During the time of writing this blog, I’ve written a couple of blogs about the topic of suffering and how it relates to God and the Christian faith. In “The Problem Of Evil and Suffering” and it’s revamped version “The Problem Of Evil & Suffering Revisited”, I gave several reasons why I think it’s not at all implausible to think that God exists even though suffering exists in the world.
For one thing, God has given human beings free will. I’m confident in saying that about 90% of the suffering that afflicts our lives is due to the result of human evil. Almost every account of suffering that I can remember in my life was the result of human actions. Either I suffered the consequences of my own actions, or someone else did wrong to me. It was either one or the other. Suffering caused by nature (e.g diseases) caused a VERY TINY amount of suffering I’ve endured. God did in fact give human beings free will, but remember, God does not want human beings to do evil. Human beings do what is contrary to God’s will. People murder, but one of God’s commandments is “You must not murder” (Exodus 20:13). People commit adultery, but God said “You must not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). People steal, but God said “You must not steal” (Exodus 20:15). People hate each other, but Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27). Jesus also said “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:38-47).
People do what is contrary to God’s will. God does not want people to do evil things to each other. But given free will, God cannot guarantee that the creatures He creates will always cooperate with Him. The majority of suffering in the world is humanities fault, not God’s fault. While God is responsible for the fact of freedom, human beings are responsible for their acts of freedom.
But also, I believe that God can bring about greater goods by allowing certain instances of suffering to occur. Every event that occurs sends a ripple effect through history, such that God’s reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps even in another country!
To get an idea of what I’m talking about, read the two following illustrations from Dr. William Lane Craig. This comes from His book, “On Guard”.
“1: In so-called chaos theory, scientists have discovered that certain large scaled systems, for example, the weather or insect population are extraordinarily sensitive to even the slightest disturbances. A butterfly fluttering on a twig in West Africa can set in motion forces that will eventually issue a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean yet it’s impossible for anyone observing that little butterfly on that branch to predict such an outcome. We have no idea how some seemingly insignificant event can radically alter the world.
2: The movie “Sliding Doors” starring Gwyneth Paltrow tells the story of a young woman who is rushing down the stairs to the subway to catch a train. As she nears the train, the movie splits into 2 paths that her life might take. In the one life the doors of the train slam shut just before she can board. In the other life she makes it through just before the doors close. Just based on this seemingly insignificant event the 2 paths of her life increasingly diverge. In the one life, she’s enormously successful, prosperous and happy. In the other life she encounters failure, misery and unhappiness. And all because of a split second difference in getting through the sliding doors.
Moreover that difference is due to weather a little girl playing with her dolly on the stair railing is snatched away by her father or momentarily blocks the young woman’s path as she hurries down the stairs on her way to the train. We can’t help but wonder about the other innumerable trivialities that led up to that event: whether the father and her daughter are delayed leaving the house that morning because she didn’t like the cereal her mother gave her for breakfast, whether the man had been inattentive to his daughter before his thoughts were preoccupied with something he had read in the paper and so on.
But the most interesting part is the film’s ending: in the happy, successful life, the young woman is suddenly killed in an accident, while the other life turns around and the life of hardship and suffering turns out…to be the truly good life….after all! So what might turn out to be good in the short term, could really end up bringing untold misery in the long run and what seems disastrous in the short term, could end up bringing the greatest good.
Every event that occurs sends a ripple effect through history, such that God’s reason for permitting it might not occur until centuries later and perhaps in another country. Only an all knowing God could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free people toward His envisioned goals. Just think of the innumerable incalculable involved at arriving at a single historical event, say, the allied victory at D-day! We have no idea what suffering might be involved in order for God to achieve some intended purpose through the freely chosen actions of human persons.“
Just a seemingly insignificant event can’t radically alter the course of our lives. So, if God wants something to happen. Say, event F. He would have to allow A through E to occur. If God didn’t allow A to happen, then B wouldn’t happen. If B didn’t happen, then C wouldn’t happen. If C didn’t happen, then D wouldn’t happen. If D didn’t happen, then E wouldn’t happen. And if E doesn’t happen, then you can’t get to F. In order to get F to happen, God would have to permit events A through E to happen. And that may or may involve some immense suffering along the way. God does have morally sufficient reasons for permitting suffering to occur.
But, we hardly ever know the specific reasons why God permits suffering. The question must be asked we He doesn’t reveal the reasons why He permits this specific instance of suffering to afflict my life. Why? Why is He silent? Why doesn’t He tell us the reason? Certainly our afflictions would be easy to take if we knew the good that could come out of it ahead of time, correct? Well, let me offer 3 reasons why I think God doesn’t make any attempts to explain to us why he permits instances of suffering to us.
1: If He told you, you wouldn’t have faith.
Now, I know that that sounds pretty shocking coming from me, right? After I wrote two different articles on this site refuting blind faith and arguing that Jesus Himself told us not to have blind faith. So why am I saying that if He told us why He’s standing back and letting whatever instance of suffering to afflict us? Well, simply because here, I’m not talking about blind faith. I’m using the definition of faith as I used it everywhere else I’ve written. I’m using it as a synonym for trust.
Faith and trust are synonyms. Christianity isn’t a blind faith. It’s a faith based on powerful, solid evidence and reason. You do not have to have faith to believe that God exists or that Jesus rose from the dead. No, you can believe in these things on the basis of scientific, philosophical and historical evidence. However, all the evidence in the world isn’t going to make you trust in God. You can give intellectual assent to all of the creeds of the church, but that doesn’t mean you’re trusting IN God.
The word “faith” is synonymous with “trust”. I walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). This doesn’t mean that I believe God exists without any evidence or reason. It means I trust in Him even when I don’t know what He’s up to (Proverbs 3:5-6). Sometimes our circumstances can have deceitful appearances. Sometimes it looks like God has abandoned us when He really hasn’t. Sometimes it looks like God won’t keep His promises. Sometimes we think our suffering has no good purpose to it. It is in times like these that we have to have faith in (i.e to place our TRUST in) God. That His plans are for ours or someone else’s ultimate good (Romans 8:28).
However, if every single time something unpleasant happened to you, God were to speak to you with a booming voice from Heaven and tell you exactly why this is happening to you, it would seem to remove the faith factor from the equation. You wouldn’t have faith that God is somehow, in a way you can’t imagine, working your suffering out for some greater good. You’d know for certain why God is allowing your afflictions. You wouldn’t have to “trust in the Lord with all your heart…” not “…leaning on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Since you’d know for certain why He’s allowing your affliction, you’d be able to lean on your own understanding. But instead, God wants us to trust in Him. He wants us to have faith that…even though our situation looks grim. Even though it looks like what we’re going through has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, God wants us to trust that He’s got our backs, and that He won’t let our suffering be gratuitous. He wants us to trust that because we love Him, He is working our trials and tribulations out for either ours or someone’s else’s benefit (Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28). Whether that be to bring about a certain circumstances of equal or greater value and/or to shape and further develop our moral character (read Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4).
2: Telling you why might take too long and/or be too complex!
This is something that did not occur to me until I heard Dr. William Lane Craig talk about it in response to someone’s question in a Q & A section of one of his lectures. I’ll post the video below. He said that the level of complexity of all the different interactions between the different events and how one leads to another, that the level of complexity in many cases might be so extreme that one wonders if that would even be possible! What if, instead of getting to event F from event A, you have to get to event No. 100,000,000,000,000 which takes place a long way off into the future. And in order to sufficiently explain all of the numerous reasons why God is allowing say, event No. 1 which may be an event of horrendous misery, He has to go into a long, extremely verbose lecture to you explaining all of the complex interactions of people’s actions and events which come about as a result of those actions, and so you end up listening to God go on and on and on about the reasons why God allowed event 1 to occur. God would be like “Ok, I allowed this event to occur so that this would happen, and I allowed this to occur so that this would happen, and I allowed this to occur so that this would happen, and I allowed this to occur so that this would happen, and I allowed this to occur so that this would happen….” And so on and so on until you finally get to the event that God intended to come about.
In fact, why God may allow a certain of instance of suffering may not, in may cases, even be confined to ONE particular reason. For some instances, there may be multiple reasons, with several different causal chains going off in multiple different directions! Just think of the causal chain splitting off like a tree and it’s branches, and then off into several more sub-directions, and so on. Just so extremely complex that only all knowing God could grasp such complexity.
Think about it! What if God had 100 different morally sufficient reasons for permitting the World Trade Centers to collapse on 9/11? And at least 50 of these reasons don’t come about until 300 years from now? Do you really want God to spend all that time explaining all of the different, intricate details of events causing other events causing other events causing other events to bring about the hundred different goods which resulted from this tragic event? I wouldn’t. I’d just say “I’ll just take your word for it God when you say that you work all things for the good of those that love you.” Which is exactly what He wants us to do as I argued above. That’s exactly why Proverbs 3:5 says what it says.
3: God might defeat His own purpose for your life in some cases if He were to do this.
If you took the time to watch the 4 minute video above, you probably already got this last point. But just in case you didn’t, He said “It might be self defeating if God did this. Suppose God told you ‘Well, the reason I’m going to allow your daughter in an automobile accident’ or ‘the reason she was killed is because I want to bring you and your wife closer together in your marriage by sharing this common grief…and therefore you’ll be greatly used by Me.’ And you might be so angry with God for doing that you would divorce your wife and frustrate his purposes!” Do you see what he means?
By telling people in some circumstances why He allowed X, Y or Z to happen to them, it would create these self stultifying circles. In the case Craig mentioned, God wouldn’t allow the daughter to die in the accident because it didn’t bring about the purpose He desired. But even worse than that, instead of fixing the marriage, by telling the man why He’s about to let this happen, He actually gets the opposite of what God intended to bring about. He just drives the man and his wife further apart instead of bringing them together!
Craig said that another good illustration of this would be Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. When Scrooge says to the ghost of Christmas yet to come “Are these shadows of things that will be or the shadows of things that may be?” Things that will inevitably come about, or things that only potentially could come about? The spirit doesn’t answer him. Silence. Why? Because if the ghost of Christmas future had told Scrooge the truth “No Scrooge, these things aren’t really going to happen!” If that were the case, Scrooge might not have turned his life around after all. After all, why? If these things aren’t going to happen anyway. But then, if he hadn’t repented, then his non-repentance would have lead to these things coming about after all!
So, as you can see, there would be these self stultifying circles in many cases if God were to reveal the answers.
So, what has God done instead? This is the wisdom of the book of Job. God never gives any answers to Job why He allowed Satan to do all of the things he did to him. Instead he gives him a long list of questions instead which Job cannot answer (but certainly does reveal a lot of information about the creation of the world, see “Hidden Treasures In The Book Of Job” by Hugh Ross). What He does show Job is that he (and we) can trust God as we endure the hard times in this life, before we reach paradise.
I think we have good reasons to trust that God will do what He says. Through logic and reason, we can demonstrate that it’s entirely possible for God to bring good out of a bad situation, exactly as scripture teaches. However, due to our cognitive limitations we just simply don’t know what all of those specific reasons are. But God gives us assurance that He does have good reasons for allowing certain instances of suffering, and He is there to bring us comfort and peace as we go through them.
Jesus said “All who are weary and heavy laden, come to me and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 5:11
“From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.” – Psalm 61:2-3
“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” – Psalm 9:9
“You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” – Psalm 32:7
Having said that though, I do believe that are certain instances where God has revealed the reasons why He permitted certain instances of suffering. As I talk about “The Problem Of Evil & Suffering (Revisited” which I linked to below. One of the reasons is to get people to a place of brokenness so that they’ll turn to Him in faith so that they can be either delivered from or gain the strength to…endure the afflictions. As a consequence though, they give their life to Him and are forgiven of their sins and are saved. The prodigal son didn’t return home to his father after all, until he lost everything (see Luke 15:11-32). I myself was lead to Christ after 4 years of terrible darkness.So He does sometimes reveal these things to us, in those moments when we look back on our lives and go “You know, if it wasn’t for all that terrible stuff I went through, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” He does sometimes do this to us after the fact (retrospect), even if the majority of times, He doesn’t.