Making Sense of Suffering

Part 1: Why do people suffer?

Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Faith, commissioned George Barna, the pollster, to conduct a national survey in which he asked a scientifically selected cross-section of adults: “If you could ask God only one question and you knew he would give you an answer, what would you ask?”  The top response, offered by 17%, was “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”  

For many people, this is the question that keeps them from God.  How could a good and loving God allow so much suffering and pain and death and horror?  

For the next two weekends, we’re “Making sense of suffering.”  Today we start with the question of cause.  Why do people suffer?  We’re going to look at six causes of suffering named in the Bible.


Offering and announcements:


Introduction: If God is good and powerful, why do people suffer?  

ILL: John Stott, one of my favorite pastors and authors, writes: “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation.  The distribution and degree of suffering appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair.  Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.”

The question has been around for centuries and has been argued by great philosophers and theologians.  The argument revolves around the nature of God and the presence of suffering.  How can God be both good and powerful and suffering exist?  If God is good and wants to stop suffering but can’t—then He is not all powerful.  Or God can stop suffering but won’t—then He is not good.  Or God is not there at all.  Those seem to be the options.  Can a loving, good and all-powerful God be reconciled with all the suffering we see?  That’s what we want to talk about this week and next.

But this is not an academic question; this is intensely personal and emotional, especially for anyone who has suffered.  Why do people suffer?

  • My 10 year old niece died of a brain tumor.  Why?

  • One of my best friends died of stomach cancer at 38.  He was a pastor, and left behind a wife and two kids.  It seemed so unfair.

  • One of my sons struggles with disabilities—it’s not his fault, but he suffers, and so do we.  Why?  We know that God could “fix” him with a word.  Why doesn’t He?  Why didn’t He heal my niece, my friend?

Have you wrestled with questions like this?  If you have, then you know that this is not just an academic discussion, but a very personal and emotional one.  

The Bible teaches that God is good and loving, and that He is powerful, and it faces human suffering head on and gives several reasons why people suffer.  It also explains why God suffered and how He can redeem us and our suffering.  Next weekend, I’ll talk about that in a talk entitled, “What good is suffering?”  

Right now, we’re going to look at why people suffer.  I found six reasons in the Bible.


1. We suffer because of our own sin.

How many of you have suffered and knew that it was your own stupid fault?  

ILL: I try to stay away from all-you-can-eat restaurants because when I go to one, I feel like I have to eat all I can to get my money’s worth!  

I remember going to a seafood restaurant on the Oregon Coast—it was the Pixie Kitchen—it’s closed now, mostly I think because of how much I ate.  I pounded down 4 or 5 platefuls of seafood.  When I got to the car, I didn’t feel good.  I asked Laina to drive and I leaned the passenger’s seat back flat because I couldn’t really bend in the middle.  I was in pain; I was suffering.  Whose fault was that?  Mine.

The first cause of suffering is me: my own sin, my stupidity, my fault.

When God made us, He took a huge risk.  He made human beings in His own image, and He gave us free will, the ability to think and make choices independent of Him.  We can choose to love Him or hate Him, follow Him or ignore Him, obey Him or disobey Him.  Free will is what makes us fully human and also what makes evil possible.  God could have programmed us to obey and eliminated evil and the suffering it brings.  But we wouldn’t be fully human, wouldn’t be made in His image, and we wouldn’t be able to love, for love is voluntarily chosen, not programmed.  God made us to love Him, and took the risk that we wouldn’t.  He gave us free will so that we could choose to love Him knowing that we could also choose not to love Him.  

Genesis 2-3 describes God’s creation and man’s fall.  God created us and placed us in a perfect environment that He shared with us.  God gave us one command.  

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”  

One command!  Do you think Adam could manage one command?  Nope.  Adam chose to disobey.  He chose his way over God’s.  Sin, evil and death have spread ever since.  

Whose fault was this?  Eve blamed the serpent.  Adam blamed Eve…and then He blamed God.  “It was the woman…that You gave me.”  But whose fault was it?  Adam and Eve.  A tidal wave of evil and suffering has washed over the world ever since.  Was it God’s fault?  Some people think so.  God could have prevented the whole mess by eliminating our free will, our ability to choose.  Make us automatons, robots, programmed to do the right thing every time.  But in doing so, He would have eliminated our humanity, He would have eliminated love.  He created us to love Him and be loved, to be in relationship with Him, to be free.  But true freedom to choose means that wrong choices will be made—choices that result in suffering and death.  This is the risk God took when He made us free.

So you are free—free to do right or wrong, free to obey God or disobey Him.  It’s your choice.  But you live with the consequences—and if you sin, that means suffering and death.

Numbers 14:34 For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’

Psalm 107:17 Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.

Proverbs 22:3 A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.

Genesis 27 tells the story of Jacob who deceived his father and defrauded his brother, Esau.  Esau vowed to kill him, and Jacob ran for his life.  He lived the next 20 years on the lam, far from home.  Whose fault was it?  Jacob was suffering for his sins.  

I tell my kids all the time: there are consequences for every choice, every action.  You can suffer because of your own sin.


2. We suffer because of other people’s sin.

How many of you have suffered because of other people’s sins?  It wasn’t your fault, but theirs?

ILL: Did you enjoy Jerry Sittser?  I don’t know if Jerry mentioned this or if you knew it, but about 10 years ago, Jerry and his family were coming home from Coeur d’Alene Lake when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver.  The collision killed Jerry’s mom, his wife, and his 4 year-old daughter.  Jerry and three of his children survived, but spent days in the hospital, and years recovering.  He describes what God did in his life in his book, A Grace Disguised.  

Can you imagine losing your mom, wife and daughter in a single moment?  I can’t.  This is a suffering beyond anything I’ve experienced.  Why did that happen?  Because someone drank and got behind the wheel of a car.  Sin…someone else’s sin.

All of us have stories—perhaps not that horrible—but stories of suffering caused by someone else’s wrong choices.  

The last quarter of the book of Genesis tell the story of Joseph.  As a teenage boy and his father’s favorite, his brothers hated him.  They hated him so much that they wanted to kill him, but instead mellowed out and sold him as a slave to some passing traders.  Joseph suffered unjustly as a slave—why?  Because of his brothers—their sin, their wrong choices caused his suffering.  

As a slave, Joseph distinguished himself working for Potiphar, who promoted him until Joseph was running his house.  But when Potiphar’s wife got the hots for Joe, and he rejected her advances, she framed him and accused him of rape, and Joseph landed in an Egyptian prison.  Joseph suffered unjustly as a prisoner—why?  Because of Potiphar’s wife—her sin, her wrong choices caused his suffering.

Joseph’s suffering wasn’t his fault; it was the result of other people’s sin.  There are lots of examples in every day life.  Individual shareholders of Met Mortgage will suffer because of the sins of management.  Millions of Iraqis suffered because of the sins of Saddam.  Many people suffer because of an abusive spouse or abusive parent.  Sometimes our suffering is caused by other people’s sins.

Numbers 14:33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert.

Your children will suffer for your unfaithfulness.  What you do affects others.  Your wrong choices mean not just that you will suffer, but others too.

Deuteronomy 26:6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor.

Glen and Mary Hiss recently alerted me to the genocide of the Anuak tribe in Ethiopia.  An entire tribe is being systematically and ruthlessly slaughtered—men, women and children shot and hacked to death—massacred.  Why?  Because their land is rich in mineral resources, so others are killing them to get it.  Just as the Egyptians mistreated the Israelis, the Ethiopians are mistreating the Anuaks.  Things haven’t changed much in 4000 years—people suffer because of the sins of others.

Of course, the ultimate example of someone who suffered because of the sins of others was Jesus.  He was beaten, spit on, and crucified because of my sins, and yours.  He suffered for our sins.

I tell my kids all the time: there are consequences for every choice, every action.  Sometimes, the consequences are felt by others.  You don’t live in a vacuum.  What you do affects others, and what they do affects you.  Your poor choices can make others suffer, and their poor choices can make you suffer.

So human sin is responsible for much of the suffering in the world, whether your own or other people’s.


3. We suffer because of the devil.

A third cause of suffering is the devil.  I know that many people would think I’m bonkers saying that—they think the whole idea of the devil is nothing more than ancient superstition.  But the Bible teaches human beings are not the only creatures in God’s universe who have rebelled and are fallen.  Angels have too, and the leader of that rebellion, a fallen angel named Lucifer, is waging war against God and His followers.  We are engaged in a very real spiritual battle, and there are casualties all around us.  

1 Peter 5:8-9 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

You have a spiritual enemy who wants to devour you, destroy you, so be self-controlled and alert.

ILL: American soldiers are dying at the rate of more than one a day in Iraq, and most of the deaths are the results of surprise attacks.  I’m sure that our officers in Iraq are giving this same advice to their soldiers.  “Be alert.  Your enemy is looking for someone to kill.  You are a target for the enemy.”  Can you imagine being there?  Would you be self-controlled and alert in that battle zone?  

Peter writes to Christians and says that we are in a battle too, a battle against a brutal enemy who wants to destroy us, a battle that demands constant vigilance.  And notice that Peter says believers everywhere are “undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”  I was reading an article this week about the stress our soldiers face.  The suffering is not only physical, but emotional and mental.  When you are under attack, it’s very stressful.  So here is another cause of suffering: we are at war, and we have an enemy who is trying to destroy us.  A couple more Biblical examples:

  • The book of Job in the Old Testament gives us a glimpse into the spiritual world and lets us see the cause behind Job’s suffering.  While the story deserves a deeper treatment than I’m going to give it here, I want to point out that it was the devil who accused Job to God, and it was the devil who inflicted great suffering on Job.

  • In Luke 13, Jesus heals a woman who had been crippled for 18 years.  The cause of her suffering?  Jesus said, “16Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”  Her suffering was caused by the enemy, our adversary, the devil.

  • Revelation 2:10 “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  Jesus warned the church in Smyrna that some of them would be imprisoned and persecuted.  The cause of this suffering?  The devil.

There are lots of other examples.  The Bible is clear that we suffer from sin, our own and other’s, and we also suffer because of a spiritual enemy who wants to destroy us.  

Some people ask, “Why did a good God create a devil?”  God didn’t create a devil.  He created an angel who fell, an angel who like us made a choice to rebel against God rather than to love Him.  Again, the critical element is free will, a capacity that angels share with humans, a capacity that makes them capable of being angelic or devilish.  God created creatures that were capable of love; this means we are also capable of hatred, rebellion and evil.  When suffering is the result of free will, the only way to eliminate that suffering is to eliminate free will.  


4. We suffer because we live in a fallen world.  

The woman in Luke 13 was crippled by the devil; is every sickness caused by the devil?  No.  Is it caused by my sin or someone else’s?  No.  There’s another cause of suffering.  We live in a fallen world.

When God created us, the world was perfect: no sickness, no suffering, no death.  Then we sinned, and when we fell, we took the created world down with us.  Genesis 3 describes the curse, God’s punishment for our rebellion.  That curse was not only upon human beings and the devil who tempted them, but also on the created world they inhabit.  The whole world was cursed; it too is fallen and suffers because of our rebellion.  Human sin resulted in disease, decay and death across creation.  Perfect creation was stained and broken by our sin; we live in an imperfect and fallen world where diseases kill and disasters happen randomly.  Lots of suffering is the result of living in an imperfect, fallen world.    

Luke 13:1-5 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Jesus addressed two situations from the front page of the Jerusalem Times.  Some Galileans had been murdered by Pilate as they worshipped.  Were they being punished by God because they were worse sinners than others?  No.  Most people in Jesus’ day believed that if you were good, God blessed you; if you were evil, God punished you.  It was a very simple equation.  So these murdered Galileans must have been evil—God was punishing them.  But Jesus made it clear that human tragedies are not always divine punishments, that the equation isn’t so simple.

And to emphasize that, he pointed to a second headline.  Eighteen people died in an accident when the tower of Siloam fell on them.  Were they worse sinners than others?  No.  This wasn’t a divine punishment; it was an accident.  We live in a fallen world, an imperfect world where walls cave in, where storms wreak havoc, where people get sick.  

Why did my 10 year old niece die of a brain tumor?  It wasn’t because of her sin, or her parent’s sin.  It wasn’t because the devil attacked her or God was punishing her.  It was because we live in a fallen, imperfect world where sickness and death happen.

John 9:1-3 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.

Whose fault was it that this man was blind?  It wasn’t his fault or his parents.  And it wasn’t God’s fault either.  Jesus wasn’t blaming this on God; He was saying that God would use this for His purposes, not that God caused it.  So why was he blind?  Because we live in a fallen imperfect world where some people are born blind.

Let me say it another way: This isn’t heaven.  This isn’t heaven!  But the good news is that heaven is coming.  The good news is that the world will be put right again.  

Romans 8:18-25 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

All the world is waiting and groaning for the day when Jesus comes back, when it will be liberated from its “bondage to decay.”  All the world will be put right.  Not just fallen people, but the fallen creation will be redeemed and made right.  

2 Peter 3:13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

I am looking forward to it, aren’t you?  No more sickness, no more pain, no more tears, no more suffering.


5. We suffer because of God.

There’s another cause of suffering, and this one will be hard for some of you, but it’s in the Bible, so I’ve got to tell you.  Sometimes God causes suffering.  Of course, it was God’s plan for Jesus to suffer for us.

Isaiah 53:10-11 10Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Jesus suffered because of our sins; but ultimately, God wanted Him to suffer for our redemption, to “justify many and bear our iniquities.”  That was Jesus; what about us?

There are many examples in the Bible of God causing suffering as punishment.  I’ve listed just a couple references.  But here is an important distinction.  When God punishes, when God causes suffering, it is always instructive, redemptive; His purpose is to train us.

Hebrews 12:5-11 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” 7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

God is a father who disciplines his children.  He doesn’t enjoy causing us pain, but He is willing to cause pain for our good, to train us, to “produce a harvest of righteousness.”

ILL: I never enjoyed spanking our kids, but I did it willingly.  

If one of our toddlers was wandering into the street or sticking his finger in an electric socket, I would say no.  If they tried again, I said no more firmly.  If they tried again, they got another no along with a swat on the hand or bottom.  I wanted them to associate pain with disobedience.  Why?  Because if I wasn’t there and they wandered into the street or stuck their fingers in a socket, the risk of pain was much more serious.  

I wanted them to learn two things.  First, don’t go in the street or stick your fingers in sockets.  Second, obey your parents.  Occasionally, there would be a test of wills.  After the swat, that child would look me in the eye and head for the street or the socket.  Another swat.  Another step.  Another swat.  Another step.  Another swat—now the swats are getting harder—I’m raising the pain level.  Why?  I had to win that battle!  There was too much at stake!  My child’s life was at stake.  In the short run, that child has to learn to stay out of the street and sockets!  In the long run, that child has to learn to obey, because some day it will be God giving the orders, not just mom and dad.

This is the example the Bible uses; our heavenly Father disciplines us for our good, because He loves us.  Sometimes we suffer because God is disciplining us, trying to get our attention and train us.


6. We suffer because we are Christians.

One last cause of suffering in the Bible: we suffer because we are Christians.  This was one of the primary causes of suffering in the New Testament.  The first Christians lived in a world that was hostile to the Christian faith and the values it espoused.  People who followed Jesus were often treated like He was: persecuted, abused, beaten and even killed.  Maybe you have suffered for your faith; maybe not.  We live in a post-Christian nation that still tolerates Christians to some degree.  But don’t think that persecution is a thing of the past.

ILL: Christian Solidarity International reports that more Christians were murdered for their faith in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined.  More than 150,000 Christians are martyred every year and nearly two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries where Christians are persecuted.

For millions of Christians around the world, their suffering is caused by their faith.  They are suffering for Jesus.

Philippians 1:29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him,

Suffering for Jesus is as much a part of being a Christian as believing in Jesus.  If you believe, your faith will put you at odds with some people who will oppose you.  Jesus promised this.

John 15:17-20 This is my command: Love each other.

18“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.

Some people hated Jesus; don’t be surprised if some people hate you because you follow Jesus.  It’s part of the package.  And it’s why we should love each other!

1 Peter 4:12-19 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” 19So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

Don’t suffer for doing wrong—don’t suffer for cause #1, your own sin.  But if you suffer as a Christian, don’t be ashamed.  Rejoice that you are sharing the suffering of Jesus.  You are blessed!