Over the last 10 years, I have spent time in Africa amongst rural peoples in Malawi and Mozambique. These folks do not have the comforts that we enjoy. Their lives are much more challenging as a result. The practicalities of gathering food and freshwater, and keeping people sufficiently fed is often a battle. Also, unfortunately, sickness is common. People are struck down by Malaria, and Aids remains a serious problem.
The reason I visited my friends in Africa was to encourage them in their Christian faith. These folks would often ask me tricky questions about many things. But – here’s one question I never got while in Africa:
“Why does God allow suffering?”
Isn’t that odd? The folks living in those regions probably suffered a lot more than I have in my entire life. I might wonder why I am going through a hard time. Yet they do not seem to think about this question to the same degree. What might that be about?
I wonder if it speaks to something that the Bible says. For example:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15, NIV)
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:19 + 24, NIV)
“And he himself has promised us this: eternal life.” (1 John 2:25, TLB)
1 – Don’t Get Too Comfortable
God’s message here seems to be this. Don’t get too comfortable. He’s warning us specifically not to get too attached to the world because our true home is where we will eventually live. Our true and lasting home is with God after death. It seems to me that the difficult daily lives of my African friends has firmly impressed this truth on them. They are aware that life here is short and hard. There’s not a lot to love about daily life, yet life is full of hints towards everything God has for them to look forward to. Therefore the suffering that is experienced here and now – is something to endure for a short time only. And it is part of the plan God is working out in their lives. So, asking why God allows suffering is actually pretty irrelevant. They expect this world to be hard. Suffering is as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow. There’s not much to love about the world. But the future is worth holding on for.
2 – Many People Have Made Themselves Comfortable
By contrast, we in the more developed countries have the opposite view on life. We have lots to love about our lives because they are full of lovely things. So – we’ve made ourselves comfortable. But we have a problem – our problem is that we’re not here to stay. We’ve forgotten that one day we’ve got to leave this world, we’ve got to give our seat to someone else. One day will die. Oh, we might admit that if we are pressed, but even so we’re hanging on to our seat and gripping tightly to it. We’re dearly hoping that we DON’T die for a long time. Also, while hanging on, our lives have become about maintaining our comfort level. So – when something comes along to challenge our comfort levels, it disturbs us greatly. What a contrast there is between us, and my African friends.
3 – Maybe We Need To Change Our Perspective on Life
There are many people who claim not to be interested in God, and who are sceptical about Christianity’s claims and God’s existence. Why would I have any expectation for life after death if I don’t think there’s a God, and it’s just all nature, matter and nothing else? Well – I would ask you to consider one thing that we can both agree on. One day, we will die. There’s nothing we can do about that. Sure, we can try to delay it by eating healthily and exercising. We can put it out of our minds by focussing on our careers, and doing really good and important work. Even buying things to make ourselves feel good. But in the end – none of those things changes the fact that – we will die whether we believe there’s a God or not.
From the perspective of the skeptic, I totally get why this question IS important. “If God is there and he’s good and powerful, why would he allow evil and suffering?” This is the cry of someone who is comfortable in the world!
If this life is all I’ve got. How dare I have my one and only life messed up! Well – can I suggest this complaint is less an argument against God’s existence, and it is more a consequence of our mistaken comfort in our lives. We don’t like the idea of our comfort being disturbed, but it MUST be disturbed to cause us to move. However much me try to hang on – we have another destination that we are heading to after we die. Perhaps we have to change our perspective, and live in the expectation that this new destination awaits us?
4 – Maybe God Has Purpose in Suffering
But if there is a God – who created us and is good and wise – wouldn’t he have a much higher perspective than we do? Think about this for a minute. How much do we actually know about the universe? Not a lot. So, why do we think that we might understand whether or not there are higher purposes at play in our suffering? If there is a God, wouldn’t he be able to permit suffering to happen for a greater good? Even if we don’t understand what these purposes are yet? After all, as parents, we do this with our kids all the time. We say something like, “you can play on the Xbox after you have finished your homework. You will thank me later.” Suffering – for a purpose. After all, if God exists then he made us, we didn’t make him. He’s our parent.
Maybe an important purpose in suffering is to disturb our comfortable lives, to get us to view life more like those in Africa do. I’m here for a while, I’m not here to stay. But – I’ve always got my eye on my ultimate destination.
Finally – wouldn’t it be reasonable to presume that when God says in the Bible that you will live forever, and then he sends the man Jesus to die and then be raised from the dead to demonstrate that fact, isn’t it at least possible that there actually is life beyond the grave? Isn’t it worth considering that as a possibility?