Why Do We Suffer?
It is a question as old as humanity itself: why is there suffering in the world? Or why do good people suffer? Why must children suffer? Why do even animals sometimes suffer needless pain?
Most of us have asked questions like these at some point in our lives. For Christians, though, these questions can be even more acute because we believe and proclaim that at the bright center of the universe there is a good, loving, and all-powerful God. In fact, there is a classical argument against the very existence of God that goes like this:
Premise 1: If God is all-good, he would not want suffering for his creatures.
Premise 2: If God is all-powerful, he would be able to prevent suffering for his creatures.
Conclusion: The world is full of suffering, so either God is not all-good or is not all-powerful (or he is neither) and since by definition God should be both, God does not exist.
This argument does not spell the end of the matter in terms of whether God exists or not. But no honest Christian can deny that there is some degree of persuasive power here. What’s more, no honest Christian can claim that there are easy answers to the issues this argument raises.
So why is there suffering? Why does God allow suffering? What is the meaning of suffering? I must confess from the outset that I do not have a definitive answer for you. This is a question biblical scholars and faithful believers have struggled with for centuries. And while there may be no simple, clear cut answer, there are some important, scripture-based guideposts for how we can think about suffering.
So let’s wonder: why is there suffering?
Creation is Fallen
First, a broad answer to this question from the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith is that the world as it exists now is not the world God had in mind in the beginning. There was a Fall into sin that brought an evil into this creation that God did not desire or will to be here (Gen. 3). What’s more, we believe that humanity fell into this sinful state totally by its own fault. God had given early humanity the tools and the abilities to stay in a right relationship with him but our earliest human parents went the other way, turned from God, decided they could maybe do a better job than God in making up the rules for how the world should go.
A key implication of this is that God grieves the suffering we experience as much as we do. Indeed, God grieves it perhaps even more because as the Holy One of the universe, he knows better than anyone that this is not what he had in mind when once upon a time he had said “Let there be light!” A world of darkness and sorrow is the opposite of the world of light God intended.
God Created Us with Free Will
Secondly, God decided from the beginning that he did not want a universe of robots. He did not want beings pre-programmed to love him (or anyone) and so gave humanity a degree of freedom. We did not use that freedom very wisely (to put it mildly!) but even as God did not override Adam and Eve’s ability to choose, so God will not even today override the consequences of sin in order to head off every last bit of suffering.
Of course, we have no idea how much suffering God does in fact prevent. For all we know, God may answer our prayers on a regular basis by keeping certain accidents from happening, by preventing a disease from taking hold in someone’s body even before it begins, by stopping a criminal even before he commits the crime he had in mind to do. Faith tells us God heads off a lot of suffering. But short of God’s micromanaging the world in ways that would wipe out human freedom and make us all puppets, God does not prevent every bit of suffering.
This truth in no way minimizes the real, gut-wrenching, and sometimes relentless suffering we experience. Yes, we can be thankful that God may well head off a lot of suffering, but that does not comfort us when we are in pain. There is no easy answer to the question, “Yes, but why didn’t God prevent this terrible suffering in the life of my child?” The whys and wherefores of the specific suffering of any given person are often shrouded in mystery (as is another fact we all know: some people seem to bear way more suffering in their lives than do others and why is that?, see Job).
God Enters into Our Suffering
A third and final thing to say is that according to the Gospel, suffering is not outside the experience of God himself. Through Christ Jesus, the Son of God became human. The Word was made flesh. What’s more, the story of Jesus’ life reveals to us that the flesh God’s Son took upon himself was vulnerable to the same suffering any of us face. If you cut Jesus, he bleeds. If you crucify Jesus’ body, he suffers agony and then he dies.
The physical suffering of Jesus throughout his life—but chiefly on the cross—is hugely important. The Bible tells us that what happened behind the scenes is that Jesus took upon himself every piece of suffering from the whole world. He took on our sins, he bore our infirmities. The suffering we brought into this world through our own sin got laid on Jesus’ back. It all came crashing down around Jesus’ head. He shouldered the full weight of our sinful world and all its suffering.
Our Ultimate Hope
This fact may not answer our hardest questions about suffering. But it is more than a little comforting to know that not only did God enter into our suffering, God did this in order to set into motion the ultimate defeat of sin and evil, and the ultimate end of all suffering. The whole creation, Paul wrote in Romans 8, has been suffering for so long. But it turns out that those are birth pangs, pain that is going to give way to new life and a new creation where there will be no suffering anymore.
This is our ultimate hope. And in a way it is an answer to that classical argument against God’s existence that we looked at earlier: yes, God is all-good and he is all-powerful, but as it turns out, God’s goodness means he will channel his power into what looks like weakness so as to unmake suffering from the inside out. God’s Son will take on our human suffering—and the suffering of the whole world—in order to bring us all to a better day and a better place where every tear will be wiped from every eye.
For people of all religious faiths, questions of suffering are hard to deal with. Some religions deal with it by not dealing with it: they claim suffering is an illusion. Or they claim you can meditate your way to a state of mind where suffering rolls off you. But the Christian faith boldly acknowledges suffering because we believe that God cares so much about us that he brought this into his own Being in order to bring us back to what God had in mind in the beginning: a world of shalom and delight where all things will be well.
That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ for which we are profoundly grateful.
If you are experiencing suffering, and struggle to see God in the midst of your pain, we'd like to recommend "Our Only Comfort: A Devotional Series for Hard Times" from Today devotional. We also suggest “Ruth: Surprised by God’s Providence,” an audio Bible study and ebook from our sister ministry, Groundwork.
For additional resources during difficult times, visit our "What is your only comfort when life is hard?" page.