Date: 14 May 2017
Text: Romans 5:1-5
Probably the most common question that non-believers ask Christians is, if God is such a loving God then why does He allow so much suffering in the world? Whilst that’s a fair question it is a difficult subject and in the time I’ve allowed myself I can only scratch the surface. However, I hope to give you all some food for thought.
The fact that the question is being asked suggests a number of assumptions. Firstly, that there is a God. Secondly, that not only does He exist but He loves us. Finally that He created the earth and everything in it. We can’t ask questions of and about Him without holding to those three assumptions.
Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, some of it individual, some of it involving our families, and some of it global, as in natural disasters or wars.
Many of us know someone who has had cancer and has died as a result. There are also those who suffer heart attacks and strokes, something that happens suddenly without warning. We should also include those who suffer from the effects of drug or alcohol abuse, those who are assaulted whilst going about their innocent business, and those killed or seriously injured in accidents.
We can add those innocent people who are killed or injured during various conflicts. Just look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now happening in Syria. We must never forget our service men and women who are still suffering in various ways following those wars. Right now there are people who are suffering from civil wars taking place in various parts of the world.
Much of this suffering could be regarded as self inflicted or inflicted by other people. If you don’t believe me then think about a drug addict. No one forced them to start taking drugs. It is my understanding that many addicts start on something that could be regarded as ‘soft’ before moving on to ever harder drugs until they are totally addicted and consequently suffer from dreadful symptoms when they are without them or trying to withdraw from them. Is that God’s fault? I don’t think so; He wouldn’t force anyone to take drugs of any sort.
The same could be said of those who become alcoholics. Many start as ‘social’ drinkers and graduate to a point where they simply cannot start the day without a stiff drink. Is that God’s doing? They could choose to stop after a single drink or not even start in the first place.
Just think about those who injured in violent attacks. We frequently hear of violent assaults on individuals which leave the victim very seriously injured; some of these attacks being random whilst some are caused whilst the attacker is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. People indulge in a substance of some description and become aggressive, before taking out that aggression on an innocent bystander. The majority of murders are apparently committed by someone known to the victim, quite frequently their partner. Is it God who is telling them to do these things? I don’t think so.
Consider road accidents. There are huge numbers of road accidents every day all over the country many of which thankfully only involve bent metal. Sadly there are those where people are killed or severely injured. Many such accidents are caused by drivers whilst under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I can’t see that God was responsible given that people should think responsibly before getting behind the wheel of a car. Then there are the accidents caused by drivers simply driving too fast in a powerful car that they don’t know how to handle. Is God responsible for that or should the driver think for themselves? I’ll leave you to ponder that question.
So why do we see this particular sort of suffering being inflicted on people? The answer is relatively simple; it is called “free will”. When God created the earth and the people in it, He gave people “free will”. He allowed them to make their own decisions and choices. He could just as easily have made them into automatons, people who would simply do as they were told. The closest example that comes to mind is of the people in North Korea who certainly appear to act like automatons. They all wear similar clothes and do exactly as the Supreme Leader tells them, on pain of torture and/or death if they disobey. Is that who we would like to have seen God create? I somehow doubt it. Free will allows us to make our own choices and our own decisions, and some of those are good and some are bad and cause harm to others.
After He had created the Garden of Eden, God created Adam and then Eve. He gave them everything in the Garden together with a simple instruction, do not eat the fruit of a particular tree; everything else in the Garden was theirs for the taking. Sadly they disobeyed Him and did exactly what they were told not to do. Consequently God introduced a whole range of problems for them, one of them, amongst many others, being the pain experienced by women during childbirth (Genesis 3:16). God then also condemned the earth and everything in it. For instance, there were no weeds in the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve disobeyed God but there most certainly were afterwards!
Over recent years there have been plenty of what are termed natural disasters. These have included earthquakes, the tsunami in the Far East and apparently dormant volcanoes erupting. None of these are easy to explain or understand. However, in the case of earthquakes there are many experts who suggest that there are geological fault lines some way below the earth’s surface that move from time to time thus causing these massive disturbances leading to earthquakes. These may just be “natural disasters” but it may also be possible to see that the perfect earth that God created and which we read about in Genesis 1-2, was corrupted as a result of the action of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Throughout Genesis 1 we see God creating each part of His universe followed soon after by the words “And God saw that it was good”; a phrase that appears six times in Genesis 1. That suggests to me that everything God created was perfect. However, after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit God cursed everything that He had created, including the ground on which they stood. I believe that that includes not just the ground in which we grow plants, shrubs and trees but also the ground way beneath the surface.
No doubt there are some of you who think I’m taking a rather simplistic approach or seeing things through rose tinted spectacles, and you are entitled to that opinion. However, I would suggest that you consider very carefully what I have said and try and find a more suitable explanation. The only feasible suggestion to the contrary that I have read is that God didn’t create a perfect world in the first place, that it was already faulty at the time of creation. That is a fair argument although I would refute it by referring once again to the constant repetition of the phrase “And God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1.
The issue of serious illness is a difficult one to consider. Some serious illnesses may well be self induced. Just think of the amount of obesity that there is in this country, much of it produced by excessive eating and a lack of exercise. The same could apply to heart attacks and strokes although I do acknowledge that there are those who suffer from these despite doing everything that is recommended in terms of diet, exercise and lifestyle.
Other illnesses are difficult to explain, especially cancer in its various forms. That appears to simply happen to people for no apparent reason and so is difficult to explain. All I will say is that it may be part of God’s general condemnation that comes in Genesis 2.
There is a view that says God causes us to suffer for our own good. That may seem strange to many although not to those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Although God could prevent our suffering or at least ease the pain, He doesn’t because He knows that in the long run suffering may help us. In the passage that I read earlier, the Apostle Paul said to the believers in Rome, “... we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (Romans 5:3). It may seem strange to say that “we also glory in our sufferings”, but for many that is true. They persevere and battle on regardless of what happens to them. I’ve known many people who do their best to overcome whatever it is they are suffering from. Right now a friend of mine is recovering from a liver transplant. He had cancer a while ago and seemed to have been in remission. Sadly the cancer returned and led to him needing a new liver. The operation was carried out about 3 weeks ago (as at 14 May 2017) and appears to have been entirely successful. At no time has my friend complained or blamed God for what has happened to him, he has simply got on with his life and work and accepted whatever happens to him with a smile on his face. He is a great example to all who know him and hopefully to those who don’t know him but hear his story.
There are of course those who constantly ask “why me?” and query why this suffering should be happening to them. I would ask, why not them, do they want someone else to suffer instead? That may sound harsh but I believe that God is trying to teach us how to cope with suffering and how to deal with what can happen to us. Complaining won’t help or ease the pain or shorten the time of suffering; in fact, it may prolong it.
We know from Revelation, the last book in the Bible, that when the end comes, God will create a “new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). In this new creation there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:4). I take that to include an end to suffering. For us to be part of this new heaven and new earth, we must of course come to faith in Jesus Christ. This involves us recognising that we have done wrong and committed what the Bible calls “sins”, and then repent of those sins. God is a loving and forgiving God and He will accept us into His family and thus into the new heaven and new earth with no more suffering. For some that is difficult to accept and believe, but for those of us who do have faith in Jesus Christ, we have that assurance that God will keep His promise and we will join Him for all eternity.
None of that helps us to understand suffering and why we suffer, but it does explain that there will come a time, for all who have faith, when the suffering will end once and for all.
Fully explaining why God allows suffering is not easy, in fact it is nigh on impossible! All we can do is to place our faith in Jesus Christ and ask Him to help us in our sufferings. Who knows, there may come a time when God Himself will explain why we suffer, although I personally don’t expect that to happen until we join Him in paradise.