When I was in the third grade, my little sister became terribly sick.
It was just another day like every other. I had been at school since 9:00 AM, learning about division and prepositions and grasshoppers. But at the end of the day, my parents did not arrive to bring me home. My grandmother did.
When I asked her why she was picking me up instead of my mom and dad, she said that my parents were with my sister, seeing the doctor. I thought that this was rather odd, but nine-year-old Ben didn’t know enough about the world to consider that there might be something seriously wrong. Alison must have a cold, I thought. She must have thrown up last night and needed medicine.
I was wrong.
For the next several months I rarely saw my sister. She was at the hospital, seeing the specialist, receiving tests, taking medicines I could not pronounce. When she was home, she had to take pills every few hours; even in the middle of the night, I would hear my parents waking her up, making her take her pills, and sending her back to bed. I heard her crying and asking why this had to happen to her.
She lost control of her right arm. It would jerk on its own at random times, causing her to throw things and hit people. She had to train herself to be left-handed because her right arm was unreliable. My parents pulled her out of school because she could not be around other children; her immune system wasn’t strong enough to fight the any sort of infection. She was mostly confined to the house and the doctor’s office. I did not understand what was going on. My sister, who was two years younger than me, was even more confused about what was happening to her. But she was afraid. I saw it in her eyes; in the way she clung to my parents when they brought her home from the doctor; in the way she avoided talking about her sickness. My baby sister was terrified.
But in the midst of all this pain and fear, my parents taught my sister a verse from the Bible: Joshua, chapter one, verse nine.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.
My sister clung to this verse desperately. It was her only firm foundation, an uncompromising promise in the midst of a shattered world. Her life had been turned inside-out and upside-down, but in the midst of all this chaos and pain, my parents promised her that God was still with her.
But I wasn’t so sure.
If God was with her, why was my little sister’s life falling apart? If God loved her, why was He allowing her pain? How could a loving God allow a dear child to suffer so?
I still believed in God… but I wasn’t sure if I liked Him.
As I have grown older, I have discovered that the world is full of pain. Cancer snuffs out innocent lives. Children starve. Families fall apart. Hatred and sorrow and death and suffering and disease and deception and chaos surround us. Where is God in all this?
My little sister, praise God, was healed of her pain and her suffering. She won the fight against a heart disorder that could have killed her. And rather than shaking her belief in God, my sister’s suffering strengthened her belief. God had truly been with her.
But when I look at the world around me, I see plenty of suffering that doesn’t have a happy ending. I see pain that doesn’t leave until death takes its place. And it is only natural to wonder: if God is all-loving and all-powerful, how can He allow such pain?
Unfortunately, many people ask this question, and they never really pursue an answer. They lose hope. They give up. They decide that there is no God, or if there is, that He must be cruel and despotic. And so they find themselves without hope. The world is cruel, and there is no salvation. Without clinging to God’s promise, I don’t know how my sister could have made it through her sickness. Yet so many people try to face the cruelty of the world with no hope in the Lord. And that is a great tragedy.
So today, I want to examine that question. How could a loving God allow suffering and evil in the world? Is there light in the midst of this darkness? Is God even there?
Yes. He absolutely is. And rest assured, we are not alone.
In order to answer this question, we need to understand what we’re asking. What does it mean for God to be loving? It means that God cares about us so much more than we could ever ask or imagine. But more than that, the meaning of God’s love is displayed in His actions toward us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Think about that. While we were utterly rebelling against His ways; while we were spitting in His face; while we were blaspheming His name; while we were lying and stealing and killing and lusting and coveting and hating– while we were completely and utterly undeserving of love, God loved us enough to die for us.
That’s what it means that God loves us. The blood of Jesus Christ is the definition of love.
So if God loves us that much, then why is there so much suffering in the world?
It seems a difficult question. But in the end, it’s not so complicated as you might think. The world is full of suffering because the world is full of evil.
In Genesis 1, the Bible tells the story of Creation. When God created the world, He created it perfectly. There was no death. There was no evil. There was no disease or suffering. Everything was as it should be. God created the world perfectly. Then, God created humanity; and when He created us, He gave us an incredible gift: freedom.
God created mankind with the ability to make our own decisions. Despite His complete sovereignty, God did not choose to create robots that followed His every whim. He chose to create beings who were capable of making their own free, moral decisions.
When God created the world, He created the most idyllic, picture-perfect world we can imagine. But He put us in charge of tending that world. He gave us the incredible privilege and responsibility of making our own decisions and caring for the world He had given us.
And we royally screwed things up.
Rather than following God’s example of loving kindness, humans have chosen to be driven by selfishness. We lie. We cheat. We steal. We pursue our own desires and we hurt one another. And the natural consequence of evil is suffering.
God did not make the world a painful place. We did. God created a perfect world. We broke that perfection. And God stepped in to restore it.
When we look at God’s role in history, we see that He is always the one fixing the problems that we create. He redeems our failures and rebuilds what we tear down. God doesn’t make us suffer. We do. Yet God saves us, because He loves us.
The world is still beautiful. Even in the midst of the ashes of a burning world, we can still find glimmers of hope. Even in the darkness of this world, there is light.
But of course, there is still suffering in the world. There is still evil. So we ask, why hasn’t God simply taken it all away? Simple- because the only way God could completely eliminate evil would be to completely eliminate our freedom. And that would be far, far worse.
To put it simply, God is an all-powerful and all-loving God. He has the power to take away all evil. But to do so, he would either have to destroy humanity entirely, or take away our freedom and turn us into an army of robots. That is not what God wants, and it’s not what we want. So God put into motion that most perfect solution to suffering.
God came to earth in the form of a man, Jesus Christ. He lived a sinless life. He did no wrong. He suffered a human life. He experienced hunger and pain and sorrow. And then, he suffered the most horrific death we can imagine. He experienced the ultimate suffering; not because He had done any wrong, but because we had.
So God took the consequences of our evil upon Himself, that we might be freed from suffering without losing our freedom. He did the only thing that could be done to save us from the pain we create for ourselves, despite what it cost Him. That is love.
Yet still we stand and complain. God gave us a perfect world. We broke it, and blamed God. Then, He fixed it, in the greatest act of love we can imagine. And still we accuse Him of being the source of suffering. We are blind indeed. Life is full of bad things, but they cannot overcome the goodness that lies ahead.
My sister suffered, not because God didn’t love her, but because He loves her enough to give her a life of freedom. And though she suffered, the suffering cannot compare to the beauty that awaits her. If there was no darkness in this world, we would never be able to appreciate the light. If there was no evil, we would not see goodness for what it is. If we did not have the freedom to choose evil, we would never have the freedom to choose good. The world we live in is far from perfect, because we are far from perfect. But God loves us enough to suffer for us. He loves us enough to be there with us even in the midst of our pain. He loves us enough to redeem even our greatest mistakes for our good.
That is what it means that God loves us. In the midst of the darkness we created for ourselves, God’s love is where the light shines through. We simply need to open our eyes and see it.