Why does God allow suffering?
Passage: Genesis 50:15–21, Job 1:1– 2:13, Matthew 26:36–46, Acts 4:27–28
God is powerful enough to use your suffering for good.
Many people by the end of their life have had at least one surgery. I think I have had five so far. I’m sure none of us would get surgery just for the fun of it. The five surgeries I have had were recommended or necessary to either prevent or fix a problem. I didn’t sit down that year and excitedly schedule my yearly surgery. Most of us I’m sure dread having surgery. Why? Because it’s scary and painful. And yet, we have them. We put them on the calendar. We push through. We go through the pain. We are even willing to pay someone to cause that pain!
Thinking about surgery can be a helpful way to get us started on tonight’s topic. We don’t want to go through surgery because it is painful, but why are we will to endure it? Why are we will to push through? What motivates us to endure hard things? What enables us to endure hard things?
This evening we are continuing to Explore God. We’ve already talked about whether life has a purpose and whether there is a God. Last week, we said that God has clearly shown us and told us that he exists. But if God really does exist, that leads us to ask this week’s question: why does God allow suffering?
This question brings up the problem of evil. The common way to say it is this: if God is good and God is powerful, then evil should not exist. Suffering should not exist. Pain should not exist. If God really was both good and powerful, he would do something about all the evil, pain, and suffering in the world. But since our world is filled with evil, pain, and suffering, that must mean that God is not both good and powerful. Maybe he is good and hates all the suffering in our world, but he isn’t powerful enough to do anything about it. Or maybe he is powerful and could do something about it, but because he isn’t good he lets suffering continue to exist. Or perhaps God doesn’t exist at all and that’s why the world is at it is.
But this is not simply an intellectual question for philosophers to ponder and debate. This is a deeply personal question. While I was in seminary, Katie and I planned to start having kids after I graduated in 2015. We tried for a year with no success. Then we went to a fertility doctor and he was quite convinced that he would be able to get us pregnant. But despite his best efforts, month after month we would get our hopes up and month after month would only end in tears and heartache. We wondered: why God?
I’m sure each of us in this room has had moments where we’ve asked that. I’m sure each of you has personally experienced pain, suffering, and evil. You may have experienced the loss of a friend, loss of a house, loss of health, loss of a job. You may have lost a child or a parent or a spouse. You may have had horrible, unspeakable, undeserved evil done to you at some point in your life. Whatever the suffering or pain or evil is, you may have had moments on your knees in tears asking God: “Where were you? Where are you? Don’t you care? Why are you allowing this to happen to me?”
Tonight, the goal is not to minimize or invalidate the pain and suffering you have experienced. One of the most powerful and beautiful aspects of the Christian faith is that it communicates to the entire human experience. If you read through the Bible, you will discover characters who suffered immense pain and loss and they express their grief and sadness to God. What’s even more remarkable is that sometimes they even express that they are disappointed with him. “God, I’ve done everything right! God, we’ve done everything right! Where are you? Why are you letting this happen to us?” And the fact that God included those parts in the Bible tells us that God invites us to bring all of our emotions to him, even if they are angry emotions toward him.
What we are going to do tonight is talk about good news. Here’s the big idea for this evening: God is powerful enough to use your suffering for good. God is powerful enough to use your suffering for good.
To explore this big idea, we are going to look at three characters in the Bible: Joseph, Job, and Jesus. Let’s start with Joseph.
Joseph (Genesis 50:15-21)
Our first Scripture reading in Genesis 50 records an event that happened at the very end of Joseph’s life. We are going to look at a key quote from that event so find Genesis chapter 50 verse 19 in your Bibles. It’s on page 44 of the black Bibles we’ve provided.
We don’t have time to go into all the details of Joseph’s story. But we will actually cover the whole story starting May after Easter in order to finish off our Genesis series. For our purposes, I’ll just give you a quick inventory of the suffering Joseph experienced in his life: lost his mother as a young boy, hated by his brothers who sold him into slavery at the age of 17, falsely accused of sexual misconduct and spent years in prison for it, guy who could get him out of prison forgot about him. Can you relate? Have you lost someone you loved? Have you ever been mistreated and abused by the people closest to you? Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do but still suffered as if you did do it? Have you ever seen an end to your hard situation only to have someone let you down?
Twenty years after being sold into slavery by his brothers, a famine hit the entire region. Joseph’s father and brothers need food and they hear that there is food in Egypt so Joseph’s father sends his sons down to get food. Little do they know, their little brother whom they sold into slavery is actually a high-ranking government official in Egypt who is overseeing the provision of food during the famine. The brothers come face to face with their brother in Egypt and eventually Joseph has them bring their father and the whole family down to Egypt to survive the famine. After their father dies, the brothers are worried that Joseph will now seek revenge for what they did to him. That’s where Genesis 50 comes in. Let’s start in verse 18:
18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:18-21)
There are two actions Joseph doesn’t take. First, he doesn’t take revenge. He tells them not to be afraid, asking, “Am I in the place of God?” In other words, even though he is in a high position of power in the Egyptian government and they are now under his authority as immigrants in Egypt and he is capable of making their life miserable, he knows they are answerable to God for what they have done, not him.
Second, he doesn’t minimize what they have done. In verse 20, he says, “You meant evil against me.” He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry about it. That was over 20 years ago that you sold me into slavery. It’s not a big deal.” No, he calls it what it is: evil.
But the rest of verse 20 is key. He sys, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph recognizes that God used their evil for good because if it weren’t for him, Egypt would not have had a plan to survive the famine and his whole family might have died in it. But God has now used Joseph to save many lives.
What we see here are two intentions at play: his brothers’ evil intention, God’s good intention. That’s the big idea for this evening: God is powerful enough to use your suffering for good.
That’s Joseph. Let’s move to Job.
Job (Job 1-2)
The book of Job is one of the oldest in the Bible. In the opening two chapters, we are given a unique perspective. You can find it on page 417 of the black Bibles we’ve provided. First, we are introduced to Job who is described as a man who loves God deeply. He is a model of godliness and spirituality.
From there, we go into the heavenly throne room of God. There are spiritual beings gathered around God’s throne. One comes forward whose name in Hebrew is “the Satan.” We often refer to him as Satan or the devil. We can’t get into all the details of who he is or what he does, but in this story it seems that he has been going around on earth looking for people who truly love God. So God asks him: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8) God has a very high evaluation of Job! He presents Job as a person who truly loves God.
But the Satan answers, “Well, does Job love you for no reason? Doesn’t he love you because you protect him and have blessed him? He only loves you because you have given him good things. Take those good things away and he will curse you to your face. You will see what is really inside Job.” So God gives the Satan permission to take good away from Job.
The next day is the worst day of Job’s life. First someone tells him: all your oxen and donkeys have been stolen and the servants over them killed. Before they’re finished, someone tells him: fire burned up all the sheep the servants over them too. Before they’re finished, someone tells him: a raiding group took all the camels and killed the servants over them. Bad day for Job’s business and possessions. But what’s more, while that servant was still speaking, another came to say, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking in their brother’s house and a wind blew it down and killed all of them.”
In one day, Job lost all his livelihood and all his children. Have you ever received a phone call and heard the person on the other end say, “You better sit down. I have some terrible news.” Have you ever had a day where you kept receiving bad news after bad news after bad news? Have you ever felt like you were going to be crushed by life?
Job’s response is remarkable. Look at chapter 1 verses 20 through 22.
20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:20-22)
While grieving, he worshiped God and said, I’d imagine, through tears, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
But it gets worse for Job. God says to the Satan: “Job still loves me even though he has lost so much.” The Satan says, “But Job himself was not injured. If he suffers physically, he will curse you.” So again, God grants the Satan permission. Job is struck with sores from his head to his feet. Sitting in the dirt, Job took a piece of broken pottery and started scraping them off. [Application] Have you ever had a health crisis that totally shook your life? Have you ever felt like you were at your limit then another bad thing hit? Has the strength ever drained from your legs because you heard the words, “You have cancer” or “Your heart is failing” or “You have a tumor.”
All of this pain has broken Job’s wife and we can empathize. The bank account is empty, the chairs around her table are empty, and her husband is now sick. Look at chapter 2, verses 9 through 10.
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10)
Again, his response is remarkable. But Job is in a rough spot. He doesn’t see the point to his life.
Three friends show up who at first sit grieving with him in silence, but then they start trying to find an explanation. His friends believe that if you do good, you are rewarded, If you do bad, you are punished. They look at Job who is having a lot of bad things happen to him and conclude he is being punished. Over and over again they try to get him to confess: “Job, what bad thing have you done? Search your soul. Be honest with yourself. What have you done that deserves this punishment?” But Job’s response over and over again is: “I am innocent! I have done nothing wrong to deserve this!” And he’s right! God even says so.
Job is frustrated with his friends for their accusation and he is frustrated with God for allowing him to suffer like this. He tells God, “I want to talk to you in person! I want you to explain yourself!” God does show up, but he never explains himself. He doesn’t tell Job why he is suffering. Instead, God shows Job that his perspective is limited. God gives Job a tour of the universe and asks Job some questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Do you cause the sun to rise? Have you entered the storehouses of the snow? Can you send forth lightning? Can you give understanding to the mind? Do you know how the animal kingdom works?” And other questions like these. God is showing Job that he is governing an entire complex universe and Job’s perspective is limited. Job does not learn why he suffered but learns who he can trust.
I’m a big fan of an organization called The Bible Project and they described it like this. It’s similar to a parent making a decision and having that decision questioned by their children. Perhaps the children see it as unfair. But the child has a limited perspective on the situation and actually wouldn’t even understand the parent’s reasoning if they explained it. So instead of defending why they did what they did, the parent instead puts their arm around the child and says, “Come with me.” Then they take their child out to their tool shed and show them all the different tools they own and know how to use. They point to certain ones and ask, “Do you know what that does? Do you know what that one is used for?” The child says, “No.” Then they take their child to work and show them around their office and ask, “Do you know what I do with this? This person reports to me. Do you know what they do?” Perhaps they return home and show them the checkbook, the budget, their retirement account, and so forth. The child understands none of it.
The point is not to make the kid feel stupid. The point is to make them feel humble. To help them realize that their perspective is extremely limited. That their mom or dad is managing an entire world of decisions and cause and effect that they aren’t even aware of. That’s what God does with Job. In the end, Job humbles himself before God and says, “You’re right. I trust you.”
But again, we see two intentions at play: Satan’s intention is to prove Job doesn’t really love God, God’s intention is to prove Job does. This repeats our big idea: God is powerful enough to use your suffering for good.
Lastly, let’s look at Jesus.
Both Joseph and Job were good men who suffered innocently. But Jesus was the most innocent of anyone who suffered the most. But just like Joseph and Job, Jesus suffered as part of God’s plan to use the intentions of evil for good.
To understand Jesus’ suffering, we need to zoom out a bit. One way to answer the question “why does God allow suffering” is to say: because we chose it. We chose a world of suffering. In the very beginning when God created the world, he created it good. He made it to be a home where humanity lived in his presence under his authority, protection, care, and love. He told the first humans, Adam and Eve, that if they chose to run things their own way, that it would result in death.
At some point, they did choose to run things their own way. They chose to live life without God. Even though God warned that this would bring death into the world, that it would suck life out of them, that there would be painful consequences, they rejected his authority over their lives. From that day on, suffering is part of our world.
Our immediate response to that might be, “That’s not fair! It’s not fair that we should suffer because of a choice we didn’t even make.” We are quick to say that it isn’t fair that we suffer because of someone else’s poor choice, but what about benefiting because of someone else’s good choice? How is it fair for us to benefit from the good choices of our parents or grandparents or great grandparents? How is it fair for us to benefit from the sacrifices that the founders of our country made? If fairness means living free of the negative consequences for other people’s poor choices then it also means living free of the positive consequences for other people’s good choices.
Here’s where Jesus comes in. God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to enter into our suffering. The Son of God became a man who experienced the suffering of being a human. Jesus always made good choices. Jesus always trusted God. Jesus always lived under God’s authority and never rejected it. And yet, he suffered as one who did. It may be true that Adam and Eve were the first to not follow God, but they weren’t the last. We do the exact same thing. We are suffering for their poor choice but we are also suffering for our own. But the same cannot be said of Jesus. He suffered for poor choices he never actually made. Jesus came into this world to take on the consequence of our bad choices in order to free us from them.
The symbol at the center of the Christian faith is a symbol of suffering: the cross. This was Jesus’ greatest point of suffering, when he took on the death that we all deserve for rejecting God. Jesus always said “yes” to God but he sacrificed himself in our place to pay the penalty for all the times we have said “no” to God. Now, we can benefit from Jesus’ good choices. If we give our life to him, he will give eternal life to us. He restores us to relationship with God by forgiving us.
In Jesus’ suffering, we also see the intentions of evil and the intentions of God. In Acts 4:27-28, we read this:
27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28)
Jesus was betrayed by one of his followers, denied by one of his closest followers, accused of things he didn’t do or say, put through a sham of a trial for them, whipped and beaten, then hung naked on a cross for all to see. And that was only in the last 24 hours of his life. Those who did this intended it for evil, but God intended it for good because by it he paid for our forgiveness and opened a way for us to come back home to him.
Our big idea is this: God is powerful enough to use your suffering for good.
A knife in the hands of an evil person is used to kill. But a knife in the hands of a doctor is used to heal. It’s the same instrument used for different purposes. Both will cause pain. But with one the pain is a path to death and with the other pain is the path to life.
God’s future for our world is one without suffering, where he has totally healed it. It’s a world run by him. A world run by humans is a world of suffering, but a world run by God is one of life, not death. Suffering releases our white-knuckle grip on the things of this world so we can put our hope in God. It shows us that life without God means death.
It’s easy when we suffer to believe that we know better than God and would do a better job running the world. But it’s that belief that got us into this mess in the first place. That’s the exact belief Adam and Eve had: we know better than God and would do a better job running the world.
We need to have a heart of trust when we are going through suffering. Right before Jesus went to the cross, he went to the garden. He went there to pray with some of his closest friends. We read the passage in Matthew 26. Jesus saw the suffering coming. He saw the pain coming. He saw the death coming. So he prayed three times:
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
In other words, “Father, please let me take a different path. Please can this be done a different way. But I trust you. I submit to you. Your will be done, not mine.”
Jesus knew the “why” for his suffering. He knew the reason. He told people many times: I’m giving my life to save others. But even knowing the “why” didn’t make it easy. We can pray the same as him. We will rarely know the exact “why” of our suffering. Job never knew it. Maybe he figured that he went through all that suffering to learn that God knows better than him. That was surely part of it. Joseph didn’t know the “why” as he went through it, but he was always expressing trust in God. He saw it clearly at the end.
We will not always knowing the “why.” But we can trust a “who.” we can trust that God is powerful enough to use our suffering for good both in our lives and in the lives of others. Maybe it will take 20 years for us to see it or 5 years or maybe we won’t see it in this lifetime.
Many times when something difficult happens in our lives, later down the road we will look back and say, “You know, I can see how that was actually the best thing for me.” It’s the “hindsight is 20/20” thing. Faith is bringing that hindsight perspective into the present so that while the hard thing is happening, we can say, “I know this is the best thing for me because God loves me and God is good and he wants what is best for me.” Faith is trusting the who when you don’t know the why.
Take a moment now to either write down or just think of areas of suffering in your life that you have experienced in the past or are experiencing now. Here are two truths for you to remember about those.
Suffering does not mean God is far from you. Sometimes when I am most near and most involved with my son, Hudson, is when he is experiencing the most discomfort and crying. We have exercises we do with him to help him overcome a muscle tightness issue so he can learn to crawl and he usually doesn’t like being in those positions. They are uncomfortable. They are working muscles he isn’t used to working. They are stretching. But his discomfort and pain doesn’t mean I’m far. I am near and close and am paying attention to him and am doing what is best for him so he can grow. And I don’t like seeing him cry and be in pain. I comfort him by saying, “I know it’s hard buddy. I know it hurts. I’m doing this because I love you.”
Suffering doesn’t mean God has dropped the ball on caring for you. In fact, suffering might mean God is in the process of bringing about some of the greatest transformation you have ever experienced in your life which will result in experiencing the greatest love, joy, and peace you have ever felt.
Suffering does not mean God isn’t for you. Sometimes I willingly do what Hudson doesn’t like for his good. As a parent, I have to love Hudson enough to do what is best for him even if it means he temporarily dislikes me. I have to clean the food off his face that he wants me to leave there. I have to help him learn to crawl. I have to put his clothes on. I have to give him baths. Even though he thoroughly dislikes it, it doesn’t mean I am against him. I am for him. I am for his health, development, and care. And I need to love Hudson enough to do what is best for him even if it means he temporarily dislikes me.
As we leave here, we can practically trust God in the midst of our suffering by saying what Jesus said: “Your will be done.” Those are perhaps the four hardest words for us to say. They require trust. They require surrendering our plans. They require giving up control. They require desiring someone else’s will more than ours. We can pray for the relief of suffering, just like Jesus did. But ultimately we need to acknowledge that God’s will is better than ours and we need to desire his more than ours. We need to stop believing that we know better than God.
Eventually Katie and I hit the end of what we were willing to do with our fertility doctor and our next step became clear: we would adopt. We had always talked about adopting after having a few kids, but it seemed God was moving that plan up. Doing it now felt right and we were excited.
We took six months to be approved for adoption through an agency and settled in for a thirteen month average wait. But we were delighted to be called in a month! Someone had picked us to adopt their baby. But that person was not Hudson’s birth mom. It was a birth mom pregnant with a little girl. The sad part is that that adoption fell through. We were crushed. Just like trying to get pregnant, we got our hopes up and had them come crashing down. We asked God, “Why? This hurts so much!” Many people expressed confidence that it would work out and we asked God to work it out, but it didn’t.
This was one of the most painful experiences of my life. But it was also one of the most formative. During it, I had to ask myself, “Will I trust God is good and that he loves me even when he doesn’t give me what I want?” As we went through the pain and I tried to say “Your will be done”, I felt God forming me: forming my character, forming my faith, forming my trust. I felt God working with me and in me, just like I work with Hudson. He didn’t feel far, even though I was going through a hard time.
I know all of us have gone through stuff and are going through stuff. The truth we need to remember is that God is powerful enough to use your suffering for good.