During a recent conversation, someone brought up the problem of suffering in this world. The question goes something like this: If God is good and in control of everything why does He allow people to suffer—especially innocent people. My first response was that suffering is a result of sin. I said this even after presenting “Is all suffering the result of personal sin?” from Job 22-24 last week. This idea seems to be ingrained even in my mind. While it is often true, that is not the only reason that suffering happens. Tonight, I would like to expand on and correct my answer. During our study, we will look at biblical examples, causes, and responses to suffering.
- Examples of suffering
Before we discuss the causes of suffering, I think it would be good to examine the experiences of several people in the Bible who experienced suffering. Their experiences will help us to see God’s reasons for allowing suffering to take place.
Adam and Eve (Gen. 3)
The first man and woman were the first to suffer. They had been given everything they needed with only one stipulation. They were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and evil. God had promised that death would be the result of disobedience. Satan, in the form of a serpent, convinced them that God was wrong and that disobedience would make them like God. Sadly, when they chose to disobey, there were bad results. God confronted them and set a curse on men, women, and the earth. The woman was cursed with pain in childbirth. The man was cursed with hard work. The earth was cursed with thorns and thistles. And all were cursed with eventual death.
Job (Job 1-2)
Job was a righteous man who served God faithfully but experienced great suffering. When God brought this up to Satan, the wicked one proclaimed that Job only served God for what God gave him. In response, God allowed Satan to take away his wealth and family. Satan immediately motivated wicked people to steal all of Job’s wealth and also caused a wind to collapse the building in which his children were feasting. All ten children died. Later, Satan struck Job with painful boils all over his body. The suffering was so great that any other person might have cursed God and died.
Joseph (Gen. 37; 39-41)
Joseph was a godly young man who suffered greatly at the hands of others. Due to his father’s favoritism and his God-given dreams, Joseph’s brothers hated him enough to kidnap him and sell him as a slave. He was later sold to Potiphar in Egypt, was falsely accused of sexual harassment, and was put in prison for several years. He experienced all of these things despite doing nothing wrong.
Man born blind (John 9)
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, there were many people who were suffering from physical ailments. One of these was a blind man. Being without sight caused this man to have to rely on others for food, direction, and housing. His suffering was the topic of discussion amongst Jesus’ disciples.
In each of these situations, people suffered. But why did they suffer? Each one suffered for a different reason. This is the topic of our next point.
- Causes of suffering
Before we look at how to respond to suffering, we should consider why suffering happens. While we may be tempted to pass judgment on people who are going through suffering, we should be careful not to follow in the footsteps of Job’s friends who blamed him for all that had happened.
Personal choices can lead to suffering (Adam and Eve).
We are all aware that suffering can be caused by our own choices. In the case of Adam and Eve, their suffering (and our own) was a direct result of their sinful choice. God had told them there would be repercussions for disobedience and they still chose to disobey. As a result, their death and suffering were a direct result of the choices that they made. Each of them tried to blame it on someone else, but deep down they knew that their suffering was a result of their own choices.
The choices of others can lead to suffering (Jospeh).
In the case of Joseph, he was not the cause of his suffering. He did not go through suffering because of his own choices but those of others. His brothers were envious of their father’s favoritism toward Joseph. His brothers were perturbed by his telling them his dream. His brothers gave into their anger and sold him as a slave.
“Sometimes, innocent children suffer because of the sin of others: neglect, abuse, drunk driving, etc. In those cases, we can definitely say that the suffering is the result of personal sin (just not theirs), and we learn the lesson that our sin always affects others around us.”1
Satan’s cruelty can lead to suffering (Job).
In the case of Job, it was not his own sin or the sin of others that caused his suffering. It was the cruelty of Satan that caused him to suffer. The wicked one was so hateful that he caused the death of Job’s children and the loss of his wealth and health. Nobody knew this while Job was going through his suffering, but it was still true. Behind the scenes, Satan was involved in causing great harm to Job.
God’s plan can lead to suffering (man born blind).
In the case of the man born blind, it was not his own sin, the sin of others, or Satan’s cruelty. Instead, it was God’s plan to allow him to suffer blindness from birth. While this may seem cruel, we should consider what Jesus said about the situation. His disciples were under the impression that his blindness was the result of his own sin or that of his parents. But Jesus had to correct them. This man’s blindness, his suffering, was part of God’s plan “that the works of God should be revealed in him.” His suffering (and subsequent healing) was allowed by God to point people to Jesus.
- Responses to suffering
Now that we know that suffering is not always a result of one’s personal sin, we should consider how we should respond to suffering we are currently facing or might face in the future. Consider the following questions about our responses to suffering.
Do you believe that God can use suffering for a good purpose? (Gen. 50:19-21)
After Joseph’s suffering was over and his father had died, his brothers were worried that Joseph was extract his revenge from them. He was no longer in prison but had been promoted to a leadership position in Egypt. He could have them all thrown into prison and see how they liked to suffer. But instead, Joseph had already come to grips with God’s purpose for his suffering. He recognized his brothers’ evil deeds. But he also recognized God’s plan. God had allowed these situations to put Joseph in the right place and the right time. As a result, Joseph was used by God to save many people from starvation during a terrible famine.
Do you believe that God can make good come from suffering? (Rom. 8:28)
When we are going through suffering, it is not a pleasant thing. But God often uses the suffering we endure as part of His greater plan. In Romans 8:28, we are told that “all things work together for good.” Every Christian can be assured that God has a plan that includes both the suffering, the choices made, and the people involved to accomplish something in His omniscient plan. Those who know the Lord have come to not only believe Him but to trust Him with their lives. When confronted with suffering, they can look at the situation and trust that the Lord has a greater plan that incorporates all things working together for good. It may not seem good at the time, but it will eventually accomplish God’s perfect plan.
Do you believe that God can use suffering to make you better? (1 Pet. 5:10)
In this passage, Peter points out something that we may not particularly enjoy. When he was writing this epistle, Christians were experiencing persecution for their faith in Christ. Suffering for being a Christian was not always an easy thing. It was more than being called names or being yelled at. It often included physical harm, prison time, and even death. During such times, God led Peter to inform them that God was going to allow them to suffer so that they would become stronger Christians.
Think back to the disciples when a great storm almost swamped their boat. They cried out to Jesus and questioned his care for them. But then Jesus spoke and the storm ceased. Do you think they learned a lesson that day? “In Christ we have an anchor that holds fast in all the storms of life, but, if we never sail into those storms, how would we know that?”1 Instead of complaining about suffering, we should instead presume that God is using it as training. He wants us to go through suffering, not because He hates us but because He loves us and wants to make us stronger.
The age-old question as to why God allows people to suffer is still a difficult one to answer. Suffering is bad. It is not easy to handle—even for Christians. But as we look through what the Bible says, we can see that God’s plan often includes suffering. Sometimes it is the result of sin. Sometimes it is the result of Satanic oppression. Sometimes it is the result of God’s perfect plan. Many times, we have no control over when and where it happens. But we do have the opportunity to know and trust the One who is in control. When we come to the point where we can trust God’s purpose, ability to bring about good, and to make us stronger amidst suffering, we will be in a much better condition—trusting in Him.
1 “Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?”
Johnson, Don, “How Suffering Glorifies God” as viewed at https://www.proclaimanddefend.org/2021/09/02/how-suffering-glorifies-god/ on 7/2/2023.
“What does the Bible say about suffering?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=1901 on 7/2/2023.
“Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=1434 on 7/2/2023.
Williquette, Scott, and Steve Thomas, “How to Handle Suffering” as viewed at https://www.proclaimanddefend.org/2012/10/22/how-to-handle-suffering/ on 7/2/2023.