Where’s God in pain and suffering? Good question!
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Why is there suffering in the world? If there is a God, does he care? Where is God in my pain?
Is God mean-minded?
The experience of pain and suffering can cause some people to question the very existence of God. Atheist author and actor Stephen Fry was asked what he’d say to God after he’d died, if he found out God did exist. Fry would ask, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? … Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” You can watch the interview below.
This is an intense response! Fry asks lots of good questions. These are good questions because we’re confronted with them, if not every day via the news, then quite often at significant times in our lives, as we deal with death, pain, loss, and grief.
Responding to suffering
Often, when we’re confronted by suffering (whether our own, or someone else), we don’t know how to respond. Sometimes we default to catchphrases which are unhelpful. We might hear or say or think:
“God has a plan.” But wait, God has a plan to give babies bone cancer?
“It’s a blessing in disguise.” Really? My friend’s brain tumour was a blessing?
“The best is yet to come.” Sure, but what about now, the hurt and blood and tears that I feel now?
“There are others worse off.” Sure, but what about my hurt? And what about that poor sod who is worse off?!
“It’s not God, it’s evil at work.” Wait, evil is stronger than God?
“God’s testing you to make you stronger.” Then it seems God is who Stephen Fry describes, “capricious and mean-minded.” (“Capricious” means “given to sudden mood changes”).
Author Fredrick Schmidt in his book The Dave Test wrote about the experience when his best mate, Dave, a successful surgeon, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Dave, who was attending church at the time, received all sorts of, supposedly “helpful” comfort from Christians. The book, rather humorously, rephrases some of the responses he received:
God has a plan, and that’s why your life sucks.
God is testing you by making your life suck.
God has something for you to learn through your sucky life.
God will not give you more sucky experiences than you can bear.
You must have done something to make your life suck.
There are others who lives suck more than yours.
God will bring a blessing through your sucky life.
In his own words, Dave wrote: “I’m a fifty-something hand surgeon. I operated on 120 patients a month until I discovered that I have brain cancer. … What in hell am I going to do with my life that is going to be more of a blessing to other people than what I was doing?”
Why, God? Why?
How do we approach this question of pain and suffering? Why bone cancer in children? Why did Dave get a brain tumour? Why are families broken and hurting? Why do people get sick? Why are there tears and blood and pain? Why, God? Why, why, why? Good question! And as we’ve heard, many of the common “answers” are spectacular fails.
In fact, Jesus asked this very question “why?”. Hanging from the cross in excruciating pain, unable to breathe, Jesus manages a few breaths and cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why? And guess what? He never receives an answer. God doesn’t call out, “I have a plan. It’s a blessing in disguise. The best is yet to come. It’s not me, it’s evil. I’m torturing you to test you. Those other two blokes, they’re worse off than you.” No. God doesn’t answer Jesus’ question.
Sometimes there is no answer to our “why?” questions — this is frustrating!
And this is our first point: sometimes there is no answer (this side of eternity) to the question: “Why is there pain and suffering?”. Jesus never receives an answer. Also, the person of Job in the Old Testament, who loses his family and land and business, is likewise left with his question unanswered (read Job 38:1–40:2).
There is always an answer to our “where?” questions — this brings hope!
But our second point is this: we don’t always receive an answer to the “why” question, but we do receive an answer to the “where” question: “Where is God in our pain and suffering?” God, where are you when babies have bone cancer? God, where are you when my family is broken and hurting? God, where are you when I’m sick or dying? God, where are you when Job is robbed of everything? God, where are you when your Son is hanging on the cross? Where’s God? God is with us.
The shepherd in Psalm 23
The well-known twenty-third Psalm tells our life story as if we are a flock of sheep traversing the rugged countryside under the careful watch of our shepherd. The shepherd knows where to find green pastures and drinking water, so leads his sheep along right paths. But from time to time, in search of grass and water, the flock must pass through deep ravines — dry riverbeds cut into the landscape by seasonal torrents unleashed by winter rains. The sheep scramble down the canyon walls into the shadowy depths. The air at the bottom is thick and heavy, as the heat of the day begins to build. The rising dirt cliffs block out the distant sun. During this time in the shadows the pleasant scenes of green pastures and bubbling brooks seem far removed — there’s no grass or water down here, the air and heat is oppressive. But where is the shepherd? Where is God? ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ God is with you in your darkest valleys.
God is fully human, he even suffers!
See, God hasn’t just read the book on life, or watched the movie, God has lived life here on earth. God became human in the person of Jesus. Fully human. He bled, cried, and died. He looked upon his friends who were suffering, and he had “compassion” on them (e.g. Luke 7:11–17). “Compassion” literally means “guts turning inside-out.” God has entered into this world, he sees your pain and suffering, he experiences it, his guts are turned inside-out by it as much as yours, but he is with you.
Yet, not only is God with you, but he provides comfort. ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The comfort is that you share in the death and life of Christ. ‘For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 1:5). God entered into this world in the person of Jesus, but death could not hold him down. Jesus died, but three days later walked out if the tomb, saying: “I am God. Yet I am also a human. You were created like me. We’re made of the same stuff. You are my beloved child, and I won’t let you be destroyed. Death doesn’t get the last word. I do. And I say that you live.”
What do I do when I suffer?
So what does this mean when you are going through pain and suffering? You’re free to ask why, but may not always get an answer. You can pray for the suffering to be removed, but sometimes your Good Shepherd leads you through dark valleys. But he is with you. You can know that suffering grieves God as much as you. And finally, you can expect comfort, because he is the ‘God of all comfort’ and your comfort will abound through Jesus Christ who suffered, died, and rose again for you.
What do I do with others suffer?
And what does this mean when others are going through pain and suffering? God wants to use you to comfort others with the comfort that you have received. But be careful how you comfort! Trite catchphrases “Cheer up,” “Look on the bright side,” “It could have been worse,” aren’t helpful. Rather be able to say, “That sucks.” Then sit with them. Listen with the same compassion that God has. Tell them that Jesus’ guts are turning inside-out too. Tell them that Jesus is with them, all the way. Tell them we all suffer, bleed, cry, and die, but that is our middle, not our end. Our end is to be in the green pastures with our Good Shepherd forever.
The Father of compassion
To return to the opening dilemma raised by Stephen Fry: what I think Fry missed is God in the person of Jesus Christ. The God he rejects isn’t the God revealed to us in the Bible. God is not some mood swinging, malevolent, evil being. He is the ‘Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles’ (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). He enters into this mysterious mess called life through the divine-person of Jesus. God was rejected, tortured, abandoned, and died — for you. God is in this thing called life with you: bleeding, crying, and dying, just like you. That is who God is. That’s where God is in pain and suffering: he’s with you, all the way.
Let me close with a story to illustrate.
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne.
Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped a young Albanian. He removes his shirt to reveal a scarred back. “In Kosovo we endured terror… shootings… torture!”
In another group an aged aboriginal woman pulls a crumpled, tear stained photograph from her pocket. “What about this?” she demanded, “This is my precious child, [my only child]. I have not seen her since the day she was stolen away for no crime but being black!”
In another crowd, was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer” she murmured, “It wasn’t my fault.”
Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in this world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man!
“Let him be born into a hated race. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.”
“At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.”
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already [done this, and more].
May the Father of compassion, who has entered into our sufferings, comfort you through his presence. Amen.