SEAN MCDOWELL BLOG
Why Doesn't God Stop Suffering?Posted September 08, 2014 by Sean McDowell
This world is full of suffering and pain, and God does allow it. And while we may understand to a point why God had to allow suffering, why doesn’t he end it now? Why has he allowed it to continue so long? That is a troubling question.
A perfect and holy God created a perfect world. He “looked over all he made, and he saw that it was excellent in every way” (Genesis 1:31 nlt). Yet not for long. Because of free will, humans had a choice of God’s way or their way. They chose their way, and sin and evil entered the world. The perfect paradise God had created was destroyed. And from that moment forward—multiplied thousands of years—hunger, disease, hatred, wars, and untold heartache have plagued the human race. It is true God has promised to redeem those who trust in his Son for salvation and to restore creation back to his original design. But why is God taking so long to correct the tragic mess humans have made of this world?
A Difficult Question
We confess that we cannot satisfactorily explain why God has allowed suffering for as long as he has. We agree with agnostic Bart Ehrman that the question “Where is God in all this?” is a valid one, even though we disagree with his answers and conclusions.
But why God is taking so long to end pain and suffering is truly a perplexing question. Over 2500 years ago Habakkuk, a prophet of Judah, had the same question. He lived at a time when Judah was violent and wicked, and many innocents suffered. The prophet asked, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! ‘Violence is everywhere!’ I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery?” (Habakkuk 1:1-3). It appeared to Habakkuk that God was ignoring the problem of pain and suffering.
Job had a similar complaint. He had a large stock of animals that were stolen, and all his farmhands were killed. His house was destroyed and all of his children died. He contracted a terrible case of boils from head to foot. And as he sat in misery scraping his running sores with broken pieces of pottery, the only comfort and advice he got from his wife was, “Curse God and die” ( Job 2:9).
Instead, Job cursed the day he was born and asked, “Why is life given to those with no future, those destined by God to live in distress?...I have no peace, no quietness. I have no rest; instead, only trouble comes” ( Job 3:23,26 nlt). He could not understand why God would allow such suffering for those without a future.
King David had his questions for God too. He was misunderstood, mistreated, and betrayed, and he suffered at the hands of his enemies. He cried out,
O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?...Turn and answer me, O Lord my God! (Psalm 13:1-3).
What is God’s answer? Why doesn’t he stop the madness? Today in the twenty-first century violence is everywhere. Life is also given to those with no real future. We see the misery and hopelessness of the starving and broken. Where is God? Why does he let it go on?
Even Jesus Asked Why
One final question before we offer an answer. Jesus, who was very God and very man, also had a question. He knew he was to suffer and die a cruel death for the sins of the world. Yet just before his crucifixion he prayed, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Matthew 26:39). It is not strange that on a human level Jesus didn’t want to suffer. It is clear that he was struggling with the knowledge that he would experience great pain and suffering. Humanly he didn’t want to endure the torturous death of the cross—yet he would do it for his Father.
And hours later Jesus asks perhaps the most perplexing question of all time. While he is hanging on the cross, dying a hideous death, he musters the strength to ask, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46). What a question to come from the Son of God to his Father! Jesus was actually quoting Psalm 22:1, where King David asked that question. David followed up that question with, “Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief” (Psalm 22:1-2).
It is as if Jesus spoke on behalf of the entire human race with this question: “Why, God, have you abandoned us?” It was as if his cry was amplified to echo back to the expulsion of the first couple from the Garden of Eden and forward to the end of time, asking, “Why don’t you do something about this now?”
God Desires More Relationships
We don’t know if or how God answered his Son on the cross. The questions of Habakkuk, Job, and David were left unexplained. Search all of Scripture and you will find very few answers. The apostle Peter suggests that God is waiting for more people to come to him. “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise to return,” Peter says. “No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to perish, so he is giving more time for everyone to repent…the Lord is waiting so that people have time to be saved” (2 Peter 3:9,15).
It’s true that the longer God waits to return, the more people are coming to him. Studies by Operation World reported by the book Perspectives shows that by 1887, after 100 years of Christian missionary work around the world, there were 3 million Protestant converts out of a world population of a billion and a half. Today, over 100 years later, those numbers have dramatically changed.
Christianity may have declined as a proportion of the West’s population, but this is not so in other major population areas of the world. For example, in 1900 there were 8 million Christians in Africa; by 2000 there were 351 million. Christianity has now become the major religion across sub-Saharan Africa. In 1900 there were 22 million Christians in Asia; by 2005 there were around 370 million. From 1900 to 2000 evangelicals grew in Latin America from about 700,000 to over 55 million. And more Muslims are turning to Christ in the Middle East than at any other time in history. The 2006 Operation World report summarized it thus:
Evangelical Christianity is currently the fastest growing religious movement in the world today. Evangelical growth represents more than double the growth rate of the next closest religion (Islam) and more than triple the world’s population growth rate. 23
Does this mean that as long as the earth is being populated and people are coming to Christ, God will wait to bring an end to it all? We don’t know. But God does, and it seems clear he has simply chosen not to fully explain why he has allowed evil, suffering, pain, and death to last as long as it has.
Listen to what God said to Habakkuk. “Look around at the nations; look and be amazed! For I am doing something in your own day, something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it” (Habakkuk 1:5). Yes, he had a plan then and he still does. He had a reason for doing what he was doing, he just wasn’t going to explain it all to Habakkuk. Sure—God could explain to us today why there is suffering and why he is taking centuries to accomplish his ultimate goal of “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). He could explain why he hasn’t yet recreated this world as a place where “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). But he has chosen not to explain it to us. Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t have an answer.
Focusing on God Himself
It seems that God gave Habakkuk understanding of how he wanted him—and all of us—to respond. Rather than trying to figure out the details of his plan, God wants us to focus on him as a person. He told Habakkuk that
these things I plan won’t happen right away. Slowly, steadily, surely, the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. If it seems slow, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed. Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked; but the righteous will live by their faith (Habakkuk 2:3-4 nlt).There it is: God wants us to trust in him personally even if we don’t understand his plan. Job finally got the same message—that he was to put faith in the person of God. Job said to him, “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you. You asked ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me” ( Job 42:2-3). And how did he come to the conclusion that God’s ways and his plans were beyond his comprehension? By knowing God the person. “I had only heard about you before,” Job said, “but now I have seen you with my own eyes” ( Job 42:5). His focus was no longer on a plan, but in a person whom he trusted to know what he was doing.King David understood the message that he was to live by faith in the person of God, too. Right after he asked God, “Why have you abandoned me?” he declared, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them…they trusted in you and were never disgraced” (Psalm 22:3-5). Read the entirety of Psalm 22 and you will find David got the message. He may not have understood why God delayed in making all things right, but he believed he was good and knew what he was doing.And while Jesus as God knew that his suffering was the only solution for sin, suffering, and death, he modeled for us what we must do—place our faith and trust in God, who does all things right in his right timing. Peter said,
God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. He never sinned, nor even deceived anyone. He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God [he kept entrusting himself to God] who always judges fairly (1 Peter 2:21-23).We may not understand God’s plan, but we can trust in his person. He is faithful and just and always judges rightly. And he is always with us. Jesus said, “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid” ( John 14:27). He prayed to his Father to send us his Spirit—the Holy Spirit to guide us, comfort us, and be with us no matter what happens. Jesus said, “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.