The Problem of Suffering: A Christian Response

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“Suffering. Pain. Sickness. Evil. What gives? Certainly not God!”

This is a common objection raised against the existence of God. If God really existed, then we wouldn’t experience all this suffering, especially if He were a good and powerful God like the Christians assert. I wish to provide a brief response to this objection, this problem, in three parts.

Far from pretending that suffering doesn’t exist, the Bible has a lot to say about suffering.
In light of this common objection to the existence of God, you would think Christians would do everything in their power to downplay the reality of suffering; but the Bible won’t let us (nor will the life of Christians, who also suffer, let them).

From Genesis to Revelation, suffering is a painful reality that plagues mankind. The Psalms, for instance, are full of exasperation in the midst of suffering, with questions of “Why?” and “How?”. Yet, these same psalmists exhibit steadfast trust in the one true God who they know made all things and is sovereign over all. They recognize that, apart from God, their suffering means nothing (a point made more fully below). In short, praise is found on the lips of these suffering psalmists. Then we have Job (pronounced “Jobe”). Job was a righteous man, faithful to God. Yet, he endured one suffering trial after another: children killed, property stolen, his own body infected with boils, his wife telling him to curse God and die. Then he had to endure the constant nagging of his friends trying to explain to him that all this was a result of something he had done. Again, Habakkuk asks God, “Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises” (Hab. 1:3; All quotations are from the NKJV unless otherwise noted.). We see the reality of evil and suffering all throughout the Bible, giving us great insight into our experience of it.

So, why suffering? At the root of it all is sin. The sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), has brought death and miseries into our lives. “For as in Adam all die…” (1 Cor. 15:22). This first sin has resulted in countless others by their progeny — you, me, everyone (more on sin below).

Further, because God is infinitely knowledgeable and wise, and we are not, we won’t always understand why we or others are going through suffering. It’s like Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us….” We can only act on what we know, and in that which we do not know, we must trust in God who is good and wise. Again, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). We can take great comfort in knowing that God is in control, even if the world looks like it’s out of control.

Our uneasiness with suffering actually points to God, not away from Him.
The interesting thing is this: The logical conclusion of our uneasiness with the reality of suffering is not that God does not exist, but that God most certainly exists and we are made in His image/likeness. It’s okay that you struggle with the reality of suffering in the world; we’re supposed to. This is not how it once was. The reason we long for a better world — a world without suffering — is because our nature, made in the image/likeness of God, remembers what once was. That is to say, we instinctively know something isn’t right in the world; but it’s this knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil, that points to God — the Law-Giver.

What is more, we know there is meaning to life, which is why people “assign meaning to life” even if they deny any objective meaning. They just can’t help themselves.

We all automatically live as if there is meaning in the world. Even a hardened and pessimistic secularist like John Gray admits that although ‘other animals do not need a purpose in life,’ humans ‘cannot do without one.’ Humans will assign meaning, purpose, and morality in the day-to-day trials of life; it is simply what we do.

Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross, (MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), 273.

As Ravi Zacharias has put it, “Evil and suffering cannot be explained without assuming life’s purpose” [Ravi Zacharias, contributor and ed., Beyond Opinion (TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 183.].

This is the heart and soul of the book of Ecclesiastes. In this book of wisdom, what we learn is that, apart from God, the good and bad we experience in life is meaningless (“vanity”). We labor to build things up, only for them to decay and be torn down. We find joy and laughter in things, but it comes and goes. We’re here one day and gone the next; and that which we accumulated is left for others. What is the meaning of all this?! Nothing, without God. So, Solomon concludes:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:

Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

What I find so interesting is that the person who raises the problem of suffering rarely sees their self as part of the problem. What do I mean? Well, if someone asks, “How can God exist in a world with so much evil?,” at least one of my responses to them would be, “What about your own evil?” Have you not hated, lied, stolen, slandered, gossiped, cheated, etc.? Have certain of your words and actions not resulted in the suffering of others? In other words, people tend to become very self-righteous when they raise the problem of evil. The problem is always out there somewhere, but never within, in the heart. The problem is never themselves. Here’s what Jesus had to say about this:

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.

Mark 7:21-23

According to Jesus, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.

Leave it to man to blame God for his own evil. This goes all the way back to Adam in the garden. After Adam and Eve had transgressed the law of God, God confronted Adam. This is Adam’s response: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12, emphasis added). Adam had the audacity to shift the blame for his sin, not only to Eve, but to God! We see the mercy of God in not striking Adam dead, then and there, for such an accusation against the holy God. Oh, that we would be humbled by this. People often ask for justice now against all evil, failing to take into account their own evils. What would come of you if God were to deal with your evils today?

In like manner, people are quick to lash out at God when suffering occurs, but the many blessings of life are frequently enjoyed without a moment’s thought to the One who ultimately gave them [Beyond Opinion, 182.].

Rather than become despairing or embittered when suffering occurs, let it drive you to the One who suffered in our place.

Jesus suffered, and through His suffering, brings healing to the sin-sick soul.
The greatest aspect of suffering is undoubtedly death. Even if one dies peacefully, we all desire to live, and to live well. Death, often unexpectedly, destroys our aspirations. Further, our death results in the suffering of our loved ones. However, death does not have the last word.

Our greatest comfort and joy in the midst of suffering is to be found in the Holy and Righteous One (Acts 3:14) who humbled Himself by becoming a man, even to the point of death. The apostle Paul explains:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11 (NASB)

Again, the apostle Peter says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18). Do you see that? The reason we experience suffering — sin — is what Christ Jesus bore in His body, taking the punishment for sin upon Himself in order to bring us back to God (to reconcile us to God). Yet, He did not remain dead, but rose from the grave in victory, having defeated sin and death (Acts 2:24). This is why Paul can quote the Old Testament in saying, “Death is swallowed up in victory,” and go on to say, “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54, 56-57).

For all those who have believed in the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, they have the sure hope of a future without suffering; for where they will be, there will be no more sin, for Jesus took it to the grave and has the victory over it.