Looking for answers

If God is good, why is there suffering in the world?

Dave Crofts

Let's begin with an extract from the Radio Times (25/11/03):

Since stepping down as a main news presenter, Michael Buerk has more time for documentary features. Now he presents The Hand of God (10.35pm BBC1), which examines the effect of religion on people in the public eye. As the foreign correspondent who broke the story of the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, Buerk is quite clear about his own beliefs. “I find it difficult to reconcile the Christian idea of an all-wise, all-good and all-powerful God with the evidence of my own eyes,” he says.

I think he sums up quite nicely what is a major problem for a lot of people. And unlike a lot of the other things we've looked at in tough questions over the past few weeks, the question of how a good God can allow or even cause suffering is a deeply emotive one. So the first thing I want to say is that we need to recognise that suffering is a sensitive subject.

Having said that, I hope you'll allow me the concession that it's hard to deal with the issue with the empathy and patience that befits it given the short space here. So, if it looks like I'm treating the question with cold haste then I hope you'll forgive me – but I hope too that we'll come up with some helpful stuff from the Bible.

As Christians we believe that God is 100% powerful, don't we? And we also believe that he's 100% good, righteous and just. So how do we reconcile that with all the suffering we see around us? You don't need to be Michael Buerk to spot that people are in terrible poverty, pain and despair, whether it be on a global level, like famines in Ethiopia, or on a more personal level – loneliness or the loss of a loved one. So what's going on?

Well, the world seems to have come up with 2 ways of solving the conundrum. Either God's not good – he basically doesn't care, doesn't have people's best interests at heart, will turn a blind eye to death and deprivation – or God's not God – he'd like to help but really his hands are tied and there's nothing much he can do about it – his powers are limited, or he doesn't exist at all. But, as with high street banking, I want to suggest that there is another way.

Suffering can be explained if we say that suffering has a purpose. Yes, God is still in total control of his universe, and he's still acting in perfect justice and righteousness, because when suffering goes on in the world, God knows what he's doing. And here are 3 quick things from the Bible that point to what the purpose of suffering is. Firstly:

Suffering punishes our rebellion (Romans 1:18-32)

The Bible's view is that we all reject God – and that rejecting God has consequences. Humans cause a lot of the suffering in the world, and God doesn't step in to stop it, because he wants us to see the result of living without reference to him. It screws our world up. It screws us up. And it's no less than that kind of behaviour deserves. But that's not all. Secondly:

Suffering points us to heaven (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-5)

The Bible tells us that, basically, the world we live in at the moment isn't how it's meant, ultimately, to be. “Suffering,” C.S. Lewis famously said, “is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” There's a deep sense, isn't there, that things in the world are not right? But the Bible sees beyond this messy world to a creation renewed and set free, a creation where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away,” to quote the book of Revelation. Suffering should make us ache for heaven, for an end to it all.

But that's not all. Finally:

Suffering produced our salvation (Romans 5:6-11)

Those first two things may help us understand and deal with suffering a little bit, but they won't get to the heart of the problem. We deserve the suffering of judgement, yet we long for a place where we'll be without it. So how do we get there? Romans 5:8 says this:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Basically, the issue of suffering should drive us to remember that Jesus Christ, when he died on the cross, suffered the unimaginable horror of being forsaken by God in order that we don't ever have to face that ordeal. God's biggest demonstration of both his boundless love and his infinite power was through the most incredible suffering of his own Son. No one can ever say that suffering means that God doesn't care. No suffering means no cross, which means no hope for any of us.