Why do good people suffer? Why doesn’t God punish evil? Is God in control? Part of ministry is answering honest questions like these. In the next few blogs I’ll talk about these tough questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I trust these articles will be helpful in your ministry.
Why Do Good People Suffer?
Crib death. An ugly term. To Diane (based on a true story) it meant her beautiful baby girl was suddenly, inexplicably gone. While the pain of loss still tore at her heart, Diane received another death sentence: multiple sclerosis.
This time she herself was the victim. The doctor’s diagnosis meant that she would not see her toddler Sara graduate from high school maybe not even from grade school. Someday when Sara’s friends were still hanging on monkey bars, Sara would be cooking, doing laundry and pushing her mother’s slumped form back into her wheelchair.
Then, in the midst of the disaster of diagnosis and loss came joy. A new baby girl. For a while the joy of the new arrival helped ease the pain of the former loss. But one day while Diane was bathing her precious infant, she blacked out. When she came to, she found her baby had drowned.
Why? That’s what we want to know when tragedy strikes fine Christian people such as Diane. Why does God allow good people to suffer?
Most of us can’t claim two dead babies and a debilitating disease, but when tragedy hits us we still ask why. We don’t expect life to be easy. Everyone experiences hardship. But when we get more than our “fair share” of it, we begin to doubt God. We must believe that God is in control of our circumstances. Nothing comes to us that He doesn’t allow.
That reassurance can be comforting. Or it can shake our faith. When our pain is most intense, we know that God is standing by with His hands in His pockets watching His children suffer.
An unbeliever may accept tragedy as part of life, while a Christian knows God allowed it on purpose. He struggles with not only the hardship but also the reason behind it.
What did I do to deserve this? Did I unknowingly do some awful thing, and God is punishing me for it? Is God trying to teach me a lesson, and I’m not learning it fast enough? Like a doctor ticking off diseases that could cause a set of symptoms, we try to make our tragedy make sense. We can guess at the whys, but most of the time we end up with more questions than answers.
The questions can shake our faith. At the bottom of quivering faith lie not only questions but also myths. Some Christians expect these myths to be true, but they aren’t.
Myth #1: Christians shouldn’t have big problems.
We don’t expect the Christian life to be easy. We know we’ll face opposition from a hostile world. But with Almighty God on our side, we expect many of our problems to disappear.
It starts with little things. We learn to pray about finding a parking place or money for a new pair of shoes. Many times God does help us through these everyday problems. Therefore, we expect God to work out all our inconveniences and make life smooth. Then when God makes us sweat out the same everyday frustrations that unbelievers face, we doubt His love.
Then comes the big stuff: suicide in the family, incurable diseases, rebellious children, violent crime. We expect it to happen to unbelievers, but when it happens to God’s own children, it leaves us reeling. We think God should prevent such things from happening to His own. If not that, we want Him to work a miracle to make the tragedy come out all right. But as Phil Yancey observed in his book Disappointment with God, a fierce, insistent desire for a miracle “sometimes betrays a lack of faith rather than an abundance of it. . . . True faith does not so much attempt to manipulate God to do our will as it does to position us to do his will.”
God never promises us a sort of “charmed” life where the solution to all life’s problems is miracles. If we think so, we have forgotten Joseph, Job, the Apostle Paul, Hosea, Jeremiah, Stephen and a host of others in the Bible for whom life often did not make sense.
God does promise a good life without tears—but not until eternity. Until then, Christians have to fight out life’s hardships and unfairness along with unbelievers. And why not? We can take suffering better because we have God’s enabling and guidance from Scripture to help us. Unbelievers suffer with no purpose, but we know God has purpose even in suffering.
Myth #2: God is out to get us.
“If we do something wrong, He sends hardship to punish us. And if we’re doing our best, He keeps busy thinking of all kinds of bad things to send our way to teach us things. Like a stern parent, He is determined to make something out of us if it kills us. Whipping us into rugged soldiers is everything. Enjoying life is quite beside the point.”
Yes, God sometimes sends suffering as discipline to bring us back to Him. He allows hardship to teach us things. But He is the same God Who created thousands of kinds of butterflies, flowers and tropical fish. He is not the no-nonsense, wet blanket kind of God we take Him to be. He brings beauty and opportunities for laughter and fun into our lives every day. Most often, however, we’re too busy to notice.
God never rejoices that we suffer. He feels our pain. No doubt it would be far easier for God to step into our lives and do all the hard things for us. But like a wise parent who watches his child striking out at baseball, He does not always intervene. God allows us to learn and to grow up.
Myth #3: Someday God will explain everything, and it will all make sense.
Many times I have heard people say that when we get to Heaven, God will sit down with us and explain the reason for all the bad things in our lives. I picture God going down an itemized list and explaining His reason for each unpleasant event in my life. But as I search the Bible, I find no such promise. God is under no obligation to explain anything, much less everything, to us. My guess is that the whys of life won’t matter much then. And if they did, God’s wisdom is so immeasurably higher than mine that I would probably understand few of His explanations.
But I can understand this concept: God loves me more than I can possibly imagine. If He did nothing else for me, Calvary would be proof of that. Yet Calvary is only a beginning. Every day He supplies every need I have.
The whole world is full of evidence of God’s goodness and love. But since Christ died for everyone and many of His blessings are also universal, it’s easy to think these blessings don’t count. We begin to think God owes us an easy life besides. We will never be happy, however, until we trust God’s wisdom in ordering our lives.
Myth #4: Suffering is always the means to another end, not the main point.
“Suffering teaches us things, brings us closer to God, causes us to grow. But suffering is only as good as the result it brings.”
The apostles thought suffering was a privilege. After they had been beaten (see Acts 5), they rejoiced that God had counted them worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake. The early Christian martyrs were so thankful for Christ’s death for them that they welcomed the chance to suffer for Christ as the means of expressing their love for Him.
But they suffered because of their stand for Christ. They will get a rich reward in Heaven for their suffering. What about the suffering that makes no sense?
Job lost everything in a seemingly senseless string of tragedies. His friends were not impressed by his faith. Job had no idea his suffering would span the centuries and inspire people of all ages. Nothing made sense to him. Yet Job said, “Though he [God] slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job. 13:15).
And that was the whole point. Job believed in God when he had every cause to doubt. Even if no other person were inspired by Job’s testimony, God could hold up Job as a trophy before Satan. “Look at Job. He doesn’t trust me just because there’s something in it for him. He loves me for Who I am—all apart from what I do for Him.”
Job’s faith when he had cause to doubt pleased God. He recorded the whole story in Scripture. We don’t read of Job preaching, doing miracles, organizing revivals or serving on committees. All Job did was trust. That was enough to make him a giant of the faith.
And what does that mean to us? It means that our response to difficulties, both large and small, counts. Our trust in God in difficult circumstances sends a powerful message to a hurting world. It reaffirms the faith of other believers. But even if no one else sees our suffering or response, our faith matters to God.
Nothing else pleases God quite so much as our unreserved trust in Him when we can see every reason to doubt.
My next blog talks about this question: Why doesn’t God punish evil?