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Why does God allow innocent suffering?

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Topic Scripture: Acts 3:1–10

I have to go to the dentist soon. I saw these tweets recently and thought I should have sent them:

“I have a dentist appointment first thing tomorrow morning. If you need me, I’ll be cramming six months worth of flossing into one night.”

“Going to the dentist is a great way to remind yourself what a coward you are.”

“Dentist numbed my mouth this morning. Turns out I’d rather dribble coffee all over my chest than wait 1 more hour to drink coffee.”

“Flossing the day of a dentist appointment feels a lot like cramming for a history test you didn’t study for but with more blood.”

Stories about innocent suffering make the news daily.

Nearly 100 children have died in another Ebola outbreak in Africa. More than 785 people are believed to have contracted the disease. A bus crash in North Macedonia killed fourteen and left thirty others injured.

And a mass shooting in Illinois last Friday left five people dead. One of them was named Trevor Wehner. He was a college intern starting his first day on the job. He was scheduled to graduate in May.

Innocent suffering is the greatest challenge the Christian faith must face. We believe that God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful.

If you were God, what would you change about your life? What pain, grief, guilt, or fear did you bring with you today? If you’re not hurting this morning, you know someone who is. How can you help?

These are our questions today as we step into one of my favorite stories in the New Testament.

Why does God allow innocent suffering? (Acts 3:1–2)

Acts 3 tells one of my favorite stories in the Bible—the lame man healed by God through Peter and John on their way to the temple. We usually tell the story from the viewpoint of Peter and John. Today, let’s hear it from the perspective of the “man lame from birth.”

Here’s the background.

As Acts 3 opens, we find Peter and John on their way to the temple for worship. It’s three in the afternoon, and everything is as routine as it gets.

They’ve been going to the temple in Jerusalem for worship since they were twelve. Climbing the steps through the Gate Beautiful or another entrance. Passing beggars along the way, each hoping for money from the worshippers. This is the third sacrifice given this very day, the third worship service.

It was all as routine as church can be for us. Drive the same streets, park in the same place, sit in the same pew. If someone gets there before us, there’s trouble. It’s all routine.

Everything is routine in our text, including this particular beggar. Crippled from birth, he’s now more than forty years old (Acts 4:22). Every day since infancy he’s been laid by this gate, to beg from these worshippers. So, he sees Peter and John on their way into the temple and asks them for money.

Let’s stop there.

Why is this man “lame from birth”? Why is he suffering in this way? He’s lying on the steps of the temple of the living God. This is where the Shekinah glory of the God of the universe resides. This is the best place on the planet to get God’s attention, we would think. And he’s been there for more than forty years.

If I’m this man, I’m wondering why I’m this man. Here’s what I would need to know so far:

One: God is perfect.

God is holy (Isaiah 6:3), sinless (1 Peter 2:22), and perfectly just (Deuteronomy 32:4).

Two: The world is broken.

The broken theology of their day taught that anyone born with a physical disability is being punished for sin. In John 9, when the disciples met a man born blind, they asked Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither” (vv. 2–3).

Misused free will does cause much of the suffering of our world. A person smokes and gets lung cancer. A man gets drunk and wrecks his car. But free will does not cause natural diseases and disasters. It doesn’t cause hurricanes and tsunamis.

Natural diseases and disaster are a consequence of the Fall and our broken world (Romans 8:22). Misused freedom did not cause my father’s heart disease or the cancer my older son had to go through a few years ago or this man’s disability.

Three: God sometimes intervenes to prevent the consequences of sin and the Fall.

He did not keep Herod from executing James, but he sent angels to keep him from executing Peter (Acts 12:1–11). Jesus healed many who were sick (Matthew 8:14–17) and calmed the stormy Sea of Galilee (vv. 23–27).

Four: His ways are higher than ours.

Here’s the mystery: Since God sometimes prevents innocent suffering, why doesn’t he always?

If God is as cruel as he seems to be when he allows a person to be born lame, why did he allow his Son to die for our sins? Why does he forgive our sins? Why does he prepare a place for us in paradise?

But if he is as loving as he seems to be at Calvary, why does he allow innocent people to be abused?

Perhaps God could explain this mystery to us but chooses not to. This seems unlikely since innocent suffering causes so many people to turn from faith in him. My father fought in World War II and did not attend church again because he could not reconcile his faith with the suffering he experienced. I cannot believe that God could have explained this issue to him but refused to do so.

The Lord reminds us: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Given that our minds are finite and fallen (Genesis 6:5), it seems much more plausible that God cannot reveal the mystery of innocent suffering to us because we cannot understand it. Just as a physics professor cannot explain Einsteinian relativity to a first-grader, so God cannot explain this enigma to us.

Here’s the bottom line for me: God redeems all he allows. Because God is sovereign, he must allow all that happens (1 Chronicles 29:11). Because he is holy, he can never make a mistake (Isaiah 6:3). However, he makes a mistake if he allows anything he does not redeem for a greater good (cf. Romans 8:28). Therefore, our Lord redeems all he allows. We may not see or understand his redemption on this side of heaven (1 Corinthians 13:12), but we can trust it today.

Be the hands and feet of Jesus

Our story continues: “Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms” (v. 3). This is what the man has been doing for most of the forty years of his life.

Now comes the surprise: “And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us'” (v. 4). The Greek word means to stare with intense purpose. It’s the word used for the apostles as they stared at the ascending Christ (Acts 1:10), and for Stephen as he stared at the enthroned Lord while he was dying (Acts 7:55). Others saw, but Peter and John looked. Others heard, but they listened. Others rushed by, but they stopped. They saw the one. They saw his need. And they cared. That’s where ministry begins.

The story continues: “And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to get something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!'” (vv. 5–6). Ministry requires time for the one and trust in the name. We believe that God can do what we cannot do.

There’s a third element: “And he took him by the right hand and raised him up” (v. 7a). Religious people didn’t do this in Peter’s day. To touch the man was to become contaminated by the “sin” they believed caused his disability. You might toss the man a coin, but you didn’t touch his misshapen body.

Peter didn’t just touch him—the Greek says that he “seized” him. To be the hands of Jesus, we must make time for the one, trust in the name, and touch the hurt.

Here’s what happened: “And immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up, he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (vv. 7b–10).

Conclusion

If you’re lame today, hurting and wondering why, know this: God does not cause innocent suffering. He sometimes intervenes directly. When he does not, we must trust his love and purpose. As the song says, “When you cannot see his hand, trust his heart.”

If you know someone who’s lame today, make time for them. Trust God’s power. Touch their hurt. Be the hands of Jesus, the answer to the pain of our day. There is no greater privilege or calling.

When my father died, I had all the same questions we’ve explored today. Where was God? Why did he allow this? The next day, a friend named Ricky Wilcox drove across Houston to be with me. He didn’t try to answer my questions. He was just there. He brought the presence of Jesus. And I’ll never forget him.

When my brother and I went back to school after Dad’s funeral, the first day another friend named Linda Sharp found us. Linda had lost her father to cancer, then her pregnant older sister was killed by a drunk driver. Linda put her arms around us and said, “Time helps. It doesn’t heal, but it helps.” I’ll never forget her.

Would you be a Ricky Wilcox or a Linda Sharp to someone today?

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