Why Suffering Is Normative

In missions and evangelism, we must be prepared to explain why a good God allows human suffering.

The problem of pain and suffering has perplexed humanity since the fall of man, and for good reason.

Today the existence of evil still looms as perhaps the largest objection to the Christian faith.

A Christian may endlessly contend for God’s existence through the intelligibility of the universe, the historicity of Scripture, or the objectiveness of morality, but to insist to a deeply hurting nonbeliever that a compassionate God seeks a personal relationship with him or her is to rise beyond patronization. Oftentimes even reminding a grieving Christian of God’s goodness during a time of hardship strains the air with tension.

Truthfully, suffering is an integral part of human nature—life itself begins with this inevitable element. A woman must endure the pains of childbirth before experiencing the blessings of motherhood. But this type of pain is much easier to make sense of, for from such temporary affliction emerges beautiful life. The more challenging circumstances arise from suffering that appears to be pointless and senseless.

For instance, by the time you finish this paragraph, several children worldwide will have already perished from disease. More people will have died from automobile accidents. And just now, another family member was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer. Beyond this, the dreadfully frequent mass shootings and deadly catastrophes seem to place the Christian God on trial.

These are the bleak realities of life that break us with hopeless anguish and shake us with blind rage. Indeed, it is in these dark moments when, as Tim Keller so aptly put it, “We finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives but that we never were.”

The amount of sickening depravity in this world makes many people incredulous toward the idea of God. Nonetheless, this same evil pushes others toward belief in God. Why is this?

The undeniable reality is the trailhead of suffering diverges into two paths. “At the heart of why people disbelieve and believe in God,” writes Keller, “of why people decline and grow in character, of how God becomes less real and more real to us—is suffering.”

Life’s unstoppable runaway train of suffering tends to leave two resounding questions in its destructive wake—why and how? The first response suggests a person’s inner grappling with the issue from a philosophical standpoint: why does such evil exist? The theories to resolve such a conundrum are a ripe topic for armchair conversations. The second question is more personal, calling for practical methods to weather these storms: how can I survive and persevere through this current trial?

If suffering were a coin, these two questions would comprise its sides. One cannot exist without the other. It’s difficult to brave suffering on a daily basis without an undergirding framework. However, it’s also impossible to take a rationale seriously if it ignores the reality of a sufferer’s present pain. As everyone has experienced, one doesn’t always have the luxury to study suffering from an arm’s length. Generally,the scenario is intimate, with hurt and heartache just on the doorstep. Thus, it’s important to treat these two aspects as separate but interdependent parts to the problem of pain and suffering.

For example, it would be inconceivable of a person who disbelieves in an afterlife and associates evil with natural phenomena to tell the seven-year-old with a lethal brain tumor that “stuff just happens.” In the same vein, it would be equally despicable for a Christian, who believes everything in the universe is orchestrated by God, to waltz in and flatly tell the boy, “Your having a brain tumor is part of God’s plan.”

Although these two responses align with their respective worldviews, they are being applied inappropriately. Each answers the overarching “why” question, albeit incompletely, but fail to meet the pressing and urgent needs of the “how.” At the end of the day, Christianity offers a perspective on suffering that is logical and encouraging on both a philosophical and pragmatic level.

Concerning the why, out of the dark abyss of suffering usually surfaces the age-old Epicurean argument, which was popularized by philosopher David Hume. “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Skeptics cling to Hume’s test, claiming the existence of evil automatically disproves the notion of God. However, once the underlying assumptions are uprooted, the objection quickly turns on its head.

The premise presumes that an all-good and all-powerful God would never allow suffering because it’s evil. This charge is founded on a rather narrow view of God, for its shortsightedness purposefully omits other attributes of a transcendent being: wonderful, glorious, and all-knowing. Put plainly, the skeptic is declaring that if he or she cannot find a good enough reason for a certain instance of suffering, then there simply cannot be one—not even God could have justifiable reasons.

This attitude reveals the argument’s inconsistency, as the skeptic is asserting to possess greater wisdom than an infinitely wise deity. Ultimately, the quarrel was never really against the Christian God in the first place, but only against a man-made construct with inferior knowledge. Perhaps the skeptic should ask himself or herself this, as Keller points out: “Wouldn’t an infinitely more powerful God be infinitely more knowledgeable than us? And so couldn’t he have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil that you can’t think of?”

“Wouldn’t an infinitely more powerful God be infinitely more knowledgeable than us? And so couldn’t he have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil that you can’t think of?”
Timothy Keller

God is either more omnipotent than you, and therefore smarter than you, or he isn’t—a verdict that dethrones him to a lesser deity than God. You cannot have it both ways.

Unbelievers, it goes without saying, find defense unsatisfying. From where they stand, since suffering and evil haunt the universe in a seemingly mindless manner, there can be no God, period.

This naturalistic position consequentially regards evil in way that is detached from any sort of higher purpose. When trouble or misfortune arrive, they are seen as tragedies at worst or life interruptions at best. Suffering can never be a stimulant for goodness in a society that is increasingly concerned about individual comfort and happiness over virtue and faithfulness. There is no room for it as such.

Richard Dawkins, the world-renowned atheist, summarizes the secular viewpoint: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

Translation: suffering is void of any meaning. Perhaps this is a source of relief for some people. It was for Susan Jacoby, a New York Times writer who found solace in the fact that her disbelief in God freed her from the particular difficult task of squaring away a benevolent deity and a shivering homeless person. The punches of life’s injustices seemed to glance off more easily. Of course, her stance doesn’t prevent the punches any more than another. It also excludes the countless comforts and joys that accompany Christianity, like eternal hope and ultimate justice. For Jacoby and the millions of others who hold a similar worldview, life is simply unjust. Their only choice is to swallow the pill and move forward.

This type of dispassionate, secular analysis completely contradicts most historical and current outlooks on suffering, which view it as an opportunity to triumph, a test to overcome, or a punishment to learn from. Even today, the overwhelming majority of cultures around the world attribute evil to unseen forces. Obedient perseverance through struggles and disasters can lead to a glory and goodness that extends beyond one’s own self-interest. However, contemporary Western secularism denies such a spiritual dimension. Everything is material and can therefore be “fixed,” even the roots of evil itself. Therein lies the naivety of a secular skeptic’s strategy to suffering, for it fails to recognize the complexity of evil.

Unlike traditions that uphold contemporary cultures, from Confucianism to Zoroastrianism to Christianity, the secular perspective cannot comprehend the inveterateness of human misery. This isn’t to say all skeptics and atheists are incapable of fighting evil, but only that they don’t see their end goal (to eventually eliminate the world of all its suffering) is futile in the long run. This is why many sufferers turn to religion in the grip of pain, for the secular mindset offers no tenable or real help in alleviating the pangs of calamity.

Despite this, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now boasts an infectious optimism about human flourishing. According to the Harvard professor, mankind is marching merrily onward to the tune of the Enlightenment. Its innate values of science, reason, and humanism have ushered in a safer, healthier, wealthier, and happier planet—apparently the bloodshed of the twentieth century was just a blip in the Enlightenment’s system. Through mountains of data and graphs, Pinker assiduously demonstrates how things are looking up. His deafening triumphalism drowns out the cries of the individual. The headline of a New York Times book review summarizes the primary criticism rather bluntly: “Steven Pinker Wants You to Know Humanity Is Doing Fine. Just Don’t Ask About Individual Humans.”

Pinker is correct in his assessment that life’s physical conditions, which affect emotional health, have vastly improved from 200 years ago. But when this bird’s eye view zooms in, it doesn’t take long to conclude that life is incredibly arduous for the majority of people on this earth, and it always will be to an extent. No matter what technology is created, legislature passed, or wars won, the powers of evil will always regroup and strike again. To believe they can be completely eradicated by empirical measures, scientific discoveries, social reforms, or humanitarian effort is unreasonable and naïve thinking.

The deepest pits of despair can only be filled with one thing. It is something that secularism feigns to possess but fails to deliver, especially in times of extreme and imminent grief—hope. According to Keller, “In the secular worldview, all happiness and meaning must be found in this lifetime and world. If you can’t find it here, there really is no hope for you.”

Although widely avoided because of its grim nature, this is the news that every secular atheist must bear to the sufferer. Your little, short life is all that there is. You must dig within yourself to muster up the strength to discover meaning and purpose. You are the captain of your soul and must navigate the storms of this life. If you crash, then you must repair your shattered vessel and set sail again until you finally sink to oblivion. All hope resides within your own willpower and circumstances.

What a truly depressing message to the person who actually reflects on the depth of shortcomings, imperfections, and inadequacies within himself—for the person who feels as if she has nothing to offer or save herself with? Furthermore, what disheartening news to the widow and the orphan, to the dying and the marginalized?

Christianity concedes that the issue of suffering will never be entirely resolved by human hands, which is why it turns to supernatural resources for help—the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of his everlasting dominion. This is the hope that one day all agony will cease. Until then, believers walk in a personal relationship with their savior, knowing his wisdom and fortitude will guide them through present trials and eventually into a peace and joy that makes up for and far exceeds all previous pain. Fyodor Dostoevsky understood this better than most:

“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

Christianity is sensational in its take on suffering, being the only religion that instructs its followers to embrace it. The Bible is filled with teachings and examples of this counter-cultural approach. The Book of James exhorts Christians to be joyful for their trials. Beaten and flogged, Peter and John stumbled out of prison with elated tears, overwhelmed by the privilege to partake in the suffering of Jesus’ name. Job blessed God even though the Lord had allowed everything—his family, wealth, livestock—to be stripped from him. These anecdotes serve as evidence to the fact that Christianity sufficiently provides sufferers with endurance to face the how question.

Why does this seemingly backward mindset help a sufferer become a stronger and more complete individual? Wouldn’t it create weak, feeble-minded pushovers out of people? Isn’t submissiveness and self-renunciation a sign of weakness and fragility?

The Bible’s humbling doctrine grants Christians with the most accurate reality of the world’s brokenness, thereby equipping them with the knowledge and poise on how to best overcome adversity and fight injustice. Indeed, Christianity’s survival as a religion depended on the gracious suffering of its disciples. The fearless and otherworldly ways in which its martyrs approached death emboldened bystanders and outsiders to pursue Christ. Christianity offers the most durable coping mechanism for the sufferer because one’s hope—eternity with Jesus Christ—rests outside the grasp of evil, of moth and decay, of rust and thievery.

In October of 2006, America was rocked to the core when a gunman burst into an Amish schoolhouse and killed five young girls. However, it was the reaction of the Amish community that sent shockwaves across the nation. Instead of responding with vehemence and hostility, the victims’ families extended sympathy and compassion toward the killer’s relatives and loved ones. Many Amish even attended the gunman’s funeral, stunning the young widow and her three children. These gestures of supernatural grace confused the outside world. Who could possibly show such forgiveness to the perpetrator of a massacre?

A movie was eventually inspired from the events, depicting a fictional Amish mother who wrestled through doubts and bitterness over the loss of her child. Her rage against God and the gunman led her to the edge of renunciation of Christianity. The skewed storytelling revealed just how ignorant the secular directors were of the transformative power of Christianity. According to a group of sociologists, the reason the Amish were able to respond so lovingly was because their lifestyles—school, family, community—revolved around a person who died for his enemies.

This incredible story shows how suffering is a door of opportunity. One doesn’t need to be remotely religious to understand how trials and tribulations have the capacity to sharpen people into better individuals than they would have been if the pain had never come.

Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples who was crucified upside-down, wrote that what a believer undergoes in a season of suffering is analogous to the fierce refining process of gold. The precious metal only becomes beautiful and brilliant after it sustains blazing temperatures to remove any impurities and blemishes. Similarly, trials purify the human heart, sculpting and forging it into a more radiant and heavenly state of being. What’s more, God counts one’s faithfulness through trials as more precious than gold.

The simple truth is that God is glorified through the suffering of the saints. Jesus himself commanded others to pick up their crosses if they intended on following him. After the early death of his wife, C.S. Lewis noted that times of hardship create avenues for the Lord to effectively get a message across to us, when the walls of our pride have finally come crashing down: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”
C.S. Lewis

So, why are we so caught off guard by suffering? Although it’s a natural reaction to flinch at pain, Christians can steady themselves against a mast of steadfast hope through life’s tempestuous storms. However, according to Keller, this is becoming an increasingly uncommon attitude for most people, including Christians.

“Some people have the naïve view that because they are fairly savvy people, or self-disciplined, or morally decent, or good Christians—that really, really bad things simply can’t happen to them,” writes Keller. “Many people’s misery and distress in suffering is doubled and trebled, coming not from the trouble itself but from the shock that they are suffering at all.”

But Peter warns Christians to not be “surprised by suffering.” Indeed, if God allowed his perfect and sinless Son to experience the most severe form of suffering, then why expect pain to never befall the broken sinner who deserves judgment?

If Christians learn to adopt the biblical mindset that suffering is a catalyst for refining, purifying, and strengthening the heart, then a sudden realization comes sweeping in: evil is accomplishing precisely the opposite of its intention. What was meant to cause harm and destruction will ultimately produce a greater and sweeter goodness than if it had never come to pass.

When this wonderful revelation sinks in—the Pauline perspective that all things, both the lovely and the detestable, will paint a complete picture of goodness—one can begin to glorify God not in spite of suffering, but through it.

This article was originally published December 10, 2019 under the title “God and Suffering.”