This is the third study on the Explore God Chicago 2019 series. The Explore God Chicago 2019 is a Community Outreach Initiative that seeks to answer seven important questions about God, faith, and purpose. You can find these seven important questions here. Previous studies on this series dealt with the following questions:
Today I address the third question in this series: “Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?”
Every person born into this world desires to live a happy and fulfilled life. However, as one grows old, this goal becomes elusive. Sooner or later pain and suffering, under different forms, will invade life, transforming it into a trial. Everyday millions of people are confronted with the reality of excruciating pain and the agony of suffering. These two issues force many people to ask, “why does God allow pain and suffering?”
The people who lived in ancient Israel were not strangers to the reality of pain and suffering. In their suffering, they were also willing to confront God, lamenting their situation, asking God “why” and “how long.” Even Jesus, when suffering the agony of the cross, voiced a similar lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The psalmist asks God: “How long must I bear pain” (Psalm 13:2). These requests to God, asking for answers and solutions to their pain and suffering, reflect the people’s desire for an explanation of their situation. The purpose of this study is to address the question “why does God allow pain and suffering?” In the end, we will discover that there are no easy answers to this existential question.
The Problem of Pain
People experience different forms of pain. Some pains are either emotional, psychological, or physical. When the agony of pain defeats a person, life becomes synonymous with misery. The problem of pain is a reality in life from which no one is immune. Eventually, all of us, young and old, will suffer physical or emotional pain. Senior citizens, facetiously, talk about “the pain of the day” to express that pain is a reality in their daily lives.
When seeking to understand pain, pain finds its meaning when we understand our place in God’s creation. God created human beings with certain limitations. When people experience pain and suffering, they are experiencing the weakness of their earthly being, the fragility of their human bodies, and the ephemeral nature of their existence in this world. As human beings, we must accept our weaknesses and limitations.
When confronted with pain caused by illness, we tend to ask, “where is God in all of this?” Gideon, seeking to understand the suffering of the people of Israel, was confronted with the Angel of the Lord who appeared to him and told him, “The LORD is with you.” Gideon, still questioning the presence of God in the oppressive life of his people, asked the Angel of the Lord: “But sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (Judges 6:12-13). Gideon’s question is similar to the question people ask today, “why does God allow pain and suffering?”
In seeking to understand physical pain, it is important to understand human nature. First, we must understand that human beings were created with limits, we are dust, and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19), there is “a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2). It does not matter how long we live, eventually we all shall die: “All the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years; and he died” (Genesis 5:27).
Second, we must recognize that as we grow old, our bodies lose vigor and strength. Throughout the process of growing old, we will experience pain. Some of those pains are self-inflicted. We may experience pain because of accidents, broken bones, self-inflicted wounds, and many other events which cause hurt and pain. People take risks and when these fail, the results can bring much physical and emotional pain.
Because the human body is flesh and bones and because the human body grows old, experiencing physical pain is part of being human. After Adam and Eve sinned, God told Eve; “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children” (Genesis 3:16). When God said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing,” this statement presupposes that pain was already part of the human experience even before humans sinned against God.
Third, we must realize that pain and suffering can be the consequences of sin. The reason for this is because God created a world in which what we do have consequences. When humans sinned against God, one of the consequences of their sin was that the ground would become less fertile and through painful toil they would cultivate it (Genesis 3:17).
The Problem of Suffering
In his article, “To Say Something—About God, Evil, and Suffering,” Terrence Fretheim wrote:
[T]he Bible does not claim that all suffering is the will of God or that no suffering is the will of God. Or, that all suffering is due to sin or that no suffering is due to sin. Or, that all suffering is bad and to be avoided at all costs or that no suffering is bad.
In general, people experience suffering because of what other people have done to them. When the people of Israel were being oppressed by the Philistines, God said: “I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me” (1 Samuel 9:16). When the people of Judah went into exile in Babylon, they went “into exile with suffering and hard servitude” (Lamentation 1:3).
When people think about suffering, Job is the paradigm of the sufferer. The book of Job introduces a person who struggles with the problem of pain, suffering, and the role God plays with the problem of pain and suffering. The focus of the book of Job is Job’s intense physical pain and his inability to understand why he was suffering. The book tells the story of a righteous man who suffered a great tragedy: he lost his family, his wealth, and his health. Job was afflicted with “horrible infected sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7).
In desperation, Job cursed the day that he was born and declared that God was his enemy. He even began to doubt whether God was a just God. Job’s questioning of God was because of his inability to make his pain go away and because he was unable to find a reason for his suffering.
When God finally revealed himself to Job, God did not provide answers to Job’s many questions. Instead, God reproved Job for questioning his wisdom. Overwhelmed by God’s presence, Job confessed his ignorance, “I spoke about things I did not understand” (Job 42:3). Throughout his ordeal, Job questioned God, but never abandoned him. When tragedy overwhelmed him, Job said, “the LORD has given, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
God and Human Suffering
The Bible says that God is aware of human suffering. When the people of Israel were in Egypt, working under hard conditions, God said, “I have seen the affliction of my people,” “I have heard their cry,” “I know their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). When the people of Israel were being oppressed by the Philistines, God said: “I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me” (1 Samuel 9:16).
With these words, God is acknowledging that he is aware of human suffering. These words also teach us that God is involved in human suffering. As Fretheim [1999:350] wrote: “The God who ‘knows’ the sufferings of Israel (Exod 3:7) has entered deeply into our suffering world in Jesus Christ and made it his own so that neither suffering nor evil constitutes a final word for the creation.”
During all his loss and sorrow, during the many months of his ordeal, Job’s relation with God did not change. Job’s experience with God changed his view of God, of himself, and of his problem.
Given the reality of pain and suffering in the world, the sufferer cannot just yearn for a time when there was no pain or for a future when pain will go away. People cannot escape the reality of pain and suffering. Jesus said: “You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33 HCSB).
For Job, his faith in God allowed him to deal with his pain and suffering: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). For people today it is the assurance that one day soon, pain will cease to exist: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 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 21:3-4). There will be no more pain. That is the hope of every person who is dealing with pain today.
The final answer to the problem of pain and suffering is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross teaches us that when God took human form, he also took upon himself the pain and the suffering of the world: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In Christ, God humbled himself, and being found in the likeness of man, took upon himself the pain and the suffering that belonged to us. As Fretheim [1999: 350] explains, “God saves the world by taking its suffering into the very heart of the divine life, bearing it there, and then wearing it in the form of a cross.” The pain and suffering God endured on the cross gives meaning to our pain and suffering.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Terrence Fretheim, “To Say Something—About God, Evil, and Suffering.” Word & World 19 (1999): 339, 346-350.