Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

by Dr. David Jeremiah

Our pain is real. Even a quick look at the Bible bears witness to the fact that we aren’t the first to walk down the difficult roads of disappointment, persecution, and bitterness. In God’s Word, we find hope for stormy times. Whenever I have suffered, the psalms have been a source of strength and healing.

Are you facing a bend in the road? An unexpected diagnosis? A heartbreak? Loneliness? If not now, you’ve likely faced circumstances you never expected nor wished to encounter.

None of us enjoys suffering, yet it brings the opportunity to develop the kind of profound faith that believes God’s purposes are loving and truly right for us. Every crisis has the potential to empower and purify us, to make us more valuable servants in His kingdom. God does not waste our sorrows.

My Bend in the Road

When I arrived at the Center for Executive Health on a bright Monday morning in 1994, cancer was the last thing on my mind. During the forty-minute drive to the doctor’s office, I had no pressing concerns and felt like my time would be better spent at my office (or recuperating from the three sermons I preached the day before) than being poked and prodded by doctors.

Those were my idle thoughts during a mundane drive on an ordinary morning. But the clock was ticking: forty minutes of peace and contentment were draining away before chaos struck.

As the doctor examined my abdomen, he detected a mass suggestive of an enlarged spleen. Before long, a smattering of physical examinations, blood tests, and radiological procedures revealed the dark truth: I had lymphoma.

My wife, Donna, was about to leave for a visit with her mother in New Hampshire. Not wanting to rain on her parade, I decided to keep silent. Before meeting up with her three days later, I kept up with obligations to speak at ministry events. Once we settled into our hotel room, I sat down with her and opened the dark curtains of my soul. When I finished, we cried and prayed and held each other through most of the night.

One six-letter word, cancer, sent a tidal wave of shock, fear, and dismay through both of our hearts.

It feels good to be sharing my story 25 years later. Thanks to God’s power and the expert care of many dedicated health professionals, I survived my lymphoma. And I experienced God’s presence more personally, more deeply than I’d ever experienced it before. As I asked Him the same questions so many others have asked—Why this? Why me? Why now?—He answered through the words of the apostle Paul, “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

God’s grace is sufficient—I can tell you it’s true.

5 Principles to Remember When Bad Things Happen

Through my own dark nights, I’ve identified five principles that help me to see struggles from God’s perspective. I hope they will help you as much as they have helped me.

Principle #1: Suffering Teaches Us to Trust God

Good parents discipline their children, and God is a Good Father. Every trial we face, difficult as it may be, comes from the hand of God, who loves us and wants us to grow. The moment we accept the fact that our ordeal has been permitted, even intended by God, our perspective will change. We will find ourselves saying, “God, You have allowed this in my life. I don’t understand it, but I know that it couldn’t have happened to me unless it was filtered through Your loving hands. This thing is from You, and I accept it.”

Principle #2: Suffering Builds Character

We live in a world where the idea of success carries an expectation of being comfortable. Digital assistants turn on the lights and order our groceries. Streaming services allow us to customize music and television programming to our individual tastes. Our work spaces are climate-controlled and ergonomically optimized. Being comfortable isn’t wrong, but God is more concerned with our holiness than our comfort or happiness.

Character and substance are shaped in the crucible of adversity. Unless there is pain in the formula, we will never stop and listen carefully to what He is saying. We’ll be moving along happily, thinking we’re going somewhere—but we’re only spinning our wheels. We’re not making any progress toward the deeper things our Father longs to show us. Sometimes He allows us to stumble because He is determined to teach us and to make us wiser and stronger.

Principle #3: Suffering Draws Us Near to God and Prepares Us to Be Productive

In John 15:1-8, Jesus borrows a word picture from the plant kingdom. He explains that because He loves us, He must do some pruning for us to thrive and blossom. Do you understand how this principle works in gardening? Even with green things, God’s concept of discipline holds true.

It’s a painful process, but the Gardener is loving and devoted. Someone has said, “The Father is never closer to the vine than when He is pruning it.”1 That statement is right on the mark. When we experience loss, we can be sure God is near to us. He is disciplining us in the same way a loving father disciplines his children. Our part is to lean in to Him, study His Word, and trust Him to provide for our needs. 

Principle #4: Suffering Produces Dynamic Growth

You can struggle against suffering, shake your fist at the heavens, and find yourself exhausted, defeated, and in despair—or you can accept the moment and let it train and strengthen you. If you take the latter course, you’ll discover more power, more holiness, and more fruit. Those are precious gifts that cannot be purchased with any coin other than tears. When you possess them, you’ll comprehend with joy what God wanted so much for you to experience in your life.

God never allows pain without a purpose. Instead, He uses your suffering to dispense His power. And His power cannot rest upon you unless you’ve abandoned the idea that you’re big enough to go it alone. You need to realize that you’re not big enough; you’ll never make it without depending utterly upon Him and going in His strength. Some pruning will take place, but you’ll be free to grow toward the heavens after that pruning is accomplished!

Principle #5: The Outcome of Our Suffering Depends Upon Our Response

When I was diagnosed with cancer, everything God had given me to do was thriving. My church and broadcast ministry had grown, and my books were selling. People were responding to God’s truth. All of this was for the glory of God. And then, right in the middle of all these blessings, came the suffering. On the surface, it didn’t seem to make sense.

Have you ever had that kind of experience? Just when you had everything lined up in your life exactly as you wanted things to be, you experienced an unwelcome and unanticipated disaster that spoiled everything. And you asked many questions, all beginning with the word why.

“Why” questions are a natural part of being human. But we can ask better questions—we can ask “what” questions: “What Lord? What would You have me do? What are You trying to teach me?”

Where to Turn for Help

Whenever I have suffered, the psalms have provided my medicine. They have bandaged me and pointed me toward healing. Understanding them doesn’t require commentaries or scholarly notes. Their simple, heartfelt words have washed over me with the hope and peace of God’s presence. The following psalms have helped me to rise and meet the difficult road in the sufficiency of God’s grace and wisdom. I’ve written out the first portion of each one, but I encourage you to open your Bible and read them in their entirety.

  • How long, O Lord? Psalm 13
  • Preserve me, O God, for in You I put my trust. Psalm 16
  • I will extol You, O Lord, for You have lifted me up. Psalm 30
  • God is our refuge and strength. Psalm 46
  • O God, You are my God, early will I seek You. Psalm 63
  • In You, O Lord, I put my trust. Psalm 71
  • Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! Psalm 107
  • I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Psalm 121
  • I will praise You with my whole heart. Psalm 138
  • I cry out to the Lord with my voice. Psalm 142

I pray that these words will uplift and comfort you as they have me. And I hope my prayer becomes your prayer too:

Lord, what do You want to teach me to make me a better person? What are Your plans to make me more effective? Lead me and guide me through this process, O Lord. Be my teacher, show me Your ways. And don’t let me miss any lesson you’ve prepared for me.

Sources:

1Julie Kuntzman, “As the Shepherd Gathers His Lambs,” in Susan Sorenson and Laura Geist, Praying Through Cancer: Set Your Heart Free From Fear (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 73.

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