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God and the Problem of Human Suffering

Why all the suffering? In conversations on belief in God, perhaps the greatest conundrum is the timeless problem of human suffering. Forever, this has been a weighty problem. Now and then, in religious circles, we hear that a minister, theologian, or biblical scholar has decided they are an atheist. When asked why, the answer usually has something to do with the problem of human suffering. Why all the suffering, we ask?

Indeed, for the God of supernatural theism, the God of traditional Christianity (the “God in the sky”), the God who is both external to the universe and independent of human beings, this is an insuperable problem. When pressed on this, all these believers can do is shrug their shoulders, express regret, and continue to place their trust in God.

The larger problem, however, is that the conception these people have of God is simply inadequate to reconcile with the problem of human suffering. The God of supernatural theism offers no answer to this enduring problem.

It is not God’s nature to work independently of life, both human and other forms of life. God is about Life (with a capital “L”). As Christians and persons who believe in God, it is important to understand this. Life is what God calls us to in the dawning of creation (metaphorically speaking). Life is what God affirms to in the covenants (with the Ten Commandments, for example). And life is what Jesus lifts up in his lofty teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It is God’s nature to work in and through life.

God does not cause human suffering. If we think about it, what sense does it make to believe God causes human suffering? God is Spirit, infinite love and energy, abiding presence, and endless mystery. More still, God does everything God can, working in and through us, to mitigate human suffering and to bring healing and wholeness wherever God can.

God’s omniscience (all knowing) and omnipotence (all powerful) need to be understood in new ways–in terms of God’s capacity to work in and through human beings (and other forms of life). However, we human beings sometimes go our own way. We don’t always accurately hear God’s voice or sense God’s impulses.

For example, God doesn’t cause wars; human beings do. God doesn’t shoot guns; human beings do. God doesn’t cause natural disasters; random occurrences in nature do. God doesn’t cause disease; random events in our bodies do (consistent with some measure of inherited predispositions and sometimes poor human decision-making). God didn’t cause the coronavirus that has brought such catastrophic death and suffering; some mutation did (most likely from bats to humans).

The ambiguities of “conventional wisdom.” Regarding human suffering, the conventional wisdom of American culture is steeped in a performance and reward ethic where if bad things (or good things) happen to people it must be because of something they did. In other words, a person must bear some responsibility for his or her misfortune (or fortune). We see this all the time in our politics when people–too easily–blame the poor for their destitution and plight. Rather than respond with compassion and generosity, they respond with the finger-pointing of guilt and irresponsibility.

In regard to conventional wisdom, do we tend to believe that if we live right and do all the right things, pay attention to all the right details, do what we know we should do, that our lives will go well? No doubt, for the most part, this has been our experience. However, on the underside of conventional wisdom, when we live “right,” have things always gone our way in life? No doubt, sometimes they have and other times they have not. All the time in life, stuff happens.

Where is God in human suffering? There are no easy answers to this enduring question. Indeed, where is God in the wake of the devastation and suffering of war, senseless acts of violence, infant mortality, suicide, terminal diseases of all sorts, and the suffering and death of Covid 19? Where is God? Desperately, we want to know.

The only answer I know is that God is there in the midst of it all–suffering, grieving, loving, showing compassion–doing whatever God can to bring new life and new hope to our human situation and circumstances. Imagine the burden of this loving God!
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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