Famed theologian and Pastor, Tim Keller in the opening chapter of his book Walking with God through pain and suffering made the following statement, ‘suffering is everywhere, unavoidable and its scope often overwhelms’. This statement is an evident truth that we all know and have experienced. Even as I write this article, the global outbreak of the Covid-19 virus continues to spread and take lives.
Even as such suffering and hurt are pervasive and universal, thoughts like, “where is God in the midst of this”, or “if God is so good, why would He allow things like this to exist”, begin to occupy our minds. The presence of suffering and evil along with the existence of a good and loving God seem to collide. The seemingly irreconcilable nature of God’s goodness in light of suffering rises triumphantly from the collision. After all, isn’t this a major idea that has shipwrecked the faith of many, and turned them away from the idea of God’s existence?
In the midst of these circumstances, I felt motivated to write and to provide some food for thought. While it may be true that people who professed to be Christians have turned aside from their belief in light of suffering, Tim Keller makes an astute point that is equally true. He says, ‘at the same time, I learned that just as many people find God through affliction and suffering. They find that adversity moves them toward God rather than away, troubled times awaken them out of their haunted sleep of spiritual self-sufficiency into a serious search for the divine’. In the book King Solomon’s Mines, H. Rider Haggard’s character, Allan Quatermain, makes a similar point: ‘I think the unknown and the awful always bring a man nearer to his maker’.
Suffering does not necessarily lead to disbelief, yet many seem to struggle with disbelief.
How did we get to the point where people publicly dismiss the existence of a good and loving God in light of suffering, and deny the possibility of believing in Him as well? I want to suggest that the main issue lies not necessarily with our understanding of ‘good’, or even how ‘good’ comes about, but more so the end or purpose ‘good’ serves and the fact that God is involved. Let me share a story to illustrate my point.
A few years ago, President Barrack Obama visited Jamaica. He spoke at a scheduled Town Hall meeting at the University Of The West Indies to students and faculty. At the meeting, he asked a young woman to stand and invited the audience to applaud her as a brave and resilient young woman. It was recounted that a group of young men raped this young woman because she was attracted to other women. In the aftermath of such a heinous crime, this young woman used this tragic circumstance to reach and encourage other girls. We have all heard of other instances in which, people have overcome and have used their struggle, suffering and pain as a platform to do good in the world.
It is in light of examples like this that I argue that we have no problem with the idea that good can come from bad, or with the fact that without hardships and suffering, we would not get stronger or attain the full measure of who we are to be. After all, as the saying attributed to Franklin Roosevelt goes, ‘a smooth sea never made a good sailor’.
The dilemma that arises is when we say, if God exists, He should be powerful and good enough to stop it.
Let’s be frank, none of us want suffering or hardship. It is here and we make lemonade out of lemons as it were. If we could we would do away with it, so why wouldn’t a God who is creator and sustainer of all do the same? David Hume amplifies the essence of the dilemma by quoting what he calls, ‘Epicurus’s old questions’ in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: ‘Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he able and willing? Whence then is evil?’
I admit I have struggled with these thoughts, but I have had to think about this as well: if He doesn’t exist then fine, but if He does exist and He exists as God - the one who sustains all things - what exactly does being God look like? Is acting by His own will and purposes part of the package? I would argue yes it is. If He can’t act by His own will then He ceases to be God. I think that in light of His existence, we are better served by understanding how God operates through the suffering that exists in this world.
What does scriptures say?
Let us turn to the scriptures to see what it says about His actions. According to Ephesians 1, verse 11, ‘In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.’ (English Standard Version) We see that God orchestrates and operates according to His will and His purposes, whatever He wants to accomplish.
2 Thessalonians 1, verse 11 says, ‘To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good.’ (English Standard Version)
Romans 8, verse 28 says, ‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’ (English Standard Version)
These passages of scripture tell us that God works to ensure our good. I am suggesting that the specific good He seeks to accomplish comes to us through ‘all’ things and that ‘all’ factors in (though not entirely) painful things and hard things - essentially, suffering. Admittedly the “our” refers to believers, but the intent is still for ‘good’.
The question remains then is, what is this ‘good’ that God talks about? In part 2 of this article, I will be sharing what I believe this ‘good’ to be and three ways God uses or allows suffering in this world to bring it about.
Paul Lewis is a Staff Worker for Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in Kingston Jamaica, where he also resides. He has aspirations of becoming a Christian Apologist and he loves reading especially topics like: History, Philosophy and Theology. You can follow him on twitter @VeritasDeiVinci