This is a big question. It’s big because it raises philosophical questions about God’s goodness (love, wisdom etc.) and his greatness (sovereignty, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence).
- Why do good things happen to bad people?
- How can a God of love tolerate suffering?
- God is sovereign -can’t stop the suffering
If God is a God of love and a sovereign God then why doesn’t he stop the suffering now?
But it’s also challenging because it’s pastoral. We are not just asking hypothetical questions. It’s personal: “Why me?” or “Why those I care about?”
- Why am I having to live with chronic pain?
- Why did we have to go through horrific persecution and flee our own countries?
- Why didn’t God stop the abuse?
Not only that, but as well as the “If” and the “Why” questions, there’s the “How” questions. How will we cope? How will he get through the next week? How will our faith in God survive?
We answer the question by starting with Jesus
Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus. He and sisters, Mary and Martha often offered him hospitality at their home in Bethany. One day Jesus got the message that Lazarus was ill. Jesus waits another two days. (John 11:1-3).
Eventually Jesus goes to Bethany but by this time Lazarus has died. Indeed, Jesus already knows this (John 11:7-11). Jesus meets Martha on the road. She challenges Jesus, why did he not come sooner, her brother is dead but even still she is willing to believe. She still trusts him (John 11:20-22).
Jesus weeps as he gets the tomb. Lazarus has been buried for 4 day (John 11:35). At the tomb, he calls to Lazarus to come out.
Three important things stand out to me
- That Jesus delayed. He could have been there sooner. This resonates with the question “why doesn’t God stop the suffering now.”
- Martha’s response -she is desperate, it looks like hope is crushed but she still believes
- Jesus’ compassion is not just pity, there is a deep moral anger at the cost of sin.
Lazarus is raised, this gives a little foretaste of Jesus’ own death and Resurrection. Fundamentally, the answer to the question of suffering is that “God dealt with the problem of evil and suffering at Calvary.” God the Son, in his human nature suffered in our place.
But this in itself gives us some vital clues about why there is suffering. I’ve mentioned before that you can work out what the doctor diagnosed by tracing it back from the prescription. If you come into my house you will see a blue inhaler sitting on the shelf. You know immediately that I have asthma.
The answer to the problem of suffering was that “God’s own son should come from heaven and die to save someone like me.” The problem of suffering is caused by the problem of human sin and rebellion.
The Cross points us to the bigger picture
God made a good world, ordered and full of beauty (Genesis 1). He made humans in his image, blessed them commands (Genesis 1:26-28 & Genesis 2) this included a warning that sin would bring death (Genesis 2:17).
In Adam, the human race sinned leading to judgement (Genesis 3). This is a world that is under judgement because of our sin, it experiences suffering, decay, disease and death. It is a world that is “groaning” (Romans 8:18-25).
It is important to note that this is about living in a fallen, messy world the result of all our sin. It is not that God is punishing you for a specific sin when you are sick or when things go wrong. Though sometimes our actions will lead to consequences (e.g. think about the effect of smoking or drinking).
However, because God has dealt with sin, there is hope. God promises that one day when Jesus returns, creation will be renewed. Death, sickness and tears will end. (Romans 8:18-25/Revelation 21-22)
This means – now
These are truths that offer us personal comfort. We can trust God’s promises and find healing, security and hope through his grace.
- Freedom from guilt, shame and fear (Past Grace)
- Strength, encouragement, support through the Holy Spirit’s presence/the role of the local church (Present Grace)
- Hope -a Day is coming when there will be no more tears (Future Grace)
They also challenge us as a church together. We have responsibilities. We live in the now and the not yet knowing that Jesus has already dealt with sin on the cross but also that the full benefits of this for creation will come when he returns. In the meantime, we can offer of hope, our responsibility is first to share the Gospel but also to give love and compassion to those suffering.