Some Reflections on the Problem of Suffering
Atheism most commonly objects to the idea of God on the basis of the following argument: if God is both omnibenevolent (all-good) and omnipotent (all-powerful), then how can He allow suffering and pain (what they call, “evil”) to exist in this world? This seeming dilemma has confounded many a Christian, and every time a hurricane, tsunami, or other disaster occurs, atheism begins to complain again about the idea of God. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” they ask. How could a God who is infinitely good and all-powerful allow suffering in this present world?
These questions are not to be taken lightly, and neither can they be easily answered, for we are not privy to all of God’s specific plans and purposes in His providence. However, the Bible does communicate a number of enlightening principles concerning the “problem” of suffering in a world ruled by an all-loving and all-powerful God. These principles, once considered, do a great deal of harm to the atheists’ case.
“Evil” is not subjective or relative — Ask just about anybody what they believe is evil, and the nearly universal response will likely be, “evil is whatever displeases me.” Thus, apart from God’s word, most people tend to regard nearly any negative or unpleasant event in their lives as an “evil” thing. However, God’s word declares that the concept of “evil” is not subjective; rather, evil is defined by God as that which is sinful (Rom. 1:29-32). The only inherent evil in the world is that which violates the word of God. As God’s people, we would do well to distinguish between what is truly evil and that which is merely unpleasant.
Suffering can be beneficial, and thus is not always “evil” — Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:27-28), but he later found himself in position to deliver his brothers from a famine in their own land. Joseph’s verdict on his suffering was this: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Suffering can be instructive (Matt. 14:22-33), faith-building (James 1:2-4), and corrective (Heb. 12:5-6). Suffering can strengthen people to fight bigger battles in the future (Jer. 12:5). Therefore suffering, while unpleasant at the time, can serve the beneficial purposes of an all-loving and all-good God.
We may have failed to correctly identify God’s purpose in creation — God did not create this world to last forever (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10-11), but He did create this world for a purpose — His own glory (cf. Isa. 43:7-10). As the song goes, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through!” God’s purpose in this world, according to Scripture, is to provide an ideal environment in which man can choose to either accept or reject Him (cf. Eph. 1:3-11). Therefore, God’s ultimate aim in this world is not to make His creation comfortable, but rather to give people opportunity to choose whom we will serve while here (Josh. 24:15).
God is infinitely wiser than we — Through his suffering, Job learned that God desired him to be faithful even though we humans rarely understand why things are the way they are (cf. Job 40-42). When Habakkuk asked God what He was doing, God responded, “I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you” (Hab. 1:5). Isaiah was told, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways” (Isa. 55:8). God does not have to explain every reason why we suffer in order for us to trust that, “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). He can see the beginning, middle, and end of our lives, while we humans tend to only focus on our immediate circumstances. Oh, for the wisdom and patience to trust that God is working all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)! — JB