Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Question #4: Does God Cause or Allow Suffering?

So which is it? Does God cause suffering or does He allow it? Now that's a question that will get some people riled up. When we let our emotions take over, we can come up with all sorts of answers to a question like this. So we must return to the Bible and see what it says. If we have no source of authority to answer questions, then we can just come up with whatever answers we want (see postmodernism). We as Christians know that we do have one source of authority, the scriptures. So what does the Bible say?

First, let us begin with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Did God the Father simply allow Jesus to suffer, or did He cause this to happen? Isaiah 53:10, speaking of the Suffering Servant (Jesus) says, "Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand." Notice that it was the will of the Lord (God the Father) to crush him (Jesus).

In the New Testament, we see a similar statement in Acts 2:23. Peter is preaching about Jesus and states, "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." It is clear that Jesus' death occurred according to not just the foreknowledge, but also the plan of God the Father.

Both of the above passages at least show that God was in control of Christ's suffering. This seems to be more significant that just allowing Jesus to suffer. However, the texts do not explicitly state that God caused the suffering to occur.

Let's look to the testimony of faithful men elsewhere in the Bible.

If you read Lamentations 3, you will see Jeremiah repeatedly ascribe his sufferings to God. For example, Lam. 3:16 says, “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes.” This passage makes it clear that the prophet believes that God is causing his pain.

Three more examples stand out on this issue: Joseph, Paul, and Job. In Genesis chapter 50, Joseph is talking with his brothers after their father Jacob has died. Speaking of their selling him into slavery, Joseph says to his brothers in verses 19-20, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Joseph’s belief is clear. He says that God “meant” it for good. Joseph believed that God caused his suffering.

Turning to Paul, in II Corinthians 12, he has been given “a thorn in the flesh.” Although not stated directly, the context implies that God sent this “messenger of Satan” to afflict Paul. Paul asks three times for it to leave, but it is God’s will for it to remain. In fact, God says to Paul in 12:9, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." God was in complete control of that situation. It seems that God caused Paul’s suffering.

Finally, let us turn to the example of Job. In chapter 1 of Job, Satan approaches God. However, it is God who says to Satan in verse 8, "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?" God actually initiates what Job will face.

In verse 11 we see that Satan wants to harm Job, but what does he say to God? Satan says to God, “But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face. So even Satan believes that it is ultimately God who brings suffering.

It is important to note what happens next. In verse 12, God responds by saying to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand. At this point God gives permission to Satan to harm Job, and we know that he does.

What is Job’s reaction to all this? Does he believe God has caused his pain or merely allowed it to happen? We have two short testimonies of Job that shed some light. First, in 1:21 Job says, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Second, in 2:10 Job says to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? So in these two verses we see Job saying that God has “taken away,” and that he (Job) must “receive evil” from God.

Based on these scriptures (Isaiah, Acts, Lamentations, Genesis, II Corinthians, & Job), we appear to have a clear answer to our title question. Although not stated explicitly, God the Father appears to have caused Jesus to suffer. Jeremiah clearly states that God is causing his suffering. Joseph and Paul both seem to believe that God is causing their suffering. Finally, in the case of Job, both Satan and Job believe that it is God who causes suffering.

So what is Satan’s role in all of this? Based on what we see in Job, Satan is actively involved in at least some of the suffering we face. A safe conclusion is this: God is ultimately responsible for and is the ultimate cause of our suffering. He has every right to do this, and is sinless in doing it. Satan is involved in some of this suffering. When he is involved, he is sinful in his actions and motives, even if directed by God.

Why then would a loving God cause us to suffer? We may never know the answer to this in particular situations. Job could not see what was happening in heaven just before his suffering began. God never told Job why he suffered. We can be certain of this: our God will glorify Himself through our suffering. He will also use it to draw us closer to Himself.

So what is the final conclusion? Does God cause or allow suffering? According to the Bible, God causes suffering.

Please let me know what you think about this (even if you don’t agree).


Anonymous said...

Great post Eric -- I preached an entire sermon on this a few weeks back. Not only does the work of Satan that is ongoing do ultimate good for the church, but it also will bring more glory to God and fulfill his desired end. So Satan has power, but it is all by permission from God, and it is never out of control. Our prayers matter in these times. Our wartime mentality to fight is crucial in these times. Our outlook on God's victory is crucial in these times. Romans 5:3-5 says: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” God presents suffering and tribulation in our lives so that we many receive and rejoice in it, being produced in our endurance and by being built up in hope.

Eric said...


Thanks for your feedback. Wouldn't it be awful if God only "allowed" suffering? That would mean that all suffering would be instigated by Satan to accomplish his evil purposes. I thank the Lord for giving us pain, as hard as it can be at times to endure, in order to draw us closer to Him, and for God to glorify Himself.

Ken said...

Great post. I totally agree and am stupefied when I see well meaning Christians cower at the idea that God can and will cause pain and suffering. There is no reason to believe that causing pain and suffering is necessarily evil if done by God. We do know in Lamentations that He does not "willingly afflict the sons of men." We must be careful not to equate all pain and suffering as a result of or directly caused by moral or natural evil. I personally believe that pain and suffering are caused by God for three main reasons: 1- judgement 2-discipline 3-trial
How the pain and suffering occur can either be from God's direct hand, natural evil, or moral evil. The latter two manifest from a cursed world or an evil agent, either man or devil. We must be careful not to accuse God of moral evil just because he causes or allows pain and suffering in our lives.

Jessica said...

I would have to strongly disagree. I believe God ALLOWS suffering, he doesn't cause it. To say that God causes suffering simply so he can draw us closer to him would be like saying as a mother I would willingly break my sons arm just so I could set it and cuddle him to make him feel better. That is nonsense.

God allows suffering because he wants worshippers who CHOOSE to follow him, learn about him and about themselves and come closer to him. In the same way that I will allow my son to climb trees and ride bikes when he's older, even though both of those things will probably result in a lot of pain for him. But it's necessary for him to do those things so he can learn more about his world, about his limits and about me as a loving parent. I can't keep him locked inside all his life, even though I desperately love him and don't want to see him in pain. Pain and suffering is a part of living in a fallen world. God has always given us free will to choose him and suffering is usually a catalyst for that.

How sad it is to hear Christians say that a loving and compassionate Father would actively choose to inflict suffering on his people. Just because these people in the Bible believed that this was the nature of God (because quite simply, they didn't have much to base their belief on) doesn't mean that is what God is really like.

Just my opinion.

Eric said...


Thank you for commenting. I'd love to hear the specific biblical basis (chapters, verses) for your opinions.

Mrsmathias said...

As I loving parent I have caused my child to suffer...on purpose. I spanked them, I withdrew privileges from them, and I made them do things for their own good that they did not want to do. A "loving" surgeon "hurts" his patient when he cuts through skin, muscle, and even bone. The wound is not the is only the means to healing for the patient's ultimate good. Deut. 32:39; Is. 45:7; Romans 9:18; Psalm 119:75 and many other places record the fact that God causes suffering.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this perspective. What I was specifically searching for is if God causes trials in New Testament and current times. We know he did in OT times, but because of Jesus' sacrifice resulting in God being accessible to us through Jesus and believers being made righteous, I can find no examples in the NT of God instigating or causing pain. Aside from the examples surrounding the Gospel (which we know had to occur) the only NT scripture you site is Paul in 2 Corinthians and as you mention, it is not stated directly. Moreover, theologians do not know what this "thorn" was that Paul suffered from -- not even if it was physical or mental -- nor the duration of it (was he possibly even born with it.) Are there any other NT verses that show God causing suffering (like he did with the flood and Job)?