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Many explanations have been given to answer the question, why does a living God allow suffering and the related questions "Why do innocent people suffer" and Why do evil people prosper" . They include:

  • God strengthens us through suffering.
    Rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. [Romans 5:4-5]
  • Suffering brings us closer to God. [1 Peter 4]
  • Suffering is a consequence of our own sin.
    This is a frequent explanation, but the scriptures are clear that suffering is NOT necessarily the the consequence of sin. [e.g. John 9:1-3].
  • God gave us free will and we make bad choices resulting in suffering. A personal relationship, characterized by the possibility of love, is only possible if created beings are given free will.
  • You need suffering to experience true Joy.
    See C.S. Lewis', Surprised by Joy (7).

    You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you; now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. [John 16:21]

  • Suffering allows you to prove your faith and receive the grace of Christ. [1 Peter 1:6-7]
  • Suffering of one person may make the lives of others better (usually in ways we don't see at the time or may never see). The ultimate example is the suffering of Christ.
  • God has a reasons/purpose (a "grand design") for our suffering and we are are unable to see them form our vantage point.
  • God created Adam and Eve without suffering, but Adam's disobedience loosed sin in the world. God could not have overlooked it without undermining respect for his authority.
  • Ultimately (Final judgment), God's justice will emerge and the innocent will be rewarded.
  • Good people who die are in a better place.
  • It keeps you humble. Paul says:
    "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it (a thorn in my flesh) away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' [2 Corinthians 12:7-9]
  • See purposes for suffering below.

Note: Most of these explanations are not very comforting. e.g. the fact that your deceased love one is in a better place, does not remove the grief and suffering of loved ones.

These explanations assume an all-powerful God who is able to control everything. In the book of Job, God allows Job a "blameless and upright" man to suffer. Another explanation is that God has allowed Himself to be limited for example by giving Man moral freedom and allowing Satan's temporary influence.

Theodicy is a branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the assumption of a benevolent God, coined in 1710 by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to mean 'the justification of God' in a work entitled Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal ("Theodicic Essays on the Benevolence of God, the Free will of man, and the Origin of Evil"). The purpose of the essay was to show that the evil in the world does not conflict with the goodness of God, and that notwithstanding its many evils, the world is the best of all possible worlds.
Theodicy includes a lot of "free will" arguments like: "Free will is what makes us valuable moral agents, and that, if God were to deny us our freedom, human society would be in a deep sense like an assemblage of robots: not only incapable of evil, but incapable of moral choice in general."
However I couldn't find any good answers to the natural disaster (earthquake, flood, ...) problem.
See: Theodicy at wikipedia.

Dr. Jay Lynch, an oncology professor, Classifies Suffering as:

1. Suffering we all encounter because of our own foolishness or our own evil choices.

2. General frustration: Computer crashes, red lights, Untimely breakdowns.
He believes these are training for handling larger problems.

3. Injustice - Suffering which is caused by someone else's evil choices or which may result from what is referred to as "structural evil."

4. No obvious perpetrator:
Illness and natural disasters are examples.
Lynch says: "Some are even called "acts of God." I find it interesting that we refer to disasters as acts of God rather than the good things that happen."

I have developed a personal philosophy that helps me cope. "Everyone has problems; you shouldn't measure your luck/blessings by how many problems you have but how you can recover from them."

Strength thru Suffering:
This is the most useful explanation for me. The saying "No Pain; No Gain" is usually applied to athletes, but can be applied to other areas also. Another one is "Diamonds are created by pressure".
Setbacks and disappointments can cause you to examine your life, which can lead you in new directions or provide you with strengthened motivation. There are numerous examples of people who suffered setbacks in their early life but persevered to be successful. E.g. Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Scott Hamilton (ice skater), Lance Armstrong(bicycling champion). See Mental Attitude in Sports.

Socrates said: "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Benjamin Franklin said: "Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I learn."

Lynch says: "I have an attitude where I expect good things from God rather than accept good things from God."
You see, one attitude is presumptuous and looks at God as somehow the cosmic Santa Claus who must give me everything that I want, and Christmas is every day. The second realizes that I have many good things in my life, but they are gifts for which I should be grateful.

There is an old Chinese tale of a woman whose only son died. In her grief, she went to the holy man and said, "What prayers, what magical incantations do you have to bring my son back to life?" Instead of sending her away or reasoning with her, he said to her, "Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life." The woman set off at once in search of that magical mustard seed. She came first to a splendid mansion, knocked at the door, and said, "I am looking for a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? It is very important to me." They told her, "You've certainly come to the wrong place," and began to describe all the tragic things that had befallen them. The woman said to herself, "Who is better to help these poor unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own?" She stayed to comfort them, then went on in her search for a home that had never known sorrow. But wherever she turned, in hovels and in palaces, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune. Ultimately, she became so involved in ministering to other people's grief that she forgot about her quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that it had in fact driven the sorrow out of her life.

C S Lewis makes the distinction between pleasure / happiness and Joy. Early in his book, Surprised By Joy, Lewis describes experiences, one was a memory of a memory which brought him what he called "Joy".
Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

Dr. Lynch says:
"There is a profound and mysterious connection between grief, suffering and "Joy," and my patients are a living testimony to that truth. "

Lynch concludes: " God is all powerful, all knowing and loving and just, and he will make it right in His time. In "When Bad Things Happen To Good People," Kushner (2) gives the example of the disease congenital dysautonomia. In this disorder children do not feel any pain and their lives are horrible, frequently using self-mutilating behavior as a means of coercing their parents to do what they want.
In other words, a life without pain far from being beautiful is warped and terrible.

Purposes of suffering (Lynch):
1. It exposes our presumptuousness.
2. Second, there is a perfecting and purifying effect in our suffering. We have to walk by faith and not by sight, to use a Pauline expression. It moves us out of our comfort zone and it drives us to God for comfort.
3. Third, suffering also gives us a heavenly perspective as opposed to a worldly perspective.
4. A fourth purpose of suffering is that it brings us compassion and empathy for others who are suffering when we recover.

In "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", Harold Kushner says: "One of the things that constantly reassures me that God is realÉis the fact that people who pray for strength, hope and courage so often fine resources of strength, hope and courage that they did not have before they prayed."

Another important response to suffering that our faith gives us is the ability to forgive. Many who have suffered terrible loss have found tremendous healing in the ability to forgive the one(s) who brought on their suffering.

Other Religions and insight

In Robert F. Kennedy's speech at Indianapolis the day of Martin Luther King Jrs. death he quoted his "favorite poet" the Greek playwright Aeschylus (525-555 BC):
"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

In his teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha said that life is suffering. Of course, the Buddha didn't speak English; what he really said was that life is dukkha. Dukkha is not just about painful things. Anything that is temporary, limited or imperfect is dukkha. The most pleasant experience you ever enjoyed was dukkha, because it ended.

Four Noble Truths:
- The truth of suffering (dukkha)
- The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
- The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
- The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)
See: The Buddhist path begins with the recognition of suffering


  1. Elizabeth Elliott, A Path Through Suffering, Servant Publications, 1990. 2. Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Avon Books, 1981.
  2. If God is Good: : Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, Randy Alcorn
  3. R.C. Sproul, Surprised by Suffering, Tyndale House Publishers, 1988.
  4. Joseph Bayly, The Last Thing We Talk About, Life Journey Books, 1969.
  5. David B. Biebel, If God is so Good, Why Do I Hurt so Bad?, Navpress, 1989.
  6. Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place, Barbour,1971. 7. C.S. Lewis, Suprised by Joy, Inspirational Press, 1994.
  7. A Grief Observed, C.S> Lewis
  8. Where is God When It Hurts?, Philip Yancey
  9. Paradise Lost, Milton

See also:
Jesus on Why We Suffer at LivinginThePresenceOfGod.org
i. Why Would a Loving God Allow Pain and Suffering? at leaderu.com, an article by Dr. Jay Lynch, professor of Oncology at the Univ. of Florida. (Most of this page was taken from his article)
ii. Why would a Loving God allow suffering? at answersingenesis.org
iii. Why does God allow Suffering? at HarvestChurch.org
iv.Why do the innocent suffer? at ChristianAnswers.net
v. Suffering at SpiritHome.com
Theodicy at wikipedia.

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Last updated 16 Nov 2008