February 15, 2016
Why Does God Allow Suffering and Injustice?
I would not say my parents were atheist, but the topic of God, prayer, and the Bible was not discussed during my adolescent years. Jesus definitely was not a topic of concern. I found myself unmarried and having a daughter at the age of 21. Working and attending school while raising a child on my own became the norm until I met my husband, now ex-husband. What happened in the early months of our marriage started my journey to try and answer the question: if there is a God why would he allow such suffering to occur?
I drove by the home daycare my daughter attended for 2 years. Police crime scene tape was roped around the perimeter of the house. My heart skipped a beat as I turned the car around and pulled into the neighboring drive-way. The officer was not the friendliest and sternly said to “read about it in the paper.” I felt somewhat relieved that I had already placed my four-year-old daughter in a new daycare a month prior. I sure enough read the horrifying news that the daycare co-owner, Patti’s husband, had shot himself in the head when he observed police coming to his home to execute a search warrant.
After a year of rumors, medical exams, and counseling, the case on Patti’s daycare was finally closed. It did not matter to me how the case was closed. All I knew was an adult caused suffering to children. This happened eight years ago. I could not understand how someone could harm children. Why would God allow this to happen? I struggled mentally, physically, and emotionally. It was as if life stopped. I failed my college class, quit my job, and was divorced a few months later. I reflect back and wonder how I would have responded to this incident had I known Jesus at the time.
A couple years after the daycare incident, my daughter started attending church with her grandmother. When I was asked to continue taking her to church, because she loved learning about Jesus with the other children, the thought of church troubled me, however I reluctantly agreed. Two months later, I was a follower of Jesus. In the last five years, there have been times of healing, forgiving, and realizing I am a child of God (Galatians 3:26).
Why does God allow suffering and injustice? First, I have to ask myself what is suffering and injustice. If suffering results in pain, trials, distress, I would conclude that suffering could be a result of sin and evil. Dr. Mitrovic says that evil is the villain that came to Earth and must be addressed (p. 25). He also emphasizes that primary evil is moral and natural. Suffering is secondary evil, which is a result of primary evil (p. 48). People may even feel they are suffering when maybe they are just being inconvenienced. Expectations can affect perceptions, which will affect the degree of suffering experienced (p. 21). Someone living in the west may view suffering completely different than someone living in a developing country. There are many ways someone can define the cause of suffering. In what follows, I will discuss the fall, three categories of suffering, how Christians can respond in the midst of violence and injustice, and principles for walking with others who experience suffering and injustice.
It was challenging for me to understand why God would allow suffering and injustice until I heard the story of Adam and Eve from a Christian worldview. God created the world and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, disobeying God. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” God sent the flood because he was heartbroken that humans were so wicked (Genesis 7). God confused human language and scattered the people all over the world after humans built the tower of Babel. These events demonstrate that God confronted and judged evil. If God confronts and judges evil, then why is there suffering?
As a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we live in a fallen world experiencing natural and moral evil. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis refer to natural evil. Moral evil represents human evils such as murder, abuse, and lying. Both evils are a result of human sin. Unfortunately, humans struggle with sin (Romans 3:23).
Created to be comfortable in their own skin, human beings know shame in their nakedness. Made for community with one another, they become alienated from one another. Created by God for trusting relationship, they hide from God and know God’s judgment upon them. Created to till and keep a garden, their world becomes a wilderness where life is toil and pain (Nelson, p. 400).
We cannot always explain why certain events happen that produce suffering, but we do know that God is love (1 John 4:8). God is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and therefore, humans cannot assume or judge what God should do.
Dr. Brent Strawsburg sums up two important lessons when asking ourselves why does God allows suffering: “Do not try to answer the why question and do not ignore the emotional problem of pain.” In Luke 13:4, Jesus does not explain why suffering and injustice occurred. The Galileans were sacrificed and eighteen people died when the tower fell on them yet Jesus gives no explanation. In John 11:32, Jesus saw Mary crying and he was overwhelmed with sadness. Jesus did not ignore her pain. He wept with her.
In the Old Testament, God tried to reveal himself through the burning bush, the pillars of cloud and fire, and through the creation of the Ten Commandments. Miracles were performed such as parting of the Red Sea, manna, and plagues. God even revealed himself through the prophets however; people kept forgetting and refused to pay attention. Zechariah 7:11-12 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by His Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.” Four hundred years passed and the New Testament began. God sent his son, Jesus, to live among His people and to be given as a ransom for all who believe (John 3:16). Jewish people thought the Messiah would save them from suffering and Roman oppression. They expected victories not crucifixion. People in Jerusalem shouted “Hosanna” when Jesus rode in on a donkey, and later they stopped believing when Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested and crucified (Matthew 21, 27). Jesus’ ministry did not dissolve suffering. God’s plan of redemption has to originate from within each person. Jesus was not sent to perform miracles, but to share His father’s message that included “faith, obedience, mercy, sacrifice, love, and the kingdom of Heaven” (Mitrovic, p. 34-35). Jesus ultimately paid the price for human sin (1 Peter 2:24). He bore all sin upon the cross and resurrected three days later. He appeared to His disciples in the book of Acts, where the disciples received the Holy Spirit. God now lives in those who believe in Jesus. The disciples’ change was apparent as they spoke boldly to share the Gospel and viewed suffering differently. James 1:2, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” I have to remind myself that being a follower of Jesus will consist of trials and suffering. God could not ignore sin and showed his mercy by choosing suffering and later redemption through his son, Jesus (Mitrovic, p. 52).
Mitrovic breaks suffering into three categories: human universal suffering, Christian suffering, and Christ-like suffering. Within the human universal suffering there is satanic/ demonic influence, free will, and pointless suffering (p. 56). God has given us free will, often referred to as the “heart.” Adam and Eve were given free will to decide what tree to eat from. Luke 6:43-45 states, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Unfortunately, some people use free will for evil. Some people may make a choice and there may be a consequence or suffering that follows that decision. These choices can affect others directly or indirectly. We reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7).
Dr. Brent Strawsburg argues the greatest way defense stating, “God cannot guarantee what people will do.” We are not God’s marionette puppets but His beloved children that are given free will. Strawsburg concludes that “God can not violate his attributes nor can he prevent free will. God’s power is constrained in logical ways and He values our dignity.” To comprehend that God loves us so much that he allows us free will despite the suffering and injustice some people will create, is unfathomable. Despite Abraham and Sarah figuring out their own way to have children, Jacob cheating and lying to his father, and Jacob’s sons selling Joseph into slavery; N.T Wright concludes that God will contain, restrain, and prevent evil from doing its worst and may use humans evil desires to continue His plan (p. 55).
Doctor Mitrovic mentions “pointless” suffering. Certain events may seem pointless but he points out that we could be questioning and doubting God (p. 61). He uses the example of Matthew 2:16 when all the male children were killed. We know a prophecy was fulfilled and Jeremiah 31:16-17 provides us insight. “Sorrow and grief experienced by those parents in Bethlehem would also eventually give way to a glorious outcome, with their children returning home in the context of a new heaven and earth” (p. 65).
Christians living in a fallen world will experience suffering. They may be mocked, judged, discriminated against, and persecuted. Many scripture passages reflect and give reasons for Christian suffering; Mark 8:34-35, Matthew 5:10-11, 1 Peter 4:19, and 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 are a few. Mitrovic points out 10 reasons why suffering seems to be a part of Christian life; it is a blessing, God’s will, a test of faith, it advances sanctification, a result of divine judgment, opportunity for God’s power to be recognized and relied on, ability to be comforted and comfort others, and to experience deep joy, perseverance, character, and hope (p. 66-73).
Another book of the Bible that can help to understand suffering is Job. God allowed Satan to test his idea that if all of Job’s blessings were taken away, Job would curse God due to his unfair suffering. Even after the sores on his body, Job did not curse God. Job had some doubt yet God responded to Job in chapter 38 in an astonishing way. “God avoided the question of suffering entirely… but God revealed himself to Job” (Mitrovic, p. 77). Humans are not capable of understanding all that God has planned. Isaiah 55:8-9 sums this up well. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. No answer is needed to the question of suffering from a great and sovereign God. Job remained faithful despite his intense suffering.
Christ-like suffering is when someone preaches Christ and suffers. The greatest example is Apostle Paul. He was flogged, imprisoned, beaten with rods, and shipwrecked. He often went without food and sleep while constantly being exposed to danger (2 Cor. 11:23-28). Paul praised God through his sufferings. Second Timothy 1:8, “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the Gospel, by the power of God.”
This brings me to the next question: how should Christians respond in the midst of violence and injustice? Four words come to mind: prayer, forgiveness, hope, and the cross. I will start with prayer. Jesus often went off alone to pray. When we pray we demonstrate trust in God. We seek to obtain His solutions depending on our situation, surrendering our will.
Second, Forgiveness according to N.T. Wright is a “central part of deliverance from evil” (p. 135). Jesus teaches His disciples to pray in Matthew 6:12-15. Jesus is teaching us to forgive others as God has forgiven us.
Finally, the cross won the victory over evil and death. In the cross and resurrection believers can find hope.
Through His cross evil at its worst confronts holiness at its best. The cross represents the highest manifestation of love grappling with the powers of evil. The resurrection witnesses to the power of love that overcomes evil, sin, suffering, and death (Roberts, p. 75).
Since the cross has won the victory, N.T. Wright concludes that there is more to do. Redeemed humans have to go out and become God’s stewards, reflecting His image to others (p. 139). This requires surrender to our wants and desires to fulfill God’s ultimate plan to conquer darkness. We know that God will relieve the presence of suffering and injustice when the first heaven and Earth pass away and there is a new heaven and Earth (Revelations 21:1-4). This is the hope of a follower of Jesus in the presence of suffering and injustice.
Another question to consider is what are some principles for walking with others who experience suffering and injustice? I think about all the different types of suffering and injustice while recognizing that not everyone deals with suffering in the same approach. I have often heard that people should just “get over their suffering.” This statement could cause further harm. Some people will need more time than others to heal from suffering or injustice. We cannot assume that everyone is a believer and has a deep relationship with Christ. Even Christians with a deep faith, may pass through a phase of doubt. As Christians, we must continue to support someone during their suffering even if we feel they should be “over” the suffering.
Another principal helpful to remember is that a silent presence can be profoundly effective in times of suffering. It is perfectly fine to say we do not know why suffering or injustice occurred. Showing someone compassion is a powerful way to respond. Other responses could be praying with them, providing meals, and assisting with other household tasks. For fellow believers experiencing suffering and injustice, it is important to remember scripture and that we will not have the answers to the “why” questions. Jesus hung on the cross and felt abandonment asking His Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46). Even Jesus asked why. However, He allowed God to fulfill His plan.
Scripture does not have all the details written out of God’s plan. As Christians, we can have faith and allow God to fulfill His plan. If we encounter suffering or injustice, we have the choice to respond in a positive or negative manner. We have the choice to pray and rely on Jesus. We can utilize suffering to witness to others that God is working through us in our difficulties. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). As ambassadors of Christ, we have the ability to possess the courage through the Holy Spirit to know how to respond to evil and suffering.
To conclude, I am confident to write that justice will be served one day, in God’s timing. Suffering is multifaceted. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9). Paul also writes that God “comforts us in all afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
Jesus conquered suffering, evil, and death by surrendering to His father’s will. Jesus died an undeserving rebel’s death on a cross yet His death redeemed the world. We are able to reflect His image in our suffering. God can provide us peace in our current situations along with courage and strength to step into our future in faith as He continues His work through the Holy Spirit. Death and suffering are not the final outcomes. God holds the final outcome. God has the final word. May we put on the armor of God, so that we will be able to resist evil. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:11-12). We can learn how to respond to suffering from Job 1:20-22, “At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised. In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
Mitrovic, Milan. Why Suffering and Evil if God is Sovereign, Good, and Loving. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2015.
Nelson, Susan L. “Facing Evil: Evil’s Many Faces: Five Paradigms For Understanding Evil.” Interpretation 57.4 (2003): 398-413. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 29 Jan. 2016.
Roberts, J Deotis. “A Christian Response To Evil And Suffering.” Religious Education 84.1 (1989): 68-76. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 29 Jan. 2016.
Strawsburg, Brent. “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Mission Connexion. Sunset Presbyterian Church. Portland, OR. 15 January 2016. Conference Presentation.
Wright, N.T. Evil and the Justice of God. Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2013.