Whenever a question begins with the words, “Why didn’t God ...” my usual response begins with the words, “I don’t know.”
This past month I was speaking in northern Ontario on the problem of evil for an outreach event. During the Q&A time, a Christian woman sitting in the second row asked, “Why didn’t God prevent my daughter from getting into a recent car accident?”
My answer was candid and to the point. “I don’t know,” I told her.
I don’t know why God permits particular incidents of pain and suffering in our lives. God has not given that specific information to me. Only God knows.
That may not be a very satisfying response. I get it. But it’s an honest response.
Now, I believe there are reasons why God allows pain and suffering in our lives. Philosophers often call these morally sufficient reasons. We are given some of these reasons in Scripture. For example, God could permit suffering to test and build our faith (James 1:2–4), to build perseverance, character and hope (Rom. 5:3–5), to judge (Gen. 6:5–7), to discipline (Heb. 12:11), and to warn the world of the impending final judgment (Luke 13:4–5).
These are general reasons why God might permit suffering. However, we cannot presume to know the specific purpose of the suffering in our own lives and the lives of others. We aren’t in a position to make that call. But just because we don’t know the purpose of the suffering, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
If you are a parent, you have probably had the unfortunate experience of holding your child as a doctor sticks him with a needle. This can be a traumatic experience for both parent and child. It is heartbreaking having your toddler look at you with an expression that screams, Why are you allowing them to do this to me?
The child doesn’t understand that this temporary suffering is intended for a greater good.
I think it’s likely that something similar is going on when God permits pain and suffering in our lives. And this explanation is perfectly consistent with what the Bible teaches.
Let me give you two examples from Scripture and then conclude with a general principle.
Example #1: Joseph Suffering
Joseph endured suffering. He grew up in a household hated by his brothers (Gen. 37:4). In fact, they plotted to kill him but decided to sell him into slavery instead (Gen. 37:18, 28). After being brought down to Egypt, he was sold to an Egyptian named Potiphar. Joseph worked his way up to being the overseer over Potiphar’s house, only to be falsely accused of trying to seduce Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39). As a result, Joseph was thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He would spend two years in the King’s prison before being freed by Pharaoh (Gen. 41:1).
Joseph experienced tremendous suffering at the hands of others. If any of us were in Joseph’s situation, we would probably ask a whole series of questions beginning with the words, “Why didn’t God…?”
Why didn’t God stop Joseph’s brothers from selling him into slavery? Why didn’t God prevent Potiphar’s wife from bringing these false allegations? Why didn’t God keep Joseph out of prison? You get the idea.
However, in this instance, we don’t have to speculate why Joseph experienced this suffering. Joseph explicitly tells us the reason. Speaking to his brothers, Joseph says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20).
Joseph was able to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, and see what God was doing through it all. God used Joseph’s situation for good—to warn Pharaoh about a very severe famine that was coming to the land of Egypt. Consequently, they were able to store up enough food to save the lives of many, including Joseph’s own brothers.
Example #2: The Early Church Suffering
Recently, I was reading through the Book of Acts and noticed something I hadn’t before. Immediately after the stoning of Stephen by the Jewish religious leaders, we learn about some significant events that took place.
And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:1–3)
Stephen had just been executed because of his proclamation of the Gospel. The early church in Jerusalem was now experiencing its greatest persecution. In fact, Christian men and women were being dragged off to prison. This forced Christians to flee Jerusalem and to be scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
The early church must have asked questions like, “Why didn’t God prevent Stephen’s stoning?” or, “Why didn’t God stop Saul from ravaging the church?” or, “Why did they endure such persecution?”
In this instance, God’s purpose isn’t hidden. He is beginning to accomplish His purpose in sending out the Gospel.
Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Jesus described that the Gospel would spread from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and finally, to the ends of the earth. But He didn’t tell them how it would spread. Acts 8 gives some of those details. The Gospel is being pushed out into all of Judea and Samaria.
There is a direct link between the persecution of the early church and the Gospel moving out. From the perspective of the early church, the suffering was great. People were being killed, imprisoned, and displaced. On the surface, it didn’t look good. But, indeed, something wonderful was happening in the midst of it all. The Gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—was going out to the world as Jesus promised.
In both examples, we see how God permitted suffering for His ultimate purpose. In each case, it would have been premature to judge God in the midst of those isolated events. Neither Joseph nor the early church was in a position to see God’s ultimate plan while specific, isolated events were taking place. Yet, there was a plan.
Likewise, we are not in a position to see God’s plan when it comes to specific instances of suffering in our own lives. Isolated events have a way of keeping us near-sighted. Yet, God might be accomplishing something through these events, even if we don’t know what that is.
So here’s the principle: Never judge God’s ultimate plan by your present circumstances.
There are some questions for which we will never get answers. And that’s just the way it is. But there are some things we do know.
We do know that God is essentially good. This means that goodness—moral perfection—is a necessary attribute of God. As the greatest conceivable Being, it is better to be morally perfect than morally flawed. Goodness belongs to the concept of God in the same way unmarried belongs to the concept of being a bachelor.
We also know that God has demonstrated that He can work even the darkest and most miserable circumstances for His ultimate end. Therefore, rather than turning on God for our present circumstances, we should turn to God and trust Him to work it for His ultimate purpose.