Many have been puzzled by the suffering we see in our world. The question is often asked: “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does He allow suffering?” For some, this is not just an abstract logical conundrum, but a deeply personal cry of despair, welling up from intense personal pain. Theirs is the experience of King David in the book of Psalms: “My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?” (Psalm 6:3). Thankfully, our Heavenly Father, Who knows our needs even before we ask, has woven the wisdom and encouragement we need right through the whole Bible, from beginning to end.
Suffering does not belong to God’s plan for creation
The Bible begins with the story of creation (Genesis 1-2). Here we see that God is indeed all-powerful, and all-good. God is the uncreated Creator of all things (Genesis 1:1), with power to speak the entire universe into existence from nothing (Hebrews 11:3). Everything God made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and His first words to mankind were full of blessing, generosity and protection (Genesis 1:28-30; Genesis 2:16-17). Thus, from the beginning of the Bible it is clear that God is all-powerful, and God is all-good. And in the beginning of creation, there was no suffering.
The Bible ends with a glimpse of the new creation, where again there is no suffering. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Revelation 21:3-4). The end of the Bible, then, also shows that God is all-powerful, and God is all-good; and in the new creation, there will also be no suffering.
What’s gone wrong?
“Why, then,” we wonder, “is there suffering now? What’s gone wrong?” Sadly, the answer is that even though God’s creation began as a masterpiece and will end as a restored, even greater masterpiece, right now it has been spoiled by sin. And the results of this are seen and felt by all of us who are alive today: suffering.
Genesis 3 records what went wrong: Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lies instead of trusting God, and so tried to live for themselves rather than loving and obeying God.
The consequences of sin
An inevitable consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was suffering. As soon as they disobeyed God, Adam and Eve suffered shame and fear (Genesis 3:7-10); and still today, our consciences inflict that same suffering on us when we disobey God (Romans 2:14-15). Next, as Adam and Eve tried to pass the blame for their sin, they brought upon themselves the pain of broken relationships (Genesis 3:12-13). Similarly today, we’ve all felt the pain of being treated unfairly by others (Psalm 27:12). This is especially true for those who try to live a faithful Christian life (2 Timothy 3:12): as Abel discovered (Genesis 4:1-10), if you love God, you will be persecuted by God’s enemies (1 John 3:12). If we ask: “Why does God allow these consequences of sin?” the Bible assures us: God hates both sin and the consequences of sin, and won’t let them continue forever (Revelation 21:8). However, because of God’s great mercy, He may delay bringing destruction for many years to give sinners more time to repent (Jonah 4:2; Genesis 15:16; 2 Peter 3:9). God may also permit us to see and experience the consequences of sin so that we will begin to understand for ourselves just how vile sin really is, and why God is right to hate sin so very much (Romans 7:13; Psalm 11:5).
The curse of sin
Suffering can also be traced to the curse of sin. God pronounces this three-part curse in:
- War with Satan (Genesis 3:14-15)
- War in the family (Genesis 3:16)
- War in the world (Genesis 3:17-19)
The curse introduces extra suffering into the world, such as Satanic oppression (Job 2:13), demon possession (Matthew 15:22; 17:15), spiritual blindness (2 Corinthians 4:4), birth defects, diseases and “natural disasters” like famines. One of the things we (and no doubt God, too) often find so awful about the curse of sin is that its sufferings can seem utterly random and unfair. If we ask: “Why, then, does God allow the curse of sin?” the Bible assures us: God also hates this curse, and won’t let it continue forever (Revelation 22:3) – He subjected the world to frustration “in hope” (Romans 8:20). However, until the curse is removed, Jesus teaches us to see in the curse God’s emergency warning system: our world is under God’s judgment, and if we don’t repent, we too will all perish (Luke 13:1-5).
Chastening us for our sins
Other sufferings may afflict us as a direct result of our own sins. Perhaps this kind of suffering is the easiest for us to understand: our Heavenly Father is chastening us for our sin (Hebrews 12:5-11). Just as little children may sometimes need to be temporarily disciplined for their own good so that in the future they won’t stray even further into danger (Proverbs 19:18; 22:6), so too many Christians can look back at painful times in their lives and echo Isaiah: “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back” (Isaiah 38:17).
Condemnation for sin
However, the most tragic of all suffering is condemnation for sin: the punishment which, Jesus warns us, awaits all the unrepentant (Matthew 25:46; Mark 9:43-44; cf. Revelation 14:11). If we ask why God allows this suffering, the Bible tells us that God doesn’t only permit it: He actively commands it (Matthew 25:41), for God is holy and righteous, and it would be unjust for God to leave sin unpunished forever (Romans 3:25-26). But, praise be to God! The whole Bible rings with God’s glorious command that not only unrepentant sinners, but also His innocent Christ would suffer divine condemnation (Mark 9:12; Luke 24:26; 24:46; Acts 3:18; 26:22-23; 1 Peter 1:11) for the sins of His people (Isaiah 53:10-11; Hebrews 9:26; 1 Peter 2:24)! Because Jesus laid down His life for His friends (John 15:13), whoever puts their faith in Him is counted holy (Hebrews 13:12) and is set free from final condemnation (John 5:24)! Hallelujah, thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! In Christ’s sufferings we see the love of God (Galatians 2:20).
Christ suffered for us
Because Christ suffered for us (1 Peter 2:24), we have both an answer to the question of suffering, and also strength for the path of suffering (Acts 14:22). Taking up our cross to follow Jesus (Mark 8:34), we know our hope will not disappoint us (Romans 5:3-5), for our Savior has endured suffering first-hand, and even suffers with us (Hebrews 4:15-16; 12:3). We can trust our good Shepherd to lead us gently through every trial we face. As Christ’s sufferings overflow into our lives, we discover that so too does His comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5-7), empowering us to rejoice even in our pain (James 1:2); for in the fire our Savior holds us firm (Jude 1:24), refines our faith (1 Peter 1:7), and proves us genuine believers (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5) whom He will keep faithful to the end (1 Peter 5:10).
For the Christian, then, there is one final reason why God allows our suffering: to point us back to the sufferings of Christ. Whether our sufferings come from the consequence of sin, the curse of sin, or are a chastening for sin, we view them all through the lens of the cross, and rejoice: “There is now no CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Indeed, “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).