Why do the Innocent Suffer?

GENESIS 1:27-28

“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

LAMENTATIONS 3:1-3

I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have heard questions like, “How can you believe in a God who would allow this to happen?” or “Why did God take my child, husband, wife, daughter, neighbor, friend, etc.?” or “If God is really loving then God is not all powerful and if God is all powerful then God is not loving and just.” These are reasons many atheists give for not believing in God.

These are legitimate questions people face when it comes to reconciling what is taught and believed about God with what is happening in the world.

There is a theological term that is used to when people attempt to reconcile belief in an all powerful God with all the suffering in the world: theodicy from the Greek words meaning God and justice. In other words, theodicy, is an explanation of the justice of God in the face of counterevidence, what we witness everyday.[1]

Jeremiah, the author and prophet of Lamentations when Jerusalem was destroyed, was so distressed and depressed about the state of the people of God because of what they were going through and what he had to tell them. So, he began to feel as if God was the one who was punishing him.

Harold Kushner, rabbi and author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes, “Like every [person], I pick up the daily paper and fresh challenges to the idea of the world’s goodness assault my eyes: senseless murders, fatal practical jokes, young people killed in car accidents on their way to their wedding or coming home from their high school prom. Can I, in good faith, continue to teach people that the world is good, and that a kind and loving God is responsible for what happens in it?”[2]

He writes this in the beginning chapter of his book. The reason he wrote the book is because he and his wife lost their son, Aaron, just after his 14th birthday due to an lifelong illness. Kushner began to wrestle with the notion of suffering and God.

His story is a lot like many others. Many people here can relate to this story on some level. Loss of a child, infertility, murder, cancer, a loved one taking their life, and so many more. We can look at the news and see natural disasters all over the world taking lives and causing so much destruction. Often times, we are left with, “Why did this happen?”

Over the next few weeks, we will be in conversation by looking at questions people have such as, “Why do the innocent suffer?,” “What is God’s will for my life?,” and ultimately we will focus on how God’s love and presence in this world prevails. There is no way we can cover everything and completely resolve these issues in 4 weeks, but this gives us a good starting point.

I am not going to pretend to know why everything happens in this world; but I am holding strong, and I’m encouraging you, to hold tight to the One who does know each person’s heart, cling to the One who never leaves you nor forsakes you. 

WHAT YOU BELIEVE ABOUT GOD DETERMINES HOW YOU HANDLE LIFE’S SITUATIONS

When we look in the Bible, we see lots of people suffering. There are several verses that make us believe God is the one who brings all the suffering because it is what the people deserve:

Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds.
Woe to the wicked! Disaster is upon them! They will be paid back for what their hands have done. 
(Isaiah 3:10-11 NIV)

I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.

(Lamentations 3:1 NIV)

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed?” (Job 4:7 NIV)

We can pick these verses out and make it seem like God is the ultimate source for all of our suffering in the world and it is because we deserve it.

But the Bible actually paints a different picture for the people of faith. The Bible shows people who have refused to let go of their faith in spite of their surrounding circumstances and see God in every situation.

Joseph (Jacob’s son) is sold into slavery by his brothers

The Israelites spent 400 years oppressed by the Egyptians

Moses does God’s work yet is so miserable that he wants God to take his life

King Saul spend years searching for young David to kill him

The book of Job is about a man who suffers terribly, yet does not give up his faith

At the center of the New Testament is a man who was beaten, abused, and finally nailed to a cross.

The disciples were martyred.

Paul was beaten and put in prison many times

Following Jesus Christ does not mean we will have an easy life; but we are promised that God is with us in every situation.

The writer of the 73rd Psalm reminds us, “my flesh and my heart my fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”[3]

And Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

Philip Yancey writes, in his book Where is God When It Hurts, “Faith in God offers no insurance against tragedy. Nor does it offer insurance against feelings of doubt and betrayal. If anything, being a Christian complicates the issue.”[4]

It is important for us to understand how the bible shows God in people’s lives during suffering. God is present in the biblical characters lives through all aspects of their life good and bad. He is with you always too.

Another notion we should consider (reconsider) is what people will often use to bring comfort:

Everything happens for a reason.

WE NEED TO RETHINK AND BEGIN CHALLENGE THE NOTION (and really stop telling others): EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON

We use this phrase in an attempt to bring comfort to those around us, to those going through hardships.

We usually mean to say that God has a plan for you and you will one day see this plan through your suffering.

Well meaninged Christians say this to try and tell people, most of what they’re going through is not their fault. There was a reason for the tragedy, suffering, illness, etc.

Yes, there are reasons why everything happens. But let’s rethink this idea for a bit, in the manner we typically use it. When we tell people “everything happens for a reason,” we find we give them an opportunity to blame God for what happened. Many, still, will come to believe they have done something wrong and God is “smiting” them and causing this to happen. Incredible guilt and shame can (and does) come upon people when we present ideas that cause them to think God caused the suffering for their behavior.

I know of a family whose 9 year old daughter developed a terminal brain cancer and the pastor of their church told them the reason their child has this cancer is because they were not faithful enough and did not come to church like they should. The family felt a tremendous amount of guilt.

When we say “everything happens for a reason,” or “it must have been the will of God,” we are also implying that God is the one who brought the tornado, hurricane, earthquake, etc. We are telling people God put it in the heart of the murderer to kill that person. 

But I think what people try to say is “we live in a fallen world and a world of cause and effect.”

Things do happen for a reason. The reason could be some of the choices people make, or where they happen to be when the natural disaster strikes, etc.

We have to be careful not to attribute all disasters to God – He may not have brought them – we could easily violate the 3rd commandment (using God’s name wrongly) and misrepresent the nature and character of God..

When non-Christians hear Christians say things like, “everything happens for a reason” and “it must have been the will of God,” they are left with an impression of God that is hardly loving and just, but instead left with a picture of God who wills evil and suffering in the world.[5]

Let’s consider some ways to make sense of the relationship between God and human suffering.

THINGS TO CONSIDER:

  1. God gave humans dominion (stewardship authority) over the earth

“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” [6]

We live in a world that God has given us authority to take care of. God has given us intelligence, a soul, conscience for us to know right from wrong. 

God, in his providence, did not leave us to our own devises to rule and care for the planet. There are natural laws set in motion that govern the seasons, help cool the plant, protect the earth and everything in it, and these natural laws are predictable.

God has also given the Law to show His people how to live. He sent the prophets to redirect people’s lives toward God. When these were not enough, God gave us Jesus Christ who taught us God’s will for us by showing us how to live in this world: “to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, to do unto others as we’d have done to us, that we forgive, that we clothe the naked and feed the hungry, that we welcome the stranger, that greatness is found in serving, and that by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross he demonstrated to us what sacrificial love look like.” “Finally, God gave us the Holy Spirit to ‘guide us in all truth’” and the church.”[7]

God uses his people to do incredible things here and even uses people to be the answered prayer of someone suffering, someone in need. Feed hungry children, care for the sick, seek God’s justice, encourage those who are discouraged.

We have free will.

At the beginning of the book of Genesis, we see that God gave Adam and Eve the choice to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We have always had and will always have the freedom to choose between right and wrong…God’s will be done or My will be done. 

We love the idea of being free to make our own decisions and be our own person and we will defend this freedom.

Since we have been given free will, we are prone to stray from God’s path. Just look at the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 1-3.

No matter how you read this story (literally, figuratively, symbolically), you and I can still see ourselves in this story.

This story captures the idea of what happens to us, as humans, on a daily basis. Everyday, I hear the voice of the serpent trying to lead me astray, convincing me there is a better path than what God has said. I can listen to it, or I can believe what God is leading me to do or believe about Himself. When I listen to the voice of the serpent, a little of God’s paradise is lost inside me.

Straying from God’s path brings sin into the picture. The Hebrew and Greek words for SIN mean to “miss the mark.” When we do not live the way God desires us to live, we become so full of ourselves and we end up finding ourselves being drawn to the things that hurt us or others.

Sin is in every aspect of the human experience and leads to

Dictators and tyrants abusing people

Men and women violating their marriage covenant

This results in people worshipping false gods (idols) of

Money

Sex

Power

Self 

We have been given incredible power and authority over the earth, free will, the power to choose right from wrong. So let’s briefly look at God’s power and human suffering.

Natural disasters happen all over the world and many people die from them each year. Throughout human history, people have thought of these events as “acts of God.” Insurance companies still have clauses in their policies that talk about “acts of God.”

We now know, as a people, that these events actually have a good purpose for life on our planet. For example, earthquakes are the result of the movement of the earth’s plates, a process designed to keep the core of our planet from superheating. Without this, the earth could not support human life. Monsoons that bring terrible flooding are part of the earth’s system for cooling our atmosphere. When human beings get caught in these giant forces of nature, there is death and devastation, but these forces are essential to life on this planet.[8]

It is okay to ask, “Where is God?” in our life situations.

So, where is God when tragedy strikes? One of the places, I believe, we can see God is him working in and through emergency personal, and disaster relief teams to bring a sense of healing and hope. One of God’s primary methods for showing the world his presence and care toward people is by sending his people out.

He sends his people to provide medical care, food, clothing, shelter to their communities and around the world so children don’t have to die of hunger. We see the state of our fallen world all over all sources of media. Much of the suffering in the world is still happening because God’s people are not hearing or answering his call. What is God putting in your heart to show how you can make a difference for transformation and healing in this world? 

There is suffering that is caused by human decisions because we have been given the freedom to make these decisions. Some of the people angry with God are really angry with themselves for the decisions they’ve made. Our decisions (such as resources not being deployed out in areas of need, people not responding to God’s call on their life to share his love and help those in need) can have painful consequences for others.

In his book Night, Elie Wiesel writes about his experience as a boy in the Holocaust Auschwitz concentration camp. He says he keeps hearing the question, “Where is God now?”

The book, A Child Called It, depicts the true story of Dave Pelzer who somehow survived the worst case of child abuse in California history.

I have a close friend who lost his wife and child, while they were driving to church, because someone chose to drink and drive.

We know of businesses, who people invest their retirement into stocks, who fail because of bad accounting practices done to hide the truth of how the business was doing.

There is also suffering that is caused by illness. We live in a fallen world, and our bodies are not what God originally created them to be. Our current bodies are incredible machines that can heal themselves; but sometimes they just don’t heal like we want them to.

Leslie Weatherhead, a preacher in the 20th century told about his time as a missionary to India. A young Indian man he was ministering with had a daughter who had just died of cholera. The young man, with great resignation and grief said, “it must have been the will of God.” Weatherhead stopped him and said, “John, what would you think if someone crept into your veranda by night and held a cholera germ-covered cloth over your daughter’s mouth?” The man became indignant, “Such a man would be a monster!” Weatherhead replied, “But John, is that not what you just accused God of doing?” [9]

Sickness is not God’s way. When Jesus walked this earth, he spent much of his time healing people not making them sicker… So, do we blame God for the illness, or do we, with the psalmist, look at our bodies and declare that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14)[10] even though our bodies are failing us?

Disease, sickness, injury, and death are all part of having flesh and blood bodies. This is, unfortunately, part of our life. Part of the risk of living is that we might get sick and we will die. This is not God’s doing, it is simply part of having bodies like ours in a world like ours.[11]

So, I invite you to remember that following Jesus Christ does not mean we’ll have an easy, pain-free life, and to keep thinking through what “everything happens for a reason” means when we say this other people. When we have the opportunity to listen to people going through very significant challenges, we get to be a source of comfort and God’s love, reminding them God has not forgotten them and loves them tremendously.

The truth is we live in a world where we do not always know the real reasons things happen or why people do what they do. But rejecting God won’t change the situation. Remembering God is present, asking God to be present, changes our viewpoint. We can then understand more, the Apostle Paul when he wrote (here’s a different version of Philippians 4:13), “I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”[12]

THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE 

Christianity does not promise we will not suffer but does promise that suffering will not have the final word.

Israelites set free from slavery

David found deliverance from his affliction

And on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (Lamentations 3:21-26)

God does not bring unjust suffering upon his children; but he will force such things to serve his good purposes.

He will walk with us through all of the hardships, challenges, sufferings in this life.

NT Wright says, “We are committed, within the worldview generated by the gospel of Jesus, to affirming that evil will finally be conquered, will be done away with.”[13]

The Apostle Paul puts it in a different way in Romans 8:18 “the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)


[1] Wright, NT. Evil and the Justice of God. Page 45

[2] Kushner, Harold. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Page 10

[3] Psalm 73:26

[4] Yancey, Phillip. Where is God When it Hurts. Page 70

[5] Hamilton, Adam. Why?: Making Sens of God’s Will. Page 9

[6] Genesis 1:27-28

[7] Hamilton, Adam. Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will. Pages 11-12

[8] Hamilton, Adam. Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Pp16-17

[9] Hamilton, Adam. Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Page 25

[10] Hamilton, Adam. Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Page 25, 26

[11] Hamilton, Adam. Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Page 26

[12] Philippians 4:13 CEB

[13] Wright, NT. Evil and the Justice of God. Page 16

Published by

Ryan Stratton

Ryan Stratton is a pastor in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He serves with his wife, Amanda, along with their children. He writes about life, faith, and leadership through his blog.

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