Answering questions on suffering
Advice for youth leaders
“If God is so loving and so powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?”
Chances are many of the guys and girls in your youth group are carrying pretty heavy burdens. Family problems, broken relationships, depression, sickness, abuse – life is not always fun, not even (sadly) for our kids.
Here are some quick notes I’ve found helpful in answering questions on suffering.
Where the questioner is coming from makes a huge difference to the answer we should give them.
The most important thing to work out when the question comes at you is where the person answering the question is coming from. If someone asks ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ it may be that they are thinking about the issue abstractly ... on the other hand someone close to them may have just died.
· The philosopher often wants an intellectual account for the origin of suffering.
· The person in the midst of suffering often wants to express their pain and anger at God.
· The atheist may be looking to start a debate over the existence of God.
· Others might be curious how the bible accounts for suffering in the world.
Some short answers
The bible does not give an intellectual argument to explain away evil. It does, however, give us the assurance that God is dealing decisively with it.
The story of the bible is the story of God fixing up the mess we made. Suffering began because of our disobedience, it was defeated by Jesus on the cross, and soon it will be no more when the world is restored.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)
If your God is big enough to be angry at (because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering) then surely he is big enough to trust (that he has reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know): Paraphrase of Tim Keller, Reason for God, 25.
Some argue that if evil disproves the existence of God. But for atheists there is no such thing as evil (“DNA neither knows nor cares”: Richard Dawkins), just subjective dislikes.
What we can say for sure
· We do know that suffering is real, it is bad, and the right response is to cry out to God about it. How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? (Psalm 13:1)
· We do know that God is good, that he loves us, he mourns over suffering, and that he is working for our good. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
· We do know that suffering and evil is not part of the good world God created. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis 1:31a)
· We do know that it is us, not God, who is responsible for suffering. Suffering began when we first disobeyed God (Genesis 3:17).
· We do know that all suffering will cease. The story of the bible is the story of God taking responsibility for fixing up the mess through Jesus. It won’t be part of the world he is re-creating. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
· We do know that suffering continues for good reasons. These aren’t all clear to us, but we are told, for instance, that God has decided to deal with evil not with swift justice, but with the possibility of mercy. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2Peter 3:9)
What we don’t know
On the other hand there are many things that we don’t know: The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29)
· We don’t know where evil came from originally. It has no place in the good order of creation. (Genesis 3:1).
· We don’t always know how God is using suffering. You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)
· We don’t know why some people suffer more than others. Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! (Luke 13:2-3b)
· We don’t know when God will finally bring justice to the world (Matthew 24:36).
What the Christian can take comfort in:
· God know what it is to suffer: He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3a); Jesus wept (John 11:35).
· Our future hope is restoration: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18).
· God uses our suffering to grow and refine us (Romans 5:3; 1Peter 4).
· John Dickson, If I Were God I’d End All The Pain. Very readable, and explains how the Christian understanding of suffering differs from other worldviews.
· Tim Keller, The Reason For God. Has a useful chapter on suffering.
· D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering & Evil. Advice for Christians to help them think about suffering and evil.
· N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. A theological look at the story of evil through the bible.