Posts

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.

 

 

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.

How Do I Love God When I Can’t Understand His Actions?

Written By Andrew Purchase, South Africa

Andrew Purchase hails from South Africa, but has lived in Singapore since 2009. He has experience as a litigation lawyer, has a love of calligraphy, is terrible at choosing restaurants, has too much sugar in his coffee and adores T. S. Eliot. He is married with two daughters and works as a pastor at Redemption Hill Church.

How do I love God when I can’t understand His actions?

This was a question I asked myself some years ago. I was in the middle of a crisis. I had to close down a church that I had planted. I felt like I had been obedient to God. Yet, I felt like I had failed.

It felt like God had called me. Yet it felt like God had abandoned me in some way.

Many people face their own version of the same question: How do I love God when life is tough and God is not providing me with answers?

I discovered that this is a question with a surprising answer. Part of the answer is flipping the question.

While I was in my dark place—confused by God’s actions and asking how I was to love Him—it felt as if God had flipped the question on me. It felt like He was asking:

When you don’t understand what I am doing, why don’t you ask whether you can experience My love in those moments?”

O happy day, what an answer that brought!

Love can occur even in the absence of complete understanding. One of love’s greatest virtues is that it can transcend our understanding of our problems.

The Bible is emphatic on this point. We can experience God’s love even in situations where we don’t have complete knowledge or understanding:

. . . that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. (Ephesians 3:17-19, emphasis added)

Christ’s love surpasses knowledge. It’s bigger than human understanding. Love supersedes knowledge.

In my state of confusion, it was as if I had heard an authoritative whisper say, “Let Me love you first; and answer your questions second.

What’s better? Knowing the details of God’s sovereign workings; or knowing and experiencing the full dimensions of His love?

I decided that knowing God’s love was the superior choice. Focusing on receiving God’s love, as opposed to making total sense of hard topics—was one of the best decisions I ever made.

It’s hard to describe what God’s love feels like. For me—at that time—it was the knowledge that no matter what, God was going to look after me (Hebrews 13:6).

God’s love was also this: Even in my heap of failure, God did not love me any less than when I was ostensibly a success. I realized that His love is greatest when I need it most (Psalm 73:26).

At my lowest, I felt His love go deeper than my low. How far I had tumbled. Yet how much further down His love extended. To find me, it had to go there (Psalm 139:8).

And down there, I had an experience of God. It was the experience of a lifetime. I learned to enjoy God’s company, just for His company’s sake. I learned His friendship. I learned that to worship at a deep level is to worship at a high level. I learned that His presence is ever near—even in the toughest of times. I learned to be conscious that He is close.

And now—years later, when all is well—I have answers.

One of my best answers is that difficulties are great times to experience God’s love and to know Him more intimately.

Thus, when we are tempted to ask, “How do I love God when life is tough and God is not providing me with answers to my questions?” we need to take a step back. We need to remember that when it comes to God and love, God is the First Mover. He loves first. It is His pattern, His way.

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. . . And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” (1 John 4:10, 16, emphasis added)

He loves first. When we can’t love Him, He loves first. When we lack understanding, we can at least understand that He loves us.

So when we are confused about life and God’s actions, and have mailed a list of 100 questions to God (but feel like we got no reply)—what can we do?

The answer is deceptively simple. The answer is God Himself. He is not just an Answerer; He is the Answer. And His answer is to be with us to love us.

The truth about Christianity is that Jesus has made it possible for us to be with God now, to know Him, and to feel the warmth of His face now. Jesus is Immanuel—God with us. He has promised to always be with us. We have the Holy Spirit.

Some questions are illogical and have no answer (“Lord, can a square ever be round?”).

Some questions God does not answer yet as a matter of timing.

Some questions God does not answer because they distract us from asking a better question.

But there is one question God always answers: “Lord, can you be with me now with your love and peace?”

It is a question He doesn’t necessarily answer with words, but He answers it with His own presence and His love.

As C. S. Lewis famously put it: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” (from Till We Have Faces).

In moments of confusion and frustration, the best way to love God is often to simply be loved by Him.

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.