If God Is Real, Why Doesn’t He End Our Suffering?

Max Jeganathan is the Asia-Pacific Regional Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Born in Sri Lanka, Max’s family moved to Australia as refugees in the mid-1980s. He has worked as a lawyer and as a political adviser in the Australian national parliament. His research interests relate to the relationships between faith, politics, public policy, economics, and moral reasoning. Max lives in Singapore with his wife and their two young children.

“If God really is who they say He is—all-loving, all-powerful, and all-good—He would end the suffering. Therefore, because there is suffering there can be no God.”

So says the age-old critique. Many of us let words like this wash over us without thinking critically about them. However, to blindly accept this statement is at best, reckless and at worst, wrong-headed. As is so often the case with truth and reality, there is much more to the story.

The reality of suffering is one that everyone of us—Christians, atheists and adherents of other faiths—have to deal with. No one can escape from it. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, illness, a lost loved one, political or economic turmoil, suffering is an unavoidable reality.

Therefore, for any worldview to be taken seriously, it needs to provide a response to this reality of suffering that is intellectually coherent, emotionally satisfying, and existentially compelling.

We Christians are certainly not strangers to suffering. One of the biggest myths about Christianity is that Christians suffer less, a claim that is as ridiculous as it is baseless. There is absolutely no evidence either in the Bible or in the world, to back up this claim. By contrast, Jesus is very honest about the costs of being a Christian (Matthew 16:21-28).

Putting this to one side, we Christians still find ourselves—as we should be—called on to explain how this loving God we worship can allow so much suffering. There is much more to be said than can be conveyed in a short article. However, here are some thoughts that reveal the Christian diagnosis and response to suffering to be both unique and compelling.

 

A God of Love

It might seem strange to begin with God’s character as an explanation for suffering. However, when we look a little deeper, things become a lot clearer. God is not just a loving God (John 3:16), but He “is” the essential embodiment of love itself (1 John 4:8). The only way that love is authentically manifest in reality is in relationship. Therefore, this God of love is also a God of relationship.

This takes us right back to the beginning of the Christian story, when God created humankind— primarily—for relationship; for loving relationship with Him and with each other (Mark 12:30-31). For a relationship to be real, the parties to that relationship must be—at least in some sense—free to choose whether or not to enter the relationship. Imagine having a friend who was forced to spend time with you under the threat of violence. It would certainly not be an authentic friendship. By robbing your “friend” of the freedom to choose you, you have undermined the concept of love and relationship.

So it is with God and us. For the relationship between God and people, and between people to be authentic, both love and freedom have to be real. When freedom to love was given to us, a necessary condition of that freedom is of course, the freedom not to love. This is the freedom we see exercised all too often on the battlefields of war, where we see fraud, crime, assault, poverty, and hatred.

The sad reality of our condition is that it is people acting freely who cause more suffering for each other than any other single cause. In the 20th century alone, we killed more of each other than in all preceding 19 centuries combined. However, any world other than the one we’re in now, would be one where both love and relationship would not be possible. God wanted a universe in which love and relationship were both real and possible. Suffering is a necessarily unavoidable part of that.

 

A God Who Knows

There are still aspects of suffering that don’t seem to fit with God’s power or His character. What about kids with cancer? What about natural disasters? What about innocent people who suffer for no good reason?

This all comes back to two things: Our information and God’s trustworthiness. When it comes to suffering, we humans are playing with limited information. We know less than there is to know. Therefore, we’re not in a position to pass moral judgments, let alone pass them against God. Put simply, He knows more than us and is smarter than us (Isaiah 55 and Ephesians 3).

Strangely, we don’t evaluate other truth claims just because of a lack of information. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, then you—like me—don’t know what the capital city of Chad is, what the average weight of a Bengal tiger is, or what the circumference of the Earth is. However, we don’t assume—just because we don’t know—that there are no answers to these questions.

In the same way, there may well be reasons for suffering that exist but that we don’t see. It seems a little arrogant to assume that for something to be true, I must know what it is.

By contrast, God does know all things (Psalm 147:5). This certainly provide us with some reassurance, but in itself that’s not enough. For someone to prove themselves trustworthy, they need to do more than demonstrate possession of information. It is on the question of God’s trustworthiness that we now turn, and what we see is nothing short of life-changing.

 

A God Who Cares

The responses to suffering out there are weird and wide-ranging, depending on your worldview. Some say that God is real but He can will whatever suffering He wants and we’re not allowed to question Him. Another group may say that we are the cause of our own suffering (because of things that we have done in our lives, either this one or a previous one). Yet others say that the cause of suffering is desire, so the answer is to meditate ourselves out of all desire. Finally, the atheists—when being honest—say that all suffering is meaningless. As many of the New Atheists have written: we are just molecules, so who cares about suffering! Without going into more detail, it’s pretty clear that all of these responses fail. They break down intellectually, emotionally, and existentially.

Then we turn to the Cross of Jesus Christ. What we see is a God who is not removed from suffering, not immune to it, not asking us to ignore it or think our way out of it. No. This is a God who loves us so much that He literally stepped down into our suffering. He suffered for us, as one of us. He defeated suffering on a Cross. He made a way for us to be with Him and for us to be free from suffering into eternity. And in the meantime, He promises to take our hand (if we’re willing to give it to Him) and to give us the strength to go through the temporary suffering of our broken world (1 Peter 1:6-9, Romans 8:18).

In my years as a lawyer and then a political adviser, there was no shortage of emotional, existential and professional turbulence, much of which caused suffering. At those times, it was the assurance of a sovereign, loving and redemptive God with whom I was in and up close and personal relationship, that got me through.

The Cross of Jesus Christ is quite simply unparalleled as a response to human suffering. It shows a God of love, a God who knows, and a God who cares, taking on suffering for those He loves, through a verifiable event in human history. God’s response to suffering is neither abstract nor is it philosophical. It is intellectually coherent, yes. But it is gritty. It is practical. It is tangible. It is life-changing. And it is the only response on the market where perfect love comes together with perfect mercy through God Himself, to offer humankind a way of out of our own brokenness and our world’s brokenness.

Whatever it is you may be going through, please know that there is a God with His hands and heart open and waiting for you—a God who suffered for you and who is reaching out to take your hand, so you can conquer through the suffering.

 

 

5 Ways to Deepen Your Relationship with God

No relationship in our lives is more important than the one we have with our creator and purpose-giver. But just like any other relationship, we still go through ups and downs. Some days we feel real close to God, knowing that He is right beside us every step of the way. Other days we feel as if God is distant, or like He doesn’t have much to do with the challenges of our daily lives.

But a solid relationship with God will sustain us and enable us to live a fulfilling life even during the down days. So, how can we go about deepening our relationship with God? Here are a few quick ideas:

 

 

1. Get to know who God is—Read the Bible

We know this one already, don’t we? Since the Bible is how God reveals Himself to us, there’s no better way to get to know Him! Just as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

If you’re in a Bible-reading slump (or even if you’re not), try switching up your routine. Instead of a short passage a day, sit down and read through longer sections of a book to get the big picture. Or, if you’re used to large chunks, take your time with a handful of verses. Borrow commentaries, use reference books, or change up your study time! And don’t forget to share any new insights or connections you made with others, and ask them what they’ve been learning!

 

 

2. Spend time with God—Pray

Like any other relationship, it is important that we spend time talking with and listening to God.

But sometimes, we don’t really know what to talk about. Do you tell God what you’re grateful for? Do you confess your sins to Him? Do you pray for a need? Do you ever take time to just tell God how awesome He is?

When we’re not sure how to pray in our current season of life, we can always try praying through the psalms. The psalms cover the entire range of human experience and emotion, and provide a blueprint for drawing near to God whatever circumstances we are in. Like the Psalmist, we can cry out to God, confident that He hears our prayers and will respond in love (Psalm 17:6-7).

 

 

3. Live out your love for God—Obey

Before His death, Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (John 14:21).

That’s about as straightforward as it gets. If we love God, we obey Him. The Bible has laid out principles for interacting with our parents (Ephesians 6:1-2), and people we disagree with (Romans 14:1-21) . . . It reminds us to pursue what is good (Philippians 4:8-9), and to be humble and compassionate (Colossians 3:12).

Though obedience is sometimes temporarily inconvenient or uncomfortable, we know that it is ultimately for the best. These are commands that God has given us out of love, to protect us, and draw us to him.

 

 

4. Live out God’s love for others—Serve

Because God loves us, we are called to likewise love those around us—even when it’s not easy, or the people around us make it difficult to love (1 John 4:19).

But it doesn’t need to be complicated. We can offer a cup of hot cocoa. Or be generous with our time and money. We can find a position to serve in church. And at the very least, we can pray—especially for those we struggle to get along with.

We can learn to love others well through caring for people around us. Let us try, and try again, even if we don’t always feel like it. And through this, we will grow close to God’s heart by trying to live out His priorities.

 

 

5. Enjoy the gifts He’s given us—Live with Gratitude

Finally, let us simply enjoy God and the many gifts He has given us. Do you see blue skies when you look up? Our loving God put it there. Do you feel the warmth of the sun or the cool of the wind? They are our Father’s gifts. Do you have fingers and toes? What a reason for gratitude!

And of all the gifts we have, what greater gift than God Himself! He has sacrificed so much, simply for a relationship with us. What could be more wonderful than that? Let us respond with joy.

 

Dear Doubting Christian, God Is Not Afraid of Your Questions

Written By Dan Paterson, Australia

Dan Paterson is an itinerant speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and based in Brisbane, Australia. An ordained pastor, Dan speaks regularly to audiences on how the gospel connects to life’s biggest questions and on the popular objections to the Christian faith, particularly on the question of suffering. Dan is married to Erin, and they have three young sons, Josiah, Zachariah, and Seth.

Dear Doubting Christian,

I am filled with grief when I see how Christians treat doubt and doubters. For whatever my words are worth, I want to offer a profound apology for any time you’ve been written off easily by Christians in your circle—maybe even made to feel as though you’re “not really one of us” because you struggle to believe what others claim comes so naturally to them.

I know that behind every believer is a doubter. Whether we’re confronted with intellectual challenges to the Christian story, or experience dark nights of the soul when our lives are falling apart (or both), we all have questions for God. And annoyingly, so often, God isn’t as real to us in those moments as we want Him to be. He doesn’t act in line with our expectations.

What I find fascinating about the Bible is how Jesus seems far more comfortable with doubt than the Church has become. Think about how many of the Psalms ask some pretty raw questions that stem from disappointments with God. Consider King David’s plea, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:1). What a scandalous time in history it must have been as Jesus echoed this heart cry on the cross: Even God questioning God is in the Bible (Matthew 27:46).

And after His resurrection, Jesus seems okay with doubters being amongst His followers. Matthew’s Gospel records how even after seeing Jesus resurrected from the dead, some of His first followers doubted whilst others worshipped (Matthew 28:17). Or, take Thomas. The night of Jesus’ resurrection, while Thomas was out for some unknown reason (perhaps getting the unleavened pizza), Jesus appears and convinces the others He is alive (John 20:19-23). Does Thomas believe their story? No. And John records that for a whole week, Jesus left one of His apostles in the fog of doubt (John 20:24-29).

Through these stories of doubt that are filled with raw questions, the Bible gives us the emotional register and permission to voice our own. God is not afraid of your questions, even if you have experienced some Christians to be. Perhaps your voice will challenge any cultural winds within the Church that treat doubt as an enemy to faith—something we can all benefit from.

My own story is one where doubt was a doorway to Christian faith. Why? Because I was challenged to explore whether the Christian story could make sense of my objections. To my surprise, upon investigation, I found far more than I was looking for. I was then nurtured in a Christian community where doubt and critical questions were expected as part of a maturing faith. And as someone for whom tough questions once kept me away from God, I’ve now devoted my life to helping others ask away at the Christian story.

There are some substantial (not always complete) answers to many of the questions swirling in your mind, even if you feel no one is talking about it. And there is an entire sub-discipline known as “apologetics” devoted to helping Christians wrestle with whether the gospel is good and true news. It spans various lines of evidence from the fields of philosophy, history, science, and psychology. After critical scrutiny for centuries, it isn’t a rhetorical hyperbole to say that, academically speaking, the case for God and the Christian story is stronger now than ever.

But embarking on your own journey to answer your questions may require a complete deconstruction of your faith in order to build again on a new foundation—one that can survive the storms of doubt and suffering that Jesus promised would come (Matthew 7:24-27). You may discover, like me, that the Christian story is far more nuanced and exciting in making sense of reality than you now believe it to be, and that it really is good news for every area of human life.

I hope you are able to think about what lies behind your questions. Our stated reasons are rarely the reason we distance ourselves from God, as often they are merely an avenue to articulate a deeper distrust we have with the whole “God” thing. I don’t know your story or the events that have brought you to this place of doubt, but I’m curious as to whether there isn’t a mountain of disappointment with God upon which you’re asking these questions. Because if there is, the Bible’s prescription for doubts of the heart is different to how it deals with doubts of the mind. The mind needs answers, but the heart needs mercy, presence, friendship, and healing. So rightly diagnosing the doubt matters.

But let me close with a word of hope. The Apostle Peter once thought his faith impervious to doubt. He promised Jesus he would stand where others fell, only to hours later lose his faith. He doubted everything. He denied Jesus. Thrice. But this is what Jesus said to him:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-33, ESV)

Right now, know that Jesus is bound by His love to pray that your faith may not fail. Standing before the Father, Jesus is perpetually animated with a passion to intercede for you (Hebrews 7:25). And this is a hopeful posture and picture of God that has often warmed my doubting heart.

I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet. I only hope that one day you return to worship Jesus—but with the whole of your rational mind and heart convinced of the goodness, truth, and beauty of the gospel. In so doing, no doubt, you will strengthen other doubters like me.

3 Unexpected Benefits of Studying Theology

I grew up reading theology and for a long time I hated every moment of it. I didn’t understand why my parents would torture me with reading assignments each summer. Piper, MacArthur, Sproul—I was reading all of these spiritual giants by the age of 12. Boring, massive books, stuff I didn’t understand, and stuff I really didn’t care about—that was my impression then,  and an impression I often hear today, when the word “theology” is brought up to adults as well.

Author A. W. Tozer once said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Even though I dreaded it at first, I started realizing that my parents were intentionally shaping my mind with these books. In a culture that’s becoming increasingly emotionally driven, they wanted me to be able to have a foundation of truth regardless of my circumstance or emotion.

The reality is that theology—the study of God—isn’t just for Christian scholars or Bible School geeks (though I’m definitely included in the Bible School geek group) . . . all of us should be theologians!

And it doesn’t look as intimidating as it sounds. Studying God is simply about being intentional in getting time with Him in Scripture, and also digging into books and commentaries written by solid men and women of God—people who have devoted their lives to the study of God, and whom we have the great honor of gleaning from.1

As I’ve come to discover the benefits of studying theology, I’ve committed to making theology a regular part of my life. I truly believe every believer should do so as well. Here’s why:

 

1. It helps us love God better

God cares deeply about what we do with our minds and particularly, how we utilize our minds to know Him. In Scripture, we are told to love God with all of our minds (Matthew 22:37), to be continually meditating on God’s law (Joshua 1:8), and to do everything we possibly can to gain wisdom (Proverbs 4:6-7).

What better way for a believer to love God with our minds, than to engage them in studying Him? The more we know God—His character, His Words, His heart—the more we love Him. Knowing God is not only a form of worship, it is also the foundation of our worship. We must know Him whom we are worshipping in order to worship Him acceptably— for who He is, not who we imagine Him to be.

 

2. It changes how we view suffering

Throughout history and even today, great men and women of the faith have been persecuted and killed for what they believe. Paul, the author of most of the New Testament, was beaten nearly to death multiple times, shipwrecked and imprisoned, yet he steadfastly heralded the goodness of God to the churches.

Would your theology lead you there? Would mine? To champion God’s goodness even in the midst of unexplainable and unbearable pain?

When we have a proper theology, particularly about God’s goodness, we are able to keep our heart and soul sustained when the hardest tragedies in life take place. Studying God can lead us to the realization that God Himself is the definition of good and our trials have the ability to train our souls to be more like God (James 1:2-4).

 

3. It’s the secret to living the most joyful and satisfied life

Being a studier of God doesn’t mean we are boring or can’t enjoy life. It’s quite the opposite. While the world tells us that joy is found in getting everything we want, Christ says He came that we may have life to the fullest (John 10:10).

The peace that comes as we surrender to our Maker through knowing and obeying Him is unparalleled to anything the world can give. The more we know God, the clearer our purpose in life becomes. We are able to trust His will even when we do not understand, to rest in His goodness even when our life is overwhelmingly weighty, and to gain immense freedom and strength to enjoy life, encounter suffering, raise our kids, love our spouse selflessly, and worship God the way He created us to.

Years after those tortured summer car rides, I found myself voluntarily attending Moody Bible Institute—actually paying to study theology! You could find me devouring my books, highlighters and pens as my trusty companions, fully immersed in understanding the depths of my Maker and loving those moments more than anything else in my life.

 

Understanding theology—taking time to study God—is immeasurably and eternally valuable. I hope that I can encourage you to grab a study Bible, order a good book, spend extra time with God in prayer, and start to make studying our Creator a habit in your daily life today. We won’t always want to do it, but I promise you other things can wait. We will never regret having made the choice to prioritize God. He is worth our time. Let’s make it happen!

 

1 Some of the best resources I have found for understanding the depths of Scripture are Knowing God by J. I. Packer, The Sovereignty of God by Arthur Pink, Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper, and Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.