Why a good God must allow even innocent suffering to exist

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Why a good God must allow suffering—even innocent suffering—to exist

September 1, 2023 -

A child sits next to his fallen bike, grabbing at his scraped knee, a depiction of innocent suffering. Ermolaev Alexandr/stock.adobe.com

A child sits next to his fallen bike, grabbing at his scraped knee, a depiction of innocent suffering. Ermolaev Alexandr/stock.adobe.com

A child sits next to his fallen bike, grabbing at his scraped knee, a depiction of innocent suffering. Ermolaev Alexandr/stock.adobe.com

Across much of this week, the Daily Articles have focused on how natural disasters like Hurricane Idalia can lead us to question God’s goodness and force us to wrestle with the existence of suffering in this world, particularly when it is the result of natural disasters or other factors outside of our control.

In yesterday’s article, my father wrote about my experiences with cancer and the impact it had on his relationship with the Lord.

Today, I’d like to continue that discussion by taking it a step further to discuss why such suffering is not only redeemable but necessary in light of God’s goodness.

Why do we suffer?

To understand the necessity of suffering, though, we have to start with why it’s possible in the first place.

The highest purpose for which we were created was to enter into a loving relationship with the Lord and to worship him. However, that kind of relationship requires a free will choice on our part. Because love is, by nature, a choice more than an emotion, if God forced it from us, then it would cease to be love.

And we can know that’s the case, in part, because otherwise there is no good reason for him to have created us with free will.

Not all suffering is the result of the sinful choices people make—the hurricane this week is a powerful reminder of that fact. Yet, the truth remains that our free will is still the source of so much pain and suffering in this world that if God’s ultimate purpose for our lives did not require us to have such freedom, then he made a mistake in giving it to us.

However, just because we have free will does not mean that our freedom exists without boundaries or limitations. After all, I have the freedom to jump off the roof of my house, but the quick drop that follows will make it abundantly clear that I lack the freedom to fly.

Rather, free will is more like a menu of options from which we can choose. That ability to choose still gives us agency over our actions, but within limits. Those limits are necessary because history shows that for anything God allows humanity to conceive of doing, someone will endeavor to attempt it.

That ability is the source of so much human development and progress over the years, but it’s also the source of some of humanity’s greatest atrocities. As such, questions about why God would allow certain, even unspeakable, evils to occur are natural, as is the belief that if we were God, we would prevent them.

And, if God is really God, he could. After all, he is all powerful, and he is the one who determines which choices show up on our menu of available options.

Yet, it is logical—and perhaps even likely—that he has drawn the line somewhere and that there are even greater atrocities than we can fathom that he has decided not to allow. The truth of that statement, however, doesn’t lessen the pain or suffering we experience when faced with the hardships of this life.

And therein lies the problem with the premise that a good God wouldn’t allow us to suffer.

The scale of suffering

Ultimately, our problem would not be solved if the Lord prohibited children from dying, mass genocides from occurring, or any of the other unspeakable evils of which people are capable. And the same would be true if we woke up this morning to the knowledge that there would never be another hurricane, tornado, or natural disaster.

The reason is that our understanding of the suffering we face is determined primarily by where it sits on the scale of what we know to be possible.

My cancer gave me a new perspective on what it means to suffer emotionally, physically, and spiritually. And I didn’t have it nearly as bad as many of the people with whom I shared a waiting room.

When a child scrapes their knee and cries like it’s just been amputated, the reason is often less that they’re overreacting than that they simply lack a frame of reference for understanding how bad that truly hurts. It’s the same as when they come home from school distraught because their best friend played with someone else on the playground.

It can be easy to dismiss such pain because we have a better understanding of what it really means to suffer. For a child, though, that might not be the case.

You see, even if the worst of our suffering was removed, whatever resides just below that line would then take its place as unspeakably evil and beyond the pale of what a good God should allow.

If our frame of reference for how we understand and experience pain and suffering in this life were such that something as small as a hangnail was the worst that he allowed us to endure, it would still be so unspeakably tragic to us that we would question his goodness. And, this side of heaven, that will always be the case.

If God is truly good

The existence of sin in this world means that suffering will always exist here as well. As such, one of the worst things God could do would be to skew our frame of reference to such a degree that the unavoidable, everyday pains we experience seem like an unacceptable calamity.

He had to draw that line of how much evil he would allow in such a way that we would be able to tolerate the pains that all of us must face without becoming constantly discouraged and overwhelmed.

Now, you and I can disagree with where he drew that line, but we need to understand that changing it wouldn’t really make a difference in the end.

Until Christ returns to establish a new heaven and a new earth, there will always be some pain or some tragedy that seems difficult to reconcile with the existence of an all-powerful and perfectly good God. But if he is truly good, then we have reason to believe that he was as gracious as possible in limiting how much suffering could exist in this life.

Ultimately, God was left with two choices:

  1. Remove our free will, thereby eliminating any possibility of entering into a loving relationship with him or anyone else
  2. Or allow us to experience suffering, even when it seems beyond the pale of what a good God would allow

I would not trade the love I’ve experienced from God and others for a life without pain.

Would you?

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