Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Jun 29, 2018 · Courtney Jacob
Grief. Tragedy. Broken relationships. Heartache. Financial ruin. Abuse. Disease. War. Oppression.
Human suffering knows no boundaries. There is no sure way to avoid the blows of unexpected loss. And suffering can often take you off guard, like an invisible force that knocks the wind right out of you. There’s also no simple fix to make suffering go away, and no clear way to know how long you must endure it.
Sometimes when our hearts ache unbearably, when we feel utterly helpless, we search for answers and even find ourselves angry with God. In desperation, we cry out, “Why, God, why?”
Human Suffering in the Bible
With heart-wrenching questions like these, we can always turn to the Bible for comfort. We may not always find direct, unmistakeable answers, but we do find stories that resonate with our experiences. These stories help us to gain a better understanding of where God is in our suffering. Consider, in particular, the stories of Job and Naomi.
Job is probably better known, and with a book in the Old Testament named for him, it’s natural that we might turn to him first as we seek answers to our questions about suffering. We identify with his lament and the questions he puts to God, but the day-to-day reality of Naomi’s story often resonates more readily with the heart of our own life experiences.
As told in the book of Ruth, the uncomfortableness of Naomi’s plight is often overshadowed by the feel-good, hopeful love story that unfolds between Ruth and Boaz. But the book unabashedly starts with Naomi’s suffering—suffering that begins years before when her family must leave their home country to survive a famine. It worsens when her husband, Elimelek, dies while they are living in a foreign land. Later, the unspeakable happens when not one, but both, of her sons die. Not only is she left to grieve the loss of her loved ones, but, in the cultural landscape of her time, she also loses both her livelihood and protection.
The simple fact that the Bible includes these stories demonstrates that faith touches our human experience of pain and loss. These stories give us a place to explore our doubts, to wonder why, and question why God allows suffering.
Why Does God Let Me Suffer?
Both Naomi and Job cried out in their misery—lamenting that God had turned his hand against them or even orchestrated their circumstances (Ruth 1:13b, Job 1:21). However, it is important to note that although both Naomi and Job felt that way, God does not cause or inflict suffering on his people. God is not the author of evil. That would directly contradict his character (James 1:13; 1 John 1:5; Genesis 1:31). Rather, suffering often results from a marred and broken world. We see this clearly in Naomi’s story; much of her suffering came by way of famine and disease, circumstances way beyond her cause or control.
On the other hand, in Job’s case, we see clear evidence in his story that Satan can directly influence the lives of humans and cause suffering. In the opening narration of Job, God allows Satan to inflict massive calamity on Job, within certain limits (Job 1:12, 2:6). Ultimately, God is glorified through Job’s suffering, however, that still does not explain why God allowed Job, or why he allows anyone else, to suffer.
It is a struggle for any believer wondering why God allows suffering to admit, “I don’t know.” But sometimes that is the best answer we can offer, unless it is, perhaps, no answer at all. As Carolyn Custis James reflects on Naomi’s suffering in her book, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules, she acknowledges why we find this answer so unsatisfying. “To simply say, ‘His ways are not our ways,’ doesn’t ultimately satisfy or soothe a wounded heart. The consternation we all feel is the price we pay for life in a fallen world” (p. 35).
The stories of Naomi and Job may not offer us the concrete answers we seek to explain why we endure suffering, but both provide solid foundations for hope.
Finding God in the Midst of Suffering
Hope in these stories comes from the simple truth that God is with us, even in our suffering. He sees us. He draws close to us. And he does not turn away. The stories of Job and Naomi do not dismiss pain, but that is exactly where their power comes from. Carolyn Custis James offers the following observation:
“Naomi’s story invites us to admit we’ve been flattened too, that we don’t understand what’s happening to us, and that, even after walking with God for years, we still struggle to trust him. By spotlighting Naomi’s ordeal, the narrator gives us permission to voice the thoughts and questions we are fighting so desperately to suppress. And in some mysterious way we meet God in our desperation” (p. 44).
God can handle our lament: our expressions of sorrow, mourning, and regret. There is, after all, an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations. The Psalms are filled with pain, sadness, and complaint. In Ruth 1:20-21, Naomi laments her bitter and empty life. Similarly, Job repeatedly declaims his suffering to God. Consider Job 3:24-26 as one example:
“For sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.”
Lamenting our suffering does not mean our faith is weak or that we do not trust God anymore. Quite the opposite. In our lament, we meet God. After hearing Job’s laments and listening to Job’s friends’ miserable attempts at comfort, God responds to Job in the midst of his suffering. Naomi witnesses God’s providence, and recognized it in hindsight. And we see how Naomi’s suffering ultimately leads to Jesus Christ’s family tree and our salvation.
Like Naomi and Job, we cling to God’s promises to remain faithful and to deliver us while we wait, like the promise we find in Isaiah 41:10:
"So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."
We too can trust and remain steadfast in hope and faith, even while we suffer, lament, and cry out “why, God, why?”
For additional resources during difficult times, visit our "What is your only comfort when life is hard?" page.