I heard yet another horrible story on the news recently. I won’t burden you with the details, but it was one of those cases where I wanted to pack up my house and move to a cave just so I never have to be exposed to anything like that again. Whenever I hear things like this I’m reminded of the age-old question, one of the ultimate tough questions to ask of Christianity, “How could a loving God allow us to suffer?” Though I had come to some small understanding of this great mystery to enough of an extent that it wasn’t a roadblock to belief, I found myself thinking as I read that latest news story, “My God, how could you allow this to happen?”
As I sat back in a prayerful silence (not because I’m just a naturally prayerful person, but because I felt too depressed to do anything else), a thought popped into my mind seemingly out of nowhere: “Where would you have God draw the line?” Meaning, what types of suffering should he allow, and what should he not allow? I’ve been asking myself that question over and over again since then, and it’s led to some interesting thoughts about suffering.
I recoil in horror at stories of great suffering like I heard on the news the other day, and angrily tell God that I want him to stop this. Yet “suffering” encompasses a broad spectrum of experiences. Where would I have him draw the line? Nobody wants him to allow the horrific events that make the news. But what about the suffering that comes with broken bones? What about migraine headaches? What about sleep deprivation? What about humidity, paper cuts and ingrown toenails? What about sticky keyboards and uncomfortable desk chairs? Should a loving God allow us to have itches we can’t scratch? For that matter, should we be asking God why he doesn’t make the earth’s gravitational field a little weaker to lessen the suffering (albeit minuscule) that currently comes with walking, moving, lifting, etc.? I’m not being sarcastic or in any way trying to minimize the great suffering that’s at the far end of the spectrum. Obviously, something like being tortured involves exponentially more suffering than something like having to strain to pick up a heavy object — but they are both forms of suffering nonetheless.
As I thought about everything in life that is technically suffering, the examples were countless — so countless, in fact, that I realized that suffering is the defining characteristic of our experience here on earth. At every single moment we suffer. Some it’s so slight that we hardly notice it, sometimes it’s so great that it consumes us, but we always suffer.
How odd, then, that we yearn for something different. Why would the human animals that inhabit planet earth, where to live is to suffer, be consumed with feelings that it shouldn’t be this way?
Boothe Farley, writing about the recent death of her daughter, says it far better than I ever could:
If God didn’t ordain Copeland’s sickness, if it wasn’t His design, why in the world did she have it? Because I live here. It’s like asking why I have a Southern accent. It comes free, courtesy of my locale. She wasn’t sick because I needed to learn a lesson. She wasn’t sick because I didn’t do enough things right – or too many things wrong. She was sick because we live in a broken, fallen world and until Jesus comes back, things are just going to keep going wrong. Not all the time – that’s when the glimpses of Heaven come in. But quite frequently. Life is truly one long dysfunction. Only by God’s grace – getting what we don’t deserve – do we ever see any good at all.
So how could a loving God allow suffering? As Boothe points out, perhaps a better question would be, “Why would God, who gave free will to the creatures he created in his image only to have them use it to scorn and reject him, even allow these recalcitrant creatures to have glimpses of heaven in their fallen world? Why would he bother to let them know something of the peace and joy of his realm, where there is no suffering?” Because he’s loving.
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