If there is a God, why does he allow suffering?

If there is a God, why does he or she allow suffering? Good question! It is one with which all believers wrestle, and the short answer is that I do not know, at least not fully. The question is based on the premise that God is good, for a bad God would not only allow suffering but also cause it, therefore we can reframe the question to become, “Why does a good God allow suffering?”

As a pastor and a human being, I have asked this very same question and given it much thought, therefore I will offer my own perspective, not to be the last word on the subject, but hopefully as food for your own thoughts and to help you form your own opinion.

Now, before I continue, there are two ‘givens’, if you will; things that are plainly obvious to us as we observe the world around us and reflect on our own experience. The first is that suffering is part of life and nothing that is alive appears to be exempt from the potential to experience harm, decay, loss, pain, or death. Secondly, from a Christian perspective, Jesus, who claimed to be God, experienced the most profound rejection, pain, and death, and from this we can infer that God himself or herself is also not exempt from suffering. As we will discover, the two are intrinsically linked.

Again, before we move on, I think it is important to assert that suffering, although it may be caused by moral ‘badness’ is not morally bad in of itself. Suffering is a consequence of circumstances, some of which may be the result of intentional human will (moral badness) but the majority of suffering is a consequence of what we might call the natural order or way of things, where no blame or fault can be apportioned.

We know that suffering can be caused by moral badness or sin, whether that is a workplace bully or a warmongering world leader, but it is important that we make the assertion that not all suffering is a consequence of moral badness because the history of religion is littered with the casualties of those who have equated all suffering with sin. There is nothing more abhorrent or unholy than an innocent person being told that their physical or mental suffering is a consequence of their own sinfulness, for example, it is the worst kind of evil to tell someone living with cancer that they have unrepentant sin in their lives. Jesus spoke to this when he mentioned a tower that fell and crushed and killed some bystanders, making it clear that those who suffered were no more sinful than anyone else (see Luke 13:4).

Having established that suffering can be either intentional or indiscriminate we now need to turn our attention to the question, why does a good God allow it? The answer can be found in the very nature of both God and us — in our capacity to love and to be creative.

God is loving and an expression of that love is God’s creation. The universe and everything in it is a creative expression of God’s love. Before we move on to humanity’s role in creation, it is worth noting something about creativity and that is that creativity cannot exist without possibility. An act of creativity is to tread one of a multitude of possible future paths and the outcome of any creative endeavour, although it may be envisioned, is not known. For example, if I compose a piece of music, the next note I write may go up or down in pitch, be loud or quiet, long or short, and be played by any timbre. There are an infinite number of possibilities and this is what makes music so exciting, however, the possibilities may result in what we objectively perceive as positive or negative. I may write beautiful music or produce a painful cacophony. In the same way, for there to be what we perceive to be good or wholesome outcomes to creativity, there is also the possibility that there may be pain or hurt or suffering.

As creation is an expression of love, we can assert that love in itself is to take a risk into the unknown of future of possibilities. Love cannot exist in isolation, therefore love needs an object of that love, and that object cannot exist if was not created, and as we know, creation cannot exist without possibility.

Human beings are created in the image of God and this means we are endowed with the capacity to love and therefore with the capacity, like God, to be creative. When we love, like God, we create objects of our affection; we risk that love being rejected; and when that love is rejected, we suffer. It matters not whether it is ourselves, our friends and family, fellow humans, animals, plants — for any object to which our love is expressed — there is the possibility that we may suffer. Putting it simply, if we did not love we would not suffer!

In the case of indiscriminate suffering, as God has expressed love through creation and nature, that nature is open to the possibility of outcomes that cause pain, hurt, heartache, and suffering. We may say that someone suffering in such a way is ‘unlucky’ but luck has nothing to do with it; we are simply being exposed to adverse creative possibilities. If we did not love, we would not care, and it would not hurt. Life is, whether we like it or not, inherently and largely unpredictable. Shit happens, and yes, sometimes it sucks.

I recently joked with my wife after failing to make her a promised cup of tea saying, “How awful would it be if life was predictable?” Joking aside, this statement is true. It is the very unpredictability of life that makes it exciting. If everything was known and every outcome predetermined then life would be awfully dull and there would be no point in any act of creativity.

And that, perhaps, is the point, that there is most definitely a point to creativity — not just for excitement’s sake but because love and creativity matter. Whether you are a humanist, religious, atheist, agnostic, or a believer, we all strive to use our creativity for good. As a Christian, I understand our love and creativity in the light of God’s love and creativity, that we are called to join in with God’s mission to restore the world and work together towards a time when there will be no more pain or suffering. Intellectually, I cannot perceive of a world where there is no more possibility for suffering, as such a world, as far as I understand it, would be devoid of creativity (and expressions of love) because the possibility of failure would no longer exist! But that is God’s realm, and not mine, and in the here and now, I will try my hardest to use my God-given creativity to bless others and the world around me.