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If God is love, why is there suffering?

A photpgraph of the actress Ellen Terry
A photpgraph of the actress Ellen Terry

This past week, one of my friends asked me about my take on 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  She, like many others, has heard this passage quoted regarding everything from cursing to those dying as a result of liver cancer or complications from AIDS.

“If God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear, why do people die from drug overdoses? Are they just weak people? Or does God not truly love them?”

I have several thoughts in response to this question. First, the simple truth is that we are a broken humanity. There is none among us who does not stumble daily and become somehow entrapped in our own struggles and transgressions. But we tend to minimize some things (especially those things that are not outwardly visible) —envy, selfishness, lack of love for others — and focus on those things that are outwardly visible as sin or as consequences of sin.

My subsequent thought is that a broken humanity leads to a broken community.  And, as a result, we must ask the question, “What could we, as a community, have done to prevent these situations from occurring in the first place?”  Were we there when our friends and neighbors were drinking too much? Were we bold in offering help or did we turn a blind eye in hopes that they would get the help they needed elsewhere? While it is true that people make their own decisions, the community must be responsible for caring for its members, too.

Finally, if a broken humanity leads to broken communities, where is God? 1 John 4:8 tells us, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

God is love — but humans are God’s hands and feet on earth. It is the responsibility of those who call themselves lovers of God to show love and compassion to those who are marginalized or outside the realm of being loved. If those stricken with drug addiction, “self-inflicted” cancer, or HIV/AIDS (among other things) do not feel the love of God (or love at all), it is because people of faith fail to show compassion and love.

All in all, then, God does love those who are outwardly suffering as a consequence of sin. But it is the consequence of non-compassion of people of faith (a sin in its own right) that they feel unloved. Humanity is broken, but outward compassion and active love can heal individuals and communities.

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Ryan Downie

Just a few thoughts…

This post addresses, at heart, the problem of evil. I’m not really sure, however, how it really deals with the problem. You said your first thought in response to the problem of evil is that humanity is broken. Rather than addressing the problem, doesn’t this merely restate the problem in a different way? I’m not really sure how saying everyone struggles answers the question of why some struggle. This seems to merely punctuate the problem.

I can see a potential answer to this in that you mentioned the effects of “sin”. Nevertheless, one might simply wonder why there is sin in the world? Why don’t we have natures given to almost always choosing not to sin? More salient, however, is the question of how sin explains why God supposedly allows for gratuitous evil, animal suffering, or natural evil.

With regard to your final point, if God is love and God understands that humanity is broken and that this very brokenness leads to much of the pain and suffering we experience (as you pointed out), then why would God leave it to humans to be “His” “hands and feet”? This seems a bit backwards, if not question begging.

Ryan Downie

I’d also like to point out that on atheism this is exactly the answer we would would expect. Suffering exists (or at least certain kinds) because of the failings of humans. I’m not certain we would expect this on theism. One could still wonder why God allows this suffering. So, I’m not sure how the question has been answered.

Dennis

My first thought is that this passage is directed not toward humanity in general, but those who have been born from above, Christians who have been created new in Jesus Christ. I would agree that we have a broken humanity. Jesus Christ came into the world not to condemn the world, but that all who believe in Him might be save out of a crooked and perverse generation. The world is suffering because of sin. Christians and non-christians alike will suffer. Those who know Christ have a resource not available to any other human.

Why there is sin in the world is able to be answered only by the God Who is in charge, and He has not revealed that answer to us. What He has done is given His Own life so that we could be new and have a future that is glorious and eternal in nature in contrast to what might be called a blip on the radar, one human lifespan.

Dennis

Wow, I just read the preceding 12 verses for context. Those certainly help to explain where some of the suffering is coming from. Desiring evil (v.6), idolatry (v.7), sexual immorality (v.8), putting Christ to the test (v.9), grumbling (against God)(v. 10). Our society is saturated with every one of those symptoms. Again, the only answer is to turn from them to Jesus Christ. He will save AND give comfort and even meaning to the suffering.

Kyle A. Franklin

I apologize for the delay in responding. First, thank you for your comments. I realize that there are many viewpoints on this subject and, simply put, my goal in writing the article was not to answer the question of why there is suffering (theologians and philosophers have been debating this question for centuries) but, rather, to suggest how communities of faith may respond to that suffering.

I tend to write from a very ascending Christology–while Jesus is believed to be divine, he was also fully human. And, as Paul wrote numerous times, Jesus’ followers are the body of Jesus on earth. It is the responsibility of communities of faith, then, to serve and act on behalf of Jesus in order to repair broken communities and alleviate the suffering that exists (and the suffering that will continue to exist) in this world.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga is actually a good example–rather than living his life comfortably with his family’s wealth during the days of plague, he served those stricken with plague face-to-face. While it is true that he eventually died, he personally impacted those who were suffering most and were marginalized. He became the hands and feet of Jesus.

It is unlikely that many will die as a result of their service on behalf of God, we are still called to be compassionate to the fullest of our capacity.

Eric Blauer

I’ve got a friend who just got diagnosed with liver cancer and was given a few weeks to live.

I am faced with “Why” or “How” questions now. I find that the only sane path forward in the face of suffering for most people is “how” we choose to respond rather than trying to figure out the mystery of “why” something happened.

Telling someone dying of cancer that God loves them….maybe be true, but has quite a different impact than, here I am, I love you.

Both realities are true in my opinion but one is the practical response to pain and suffering, which is what I’m taking away from Kyle’s thoughts.

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