Suffering was not part of God’s original plan. Christianity teaches that when God made the world, it was perfect. There was no evil, no pain and no suffering. But he also set boundaries – and people chose to go their own way rather than follow God’s way. That disobedience created a divide between humanity and God. It allowed evil into the world and a fall from perfection. It has had catastrophic consequences for the entire world ever since. Now, God is sovereign, so all that happens must have at least been allowed by Him, if not directly caused by Him. The first step in this hard topic is acknowledging that human beings, who are not eternal, infinite, or omniscient, cannot expect to fully understand God’s purposes and ways.
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
When God created humanity, he did not make robots. His desire was that we would choose to have a close relationship with him. Our decision to disobey him ushered evil and death into a perfect world. Suffering is a consequence. Wars, violence, racism, abuse, corruption and a thousand other evils are not caused by God. They all result from humanity’s self-centred godlessness. Tragically it is often people who are entirely innocent who suffer the most.
As hard as it is to acknowledge, we must remember that there are no “good” people, in the absolute sense of the word. All of us are tainted by and infected with sin (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8). As Jesus said, “No one is good—except God alone” (Luke 18:19). All of us feel the effects of sin in one way or another. Sometimes it’s our own personal sin; other times, it’s the sins of others. We live in a fallen world, and we experience the effects of the fall. One of those effects is injustice and seemingly senseless suffering.
“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
Is Suffering My Fault?
Sometimes, our own bad decisions have consequences. It is human nature to try to find a correlation between bad behaviour and bad circumstances and, conversely, between good behaviour and blessings. The desire to link sin to suffering is so strong that Jesus dealt with the issue at least twice. “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus” (John 9:1–3). The disciples made the mistake of assuming that the innocent would never suffer and assigned personal guilt to the blind man (or to his parents). Jesus corrected their thinking, saying, “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (verse 3). The man’s blindness was not the result of personal sin; rather, God had a higher purpose for the suffering.
Another time, Jesus commented on the deaths of some people killed in an accident: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:4–5). In this case, Jesus again discounted the notion that tragedy and suffering are the result of personal sin. At the same time, Jesus emphasized the fact that we live in a world full of sin and its effects; therefore, everyone must repent.
The Lesson of Suffering
The good news is that God did not leave us here to suffer pointlessly. Yes, the innocent suffer (see Job 1–2), but God can redeem that suffering. Our loving and merciful God has a perfect plan to use that suffering to accomplish His threefold purpose. First, He uses pain and suffering to draw us to Himself so that we will cling to Him. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Trials and distress are not something unusual in life; they are part of what it means to be human in a fallen world. In Christ we have an anchor that holds fast in all the storms of life, but, if we never sail into those storms, how would we know that? It is in times of despair and sorrow that we reach out to Him, and, if we are His children, we always find Him there waiting to comfort and uphold us through it all. In this way, God proves His faithfulness to us and ensures that we will stay close to Him. An added benefit is that as we experience God’s comfort through trials, we are then able to comfort others in the same way (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Suffering Builds Faith
He proves to us that our faith is real through the suffering and pain that are inevitable in this life. How we respond to suffering, especially when we are innocent of wrongdoing, is determined by the genuineness of our faith. Those with faith in Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2), will not be crushed by suffering but will come through the trial with their faith intact, having been “tested by fire” so that it “may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7, ESV). The faithful do not shake their fists at God or question His goodness; rather, they “consider it pure joy” (James 1:2), knowing that trials prove that they are truly the children of God. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Our Eternal Hope
God uses suffering to take our eyes off this world and turn them to the next. The Bible continually encourages us to not get caught up in the things of this world but to look forward to the world to come. The innocent suffer in this world, but this world and all that is in it will pass away; the kingdom of God is eternal. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and those who follow Him do not see the things of this life, good or bad, as the end of the story. Even the sufferings we endure, as terrible as they can be, “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Bad things may happen to good people in this world, but this world is not the end. Christians have an eternal perspective: “We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18). We will have a reward some day, and it will be glorious.
God allows things to happen for a reason. Could God prevent all suffering? Of course He could. But He assures us that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, KJV). Suffering is part of the “all things” that God is using to accomplish His good purposes, ultimately. His plan is perfect, His character is flawless, and those who trust Him will not be disappointed. Whether or not we understand His reasons, we must remember that God is good, just, loving, and merciful (Psalm 135:3). Often, bad things happen to us that we simply cannot understand. Instead of doubting God’s goodness, our reaction should be to trust Him. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5–6). We walk by faith, not by sight.
If you are suffering and need someone to pray for you or someone to talk to please reach out to a friend, or contact us. If you are in immediate need, or struggling with suicidal thoughts please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.