HAVE YOU WONDERED? 'Why does God permit so much suffering and evil in our world? '

Russ Whitten
Russ Whitten

Having spent the last two weeks with COVID-19, I took some time to reflect on the age old question: Why does God permit so much suffering and evil in our world? Can’t partial blame be attributed to someone who has the ability to stop suffering, yet does not do so?

To address this question, let us now turn to the classic Biblical case study on the problem of suffering —- the book of Job. Job is introduced as a good, blameless, upright, wealthy man who “feared God and shunned evil.” Meanwhile, in a heavenly dialogue with God, Satan insinuates that the reason Job is so good and faithful is because he has been blessed with a great family, great riches, and great health. In response, God permits Satan to test Job and violent waves of death, destruction and carnage begin to crash in on Job’s life. In a matter of hours, Job loses his livestock, servants and children. Yet, “in all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22).

So, Satan again challenged God, "... stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face" (Job 2:4). Again, God allowed Satan to test Job. “So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head” (Job 2:7).

What can we learn from this episode about affixing blame for human suffering? Who is responsible for Job’s suffering?

The book of Job investigates this question in depth. Job, himself, is interrogated throughout as a possible suspect. “Surely, these things wouldn’t be happening if Job was not hiding some secret sin,” reasoned Job’s “comforters.” However, the message of the book teaches just the opposite. If “Job’s sinfulness” is not to blame, what is?

We could certainly identify wicked people — the Sabeans (Job 1:15) and the Chaldeans (Job 1:17) — and bad weather, presumably lightning (Job 1:16) and a great wind (Job 1:19) — as the culprits. On a deeper level, Satan is clearly to blame. Yet, it is the deepest level of understanding that is so troubling. Yes, the direct blame should go to bad people, bad weather and a bad angel. However, this does not tell the whole story. Indirectly, does not God share part of the blame? It is the awareness that God himself allowed, and even authorized, Job’s sufferings that is so unsettling. What are we to make of this?

First of all, this is not an issue that is particular to the book of Job. God’s supreme authority over all that happens on earth is a consistent teaching throughout Scripture. Indeed, whatever we can think of in this world that brings about suffering, we can find a biblical verse claiming God’s sovereignty over it.

Second, if we are disturbed by the idea that God screens evil, consider how disconcerting it would be to find out that he didn’t. Steven Estes responds to God’s sovereignty in light of Job’s suffering this way: “Satan acted freely; no one forced his hand. God’s reaction to the devil was merely to lengthen his leash ... What’s clear immediately is that God permits all sorts of things he doesn’t approve of ... Do we find repulsive a God who gives the nod to our tragedies? What if your trials weren’t screened by any divine plan? Try to conceive of Lucifer unrestrained. Left to his own, the devil would make Jobs of us all ... If God didn’t control evil, the result would be evil uncontrolled. God permits what he hates to achieve what he loves.”

Could it be that God allowed the tragic events we read about in the book of Job to show humanity what it would be like if he let go of Satan’s leash? Is it possible that these events were recorded in Scripture so that everyone could vividly witness what the devil is really like and the suffering that he would inflict without God’s restraining? Perhaps, the book of Job is an inspired glimpse of what hell is like and, just briefly, God deemed it necessary to pull back the curtain so that we could get a good look at the true character of this fallen angel we so flippantly flirt around with.

Job never received an exhaustive, theoretical answer as to why he was suffering.

It is unlikely that a “reason” would have satisfied him anyway. In the end, the

only thing that could fill the void in Job’s afflicted life was the very presence of

God. Indeed, the very thing that Job wanted and needed most was given to him –

the opportunity to see God. Rather than revealing any ultimate “solution” to the

problem of pain, God reveals himself. For Job, this was enough, as is evident in his response, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).

The book of Job illustrates that “it is less important to know all the answers than to know and trust the one who does.” Job’s saga ends with God presenting him 62 questions. These questions seem to have answered Job’s. But, do they answer ours? Rather than thundering out unanswerable questions at a wounded man, wouldn’t it be more meaningful if God came down from the safety and comfort of heaven — into our world — and had to experience our pain? What if God actually accepted the blame and the punishment for the evil in our world? It is here that the Christian gospel becomes extremely relevant.

The Christian faith proclaims the good news that God loves you so much that he came down from the safety and comfort of heaven, experienced our pain and actually accepted the punishment for the evil and sin in our world in order to connect with and save our hurting world. The Bible captures this astonishing and attractive thought in these terms:

“... though he was in the form of God ... emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

He had “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not ... he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:2-5)

May God bless you all and may I encourage you all to do the right, loving and Christian thing by getting vaccinated as soon as you can

Russ Whitten is a local minister, writer and musician.