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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.

 

 

Editor’s Picks: Best of “Why Do I Think?”

As we’ve spent the last three months looking at what it looks like to love God with all of our minds—we’ve been asking the question, “Why do I Think?”.

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.

ASK YMI: I Am Fully Self-Sufficient. Why Do I Need God?

A: What reality will end up showing you, if you leave it time, is that you are not fully self-sufficient. You can’t control your emotions. And you can’t determine your own future. But your life will be proof of that in itself.