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God and Suffering

By Gary F. Zeolla

"If there is a God, why is there so much suffering in the world?" This is a question most any person has asked at one time, in one form or another. For Christians, more often than not, the question comes to the forefront when they, or someone they are close to, undergoes some personal suffering of some sort. Such suffering often causes Christians to begin to question God and their Christian faith.

Two Different Books on Suffering

Many books have been written on this subject: some excellent, some good, and some not so good, or even outright horrendous.

In the last category would be When Do Bad Things Happen to Good People by some Rabbi Harold Kushner, a Reform rabbi. This book truly falls in the horrendous category.

A paragraph from the last page of the book sums up his thesis:
Are you capable of forgiving and loving God even when you have found out He is not perfect, even when He has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in His world, and permitting some of those things to happen to you? Can you learn to love and forgive Him despite His limitations, as Job does, and as you once learned to forgive and love your parents even though they were not as wise, as strong, or as perfect as you needed them to be? (p. 148).

The two most important phrases in this paragraph are: "He is not perfect" and "His limitations." These show Kushner's basic thesis that God is UNABLE to do anything about evil because He is NOT omnipotent or omniscient. So Kushner believes God is "limited" in His power and knowledge. As such, He is not "perfect."

However, the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, clearly DO teach that God IS omnipotent, omniscient, and perfect. My Scripture Study on The Attributes of God provides ample Scriptural evidence for these points. So Kushner's book is worthless for anyone who believes the Scriptures. I even complained to the owner of a local Christian bookstore for selling the book, to no avail.

However, the quote from Kushner does present an idea that is very common in Christian circles. It is that God "permits" suffering, but He does not "cause" it. This generally develops from an Arminian viewpoint that God "limits" his sovereignty to the point that He has no control over the "free-will" decisions of people. This idea supposedly "frees" God from being "guilty" of causing evil in the world.

But is such an idea Scriptural? For those of us who have recognized the Calvinist viewpoint as being Scriptural, the answer would be no. God can and does control people's "wills." So where does that leave the suffering Christian?

The best book I have ever read on this subject is Jerry Bridges' Trusting God Even when Life Hurts. This book is completely opposite to Kushner's book.

Bridges writes in the Preface:
The purpose of this book is two-fold: First, I desire to glorify God by acknowledging His sovereignty and His goodness. Second, I desire to encourage God's people by demonstrating from Scripture that God is in control of their lives, that He does indeed love them, and that He works out all the circumstances of their lives for their ultimate good (p.11).

I read this book several years ago and found it to be extremely helpful. I've thought back over ideas in that books many times in during my numerous struggles.

Basically, Bridges puts forth three propositions as to why we can trust God: 1. God is omniscient: so He knows what is best for us. 2. God is sovereign: so He can bring about what is best for us. 3. God is love: so He wants what is best for us.

As a result, whatever we're going through, we can trust God that there is a reason for it, even if we cannot figure it out this side of heaven.

And Bridges even has a chapter titled, "God's Sovereignty over People" (Chapter 4). In it, he clearly shows from Scripture after Scripture that God can and does control the "wills" of people. So the Arminian notion simply is not Scriptural.

Bridges also has chapters on "God's Rule over the Nations" (Chapter 5) and "God's Power over Nature" (Chapter 6). And again, he includes numerous Scriptures to support the ideas indicated by the chapter titles.

In fact, many of the Scriptures references in my Scripture Study, The Sovereignty of God found in my Scripture Workbook were taken from this book. And the rest of this article presents ideas that have their roots in Bridges' book.

Suffering Not All Caused by "Free-will"

The Arminian attitude towards suffering is that it is caused by human "free-will" or maybe even by Satan, but definitely not by God. However, that viewpoint has serious problem.

Consider the following verse:
[Exod 4:11] So the LORD said to him, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the LORD?"

I was teaching a Bible study on this subject a while back. A friend of mine who was born blind was attending the study. So I "put her on the spot" (without warning her beforehand because I wanted her honest reaction). I asked her point blank after reading this verse: "Who made you blind?"

She laughed and first said jokingly, "Satan." But then she stopped and said seriously, "Of course, God did. If Satan did then that would mean Satan, not God, set the direction for my life."

And this is where the Arminian explanation breaks down: birth defects, natural disasters, and many other "evil" events cannot be explained away by saying it was someone's "free will" that caused the problem. There was no "free will" involved in my friends blindness. Her mother was not an alcoholic or anything like that. So the best you could say was it was "nature" or "Fate" or "chance." These might be an explanation to the atheist but not to the Christian or anyone who believes in God.

So that leaves us with Satan or God. And as my friend correctly pointed out, if you say Satan then you have Satan in control of personal lives not God. But the Bible says, "A man's heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps" (Prov 16:9). We may think we are in control, but God is the one who is really. And even more, "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes" (Prov 21:1).

Verses like the above and many others that could be quoted show God is in ultimate control, even of evil. But what about cases of evil where people are the direct causes? Some people like to believe God isn't in it: that it is just evil people doing the acts. But then that means God is not in control of personal or world history. And if God is not, then we are adrift, without any hope.

Similarly, deism (the belief that God created the universe then just left it alone) wouldn't be an answer to the problem of evil either. First, it wouldn't fit with Scripture in any sense. And it really wouldn't answer the question of "why" God left us alone to suffer. If that was the case then there would no purpose for our pain, hope that good come from it, or hope that it would ever end. That last points would also apply to atheism.

But, as a study of the Book of Job will show, God IS in control; there is a reason and purpose behind our suffering, even if we can't figure it out.

Possible Purposes of Suffering

[Heb 12:5] And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; [6] For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives."

A lot of terrible things can happen to us; the list is endless. But the question is, what can we learn from them? Take, as an example, someone caring for a sick relative. Could it be the caregiver's love for the relative will increase? Compassion for him? Could the suffering bring them closer together. Just some possibilities.

One reason someone might become a Christian is a fear of God or of going to hell. And these are good reason to initially become a Christian. But a true Christian will go beyond fearing God and hell to being a Christian because of wanting to be with God.

But am I still afraid of God? He is omnipotent while I (obviously!) am not . So I guess if I focused on that I could look at God as some kind of big bully who was picking on me.

But, and here is where the third point of Bridges' book comes in, God loves me! So He would not use his superior strength against me but for me (Rom 8:31). Have I ranted at God at times: of course! But ultimately, I have to look at what God has enabled me to do, the proverbially silver lining. And right now that focus is on the Analytical-Literal Translation. I doubt I would have started this project if I was of "normal" health.

In sum, compassion, love, and a myriad of other good qualities are brought out in those attending the sick. And the sick can either let their sickness lead to bitterness, or they can learn patience, endurance, and most of all trust in God due to their sickness. And this leads to the next point.

It is in the crucible of suffering that the true Christian is "weeded" from the mere professor:
[1Peter 1:6] In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, [7] that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, [8] whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, [9] receiving the end of your faith--the salvation of your souls.

When pain strikes, that is when a thing called "faith" comes in and when the above passage becomes applicable. God just might be "trying" the person to see if their faith and love for Him are genuine or not. It's easy to be a "fair-weather" believer, but to maintain faith in God during tough times that is when God can really change a person. Remember, our priorities and His are considerably different. We want a pain free and enjoyable life; He wants to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29).

Upon hearing this, some might fear they will fail the test. But that is when a verse like Mark 9:24 comes to mind, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" It sounds like a contradiction, but it's not. To cry out to God to help your unbelief shows you have enough faith to believe in Him. And if you believe in Him He's not going to let you go.

And yes, this is where my Calvinist theology comes in. There's been many times in all of my struggles where I have begun to doubt God and thought maybe I could end up turning my back on Him. But I know He would never let me do that. I know I could try leaving Him, but He would never let me leave. Sooner or later He would drag me back, on my knees, in tears of repentance.

[John 10:28] "And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand."

I know God will not allow one of His children to ever perish. I know he will drag them back when they stray one way or another (see Heb 12:5,6 quoted previously).

So I do not fret over loosing my faith when I have doubts. I know God will not let that happen. And this reveals one of the biggest problems I have with Arminian theology. It puts a person who is going through struggles not just in the position of asking "why?" (as anyone does when going through struggles), but it also puts them in fear of loosing their salvation on top of everything else. That is a fear someone who understands what the security of the believer means would never have to go through.

Allowing vs. Causing Evil

Some people prefer to think it is not God but evil people who perform evil acts. The common idea is God "allows" evil, but He does not "cause" it. But there is Scriptural evidence to the contrary.

Moreover, to argue the difference between God "allowing" evil and God "causing" evil is really hair-splitting. Even if God only "allowed" it He could have prevented it. So why didn't He? And that takes us back to square one.

For instance, God "allowed" Satan to "attack" Job. But God put specific limits on what Satan could and could not do, and when (Job 1,2). So God could have prevented any of Satan's attacks, but He didn't. Why not? Well, if you were Job you would have never found out why. God never tells Job about the "scene" in heaven in the first two chapters. God's answer to Job and his complaints was:

[Job 38:1] Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: [2] "Who is this who darkens counsel By words without knowledge? [3] Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. [4] "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.

Not much of an answer is it? But what God is doing is forcing Job to acknowledge His Lordship over all. And Job's only possible response is to repent (Job 42:1).

Yes it is evil people committing evil. The Calvinist does not say God is the direct cause of evil, but we do say He is the ultimate cause. That is to say, God uses evil people for His ends, just as God used Satan in the above example.

Now, before a Christian says he "likes" the Arminian explanation better, he should be asking, what does the Bible teach? In other words, should a Christian's "feelings" or likes determine his worldview or the Bible?

Bridges quotes many Scriptures in his book. So before "writing off" what he has to say I would recommend the reader get his book and look up the many verses he quotes, in their contexts, and see if he is correctly using them. Or look up the many verses referenced in the above mentioned Scripture Study, The Sovereignty of God. Either way, if these verses do teach God's absolute sovereignty, then you need to decide which it will be, what you "like" or what God says.

Moreover, if God cannot control people's heart, then simply put, "Why pray?" The Arminian will try to charge the Calvinist with leaving no place for prayer when in fact it is the opposite. If God is not in control, then He cannot help us in times of trouble. If He has so restricted His power that He will not interfere in our "free will" then I would never have been saved. I could not have broken my own evil heart and come to Christ on my own.

Furthermore, I could not pray for God to change an evil person's heart. I could not pray for God to change the heart anyone I am having difficulties with. God is simply left out of our day to day struggles. He becomes a bystander, not One who can intervene and make a difference.

I can't give a reason or explanation for why God "allows" or "causes" every case of evil or suffering. It is a difficulty from any Christian viewpoint. But, from the Arminian viewpoint, with God not in charge or control, I personally would have a harder not easier time of dealing with it.

All I can do is comment on how I have viewed the problems in my life. Some I could blame on myself, some on others, and some "just happened." From an Arminian view, I would have to picture God up in heaven, crying about what has happened to me but unwilling to do anything to have stopped it because He "restricted" His power over my life.

Some might find comfort in this: that God "hurts" over my suffering as much as I do. But I find no comfort in it at all. It means my life has NOT turned out the way God wanted it. But from my viewpoint, I can say with Joseph that my life has turned out this way for a reason:

[Gen 45:7] "And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. [8] "So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.

If you read the story of Joseph, you will see that many "free-will" decisions, co-incidences, and the like brought Joseph to Egypt. But Joseph didn't see it that way. "God sent me" is the ultimate reason Joseph ended up in Egypt. There was a reason for all his suffering and the terrible things that were done to him. That reason was ultimately God, and His purpose for Joseph's life. And that is how I view things.

And one final point in this regard, Calvinists DO believe in human will; it is just that we do not believe it is "free" in the sense that Arminians do. We have a will, the ability to make choices, but those choices are not free. We cannot choose to do anything. We are limited by many factors, but most especially the nature of ourselves.

[Matt 7:17] "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. [18] "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.

[Rom 8:7] Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. [8] So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

So when people commit evil acts they are acting according to their own evil wills. It could be said, God permitted them to so act, but He could have stopped it. Or, that God "used" their evil wills to further His purposes.

Either way, in many cases, acts of evil are stopped. And when it is, God often uses other humans to do so. But He could have stopped it sooner, or He could have let it go on longer. But ultimately, He was in control; He chose the timetable for a reason. History is not run amok.


The whole interplay of the sovereignty of God and human will is difficult from any viewpoint, especially as regards suffering. Obviously, I have not covered every possible angle in this short article. The above was simply put together from various e-mail discussions I have been having on this subject.

But I will close by saying this: suffering seems to either bring a person closer to God or drive them further away. And from the above verses, the direction someone goes is a reflection of their inner natures.

But, of course, and this is where the Calvinist completely differs from the Arminian, God can and does change a person's inner nature so that he or she can and will come to Him. I can't explain why every case of suffering is happening. But whatever is happening, it is doing so because it is God's way of bringing about His ultimate plans for a person or society.

Maybe, just maybe, God will use a case of suffering to turn a heart to him. At least from a Calvinist perspective I CAN pray that God would so change a person's heart. An Arminian cannot so pray. If God does change the heart of a suffering individual, and in many, many cases that is exactly what happens, then there is at least a partial answer as to why the suffering occurred.

If not, then I have no answer. No one does. But as the experience of Joseph shows us, the ultimate answer is that God is in control. Either we bow to His Lordship or rebel against it. I will bow to it, recognizing He knows better than I. He is in control, and ultimately, yes, He loves me and knows what is best. And that is the message of Bridges' book that I have carried with me in my years of suffering since I read the book. I would highly recommend Bridges' book to anyone wishing to pursue this matter further.


>Dear Gary,

I just finished reading J.I. Packer's Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, which was, in all seriousness, one of the best books I have ever had the pleasure to read. If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend that you give it a try.<

I've had the book in my library for some time, but I haven't read it yet. Maybe I should pull it off of the shelf already!

> At any rate, the issue of God's sovereignty seems to be popping up frequently in my life recently. Coincidence? I think not... ;-) <

I like to call them "God-incidences."

> While I've enjoyed all of your articles, I found "God and Suffering" particularly insightful and meaningful. Though I believed in the idea of a sovereign God intellectually, its real impact on my daily walk is just now beginning to take hold. That our Lord is both compassionate and sovereign is a very comforting truth for me during what has been a fairly challenging time of my life.

Thank you for writing an such excellent and helpful article.

Take care,

Thank you for commenting on that article. It was somewhat difficult to write as it was rather personal. But I was hoping it would help someone. You are correct, it is one thing to say you believe in God's sovereignty, but it's another thing entirely to live as if you really believe in it.

>I wanted to express how much I appreciated your well written article [God and Suffering]. ...

I find a wonderful peace at times and at times during  pain and suffering I find myself very angry at God and I am not at all comfortable to admit that. I fear God. The point you made about God loving us is what makes all the difference. I have walked with Him long enough to look back and see that He knows what's best and has been utterly faithful to me even when I was not to Him. I wanted you to know how the Lord was using this article.

Thank you and God Bless,

I am thankful that article was of help to you. It was somewhat difficult for me to write as it was rather personal. But I decided to do so as I was praying my experiences would help someone else with similar struggles. Thanks for letting me know God answered that prayer.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture verses are from: New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982. Verses copied from: Lardian PalmBible. Copyright 1998 by Craig Rairdin. All rights reserved. Portions Copyright 1998 by Jeff Wheeler. All rights reserved.

Bridges. Jerry. Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1988.
Kushner, Harold. When Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Avon Books, 1981.

God and Suffering. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

The above article was posted on this website June 18, 1999.

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