There is so much awfulness in the world, from war to sickness, to homelessness, abuse, violence, and heartbreak. Too often it’s said, “Everything happens for a reason.” What’s more appropriate to say is, “everything that happens because of free will.” No, we don’t willfully choose to have cancer, or to be homeless, or to be abused. But, how many of those things occur because of choices—whether ours or someone else’s? People mismanaging finances. People hurting others. People corrupted by power (how many wars started because people treated their neighbors as themselves?). People’s lifestyles affecting their health. Smoking isn’t necessarily a sin, but the addiction is—and it can also be deadly. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—Newton taught us that much.
I don’t think God says, “you, John Doe, are going to die in a car crash at 37.” I think God says we have the choice to drive a car, or to ride in a car—just as we have the choice to live, as we willfully choose, and thus suffer the consequences. On a much larger scale, war works the same way. Ideologies conflict, egos expand, and dominance or submission is demanded to prove “rightness.” People choose to live for certain causes, and even die for them. Innocent people die because of others’ choices for those causes.
Think of how someone’s free will has hurt you—and vice versa. I would argue it is not often people set out intentionally to hurt others, but actions require reactions.
“The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).
As this verse states, God can easily change the hearts of man. Why, then, does he “allow” this suffering in the world? Why doesn’t he use his God-powers and abracadabra everything to goodness and health? Simply put, because of man. Because of our free will.
When Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, they lost their oneness with God—but they gained knowledge, and with that knowledge, free will. Man could now choose his own course of action. Unfortunately, man often chooses for his own benefit, which often causes the suffering of others. If man chose, every time, to serve God instead of himself, he would be loving his neighbor as himself, which would greatly minimize the suffering in this world.
God doesn’t enjoy suffering. The evil in this world breaks his heart even more than ours—but man was given free will. The choices we make in life show God our true hearts. It is how we live our lives that determine the character of our faith. After all, we owe it to the Lord to live for him—doing as much good on this earth as we can, because that is what Jesus did, before he gave us the ultimate sacrifice of his life.
What about things out of our control?
My own mother passed away from leukemia. It could have been caused by years of taking her arthritis medicine (due to willfully laboring for her family for years), which warned, “may cause blood cancers.” It could have been caused by a number of things. She didn’t choose to have cancer, or arthritis, though. But, the choices still existed, along the line. Pharmaceutical drugs have side effects. Using a microwave or a cell phone has side effects. God gave man the incredible gift of knowledge—look how far science has come in even 100 years—the fact that we have drugs, microwaves, and cell phones. Yet each invention is made with both known and unknown consequences. We move forward both knowing and ignorant, but forward nonetheless. And with each step and misstep, we learn.
Even in the suffering itself, we learn. As pastor Timothy Keller states in The Reason for God, “Though none of these people is grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything.”
My mother, in the grips of her cancer, said, “Win or lose, it’s a win-win for me.” She knew where she was going when she died. I was the one to learn in her stead—I learned not to be bitter at her loss, and I learned to desire the faith she had.
Much of the world’s suffering is out of our control—but it’s in someone’s. God is not “causing” our suffering; it is usually our own creation. In fact, God sent Jesus to pay for that suffering. Jesus died because of our sins and sufferings, so that we may live in eternal greatness one day.
As Keller also points out, “People, we believe, ought not to suffer, be excluded, die of hunger or oppression. But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are all perfectly natural.”
So what do we do?
As stated earlier, if Christians live for God, and not themselves, we would be combatting suffering. It will still happen, and Christians are not going to solve the conundrum of world peace—God will do that, one day. But if we live in ways as to glorify God, we can know that he knows the goodness in our hearts, and we can leave the rest to him. We are told in James, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17). We are not to sit idly, but to help where we can.
We can also stop trying to rationalize it. God tells us so many times in the Bible that we don’t understand his ways. Ecclesiastes 11:15 tells us, “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” Isaiah 55:8 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” Is God saying there’s a reason for our suffering, as in, a reason for everything? Nope, but he’s saying don’t try to understand things out of our control.
The existence of suffering in the world is not an excuse to not believe in God. If anything, it’s an argument for—I certainly don’t want to live this life, knowing there’s nothing better after it. Suffering is a universal problem. As a final thought from Keller,
“The problem of tragedy, suffering, and injustice is a problem for everyone. It is at least as big a problem for nonbelief in God as for belief. It is therefore a mistake…to think that if you abandon belief in God it somehow makes the problem of evil easier to handle.”