One of the bitterest questions everyone asks at some point is “Why, God?” Why was I diagnosed with this terrible illness? Why did my spouse walk out? Why did a child have to die? Why is this happening?
We wonder, if God is both good and powerful, why would this suffering be allowed to happen to us and those we love? It feels unjust and unfair, and certainly outside of the character of a loving God.
There are, I suppose, a few big picture answers to that question. On a good day and in a general way, textbook theological answers can help us understand why God allows suffering. But in the moment of pain, through the tears, there’s often not an easy answer that takes away the torment. In any given instance of trouble, there probably isn’t one single answer. Rather, at this moment, the honest answer is “I don’t know” why God allows me and you to suffer, and “I know it hurts, and it breaks God's heart too.” Our lack of understanding doesn’t mean that God doesn't see your pain, and it certainly doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. God’s heart breaks along with yours.
Even the biblical writers yelled angrily to God. God’s people have long cried out for God to pay attention to their suffering. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Ps 22:1-2). Throughout human history, people have cried out to God with their pain and anger, and the good news is that God can take it. God hears your laments, and he remains close by. God won’t leave you no matter how strong your feelings are.
One of the textbook answers to suffering is to simply note that the world has been broken by sin, and bad things just happen. Things go wrong, people get sick, those we love die. It’s not supposed to be this way. As Paul describes it, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Sometimes, bad things happen, and it’s no one’s fault. You didn’t deserve it, God didn’t send it, but it happens. This broken world is where we are now, but God doesn’t leave us here.
It’s also true, and we all know it, that everyone sins, and sin usually hurts someone. Sometimes, someone intends to hurt you (2 Timothy 3:12-13), or you intend to hurt them. Sometimes we happen to cause suffering for ourselves or others in pursuit of something else. Sometimes we mean to hurt someone, sometimes we're just reckless, but often our own choices are part of the problem. Living with consequences can be painful; sometimes getting what we deserve still seems unfair, even when it’s not. Thankfully, God is merciful and slow to anger, and hears us when we call on him.
When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept. He wept with a broken heart for his friend and the grieving family. Jesus went on powerfully and miraculously to raise Lazarus from the dead, but at first, in that moment, Jesus, the King of the Universe, wept and grieved for his dead friend. You are not alone in your pain. God sees you. God cries along with you. Pain is not what any parent wants for their child, and this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. God doesn’t move on our timeline, but that doesn’t mean he’s absent or uncaring. God knows exactly where you’re at and his heart is broken too.
Another textbook answer, one that often isn’t helpful until it’s all over, is the promise that suffering can be transformative. The journey makes us grow. Our struggles can make us more tender towards the pain of others. Consequences of our mistakes can teach us wisdom. Knowing some loss can make us grateful for blessings we receive. Trials can help us mature into better people. As Paul notes, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).
Because suffering is not the way it’s supposed to be, God already entered our cosmos and suffered and died because of sin. God has already begun to restore all things to himself. Why it takes so long, we may never know this side of the New Creation. But because of Christ’s action, God’s people have a sure hope that our God will have the final answer. As Paul cried out in agony, “Who can rescue me from this body of sin and death?" (Romans 7:24), he answered his own question with the realization “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Your suffering is not God’s plan, and God sees you, has you, and will be with you as you journey through it to the dawning of a better new day.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Dr. Robert Ritzema