Why Does A Holy God
Permit Human Suffering?
Dr. Gerald L. Stover of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, has served the Lord for many years as a Bible teacher, author and Christian education consultant.
Suffering is universal; it touches the lives of both saints and sinners. It invades the lives of infants and adults. It includes in its reign men of every race, color and creed. It touches every level of society. No one is exempt because suffering is all-inclusive.
Suffering is physical and psychological. It involves physical distress and mental anguish. The question as to why a holy God permits human suffering has been raised in the minds of the godly and the ungodly. Is it improper to raise the question as to why men suffer? It is not out of order to seek an answer to this age-old problem; it is unholy to refuse the answer that God gives in His Word.
The Biblical reply to the question is stated in principles more so than in terms of specific cases. Principles are general; experiences are specific. One must test experience by the principles of the Scriptures; therefore it is of the greatest importance that we understand those principles revealed in the Word as having to do with the question we have raised.
Suffering is Organic
Obviously suffering is not necessarily the result of one’s personal sin. It can be so traced to the individual who suffers in certain instances, but in a more general sense suffering is related to the fact that the individual is a member of the human family. Man is exposed to sickness, disease and death as the natural consequence of sin. He shares in the judgment upon humanity pronounced by God as a result of Adam’s transgression.
To Adam God said,
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2: 17) .
Failure to obey the prohibition of God would result in physical death, or as it reads literally, “…in the day that thou eatest thereof dying thou shalt die,” meaning that Adam should utterly die. Thus was the will of God declared unto Adam, and yet we read,
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat (Genesis 3:6).
God’s judgment upon the transgression of Adam is expressed in part in the words,
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Genesis 3:19)
Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (Romans 5:12).
When Adam transgressed the will of God, the Creator released in Adam those forces which would ultimately bring about his physical death (see also Genesis 5:5). Adam is indeed the federal head of the human family, and all men born of Adam partake of his nature and are subject to ultimate weakness and death. None are exempt from weakness and ultimate death inasmuch as all men are under the curse for sin. Man must be viewed as being a sinner by nature as well as a sinner by practice. The whole human family is infected and affected by sin. Illness, weakness, and death are the consequences of Adam’s disobedience, and all men share in the same for that all have sinned (cf. Romans 3:23; 6:23).
Therefore, approaching the question of human suffering broadly, we must conclude that suffering is hereditary; it is our lot because of our relationship to the human family under the curse of sin.
Suffering is Judicial
There are those sufferings experienced by man that may well be described as judicial or penal. Before us in Romans 1:24-32 are some very delicate observations. Looking back into history Paul declared that God abandoned man to his uncleanness, inasmuch as man preferred his sin to the revelation of God. Instead of honoring God as creator men “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Roman 1:23). Furthermore, men and women utterly dishonored the eternal God by giving vent to the vile desires of their depraved natures, with the result that the awful sins of Romans 1:24-27 were the order of the day in many idolatrous cultures. The sin of sodomy is referred to in its historical setting, and as a consequence of that awful sin Paul declared that those involved in such filth received “in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (Romans 1:27). In other words, God’s judgment was that while men lived they should reap the awful harvest of such sin in their own bodies. This can only mean that men suffered physically for their sin, and this, in terms of social disease.
An associated Press release headlined conditions in our day with the words Fatal Gay Illness Puzzling Doctors. The article declares, “Homosexual men who fall ill with unusual infections should receive fast, aggressive medical care because they may be victims of a baffling wave of fatal disease that has spread among homosexuals from coast to coast, a doctor says …” About 180 cases of the illness in 15 states were reported, and 75 of the victims died.
Ninety-two percent of the patients were homosexual men.
There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever but that some suffering experienced by members of the human family is the direct result of their own evil ways. While apart from Jesus Christ such are destined for perdition, God has acted judicially, and the results of their sins have been experienced in their bodies. What men sow they reap, and many times the harvest is unbelievably awful. Locked into the sufferings visited upon men thus is quite certainly the desire of God to provoke repentance. The judgment of the Lord has at times been upon the bodies of men that their spirits might be brought to repentance and salvation and thus be saved for eternity. As in Isaiah’s day (Isaiah 53:1) few have repented, and on the other hand, man has given increased evidence of loving his sin. That some illnesses are penal can hardly be denied.
Suffering May be Paternal
We belong to the family of God through faith in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ (John 1:11-13). As children of our Heavenly Father it is no surprise to read,
For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? (Hebrews 12:6, 7).
This chastening does not stem from the wrath of God; it has its root in the paternal love of God. God would deal with us as His children. Paternal chastisement may be avoided by obedience, and even in times of disobedience when the child of God senses that he is being dealt with by the Father in chastisement, he may experience the forgiveness and blessing of the Father through confession of sin. How important that every believer should know the truth of 1 John 1:9,
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
This great passage of the Word makes it crystal clear that God our Father waits for the believer’s confession of sin. There are those believers whose lives are involved with illness, weakness, limitations, solely because they are out of fellowship with the Lord and who compromise with evil in their lives. The Father will not condone this compromise without acting on behalf of His child. One must keep in mind that all illness, limitation or reversal in the lives of believers is not to be traced to disobedience on their part. In fact, it is very wise for the Christian to withhold judgment of such matters, for in ever so many instances of illness or limitation otherwise in a fellow-believer’s experience, it is virtually impossible to evaluate the experience or to know the reason for it. However, it must be remembered that the Lord will not tolerate continued disobedience on the part of His child without intervening in some way to remonstrate, discipline or chastise His own. God is our Father, and wisely acts in our behalf in a paternal fashion. This action is for the purpose of inducing confession of sin and restoration to fellowship.
Suffering is Educational
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).
Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6, 7).
The varied experience of trial, in any form, is said to work for our good. There are those strengths and qualities of Christian experience that can become ours only through trial or tension. The spiritual believer will accept from the hand of God all experience of disappointment, reversal, loss, pain and misunderstanding as educational factors designed to produce a stronger, more effective Christian life and service for Jesus Christ. The believer may not see God’s design in any one experience, but when all of God’s varied dealings with the Christian are viewed together, and considered to be but parts of the whole of His work in our lives, then we can understand how God wisely and lovingly planned our progress in grace.
Gold can be purified by fire; so with the child of God. There is a tradition that in the Pyrenees a great fire destroyed many homes and vineyards, and threatened all with great loss. However, the fires and upheavals disclosed rich veins of silver, thus compensating all for their losses and more. The trial of our faith is far more important than refining gold. All such trial in the Christian life is designed to mirror the image of God in our lives, and to equip us for such ministry that alone can be entrusted to those who have been schooled in the curriculum of suffering, weakness and trial in general.
That suffering was not without purpose. God had not lost control of His servant’s life and labors; God directed or permitted the trial for the purpose of training for greater usefulness in service as well as for a greater experience of His sweet fellowship and faithfulness.