One of the most perplexing and troubling questions people deal with is “Why is there suffering in the world?” — or, more often, “Why am I suffering right now?” There have been whole books written on the subject. Among the best I have found are When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada, Rose From Brier by Amy Carmichael, and A Path Through Suffering by Elisabeth Elliot.
In the back Elisabeth Elliot’s book she has an appendix titled “A Summary of Reasons for Suffering” which I want to reproduce here. These verses do not deal so much with how to respond Scripturally to suffering, though some touch on that: that will have to be the subject of another post. These are just several of the reasons we find in Scripture for why God allows suffering. I wish I could print out all the related passages here, but it would make this post exceptionally long. I did try to link to most of them so you could just click on the reference to read the passage.
For the LORD will not cast off for ever: But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:31-33
We may group God’s reasons [for allowing suffering] into four categories. The list of references is by no means exhaustive.
1) We suffer for our own sake:
That we may learn who God is — Ps. 46:1, 10; Dan. 4:24-37; Job
That we may learn to trust — II Cor. 1:8-9
That we may learn to obey — Ps. 119: 67, 71
Discipline is a proof of the Father’s love and of the validity of our sonship — Heb. 12: 5-11
It is the condition of our discipleship — Acts 14:22; Luke 14:26-27, 33
It is required of soldiers — II Tim. 2:3-4
We are being “pruned” that we may bear fruit — John 15:2
That we may be shaped into the image of Christ — Rom. 8:29
To qualify us to be fellow-heirs with Christ — Romans 8:17 (I don’t know if I would have used the word “qualify” there — it is certainly not meant in a salvation-obtaining way.)
To qualify us for the kingdom of God — II Thess. 1:4-5 (Same herewith the word “qualify.” These verses isn’t saying that once we’ve suffered then we can go to heaven)
To qualify us to reign with Christ — II Tim. 2:12
That our faith may be strengthened — James 1:3; II Thess. 1:4-5; Acts 14:22
That our faith may be tested and refined — Isaiah 43:2; Dn. 11:35; Mal. 3:2; I Cor. 3:13; I Pet. 1:7
That we may reach spiritual maturity — James 1:4
Power comes to its full strength in weakness — II Cor. 12:9
To produce in us endurance character, hope — Romans 5:3-4
To produce in us joy and generosity — II Cor. 8:2
2) We suffer for the sake of God’s people:
That they may obtain salvation — II Tim. 2:10
To give them courage — Phil. 1:14
That because of death working in us, life may work in them — II Cor. 4:12; Gal. 4:13; I John 3:16
That grace may extend to more — II Cor.4:15
That our generosity may bless others — II Cor. 8:2
3) We suffer for the world’s sake:
4) We suffer for Christ’s sake:
That we may be identified with Him in His crucifixion — Ga. 2:20
Suffering is the corollary of faith — Ps. 44:22; Acts 9:16 and 14:22; II Tim. 3:12; Jn. 15: 18-21; I Thess. 1:6 and 3:4
That we may share His suffering — I Pt. 4:12-13; Phil. 1:29, 2:17, and 3:8, 10; Col. 1:24; II Tim. 1:8; Heb. 13:13
That we may share His glory — Romans 8:17-18; Heb. 2:9-10; II Cor. 4:17.
There are a few I didn’t see in her list:
Deut. 8:2-3: “And thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.”
To comfort others: II Cor 1: 3-7.
That we might know His grace is sufficient in our weakness: II Cor 12:7-10.
To spare us from a greater trial He knows would be too much for us: Exodus 13:17-18.
For our own foolishness. There are many verses in Proverbs about the results of foolish behavior.
To show people that what they’re trusting in is not sufficient. One of the reasons God caused the events in Exodus was to get people’s attention and to show that their gods were no gods, that He alone was God. He did get their attention, and there are signs some believed. Exodus 18:5-11; Exodus 14:18; 14:31; 11:9.
To bring to repentance: In some of the calamities God will cause in the time frame Revelation tells us of are designed to get people’s attention, for He says often in that book, “Though I sent this and did that, yet you still did not repent,” indicating that that was His purpose, or at least one purpose, behind the events.
There are instances of natural disaster as judgment in Scripture (being without rain 3 years in Elijah’s time), but not every natural event is judgmental (just as sometimes individual illnesses are judgmental — Asa being diseased in his feet, Miriam being turned leprous, but not every illness is judgmental for that person [i.e., the man born blind in John 9] except in the sense that evil happens because sin is in the world).
That God’s work may be shown: John 9:1-7
“When all you have is Christ you find that Christ is all you need.” I don’t remember who said that or something like it, but I do know that times in my life where I have felt the rug pulled out from under me, so to speak, are times when I came to know by experience that Christ truly was sufficient for every need. Spurgeon has a wonderful devotional here on Hebrews 12:27: “that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.”
Sorrow teaches our hearts things that could not be learned otherwise. Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 says: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
We live in a world affected by sin: Though I can’t think of one single passage that states this, there are several places that indicate that suffering came into the world when sin did and sin, sorrow, sickness, etc., will be eliminated for believers when they get to heaven. Rev. 21:4
Another thought is that God does not view death as we do. This was one thing that helped my son when he was troubled about why God let natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina happen. Death is in God’s hands, whether it is the death of an individual or hundreds of people, whether it happens in a car crash or an illness or a natural disaster. And, for the Christian, God looks at death differently than we do. On His side of it, He is ushering us into His Presence, and nothing could be better. To the lost and to the saved as well, these things can be a wake-up call — we all have a time limit, it is not guaranteed that we will live a certain number of years, and we need to be ready to meet eternity at any moment.
We have to accept, though, that we may never know why God allows certain particular things to happen. There’s no record that Job ever knew of the conversations between God and Satan about him during his lifetime. But as I mentioned earlier, we can cling to what we do know of God’s goodness and character, rest in the fact that He will bring good out of it, and trust that He will provide grace and strength.