June 29, 2020
“Why does God allow suffering?” I’ve asked this question as a visceral response to the suffering I’ve witnessed, experienced, or heard about. I wrestled with the question when my first wife left me and abandoned my children. I cried it out again when my brother lay sedated in the ICU, dying of some mysterious disease, his suffering crushing my mother and father.
“Why does God allow such suffering?” I don’t know the answer.
But I do know that Jesus’ words about suffering have spoken powerfully to me. After explaining to his disciples that their grief about his imminent departure will turn to joy, Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Will I take the Son of God at his word? Will I take heart?
God’s own Son entered this world as a human, and he himself experienced suffering. Dying on the cross, he overcame sin, and walking out of the grave, he overcame death. We have this assurance in suffering: Jesus Christ overcame this world and its hardships, and he will one day take away all pain and death, mourning, and crying (Revelation 21:4).
The Bible does not seem to provide a single, clear answer to the question of why God allows suffering. Certain narratives during Jesus’ life, however, give us guidance. Just as often as they encourage us, these words of Jesus may make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t like the reasons Jesus gives for some of the suffering his disciples witness; we want to shut out the idea that God may be glorified out of someone’s suffering.
For example, people were wondering why a certain man was blind from birth, so they asked if it was a result of someone’s sin. Jesus answered his disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. . . but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1-3). These words of Jesus have made me squirm. Did this man have to be blind from birth just for God to make a point? Yet when Jesus restored the man’s sight, it caused people to wrestle with who Jesus really was (John 9:16). And the formerly blind man could clearly “see” who Jesus was (John 9:35-38). Furthermore, we ourselves see “the works of God. . . displayed in him” even now as we consider this man’s suffering.
A short time later, Jesus again shows how belief can grow because of someone's hardship. In John 11, Lazarus is sick, and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, are concerned about him. After Jesus hears that Lazarus was sick, “he stayed where he was two more days” (verse 6). Finally, Jesus said to the disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (verses 14-15, emphasis added). When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha says to him, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (verse 21). Jesus knows he’s about to raise Lazarus from the dead, yet he shares in their sorrow. “Jesus wept” (verse 35). Jesus goes on to pray, “‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me’. . . Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (verses 41-43, emphasis added). We find some tough-to-stomach words and actions of Jesus in this passage—waiting two days before traveling, saying he’s glad that he wasn’t there, and saying that belief would (somehow!) result from this. But when Lazarus stepped out of the tomb, those words and actions of Jesus suddenly make sense. “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (verse 45). Perhaps—as you’re reading this now—you’re experiencing a deeper belief in Jesus and the Father who sent him.
These examples speak to particular incidents and don’t give a comprehensive answer about why God allows suffering. They do, however, show that Jesus doesn’t shy away from suffering and that he is there with us in our troubles. These sometimes uncomfortable words of Jesus tell us that suffering can show the works of God and deepen the faith of those who experience or witness difficulties.
My divorce was one of the most painful experiences in my life. It was agony. But—just like the stories of the healing of the blind man and the raising of Lazarus—I can see in the aftermath the works of God and deeper belief in him. God called me back to himself and reshaped my life. Now I am no longer the person who suffered an unwanted divorce; I am a new person.
We couldn’t see anything good in my brother’s suffering from a rare fungal infection of the lungs and the pain it brought my parents and family. But in the moments before his passing—after about 30 days under sedation—my brother woke up. My parents told him about everyone who had been praying for him and about the people who had come to visit him. They were able to tell him that they loved him. They read from the Bible to him. My brother passed away peacefully. I believe in the last hour of his life, my brother—who struggled against God his whole life—finally understood that he was God’s child. I believe this to be the case because of those beautiful last moments. God loved my brother and gave our parents and him the precious gift of just a little while together, one last time. This is how God does things: he provides the unexpected and the eternally consequential in a blanket of peace.
In 2 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul tells of asking God to remove “a thorn in [his] flesh.” God responds to him by saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (verse 9). Maybe you haven’t received the prognosis you wanted, you’re undergoing treatment for cancer, or you’ve been dealing with chronic pain. Perhaps you wonder why God allows your suffering. Take heart; Christ has “overcome the world.” Keep your eyes open for “the works of God” on display. Open your heart for God’s timing “that [you] may believe.” And, like Paul, rely on God’s strength during your weakness: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (verses 9-10).
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God never promises that life will be easy on this side of eternity, but he does promise to be present with us through the Holy Spirit.
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