How Could A Good God Allow So Much Suffering?

There is a difference between God's perfect and permissive will

Written by

A dear friend of mine recently lost his young daughter in a horrific tragedy. I wanted to comfort him, but the gravity of his loss, and the manner in which it occurred, left me speechless. I had no words that could erase his bitter heartache - even my prayers seemed to fall flat. For months I sought to find understanding, purpose, or hope in her passing . . . but how could there be a divine plan to such an atrocity? Whoever said God would not give us more than we can handle was flat wrong – this was way too much for anyone. Sure God’s Word promises that His grace will be sufficient for us in our time of need, and that His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) . . . but how do we acquire this grace in our darkest nights, when there simply is no answer to the question “why?” And how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction of a loving and faithful God who could allow such horrendous things to happen in our lives?

In her book, “It Wasn’t Supposed To Be This Way,” Lysa Terkeurst wrote, “We Christians rally around these unexplainable horrors with Bible verses and sermon points and well-meaning clichés, but in the less-trusting places of our brains, we tilt our gaze and scratch our heads. God this really doesn’t add up. How do I see all this senseless suffering and still sing about You being a good, good Father?

Does God really care? Is He really all-powerful? Can I take Him at His Word? And if so, then how could He allow that to happen - where is His power and victory in my life when I need it?  Though we each walk a different path through life, none of us are exempt from suffering . . . and it is these very experiences that test the genuineness of our faith.

John Piper once said, “The losses of life are meant to wean us off the poisonous pleasure of the world and lure us to Christ our everlasting joy.” I certainly get that it is easier to put God on the backburner when things are going well in life, but are our children poisonous pleasures? Is it really necessary for God to use such extreme forms of loss to get our attention, like in the case of my friend? Or am I wrong to assume God was even the author of his unfortunate circumstances?

I wrestled through the seeming injustice of my friend’s devastating loss, waffling back and forth between different explanations. God has promised to protect us and never leave us (Hebrews 13:5-6, 2 Thessalonians 3:3, Deuteronomy 31:6), so surely He does not just leave our life subject to chance or natural consequences. But then why does He only rescue some people and not others?

At one point I concluded that since I know God to be good and loving, and I also know Him to be all powerful (certainly more so than the enemy), then it must have been God’s timing for my friend’s child to die . . . meaning she had fulfilled her God-given role even at her young age (Psalm 139:16). But if that conclusion were correct, then every Christian’s death (aside from maybe death by suicide) would be in conjunction with God’s timing and purposes. But then I think of things like: gang violence, mass genocide in Africa, the Holocaust, the Vietnam war and other such atrocities, and I don’t necessarily think that is the case. It seems our “appointed” time to die may not just be contingent on God’s election, but at times, could simply be a consequence of living in this fallen world – the effects of sin and evil at work. 

On the other hand, there are many examples in Scripture of God supernaturally intervening to protect people from harm, or extending people’s life after they prayed (like with Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:5-6 or Lazarus in John 11:40-44) . . . so the details of our life also seem to be intertwined with our faith and intercession. We want so badly to put things into a category where we can explain them, or explain God . . . but the answer is not so black and white (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Graham Cooke once wrote, “God allows in His wisdom what He could easily prevent by His power.” But God allowing certain things to happen in this world is not the same thing as Him choosing them. There is a difference between His perfect will and His permissive will. God’s perfect will is modeled for us in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. He created us to enjoy deep intimacy with Him, and co-rule the world together (without sickness, suffering, or death). But God put two trees in the Garden in order to give us free will (Genesis 2:16-17), and though this free will makes evil possible, it is also the only thing that makes real love possible. The choice to sin (which leads to pain and suffering) was never God’s perfect will; it was His permissive will. And this distinction is so important to make, because otherwise we can easily conclude that the suffering and atrocities we experience in this world (simply because it is fallen) are God’s divine plan for our life. And put bluntly, that would make Him out to be an abusive or neglectful Father, not a loving one.

God is often blamed for the evils in this world because people assume if He is God (and thus all powerful) then He could easily prevent all the bad things that transpire. There’s an assumption that if God wanted a different outcome, He would have made it happen. In his book, “God is Good,” Bill Johnson suggests the idea that “God is in charge, but He is not in control.” Because if God were truly controlling every detail, then He would be responsible for cancer, and hurricanes, and sex trafficking, and all the other calamities in this world. Parents should understand this concept well – because while we are in charge of our homes, not everything that happens under our roof is necessarily approved by us.

Though nothing is outside of God’s reach or concern, He refuses to infringe upon our freedom . . . so it is actually His love that restrains His power. In order to have intimacy with us, our almighty creator God chose vulnerability over loveless perfection.

People often quote Romans 8:28 during difficult times; “In all things, God works for the good of those who love Him.” And it is certainly true that God can take even the most evil conditions known to humanity and turn them around for good. He is a master at healing our deepest wounds and then using them for our benefit and the benefit of others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). But this is a testimony of His greatness and redemptive purpose - God working in these events is not the same as God orchestrating them. It is important we discern the difference between God’s intended plan and an actual demonic assault, because there may be times we need to enter into warfare prayer to access our breakthrough or healing. We should never willingly embrace hellish situations in our life simply because we know God can redeem them. Let’s not credit God for the enemy’s handiwork - God is always for us (Romans 8:31-32). It is the enemy who steals, kills and destroys; Jesus came that we might have abundant life (John 10:10).

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is no neutral ground in the universe.  Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” There is a constant battle here on earth (Ephesians 6:12), one we know God will win in the end . . . but we are not exempt from suffering and loss along the way (1 Peter 2:21). We are promised ultimate victory through Christ (Romans 8:31-39), but we live in the tension of the “now and not yet” of God’s kingdom rule on earth. The reason Jesus came was to defeat the devil (1 John 3:8), and that work was finished on the cross (John 19:28-30). When Jesus paid our ransom, He severed Satan’s hold on us, and we now have complete access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18). However, the day of God’s FULL kingdom reign on earth is still yet to come (Revelation 20:10, Revelation 21:1-4, 2 Peter 3:13). Satan knows his time on earth is short (Revelation 12:12), so he is out to wreak as much havoc as he can before he is ultimately overthrown (1 Peter 5:8). Hence, the battle still rages, and we live in the midst of these two opposing forces – the powerful kingdom of God advancing against a very real domain of darkness (Matthew 16:18-19). BUT since Jesus gave us the keys of the kingdom of heaven and promised us the gates of hell would not prevail against us, we are fighting FROM victory and not TO it. That changes everything.

I recently learned there are two different Greek words used in the New Testament for the word will (in reference to the will of God). In his book "God is Good," Bill Johnson explains, "One is the word, boulema, and the other is thelema. Boulema refers to that which is established and fixed in the will of God. That 'will' will happen regardless of who believes it, or who opposes it. The return of Christ falls into that category of the will of God. The word thelema is quite different in that it refers to God’s desires and wishes. For example, 'God is not willing that any should perish' (2 Peter 3:9), and yet people are perishing. This realm of God’s will is dependent upon people’s response to God’s heart – both the person perishing, and the people who have been sent by God to carry the good news of the Kingdom to the ends of the earth.”

God has predestined the end of the story, but He did not predetermine every detail along the way - much of this narrative depends on our “yes” (Read Dr. Michael Heiser’s explanation of predestination HERE and HERE). God still gets the glory for every victory, but this way we also get the joy of partnering with Him (which is what cultivates intimacy). And there is no greater joy to behold than this.

So thankfully the story is not over - God is hard at work bringing His kingdom to earth right now through us, taking back every bit that Satan tries to lay claim of. And in the end, God promises to redeem ALL things through Christ . . . either in this life, or in the life to come (Romans 8:31-39, Revelation 21:5). As Sally Lloyd Jones wrote in “The Jesus Storybook Bible,” one day “everything sad will come untrue (even death is going to die).”

The Biblical view of things is resurrection – not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventually glory and joy even greater. -Tim Keller 

So this is where I am now - I believe our pain and suffering is not an either-or scenario, but rather "both-and.” Tragedy can be both allowed by God, but not designed by God . . . it can be incited by the enemy, but also redeemed to defeat the enemy (like in the story of Joseph). Sometimes God chooses our path of suffering to refine us and lead us into greater intimacy with Him, like my journey through infertility (read HERE). In these cases, as Terkeurst explains, “Our pain and suffering isn’t to hurt us. It’s to save us. To save us from a life where we are self-reliant, self-satisfied, self-absorbed, and set up for the greatest pain of all . . . separation from God." But there are other times when God simply uses the enemy as His pawn to accomplish His purposes. For example, when He allowed Saul to be tormented by a spirit so that David could be introduced into the picture (1 Samuel 16:14-23), or when He gave Paul a thorn in his side to keep him humble and dependent on God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). However, there are also times in which our suffering is merely the consequence of living in a fallen world, the effects of man’s choice to sin . . . like in the case of Tamar’s rape and Absalom’s subsequent murder of Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1-39). And we should never attribute such evil events to God’s choosing. Sin breaks the heart of God . . . but it has never broken His goodness (1 John 1:5). When sin entered the world, God immediately set His restoration plan in action, preparing his people for a Savior. God Himself would come to earth to make things right. So we do not serve a God who is unfamiliar with our suffering - He understands the struggles and pain in this world because He has lived through it all Himself (Hebrews 4:15-16). 

When I consider that God loved us so much that He was willing to sacrifice His own son to restore relationship with us (so that we do not have to try and earn His favor, but instead just receive the free gift of salvation through Christ), God does not seem so cruel anymore (Romans 5:8). Christianity actually seems less like a powerless or burdensome religion and more like a fairy tale –- it is almost too good to be true! 

The truth is, God is always gracious, compassionate and abounding in love (Psalm 145:8) . . . and if we can ground ourselves in the certainty of His immeasurable goodness, we will be able to turn toward Him in our suffering instead of shaking our fist. And here is where our hearts will acquire God’s grace to overcome. As Father Gregory Boyle said, a man who witnessed the devastating impact of gang violence on his community and buried hundreds of innocent victims over the years, “I don’t need God to be in control of my life; I just need Him to be in the center of it” (Psalm 34:18, Psalm 147:3, Matthew 5:4). Boyle had discovered the secret to life . . . building it on the firm foundation of God's love. 

So until Jesus comes back, we all hang in the balance of God's perfect and permissive will. Thankfully, we are not alone in this journey - we are never left without hope (Romans 5:2-5). As Helen Keller said, “All the world is full of suffering.  It is also full of overcoming.” 

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Psalms 27:13

This article is dedicated to Noely Belle Davis, who went home to be with the Lord on 07/02/17. You can learn more about the Davis' ministry and nonprofit at www.advancepanama.org

Further Reading:

God is Good” book by Bill Johnson

"Reason for God" book by Tim Keller

Hiddenness and Manifestation” book by Graham Cooke 

Now and Not Yet of God’s Kingdom” article by Doug Overmeyer

"Don't Waste Your Life" article by Carey McNamara

Carey McNamara

I am a wife to Bob, a mom to Connor, and a physician assistant who is passionate about beating heart disease. As a devoted lover of Jesus, I am on an unending quest for more truth, love, and wholeness through Him. I have come to a place in my life where I realize God is not afraid of my questions, and I have learned the joy of pursuing Him until I discover His heart. As a result, I created a blog to encourage others in their own journey towards Life, Liberty, and Love in Christ. I am passionate about doing life authentically in community, and am thrilled to share a bit of that with you here.

More in this category: « Overcoming My Addiction To Food
*Please comment respectfully. I welcome honesty as you share your thoughts and feelings. However, since many of these subjects are controversial, I ask that you take care to honor others in the process. I reserve the right to delete any inappropriate comments.