Dealing with the question
You may know the story of Joni Eareckson. As a spirited and exuberant teenager she dived headfirst into a lake in 1967 and was permanently paralysed from the neck down. Although she has spent much of her life since then championing disability awareness and has a powerful and moving testimony of overcoming incredible odds by God’s grace, the question of why God would allow this to happen is a real one. And we don’t have to look that far back. Unanswered questions lie all around us. This year more than 300 people, mostly teenagers, drowned in a ferry disaster off South Korea. We cannot imagine the pain of so many families racked with grief, nor their struggle with the question: Why?
This series of 3 blogs attempt to address this most painful of all questions – why does God allow suffering? Or more bluntly, why do bad things happen? This first blog focuses on ways of approaching the question itself.
This is a recent question
It may seem strange, but why does God allow suffering? is a recent question. Of course the question has always been asked, but not to the extent and the frequency with which it is asked today. It has become a question of modern times and developed economies. For example, up to the 18th century at least, people expected one in three of their children to die before they reached 5 and mothers routinely died in childbirth. Bad things happened including pestilence, plagues and wars and, if you made it through all of that, life expectancy was around 40. The question of why? wasn’t one that people asked. Bad things just happened – a lot.
The question has intensified in the last 50 years especially with leaps in medical technology and drugs. Modern medicine brings benefit to millions by reducing pain and extending life. But it also brings about an expectation that somehow we should not have to suffer in this day and age. “They can do a lot these days” is a statement I often hear when someone is about to embark on cancer treatment. It is true, but it still drives unrealistic expectations. In other cases modern medicine can even be the cause of suffering. On her third and most aggressive regime of chemotherapy last year my mother was put into considerable distress and pain. She was looked after well but the side–effects of her treatment were heart wrenching, and we greatly regret being persuaded to continue with treatment rather than just making the most of her final months of life.
Of course it’s a tough question
For sure a lot of suffering in the world is a direct result of human decisions – the terrorist bomb in Omagh killing 29 people, the innocent girl returning home who is raped, these are the result of corrupt and degenerate behaviours. And we should remind ourselves that there are in fact enough resources in the world to feed all the hungry, and house people away from flood plains, but, as a race, we choose not to.
What about cases of natural disaster, sickness and unforeseen accident? It is important to note that although people can certainly cause suffering as described above, suffering in these cases can never be traced back to any “wrong-doing”. In John Chapter 9, Jesus himself makes it clear that, for the man born blind, his blindness was nothing to do with any crime or behaviour.
As Christians we believe that disaster, sickness and accidents were never part of God’s original creation. The original created order of Genesis chapter 1 was perfect and included man’s ability to exercise free will and autonomy. But all of this became subject to degeneration after rebellion and corruption entered the world. By Genesis chapter 4 the first murder has already taken place and the world is disfigured and in trauma.
In addition, suffering has no part in God’s final creation. We live in the light of a certainty, that in the crucifixion God defeated evil, suffering, and even death itself, and began a new order accessible to all who accept it. Thus the end of this story has already been determined and we can see it. There is no suffering …”there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Right now however we live between these ages, in a traumatised world. This present world is not as it should be, but we are not left to face it alone. As we shall see in the next blog, God will not leave us alone ……This in a nutshell is the Christian faith.
And the accompanying question – why me?
The other question that we inevitably ask is why me? “….. Why us? Why has this happened to us? It seems so unfair” were questions I asked when we believed we may lose our daughter to an illness some years ago. By far the best answer came from my wife who said “….why not us?”
There is no guaranteed ticket to a life free from calamity. It is tempting to think that if we pray, pursue good works, give away our money etc then we shouldn’t have to face the big disasters in life. But there is no “deal” like that. We all share in the broken nature of this world. And equally, God’s kindness is extended to all, “he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). (I also discussed this recently in The Boulder).
But it’s also worth asking …
Another question: Why do good things happen?
Why should there be mountain views, days at the seaside, job satisfaction, a welcoming smile or even a sunny day? And why do many, many bad things not happen? – that collision we narrowly avoided and that bug I didn’t catch – why was that? A well-developed attitude of wonder at creation and gratefulness for all that is right can underpin a life that rests in assurance and wholeness. And it can provide us with the necessary balance when we do enter those hardest of times. A persistent sense of gratitude is something we can choose to have, or not.
Why does God allow suffering? — discover more
This blog is one in a series of 3 short articles on this topic:
- Part I — Looking at the question dispassionately
- Part II — Our response to suffering — God’s response to suffering
- Part III — Alan and Penny’s Story