Why doesn’t God do something?
“I prayed every night to God, asking him to rescue me from my father’s abuse. Why didn’t he?” A friend’s niece had suffered terribly at the hands of the man whose responsibility was to love and protect her. Driven to attempt suicide several times, she still suffers the consequences of grave sin through no fault of her own. Can such suffering by innocent children be reconciled with a reality of a good, loving, and all-powerful God? Do we have an answer for her question?
Many have undertaken to defend God and his ways in the light of grievous and seemingly undeserved suffering, because many have made the charge that it is evidence of his non-existence. I don’t claim to have greater understanding than any of them, but I do have greater understanding than I had a few weeks ago, before I commenced some concentrated reading and meditation on the subject. If you will stay with me, perhaps what I have learned will increase your understanding as well.
There are a few truths that would be helpful to recognize at the outset:
1. Suffering, deserved and undeserved, can result in some good.
2. God has a purpose for our lives far deeper and more meaningful than just to enjoy them.
3. We are not the center of the universe. He is.
4. He has chosen to give humanity free will.
5. There is life after our bodies die, when all injustices will be made right.
I acknowledge that points 2 through 5 will be considered merely improvable assumptions by those who believe God’s existence is unknowable, much less his ways and his plan. But as the issue in question is whether the God of the Bible is incompatible with the reality of suffering, I believe these biblical teachings are valid premises.
Many people, believers and non-, share a view that the highest good for their lives and the very purpose of their existence is to be happy. If they’re believers, they may even think God owes them that. So anything that detracts from their happiness is seen as an evil and may cause them to question God’s goodness and love. But just as we might pan the musical “Les Miserables” as a total failure because we believe it purported to be a contemporary, light-hearted comedy, if we have an inaccurate understanding of why we are here, our evaluation of how well things are going will also be inaccurate. Couple that error with a view that sees God as existing for our sakes instead of the other way around, and you have the makings of a life marked by huge disappointment, discouragement, and even disbelief.
If, on the other hand, we see life as a gift, a proving ground, a rehabilitation center, a temporary home, and/or a journey to our true and eternal dwelling place, we will view our circumstances in an entirely different light. If we understand that this world and everyone in it is marred by sin, and God’s purpose for us is redemption and restoration of a right relationship with himself, something that will bring us true and lasting happiness, suffering takes on new meaning and purpose.
Pain and hardship are what bring many to seek God. If our lives were trouble-free, would any of us recognize our need for him? Trials can also develop and strengthen virtues like compassion, perseverance, humility, and contentment. What insufferable, spoiled brats we would all be if we never had to endure difficulties. The descriptor insufferable is apt – if we fail to suffer, we become “too extreme to bear; intolerable.”
At first glance it may seem oxymoronic, but as any good parent will attest and The Mills Brothers sang, “You always hurt the one you love.” Not because you want to cause them pain, but because you want the best for them, which means you want them to BE their best. You want them to be individuals of high integrity and character, having acquired in good measure all the virtues that make a man, woman, boy or girl a treasure to others and more likely to experience joy and true happiness in this life and the next. But none of us come out of the womb with perfect personalities; we need to be trained. We require molding and shaping, and that can be painful. But the father who truly loves his child would rather see her unhappy but safe and growing in character, than happy in a dangerous or degrading activity or lifestyle.
Yet, just as our children can rebel against our disciplinary actions, refusing to submit and endure in order to learn and grow, and end up reaping more trouble instead of benefits, so too we have a choice to make when faced with suffering in our lives. We can choose to go through the crucible that refines us and produces something of great value, or we can choose to do our best to crawl out before it has done its work, thereby retaining in our souls the unlovely dross.
Our refusal to allow suffering to sanctify or save us will likely result in loss and more suffering, both in our lives and in the lives of those close to us. The father who disregards his marriage commitment because he doesn’t want to go through the hardship of loving sacrificially in the midst of conflict and disappointment, loses the blessings of a life marked by integrity as well as the love and devotion of his wife and children. And he is directly responsible for the undeserved suffering they will surely have to endure.