A loving God and human suffering | Guest Column

By Dr. Joe Bettridge, pastor
Friday Harbor Presbyterian Church

In the light of the death of a young husband and father, Matt Johnson, Editor Richard Walker of The Journal invited me to comment on one of the most puzzling spiritual questions to trouble the human mind.

The enigma is usually summarized something like this: “If you assume there is an all powerful, loving God, then how can evil and suffering exist in the world? How can we trust that God’s sovereign love rules the universe when we experience such terrible unexplainable suffering and evil?"

Human suffering and evil are real. Unfair, undeserved suffering, terrible loss, bitter unexplainable disappointment, come to each of us in life.

In the Bible, we have the story of Job. Job losses his wealth. His kids are all killed. His marriage falls apart. Job contracts a fatal and painful blood disease. We watch Job, as one by one, every source of Job’s human happiness is violently ripped away from him.

We’re confronted with a good man’s bewildering pain for which there is no adequate explanation. In the middle of his pain, Job confronts God with some painful spiritual questions.

We, too, live in the midst of human despair. Hard questions arise. Why do the innocent suffer? Is God capricious? Does God care? Why do we sometimes lose everything we care about? Why don’t the good guys win? Does it pay to serve God and love your neighbor? Is there any positive benefit for living a hopeful, spiritual life?

When we suffer, we’re tempted to doubt the notion that a loving God actively controls the universe and is compassionately involved in our world. I’ve spoken with people who abandoned their faith in God when some tragic personal loss happened to them. Sometimes, it feels like all hell is breaking loose in our lives.

A woman once asked me, “Joe, I don’t understand. My husband was a kind and good man. If God loves us, why did my husband have to die so slowly and so painfully with cancer? It’s not fair.” And her question, “Why does a loving God permit suffering?” is the all-time No. 1 spiritual mystery.

Evil happens. People suffer. One day your life is happy and sunny. You have health and prosperity. Then boom. You’re hit hard. Everything goes wrong. Sometimes a thunderbolt shoots from a clear sky and some terrible trouble befalls us and we just can’t intellectually apprehend how God has allowed it to happen.

The ancient question
The classic case against God is usually formulated like this: 1. Assume that God is all powerful and all loving as described in the Bible. 2. Yet it is obvious that evil and suffering exist in the world. 3. Thus, we must conclude that either, God cannot be all loving since it appears that God does not care about us; or that God cannot be all powerful since God appears unable to do anything about the evil and suffering in the world.

How do I begin thinking about the mystery of suffering and evil if I sincerely want to know why God allows evil to exist? What is going on in the universe that I do not see?

My first decision is whether I will acknowledge the existence of God or not. If not, then the case against God is moot. And the discussion ends. If there is a God, and that fact is taken as the starting point for questioning, then I must discover God’s character. Is God good? Is God able to help me? Does God love us? Where do I turn in my inquiry?

History, nature and my own experience offer no definitive conclusions since life is such a mysterious mix of good and bad, pain and pleasure. But if we turn to the Bible to understand God, we bring our inconclusive thoughts and experiences to interact with Biblical teachings. The Bible says that God is loving and powerful. Even if this is not my experience, then either the Bible is wrong, which puts us back into the spiritual dead end or the Bible describes spiritual reality. If so then my experience must be viewed in the light of a higher source of spiritual insight than my own thinking.

The ancient solution
The Book of Job tells us that when we suffer in life, when we feel crushing loss and despair, or when terrible things happen to us, we are left with a few limited responses: 1. We can blame God. 2. We can blame ourselves and other people. 3. We can blame some kind of cosmic evil. 4. We can stop blaming altogether and start trusting in a Power greater than ourselves.

At the end of Job’s story, Job concludes that human suffering and the existence of evil are an ultimately unexplainable mystery and there are no easy answers. There is no satisfactory answer to the question “why?" There is however great benefit in asking the question “how?” We can ask, “How can I learn from my suffering?”

The Christian response to the mystery of suffering and evil in the world is not to attempt to logically explain it, but to say that even though we suffer, we are loved and God suffers with us. Though we must walk through our darkest, most painful experiences, we don’t have to walk through them alone. In Christ, God has embraced our suffering. God is with us on our troubled journey through life’s unexplainable hurts. On the cross, Jesus experienced the pain we experience in life. He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

Suffering transformed and evil turned to good
In Romans 8:28, we read that God works all things together for good to them who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” This is not to say that evil is good. Evil is evil. It is obvious that unfair suffering can’t ever be good or ever adequately explained. Yet, from a spiritual perspective, there is something deeper going on in our suffering than is available to linear human logic.

In this mysterious universe, God seems to take our worst suffering and turn it inside out in order to use it to make something new and even beautiful. God takes our worst experiences and changes them into a higher form of spiritual good than existed before. In the Beatitudes, Jesus summarizes the mystery of a loving God and human suffering:

"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and His rule. You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you." Matthew 5:3-4

— Contact Pastor Joe Bettridge at 378-4544 or jbettridge@rockisland.com

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