takes on a reflection of that glory, so God makes us glorious as well. And just as it would be painful for the stone to be sculpted if it were alive, but it would consider it worth it in the end, so will it be in eternity when we reflect back on God’s amazing (but often painful) work in our lives.
Read more about Selfish Glory.
We are God’s handiwork. He is a good God and a loving Father. He is transcendently holy and utterly beyond us, and He does what we cannot understand. He gives us free-will out of that goodness, love and holiness, even though the consequences will be dire. He then redirects all the evil that comes from our choices into purifying, redeeming and reconciling us. He sacrificed Jesus to accomplish that. He even uses Satan and his brood to that end. He uses pain and suffering in our lives and uses us in each others’ lives. And in the end, after all the pain and suffering in this world has done its part in our redeeming work and all evil has been finally destroyed, those of us who choose to see and choose to submit, whom God has called unto Himself, will recognize the genius of it all, and…
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)
Epilogue: The “Complex Good”
A merciful man aims at his neighbor’s good and so does “God’s will”, consciously co-operating with “the simple good”. A cruel man oppresses his neighbor, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. The whole system is, so to speak, calculated for the clash between good men and bad men, and the good fruits of fortitude, patience, pity and forgiveness for which the cruel man is permitted to be cruel, presuppose that the good man ordinarily continues to seek simple good. [But if ordinary men seek simple evil,] it is not indeed to break the divine scheme but to volunteer for the post of Satan within that scheme. If you do his work, you must be prepared for his wages.
— CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
The Goodness of God Series
- How do we know that God is good?
- If God is good, why didn’t I get what I want?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
- Where does evil come from?
- How can a good God directly cause suffering?
- Should we actively avoid suffering?
- How can a good God send people to hell?
- Does God change His mind?
For further reading on this extremely deep and difficult subject, I recommend the following from CS Lewis, whose exceptional work has benefited me greatly in thinking through this issue:
Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. Revised ed., New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2015.