As an oncology nurse, sometimes times I hear, “Why is this happening to me? I never smoked. I ate all the right things. I joined a gym. Why did I get cancer?” This might be generalized to, why is there suffering?
In my first post, I pointed to the best answer to suffering, the Lord Jesus. There are more answers the Bible gives that explain suffering, and in this post we will look at a few. The very blunt, short answer to the question of why we suffer is this: sin. At first glance this may seem harsh, but I have found that a thorough understanding of sin is a crucial key to understand the nature of suffering. Recall that before sin entered the world, there was no suffering in Eden (Genesis 1:31). At the end of this world, God will eliminate sin and with it, suffering (Revelation 21:4; 22:1-5). Between these two eternities, sin is allowed a temporary role on earth.
Because of sin, all creation is cursed: weeds grow, famines ravage and lions kill baby gazelle. Because of sin, death entered the world and with it, aging, disease, and pain. Because of sin, people do bad things to each other, causing more disease, pain and death. As Puritan pastor Thomas Watson quaintly put it, “There had never been a stone in the kidneys, if there had not been first a stone in the heart.”
The Bible plainly states that suffering is not always a direct consequence of sin. Countless innocent children suffer terrible evils due to no fault of their own. Tornadoes don’t check on your moral integrity before leveling your house. The disciples erred when they assumedblindness was caused by a specific sin: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, some suffering is directly caused by sin, such as when I get a ticket for illegal parking or one of my patients suffers from hepatitis C contracted from illicit drug use. But whether suffering originates from my own actions, someone else’s, or is seemingly random, the ultimate cause is sin. Because through Adam sin entered the world, and death by sin, we experience daily the pain and decay that death brings (Romans 5:12-14).
So, is all this suffering simply willy-nilly? As a sufferer, my heart cries out: I want someone to blame! Let us look at four specific causes of suffering.
One cause of suffering is natural forces. A great wind collapsed the house of Job’s children and they died (Job 1:19). According to the CDC, about 8 million people die from cancer worldwide each year. But inanimate forces do not happen by chance. God controls it all. For example, He specifically sends rain to one town, and withholds it from another (Amos 4:7). He plots the path for each lighting bolt (Job 38:25). God commands massive storms (Psalm 147:15-18) and individual worms (Jonah 4:7). Behind each insect, each cold virus, each falling snowflake, each genetic mutation is God who actively controls it all (Colossians 1:17).
A second cause of suffering is man-made things. A tower fell (we suppose poorly constructed) and killed eighteen men in Siloam (Luke 13:4). Yet, not even gambling is by chance, for God has fixed every roulette table (Proverbs 16:33). What of accidents? Every frozen computer or lost email is ordained by God. Pastor Steve Estes and paraplegic, Joni Eareckson Tada, (2004) point out, “Probably the majority of evangelical Christians would say that God responds to accidents, but that He is not involved in them as they happen—this would be a violation of ‘natural law.’ The implication is: if God is not working a miracle, He’s not working” (p. 38). But God does not need to do a miracle to be active; He is, this moment, spinning each atom of the universe.
A third cause of suffering is other people. Job was a victim of theft (Job 1:13-17). The ancient Israelites burned their children alive to Molech (Jeremiah 32:35). Humans do horrible things to each other and suffer the consequences of others’ sins, yet God is in control. “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hands of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes (Proverbs 21:1; cf. Proverbs 16:9, 19:21). Even so, God never does evil. Men do, by their own choice. God does not cause evil yet He controls evil men (James 1:12-13; cf. Exodus 14:17; Deuteronomy 2:30; Psalms 105:25; Proverbs 16:4). Estes and Tada (2004) say, “God steers the ship of evil. He does not power it…God violates no one’s will; yet He accomplishes His will through them.”
A fourth cause is Satan. Because of Satan’s instigation, Job’s life was ripped to shreds by loss and destruction of all his possessions and children (Job 1:12, 2:6). Satan moved David to number Israel, and 70,000 people died as a consequence (1 Chronicles 21:1, 14). Even though Satan operated according to his own purposes, 2 Samuel 24:1 shows that, as with men, God was sovereignly overruling Satan’s actions in the inciting of David to number Israel. Satan is a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8), but God can chain or release him as He pleases (Revelation 20:2, 7).
You may have been getting uncomfortable each time I pointed to God as the one in ultimate control over suffering. “Isn’t He a God of love?” He is, and the next post will look at the hope this fact gives us during suffering. But for now, let us be clear about this point: the Bible says that God not only permits, He ordains suffering. And this fact means that we must grapple with God regarding suffering. It also means that suffering is not willy-nilly or meaningless. If God is in control of it, that means there is a reason for it even if we never understand that reason. Furthermore, because we know that God is good, we know that His reasons are good, too.
We need to keep biblical balance here. God never sins nor makes people sin. Men cannot escape the truth that they are responsible for their actions (James 1:13-14). Even so, Scripture is equally clear that God directs and controls evil and suffering not just in the big things but also in the little things of life. “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?” (Lamentations 3:38).
Although these are difficult concepts to grapple with, I believe that you will benefit by the effort. By fathoming Scripture’s teaching on God’s deliberate control over evil there is gained a deeper, richer wisdom toward suffering and stronger love for Christ. Whatever bad thing is happening right now in your life, God is not some kindly deity who cheers you on from a distance to “just hang in there.” No, just as God was there with His Son every second and ordained every lash that fell on His back, so He is present with you every second and has some ultimately good purpose for every lash of suffering ordained for you. Because He is both good and sovereign, your suffering will last no longer than is what is good and right and best for you.
These truths generate the obvious question: If there is evil, how can God be good? With that question, we might also ask if there is anything good about suffering.