A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw a film called “Miracles From Heaven”. It was okay, as faith-based films go. It was based on a true story about a young girl and her family as she struggles with a disorder that prohibits her from digesting food properly. We were drawn to this story because the young girl’s disorder is similar to the rare condition our daughter has called Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (SMAS). Again, a fine family film about believers facing tough situations. There is a point in the film, however, where the mother, played by Jennifer Garner, asks her pastor a familiar question:
Why does a loving God allow pain and suffering?
At this point in the film, the mother is disillusioned with her faith. She refused to return to her church because the answers didn’t seem to be there. The pastor didn’t even seem to know how to answer her question. His response was something like, “I don’t know, but God loves you.” It was an answer as unsatisfying to me as it was the movie mom up on the screen.
The popular lament calls into question God’s loving nature. It asks how can He be truly loving if turmoil exists in the lives of even those who love Him. Skeptics, ultimately, use this idea as a backdoor way to promote doubt for God’s existence, making it easier for those who are swept up in the emotional nature of their burdens to adopt their premise. Truth is, when you factor in our gift of freewill and God’s purpose in creation, the presence of pain and suffering actually supports the existence of a loving Good Good Father.
At this point, I would like to caution my readers that the reasons for pain and suffering discussed in the article may not comfort someone currently facing a trial or burden. The ideas here may seem insensitive in the wake of whatever hardships lay before them. My hope is that we all may understand more deeply the function of pain and suffering in our lives. The last thing I would want is for my words to inflame an already emotional situation. So please, if you are struggling with something big, you are welcome to save this article for a better time.
That said, “Why does a loving God allow pain and suffering” is, nonetheless, an important question that has been asked for centuries. It was the ancient philosopher Epicurus who asked:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
See, the thinly veiled accusation here is that since pain and suffering exists, a creator God who doesn’t act against it lacks value.
So what, specifically, would a loving God have to alter to effectively banish these situations from the world? To start, it seems that much pain and suffering could be prevented if God would simply limit our freedom of choice. I mean, do we not suffer for the most part because of our bad choices? Bankruptcy comes from poor choices with money. Marital strife can emerge from the choice to lust for someone other than your spouse. Friendships often dissolve due to our choice of words. Bottom line, most times of trouble in our lives happen due to actions we take that we could simply stop, but we don’t. So why doesn’t God simply eliminate these poor choices for us? So that stealing, for example, just isn’t an option. Clearly, if pain and suffering were not to exist, He would have to do this, right?
But then, we have another problem. If God halts our ability to choose wrongly, doesn’t He, at the same time, prevent us from choosing rightly? In encouraging God to act in this manner, don’t we relinquish the ability to define what is right? Or what is right about humanity?
So what, you might say. We would have a greater, better world. One without divorce, incarceration, hurt feelings, and rejection. The list of examples could go on and on.
Right. But in what kind of reality would this leave us? We currently live in a world where the shadows prove the sunshine. Meaning that within the weaknesses of humanity, we also find our strengths. So it stands to reason that, in eliminating our weaknesses, we lose those strengths as well. For example, since villains wouldn’t exist, neither would heroes. There wouldn’t be victory without loss. The concept of sacrifice would be just that, only a concept, if not played out in real life. And can love truly exist in a world without the option of hate? Ultimately, a world without the shadows leaves us in a world without a way to enjoy the sunshine.
You might say, fine, but there are plenty of things that cause pain and suffering that don’t rely on our choice. For example, hurricanes, famine, and cancer in children. Why wouldn’t a loving God stop even these things from happening?
I would then ask if God’s “loving” act of stopping these events would actually satisfy the person asking this question? For instance, what if God rid the world of hurricanes? Would the skeptic now believe that God was loving and good? Or would they continue down their list to the next item that causes pain and suffering? Would they say, “Wait, it’s nice that we don’t have hurricanes anymore, but how can a loving God allow famine?” Childhood cancer? In response, God bans famine and childhood cancer from His creation. Gone. Now is God loving and good? Would this satisfy the questioner when there are still things like earthquakes, floods, and droughts in existence? Interestingly, as we go down the list, each of the most heinous violations become less egregious than the one before it. Humanity would continue to cry out over the hardship of mental illness all the way down to the relatively benign discomfort of a simple hangnail. Clearly, if we suppose God can only be loving based on his removal of pain and suffering from the universe, he can’t truly be loving and good if ANY examples of pain and suffering still exist no matter how small.
So how can God still be loving and good despite the presence of pain and suffering in our lives?
Well, to start, we need to go way back to the beginning of time. It is widely accepted by the scientific community that the universe had a beginning. The beginning may have started with a massive explosive event (Big Bang?). In order for this to happen there needs to be a limitless, overwhelmingly powerful, immaterial, and personal mind that dwells outside of time and space to cause it to happen. Something not confined by the physical forces created in the presumed Big Bang explosion. This is what we call God. So before the creation of the universe, there was nothing. No-thing. And because God decided to, He created the universe. His decision is the reason there is something instead of nothing.
The important part of His character for this discussion is his personal nature. Meaning, he chooses to create. And when something is created, it presupposes purpose. Otherwise, why create? Why create something when nothing will do?
Because of God’s purposeful continual creative actions in the universe, isn’t it reasonable that our Good Good Father has a purpose for our pain and suffering too? Even the tough seemingly unexplainable examples like childhood cancer? Certainly, our limited understanding serves to prevent us from understanding the motives of a limitless, powerful, immaterial, and personal God. For example, put yourself in place of the young daughter in the illustration below.
A father knows that in order to keep his young daughter safe from sickness and disease that she must endure an uncomfortable shot, a vaccination. Due to limited knowledge, the child cannot see past the pain felt in that moment as the needle pierces her skin. Frightened and confused, she wonders why this is happening. She thinks, “My father is supposed to love me and take care of me. How could he bring this pain upon me? How could he stand by and let this happen?”
It isn’t until years pass and the daughter matured, having her own child, that she saw the value of the vaccination that she barely remembered as such a terrible betrayal. Having gained more knowledge about the world, She realized that the pain and fear she felt was, in fact, a small price to pay for the sake of her health. Best of all, she completely understood that her father loved her.
Are you familiar with how the young daughter feels? What about the daughter, now older, in the second paragraph? Of course, in this illustration, the father represents God and the daughter is all of us, His children. So possessing the knowledge of children, in comparison to His knowledge, it is likely that we would not know His plans right now in the midst of our struggle, but the Bible, His inerrant word, tells us He is for us (Romans 8:31). He loves us so much that He allowed His son to die so that we may one day live forever with Him. So, faced with this great sacrifice, we are challenged to trust in Him and in His purpose for us. Author Kevin DeYoung offers some insight in his book, “The Good News We Almost Forgot”:
“This is a sad world we live in, one in which God not only allows trouble, but at times, sends adversity to us. Trust, therefore, does not mean hoping for the absence of pain but believing in the purpose of pain.”
DeYoung’s words highlight how we are often trapped within our struggles. We rather hope for the absence of pain instead of it’s purpose. The good news is that purpose opposes indifference. Purpose infers a goal, an ending. A plan. The existence of purpose means that all the pain and suffering we face is not wasted.
Our daughter has a day-to-day struggle with pain from her condition. She doesn’t always share with us how she feels, choosing instead to tough it out in order be treated like a normal teenager. My wife has had to learn to sense when she’s having trouble most of the time. Other times, it’s quite obvious. My daughter can’t always eat what everyone else eats or be active after eating. As a young girl, doctors accused her of being anorexic because she simply could not keep her food down and her symptoms fit the profile. She’s dealt with long periods of time with a feeding tube fed through her nose into her stomach. And my wife had to spend years tirelessly searching for medical advice for a disorder that, at the time, only hundreds of people, in history, have been diagnosed. So why did a loving God let her be afflicted with this?
There’s that question again. At this point, it feels like the wrong question to ask.
Maybe we should ask, “What does our loving Good Good Father want with her? Or, Lord, what are you trying to show us? What are you preparing us for?” Because what I believe is that with our daughter’s SMAS, our Good Good Father is making her who He created her to be. Who she needs to be to fit His purpose for her life. And if we do not understand this purpose right now, that’s okay. We can trust that one day we might, God willing.