Wars, earthquakes, racial violence crowd the newspaper headlines. Just about every evening the TV news brings into our homes reports of senseless murders. Is God really there? If he is, does he care? And if he does, is he helpless to do anything? Why does a God of love permit suffering?
In the first place, we should realize that there is no slick, easy answer. Indeed, sometimes it is better to weep with those who weep, rather than try to solve this knotty philosophical problem.
Sometimes this question is brought up by those who scorn the Christian Faith. 'What kind of God presided over Hiroshima in 1945, eh?' In this case it is good to remember that this question is really only a problem for those who believe in God: suffering and pain should be no problem for the atheist! If he is an evolutionist too, then according to his theory, death and suffering are a part of progress! But in fact everyone recognizes that suffering is evil, and not proper, not right. This recognition, even by professed atheists, is testimony to a belief in God who is Absolute Good.
Not only is there no slick answer, but also there is no final answer known to man. It is possible to sketch the contours of a biblical response, but only God knows the Answer. But remember, it is less important to know all the answers, than it is to know the One who knows all the answers... This is what Job discovered when he was finally confronted with the glory of God. His questions were lost amid wonder, love and praise.
A Deadly Disease
According to the Bible, suffering generally is associated with a deadly disease called Sin.
We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that mankind is basically good. According to the Bible, he is not. He is a rebel towards God, and is suffering the consequences of this. He is 'dead in transgressions and sins' (Ephesians 2:1-2). Our first father, Adam was appointed by God as representative head of all mankind. When he sinned, we all sinned in him, and fell with him (Romans 5). As a result, God's curse fell upon creation, so that Paul can speak of the world's being subjected to futility, and being in slavery to corruption (Romans 8). According to Scripture, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Not only death, but all pain and suffering in our world is linked, ultimately, with our sin.
Some suffering is a direct consequence of sin, like wars, violence, and even evil words which can wound and cause pain. Sometimes sinful actions lead to suffering coming upon the person who commits them. For example, if you abuse your body by gluttony, smoking cigarettes, consuming too much alcohol, or misusing other drugs.
On the other hand, some suffering cannot be traced to any particular sins: Jesus makes this clear in Luke 13:1-5 and John 9:1-3. In the first passage, Jesus says that certain people who suffered calamity were no worse than others who did not. In the second, he informs us that the fact of a man's congenital blindness was due neither to any particular sin of himself or his parents.
The greatest proof of the link between sin and suffering is the Cross. Christ had to suffer for our sins according to the Scriptures. The cross of Calvary graphically demonstrated the terrible seriousness of our sin, and what it deserves.
All suffering is due to sin, either directly or indirectly. Given man's attitude to God, the remarkable thing is not that there is suffering, but that there is not more suffering in this sin-cursed world.
A God of Love?
Many people thinking about God don't go beyond 1John 4:8, 'God is love.' This can lead to all kinds of wrong ideas, as we imagine what a loving God would or would not do, in our opinion. But note the context of this verse:
The one who does not love, does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent his only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:8-10).
What was it that led God the Father to send his Son to suffer? It was his love! According to the gospel, God loves mankind enough to inflict suffering so that mankind might be saved.
One problem with our question, 'How can a God of love permit suffering?' may be our definition of love. We often confuse love with being nice. 'If God is nice...'
But what would a Nice God do about man's sinful condition? According to the Bible, man is lost in sin, and bound for hell. We might suppose that a Nice God would make conditions as comfortable as possible on the broad road leading to destruction. He would give lots of nice things to take our minds off our eternal destiny, so that we could pretend that the Day will never come. But that wouldn't be nice: that's Satan's tactic!
Suffering is the consequence of our sin, yet God in love uses it as a blessing in the substitutionary sufferings of our Saviour Jesus. The sufferings of this life also stand as a warning that this world is not normal; it is no place to get comfortable in.
God also uses suffering in the lives of his own people, as we read in Hebrews 12:5b-8. There are thousands of Christians who can testify about their spiritual growth through times of trouble.
In love, God corrects and strengthens us, driving us back to himself as our loving Father. Sometimes it hurts, but he means it for our good, because he loves us. God is love, not mere niceness. As God acts in love towards a sinful, hell-bent world, he permits suffering and pain as a judgment, as a warning, and as a discipline.
Will Suffering End?
Through his death, Jesus paid the penalty of sin for his sheep. This is the gospel: it is the real answer to the problem of pain. It is not a merely philosophical, or theological, but a deeply practical answer. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, God has provided a way to escape from the eternal suffering of which the pains of this world are but a pale shadow.
According to this gospel, Jesus is also coming again to bring about the final solution to the problem of suffering (Revelation 21:1-4). The coming of that day is delayed, in God's mercy, to allow time for repentance (2 Peter 3:9, compare Romans 2:4). This is also an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate God's love in helping to relieve human suffering.
God is doing something about human suffering today, but he still permits us to experience pain so we won't be tempted to confuse this world with our true home. Reader, he wants you to make use of the remedy he provides in the gospel, and to administer that remedy to others, until that Day comes when suffering will end, and all things will be made new.
One of the symptoms of sin—our desire to 'be as God'—is wanting to have all the answers. But only God has all the answers. In particular, we don't have the answer to this problem of suffering. Rather we weep, for it is the problem of a bent world, under the sentence of death; a world bent for hell.
Yet, in his great mercy, God has put into our hands the lasting remedy for the deadly disease of sin, both to use ourselves, and to administer to others: that remedy is his love for sinners displayed in the gospel of the suffering Saviour.
Why does a God of love permit suffering? It is a very hard question but it is one which leads inevitably back to the dying love of God the Son, who suffered that he should make all things new. We cannot know all the answers, but we are invited to know the One who has all the answers: to turn to Jesus, God's Son, whose suffering unto death reveals the saving love of God towards a world dead in sin; to him who is, in the end, the Answer to all our questions.