This is Part 1 of 8 parts answering the question, “What are God’s purposes in why He allows suffering?” in the larger question, “Why does a loving God allow suffering?” Parts 2-8 will be posted in succeeding days.
“Why?” is likely the most often used word when it comes to the anguish people face. From the human perspective suffering doesn’t make sense, but we are often looking at the situation from tree level. It’s not until you get up to the 30,000 foot level that you can begin to understand the “why” of suffering, and understand God’s purposes in why He allows it!
One of the main reasons we don’t understand the “why” is because we too often don’t realize that “life is not about us.” Rick Warren began his excellent book “The Purpose Driven Life” with the sentence, “It’s not about you.” That is a true statement. Life is not about you, it’s about Jesus Christ and the glory of God! That doesn’t lessen the pain or anguish, but it does cause us to look outside of ourselves to understand. When we start making an issue of “us” instead of the Lord Jesus Christ, then we enter into the realm of a vacuum apart from Truth. God’s ways and thoughts are higher than man’s,
8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Is. 55:8-9 NKJ)
Why is that so? God’s thoughts and ways are higher than man’s, because God is infinite and man is finite. God is infinite in that He is everywhere present and He transcends space. David wrote,
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. (Ps. 139:7-10 NKJ)
God is also infinite in that He transcends time, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.” (Ps. 90:2 NKJ) In fact, the infinity of God ensures that all things will be accomplished, “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, `My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure.” (Is. 46:10 NKJ)
Therefore, while we can begin to understand God’s purposes from a finite, human mind and perspective, we can never totally comprehend the Divine, infinite purposes of God in why He allows suffering. With that in mind, let’s look at several ways in which we can understand it.
God Allowed Suffering to Provide Salvation
The greatest act of suffering that no human will ever understand is the death of Jesus Christ for the salvation of mankind. This is because the He went through what only He could endure as the Substitute for the human race. Joni Eareckson Tada entered into a discussion with her friend Steve, who asked her the question, “Do you think it was God’s will for Jesus to suffer as he did?” “Well,” I thought, “that’s a stupid question. Of course it was God’s will for Jesus to go to the cross.”1 Joni continued,
And then he said something curious. “I want you to look at all the awful things that happened to Jesus on that cross. No doubt it was the Devil who inspired Judas Iscariot to hand over the Savior for a mere thirty pieces of silver. And no doubt Satan prodded Pontius Pilate to hand down mock justice in order to gain political popularity. And no doubt it was the Devil who inspired that mob to scream for Christ’s crucifixion. And no doubt it was the Devil who pushed those soldiers to torture Jesus. How can any of that be God’s will: treason, injustice, murder, torture?” He had me there, because I could not conceive of those things being part of God’s will.
But then Steve did an interesting thing. He turned to and read Acts 4:28. “They”-that is, Herod and Pontius Pilate, the mob in the streets, and the soldiers-“did what [God’s] power and will had decided before hand should happen” (NIV). And the world’s worst murder suddenly became the world’s only salvation.2
Again, she notes,
God did not violate the will of the people who did those awful things. The sin was in their hearts. God permits all sorts of things He does not approve of…God always aborts devilish schemes to serve his own ends and accomplish his own purposes.3
Then she adds,
“Joni,” my friend Steve said to me, “God permits what he hates in order to accomplish what he loves.” Heaven and hell can end up participating in the exact same event but for different reasons. Ephesians 1:11 puts it plainly: God “according to [his] purpose…works all things according to the counsel of his will.” I found strange comfort in that thought. I believe it was Dorothy Sayers who said, “God wrenches out of evil positive good for us and glory for Himself.” In other words, he redeems it.4
That is a powerful conversation and insight. Joni, who fractured her neck in a diving accident when she was 17, has taught thousands of us about God’s purposes in why He allows suffering. God permits what He hates in order to accomplish what He loves. Because of her disability, she has gained an audience who will listen to her and advocate for those who are not able to help themselves. She wrote,
God will permit that broken neck. Suffering then is like a sheep dog snapping at my heels, driving me down the road to Calvary, where otherwise I might not naturally be inclined to go…People with disabilities, unlike others, are driven to the cross by the overwhelming conviction that they have no other place to go. That is eventually what happened to the father of that little boy with multiple disabilities.5
God not only allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves, but He also uses suffering to keep the world from becoming too attractive.
1Eareckson Tada, Joni, “Redeeming Suffering,” Why, O God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), p. 17.
5Ibid., p. 18.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.