Charlie's Blog: Why Does God Allow Suffering?


Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.

When people discuss the problem of suffering, they tend to link it to the problem of evil. But this linkage is an error as we see much good comes out of suffering such as our redemption in the cross of Christ. And there is much evil in pleasure and prosperity. Granted, the existence of evil produces suffering, but suffering is not evil in itself. The problem of evil will have to be the subject of another essay. In this essay, we are going to deal with the problem of suffering. Why does God allow suffering?

Everyone suffers. From the moment you are born until the day you die, you will be afflicted in this world. Even in the womb, unborn children are murdered and experience pain. In life, even the prosperous and those blessed with good fortune experience the hatred of enemies and the emptiness and vanity of the good fortune. And those who place their faith in God seem to be even more afflicted than those who give no thought to God whatsoever. It is so bad that even those with faith often ponder the mystery of it all. Why would a loving God allow so much pain and misery? You probably ask this question yourself. You wish there was a satisfying answer, but there seems to be none. At some point, the mystery of suffering causes us more grief than the suffering itself. What is the answer to this mystery?

The Atheist Answer

The atheist answer to the problem of suffering is very straightforward. God does not allow suffering because God does not exist. It is the universe that exists, and the universe does not care. As Stanley Kubrick put it, "The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent." The universe does not care about your happiness, your sadness, your pleasure, or your pain. In these stark terms, the problem of suffering is a meaningless issue. In a life of randomness, pleasure is fleeting while pain is a constant. Pain is what motivates us to better our situation.

The pain that the atheist overlooks is the existential suffering created as we seek some sort of meaning in an indifferent universe. We can understand why someone with bone cancer might opt for suicide. It is another when someone who is in a relatively painless position opts for suicide to extinguish the feeling of emptiness in life. The fact is that people who lack nothing in material and sensual terms are afflicted with a great deal of suffering that emanates from the mind. Other people like religious ascetics of old seek out suffering in search of deeper truths and meaning. Why would an indifferent universe produce beings that seek out things that do not exist?

The Protestant Answer

There are a variety of opinions in the Protestant world when it comes to suffering. John Calvin's views are close to the Catholic view which is understandable considering his place in church history being merely a recent heretic as opposed to those centuries removed from the Church of Rome. The problem for the Protestant comes from that doctrine of sola fide and forensic justification. The gist of this error is that our salvation is by faith alone, and we contribute nothing to our salvation except our faith. Consequently, our sufferings and trials count for nothing. They earn us no merit, and they contribute nothing to our sanctification. If we are justified and forgiven for all of our sins, why does God insist on punishing us?

Protestants of a prospetarian bent will take the seat of Job's false comforters insisting that our suffering is self-inflicted. God allows us to suffer as a consequence of our lack of faith or negative thinking or whatever. If we do right, God will do right by us. If we do wrong, God will smack us hard. The problem with this view has already been addressed in the book of Job. The innocent do suffer.

Mature Protestants like Philip Yancey offer a solution that sounds kinda Catholic as they delve into the Bible. They acknowledge the problem and the message of Job. But their answer comes up short as a consequence of their Protestant theology. I remember reading Where is God When It Hurts as an evangelical Protestant and appreciating the fact that the book gave an unflinching look at the problem. But it does not give a satisfying answer. C.S. Lewis does not do much better in his treatment of the subject in The Problem of Pain.

I remember Yancey giving the illustration of people with Hansen's disease which we know as leprosy. This infection has the effect of removing a person's ability to feel pain. Without this ability to feel pain, the leper becomes disfigured from repeated injuries and untreated infections. From this horror, Yancey concludes that pain is a gift of sorts. I remember reading this and thinking that this illustration makes no sense whatsoever. Essentially, pain is a necessary evil. We suffer in life to avoid something worse down the road. But if we are justified by faith and not by works and have assurance of this salvation which we can never lose, why would we need to suffer?

Both Yancey and Lewis suffer from the ignorance created from being Protestant. Because of sola fide, our suffering is unnecessary. God allows us to suffer without any necessary reason whatsoever, and this suffering counts for nothing. This is why Protestantism comes up short and so many Protestants end up growing cold in their faith or becoming total atheists like I did. When confronted with meaningless suffering, you must conclude that God is evil or that God just doesn't exist. But suffering does have meaning and value, but you have to be Catholic to understand this.

The Temptation of Christ in the Desert

Many people are familiar with the story of how Jesus went to the desert to fast for 40 nights and days and was given the famous three temptations from Satan which Jesus resisted. What gets overlooked in the story is the beginning of the story in Matthew 4:1, "Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil." Luke 4:1 says much the same thing, "And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert." It should be firmly established that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to suffer temptation.

Now, the Holy Spirit does not tempt us to do evil. This would be blasphemy. Satan is the one who does the dirty work on these things along with the world and our own flesh. But the Spirit led Jesus to the desert for what we can only consider to be a form of trial. From this, we can safely conclude one thing. God wills our suffering. For some people, this may be a shocker. Why would a good God will that I suffer? Is God some sort of sick sadist?

This is a hard truth to hear, but it needs to be heard. It sounds like a kind of blasphemy except that it isn't. If God didn't want Jesus to suffer temptation, He would not have led Jesus into that desert. And if suffering is just a necessary evil and a byproduct of living in a fallen world, why would the Bible make such explicit mention of the Spirit leading Jesus into the desert?

It is God's will that you suffer. It is not God's will that you fall into sin and evil. So, why does God will our suffering, but He does not will evil? The answer is obvious. Suffering is not evil.

I know this is a mindblower. We link suffering to evil which is why we have a problem with suffering. But once we do this, we are left with insurmountable intellectual and theological difficulties. The first and most basic one is that God allows evil in the form of suffering. Yet, we see that suffering can be avoided. We can choose to eat instead of fasting. Yet, God calls us to fast and practice other forms of mortification. Jesus demands that we take up our crosses. This leads us to the next issue of necessary evil.

The argument can be made that God allows us to suffer for the sake of the good. In other words, God allows evil for the sake of the good. This becomes a form of consequentialism. We are not permitted to do evil for the sake of the good. Likewise, God does not allow us to suffer evil for the sake of the greater good. This would be the end justifying the means. And when we consider that many fall away as a consequence of their trials and temptations, that bad end is enough to condemn the bad means.

Suffering is not evil. If it was, God would not will it. It is God's will that you suffer. If that truth makes you recoil, you will now learn the truth about why you suffer.

Obedience Through Suffering

Suffering comes in two forms--pleasure and pain. The fact that pain is suffering is without question. The pleasure thing is a headscratcher. How is pleasure suffering? Pleasure is suffering when we are not allowed to partake in it. We know this as temptation. When we want pleasure that is forbidden to us, we experience pain and suffering. Is the suffering that a married man experiences when he refuses to commit adultery an evil? Of course not. But the pleasure of sex is a good thing except when it is experienced outside of the marital bond. Then, it is a bad thing and an evil. Or, is it?

Evil does not come from pleasure or pain. It comes from disobedience to God. This issue of obedience is paramount. God wants and demands our obedience. This obedience is what produces suffering. We learn obedience through suffering. How do I know this? Because it says so in the Bible:
As he saith also in another place: Thou art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech. Who in the days of his flesh, with a strong cry and tears, offering up prayers and supplications to him that was able to save him from death, was heard for his reverence. And whereas indeed he was the Son of God, he learned obedience by the things which he suffered: And being consummated, he became, to all that obey him, the cause of eternal salvation. Called by God a high priest according to the order of Melchisedech. 
Jesus was always obedient. He was sinless. Why did He have to learn obedience through suffering? Did He not already know obedience? Of course He did. But He did not know suffering. By the Incarnation, Jesus learned suffering just as we know it. This is why it is important to stress the full humanity of Christ including having a human nature. Jesus knew all our sufferings including depression and anxiety in the depths of His soul. Jesus was no Stoic sage who possessed some inner citadel removed from life. He was not the Buddha who had "freed" himself from all desire through some trick of the mind. The Bible makes this clear:
For both he that sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, are all of one. For which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: I will declare thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the church will I praise thee. And again: I will put my trust in him. And again: Behold I and my children, whom God hath given me. Therefore because the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner hath been partaker of the same: that, through death, he might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil: And might deliver them, who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to servitude.
For no where doth he take hold of the angels: but of the seed of Abraham he taketh hold. Wherefore it behoved him in all things to be made like unto his brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful priest before God, that he might be a propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that, wherein he himself hath suffered and been tempted, he is able to succour them also that are tempted. 
In Heaven, one does not suffer for obedience. There is only suffering for disobedience which is what Satan learned when he was cast into Hell for his refusal to serve. But in the world, the opposite is the case. Our obedience to God comes with suffering, and our suffering is a consequence of our obedience.

Obedience in Heaven is perfect. But obedience in this world which comes with suffering is something more than perfect. This is the argument that Satan made to God concerning Job. Yes, Job is obedient, but this is because of the reward. But if he suffers, he will become disobedient and curse God to His face. The fact that Job was obedient in his suffering leads us to admit that he is owed something. We can call it honor, respect, or what have you. We know this as merit.

Merit is a mysterious thing, but this world is the only place where merit can be gained. Here's an illustration of merit. One man spends his entire life in the country he loves. He salutes the flag and says the Pledge of Allegiance. He loves his country. Another man does the same thing, but he also goes into battle on behalf of his country. Another man goes into battle and gets his leg blown off. Another man goes into battle and dies. All of these men are patriots, but we must admit that they are not all equal in their patriotism. For the men who live and do not fight, they enjoy the freedom bought by the sacrifice of the others. But for those who fought and died, we owe a debt of gratitude and duty to honor their memories and sacrifices.

Like a patriot in regard to his country, a saint gains merit by suffering for his or her obedience. This world is the battlefield where we can display our love and gain merit through our sufferings for Christ. These sufferings are sacrifices. They are offerings of reparation and love to God. God is always pleased by our obedience, but He is especially pleased when that obedience comes with suffering. It elevates the obedience.

Temptations and Trials

The reason obedience and suffering is a package deal in this world is because suffering entails the denial of the things we want. Generally, the things we want are to enjoy pleasure and to avoid pain. In Gethsemane, Jesus did not want to be beaten and crucified. It would be kind of masochistic to want these things. But Jesus wanted to be obedient. His human will took a backseat to the Divine Will. It was God's will that His only begotten Son should suffer and die in atonement for the sins of the world. Likewise, it is God's will that we suffer and endure everything in this life in perfect obedience to His will.

The trial is a recurring feature in the Bible and the lives of the saints. For Adam and Eve, the trial was the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. They blew that one. For Noah, the trial was building that big boat. That was a lot of work and derision from the neighbors. But Noah did it out of obedience. Likewise, Abraham had one son he had waited his whole life to have, and God told him to put that son on an altar as a sacrifice. Abraham suffered that trial and was obedient.

God tests our obedience. All trials are essentially being deprived of the things we want or suffering the things we wish to avoid. God is not a dog trainer, and we are not mere pets doing tricks for treats. We are more than that. We are better than that. We have free will. We have the ability to choose. When we choose obedience to God regardless of the costs, we demonstrate our love to Him in a way that no perfectly obedient angel ever could.

Our ultimate desire is obedience to God. Some of us just don't know this or realize this. This is why those estranged from God live lives of misery no matter the good or bad fortunes they experience in life. Likewise, those obedient to God experience a profound happiness in spite of all circumstances. As Jesus put it in John 4:34, " My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me, that I may perfect His work." In this mysterious statement, Jesus is saying that His worldly concerns and desires took a backseat to His obedience to God's will made perfect through suffering.

Our ultimate hunger and thirst is to do the will of God. Once we know this and realize this and pursue this, we take on a quality displayed in the life of Jesus and all His saints. This is the trait known as "holy indifference."

Holy Indifference

Indifference is where you don't care about a thing. It's like a friend who calls you up to brag about the new Camaro that he bought, but you don't care because you are a Mustang fan. You don't envy the guy because you don't value what he has. But if he had a new Mustang, you might feel differently. But as it stands, you are indifferent.

The same thing applies to holy indifference. Holy indifference is where you care about God's will and being obedient to that will without regard to the consequences both good and bad. This is a quality of saints where it makes them courageous against tyranny, allows them to bear pain and suffering with equanimity, to part with material goods joyfully, and to accept calamity and scandal without despair or losing faith in God. St. Paul explains holy indifference beautifully when he wrote,
I speak not as it were for want. For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content therewith. I know both how to be brought low, and I know how to abound: (everywhere, and in all things I am instructed) both to be full, and to be hungry; both to abound, and to suffer need. I can do all these things in him who strengtheneth me. 
For Paul, it didn't matter what condition he found himself or what happened to him. The one thing that mattered was God and obedience to His will. When you have great love, you can endure many hardships and withstand many temptations.

Saint Faustina records this prayer of holy indifference:
Lord, I surrender to You all my selfish preferences in life.  I give You complete freedom to do whatever You will in my life.  No matter what You ask of me, I accept, and no matter what You take from me, I give to You.  Give me, dear Lord, the grace of a holy indifference so that I may be free to love You and Your holy Will more than life itself.  Jesus, I trust in You.
That is a prayer of perfect trust and obedience. It is scary to pray such a thing because it demands a complete abandonment to God's will in our lives. St. Ignatius of Loyola records a similar strain of thought concerning holy indifference in his Spiritual Exercises:
Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed by free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short. The same holds for all other things.
This attitude goes against all human instincts for self-preservation and enlargement in the world. Such a state of holy indifference must come through grace. It is only when we find our supreme satisfaction in God that we can treat the cares of this world with holy indifference. Once you have found the source of true happiness, nothing else matters.

Protestants and Atheists and Suffering

It is clear to see why Protestants and atheists are not good when it comes to suffering. Both share the opinion that suffering is pointless. For the atheist, suffering is just a good excuse for suicide which is why they can't even endure prosperity and good fortune. Likewise, the Protestant has a messed up theology that places no merit or value on suffering rendering all trials a pointless waste.

It is well known what happens to children who are spoiled. They become disobedient. Children who suffer end up being obedient. It is counterintuitive, but there you have it. Character and virtue are worth considerably more than toys or opportunities or advantages or the riches of this life. From these things, we would have to conclude that suffering is good while the lack of suffering is evil. But they are really indifferent. What matters is obedience.

Your suffering matters. If it didn't, God would not allow it. God not only allows it, but He has ordained it and sanctified it in the cross of Christ. The reason both atheists and Protestants despise the cross is because they are fundamentally disobedient. They live in rebellion mad at the God who did not cater to their wills. But God does not live in submission to us. We live in submission to God.


God allows suffering as a test of our obedience and love for Him. When we endure trials and resist temptations, we show with our free wills that we truly love God. We want what God wants. As St. Sebastian Valfre put it, "'When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly." This awful world is an opportunity that will vanish in the next life. When we see Jesus, we will see the scars He received for us. It will be a great privilege to show Him the scars we have received for Him. In suffering, God enlarges our capacity for love. And there is no greater love than to die for the one Who died for us.