It’s one thing to answer this question theoretically. It’s quite another to answer this question while in the furnace of suffering. I do not come at this question lightly nor merely philosophically.
I know that for every reader, you can substitute a real situation with the word “suffering.” This question doesn’t belong in an ivory tower. It’s a question for streets of squalor. It resides in the abode of anguish.
A question like “Do we know if the Lord allows us to suffer in life” might invite rigorous theological debate. We might take Bible verses and pit them against one another.
But when we replace the word suffering with real human experience, it’s less inviting of theological debate (or should be) and leads to tears and hugs instead of pontification.
Does God allow genocide? Does God allow rape? Does God allow starving children? Those feel different, don’t they?
So, I’m cognizant of very real suffering as I cautiously proceed.
Does God Allow Suffering?
When I wrote a book on suffering (Torn to Heal, published by Cruciform Press), I went through all that the scriptures said about suffering and evil and tried to condense it down into a few statements which I could say for certain about suffering. Here they are:
1. God is not evil and does not do evil.
2. God is sovereign, and everything that happens comes from His hand (whether directly or indirectly).
3. God ultimately does all things for His glory.
4. God is able to work all things together for our greatest good.
5. Our greatest good is, namely, conformity to Christ, which gives us the capacity for an eternal enjoyment of God Himself.
It’s when we try to tie some of these truths together that we find ourselves in a difficult position. But you’ll notice that number two gives an answer to our question.
We cannot say that “everything that happens comes from His hand” and not affirm that God does, in fact, allow suffering.
Some might even want to extend this further and say that God actively causes some suffering. That’s a more difficult pill to swallow, but there are passages of Scripture (Job chief among them), which give God not merely a passive role in human suffering but one that uses language of active causality. But even here, folks would be quick to say that even this is the result of human sin.
At bare minimum, I believe we must confess that God at least has allowed every ounce of human suffering that has come into our lives and the lives of others. This, then, begs the more difficult question. Why?
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
This is the question that hangs over the Book of Job. Why? Why does all of this happen to Job? He’s a good dude who is peacefully living his life when suddenly disaster comes upon him. Job’s friends have theological answers for him.
They know that his suffering is coming from the hand of the Almighty, and they acknowledge that God is just. Therefore, there is only one conclusion. Job must be sinning, and God is punishing him.
The answer provided by Job’s friends might make us feel a little better in the face of deep pain. But the author of Job won’t let us camp there. Job’s friends are rebuked (Job 42:7-17) by the Lord.
Their answers are shallow and divorced from reality. It’s not because of Job’s guilt that suffering happens. At this point, a reader of Job is waiting on the edge of their seat. If it isn’t because of Job’s sin, then why is it?
That answer doesn’t come. Or at least not in the way that we might hope for. Instead, God questions Job. The Almighty gives Job a quiz about creation. For a couple of chapters, we are given a vision of the wide sovereignty of God.
In the end, all Job can really do is cover his mouth and confess that he doesn’t have knowledge. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).
Job doesn’t get his “why,” and neither do we. I don’t have good biblical grounds to answer why he might have allowed (or dare we say brought?) suffering into your life.
But what I can say is what the whole of Scripture seems to say; namely, that suffering is real, it is inevitable, it is not pointless, and in the life of a believer, it has a good purpose. That is about all I can confidently tell you.
One Big Picture Possibility?
This is where I could be in danger of philosophizing. But stay with me for a moment. The key thesis of Torn to Healcomes from Hosea 6. It’s the idea that God will graciously tear us in order to provide for us ultimate healing. That’s not a strange concept.
We thank doctors who cut us with knives and remove our organs because we know it has a good end. They give us painful and life-altering radiation treatments, and we are grateful.
Here is, I believe, one big-picture possibility for an answer as to why God allows suffering. It’s centered on four claims that build upon one another.
1. God has made great promises.
2. We like them. But we do not like the labor of trust to get them. So, we settle for inferior promises that our hands can grab.
3. God will not allow us to be so easily satisfied.
4. Therefore, one of the good purposes of God in suffering is to change our taste buds. To cause us to find more satisfaction in God and less satisfaction in the world and ourselves.
If Psalm 16 is true, and it is, then those that run after other gods will multiply their sorrows, but at the right hand of YHWH are pleasures forevermore, and in His presence is fullness of joy. We will settle for lesser pleasures, but God does not allow that.
Suffering is the means that God has ordained to cause us to drink from that everlasting fountain while turning our backs on the fleeting pleasures of this world.
Not only our suffering but the suffering of the Savior, which not only secures our redemption but also puts meaning into our suffering.
Again, I do not know specifically how the suffering in your life is doing this. Scripture seems to indicate that we won’t know the answer to many of these questions until we are in glory.
And even then, we’ll consider them to be “light and momentary afflictions” compared to the glory that awaits us.
That’s not to minimize the way in which suffering ravages us and can absolutely crush us this side of glory. It’s to say that Jesus must be rather wonderful that we’d call this“light and momentary.”
God allows suffering in our lives to make us more like Jesus. To bring us into conformity with Christ. Again, I don’t know specifically how that works in your life. But I do know that it’s connected to our redemption. Suffering causes us to cling to Christ. And Christ is always our greatest good. This is how I’ve phrased it before:
“God is radically dedicated to our redemption. This is both glorious and terrifying. It is terrifying because we are idolaters. This means that when God brings redemption, he also brings a death sentence to our fallen desires. In love, God will do whatever it takes-even ripping us to shreds if necessary-to replace our feeble pleasures with lasting desire for himself”(Back cover ofTorn to Heal: God’s Good Purpose in Suffering).
I do not intend to follow the path of Job’s friends and say that this specific incident of suffering is directly related to some specific sin in your life. That’s foolish. Scripture adamantly speaks against such a theology of suffering.
But rather, I am saying that onething suffering does in our lives is that it changes our taste buds. And in as much as it gives us a better taste and a better longing for Christ, then we might be able to say that God has worked this suffering together for our good.
For further reading:
What Does the Bible Say about Suffering?
Does Jesus Understand Our Suffering?
Why Does the Bible Use the Word Long-suffering?
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/nik_shuliahin
Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake.