“Why would God allow Terry to suffer when some very evil people seem to not suffer at all?”

Terry my dear friend and wife died on 7-14-15.  She has been immobilized in a hospital bed since March 8th of this year.   It was a long and hard journey that included six surgeries, including open-heart surgery.  There was a lot of pain and struggle over these months at every level of her life.

A friend asked me, “Why God would allow her to suffer so while others who are evil seem to live without much pain,” at Terry’s memorial service.  It is an honest and obvious question that has to be asked at times like these.

Not only the issue of death but that of suffering comes before us as we see one that has left a good legacy of faith and love go through such a physically painful process that has ended in death.

Now this question is not only related to Terry’s suffering and death but to millions of others as well.  Living in the hospital and then a hospice unit for several months during Terry’s battle with illness you see on every side hurting people and their families.  Many of these multitudes may well have suffered even more profoundly that my dear Terry.

However, because of my emotionally intimate relationship with Terry for over 35 years her suffering and death are the most difficult for me to handle.

I do not claim to have some ultimate answer to this difficult issue.  However, I will share with you some thoughts that have helped me during these difficult months.  I must admit that this particular season of suffering is the greatest I have yet experienced.  So for that reason, I have had to rethink the issues of suffering and death at a much more personal and deeper level.  I am still involved in that internal process.

I.  Insight one:  Suffering and injustice are to be expected “East of Eden.”

We no longer live in paradise.  Each of us rebelled against being in the kingdom of God.  All the pain, suffering, and death we now experience is just part of living “East of Eden”.   Suffering should be expected and not be surprising to us.  The Messiah Jesus told us that “East of Eden” we would have difficult and hard times. (John 16:33).

Our greatest emotional pain comes when we have higher expectations than are realistic to have.  When we get realistic expectations, concerning facing hardships in this life, this will help us to be able to cope with the pain of living “East of Eden”.

Now this does not mean that we should not strive to limit suffering and injustice.  One of the main ways God works to limit the impact of our rebellion is through people striving to care for the hurting and correcting unfairness.   God has delegated to humanity the care and management of this planet.  So it is our responsibility to bring the will of God to earth as best we can.  Some suffering is due to the fact that we have been unfaithful in loving our neighbor as ourselves.

So on the one hand we must be realistic about our expectations and expect suffering in this life, but not passive in our efforts to make things better.

In Terry’s case we pursued the best medical answers we could find.  I attempted imperfectly to provide the comfort I could to her as she suffered.   We understood that our faith did not make us exempt from the struggle common to humanity now in this world of woe.   The suffering was still very hard but it was understandable and expected.

2.  Insight two:  This life is a time of pregnancy in which we are born into the next life.

Each of us has a story about life.  One story that I find of help is that our lives here from our conception to our deaths is a period of pregnancy in which we are preparing for our eternal lives.  Death is our birth into eternity.

Like the birth of a child here many times the death process it is a time of suffering and struggle.   Yet, we count the life of a baby a success more than a miscarriage where the baby avoided suffering.  So it is not irrational to believe that even as we came into this world through a struggle and pain so we enter into our eternal states the same way.

My belief is that within the Christian perspective of “new birth” that the spiritual awakening we have in this life is just the conception of our new life in Messiah Jesus.  This “new birth” is one within the womb of this present life and is developing.  When we have completed the process of development in the womb of this life,  the process of our death is our birth into the eternal Kingdom of God.

So as I saw Terry suffer, I reminded myself that I was her breathing coach even as I had stood by her during the births of two of our children.  But in this case I was inside the womb providing encouragement to the baby herself so that she could endure and push her way into the light of a new day on the other side of death.

Now this is an imperfect analogy but one that helps me to get my limited understanding around a difficult reality.  Our feelings about something always reflect the “life story” or paradigm that we use to interpret the facts.   This “life story” has helped me deal with Terry’s great suffering and I return to it when I struggle with the depth of her suffering.

3.  Insight three:  There is ultimate purpose in all suffering.  There is gain in all our pain.

While pain and suffering should normally be avoided unless necessary for some greater good, when agony comes to us that cannot be morally avoided, then it is vital we believe that good will come from the pain.

So the reason that Terry suffered was that it was necessary for some greater good.  Now what could that be?  This is what is difficult because we do not have a large enough perspective to always see what good may come from the suffering of one we love or our own pain.

This is an application of the “butterfly effect” in which a small change can result in large differences in a later state.  God is at work to make sure that the pain that is felt today will bring about a good difference in the end.   According to Christian faith, God has promised that such suffering will not be in vain (Romans 8:28).

At times we may be able to see or at least partially understand the good that comes from suffering.  We can ask for wisdom in this regard (James 1:1-12).   For example a woman announces with joy that she will be painfully sick for nine months (pregnancy) but is happy because this suffering is necessary to gain the “good” of a baby.  But even if I am blind to the good produced by the suffering, this does not mean that there will not eventually be a good accomplished.   My blindness does not change reality.

The question is do we trust God to be good in character and competent in performance?  If we have thought through reasons to believe in the character and competence of God, then a particular case of suffering does not change our reasonable conclusion concerning God being trustworthy.

It only means that we are in the dark about how in this particular case, good might have come.  Therefore, we need to trust God even when we have no idea about the good that will come from our suffering or the suffering of a loved one (Isaiah 50:10).   This is not irrational, if we have formed rational reasons to trust in God’s character and competence.

If we trust a doctor’s character and competence who prescribes a painful process to bring us to health, which we cannot understand, then we will look at the painful process as necessary to the degree we trust that particular doctor.  So such times test our reasonable trust of God but do not demand we abandon it.

Now each of us must see there are only a limited number of options when facing our own suffering or the struggle of a loved one.

1.  The pain has no purpose.
2.   Some pain sometimes has a purpose.   This pain may or may not have purpose.
3.  The pain has purpose.

If we say that pain only has a purpose once I understand that purpose then we are confusing our insight with reality.

If pain has no purpose or if we cannot know it has a purpose, this adds a whole new level of struggle and fear for us since we are enduring for nothing.  Reality is that suffering either does or does not produce some good.  That purpose does not depend on our understanding to exist.   Even if we deny it has purpose and it does have purpose, our denial does not change reality.

Clearly if we believe that we have good reason to believe in the God of goodness, greatness, compassion and grace then any particular experience should not change this perspective.  [1]  It requires that we trust in God’s character and competence despite the suffering that is now being endured.

Now what good could come out of suffering?  Here are some:

1.  Through our suffering our own faith is deepened and given strength.

2.  Through our suffering others faith is deepened.

3.  Others in caring for those suffering become more compassionate people.

4.  Our suffering challenges someone to try to keep others from suffering as much as we have suffered.  Many charity institutions have been born out of intense personal pain and loss or the suffering of family members.

5.  Our suffering places us in some unique place of opportunity to accomplish some good.  An example in the Bible would be the life of Joseph in which we see the transfer from prison to palace to establish a more compassionate government in order to provide provision during a oppressive famine.

6.  Through our suffering we face our own limitations and weakness and become humble.   There is recognition that we are dependent on God’s strength to endure.

7.  This suffering is needed to avoid some greater and truly unproductive suffering in the future.  This pain avoided a greater pain in which there would have been no gain.

This list is only for illustration.  There could be hundreds of potential good things that could come out of a time of suffering.  However, we may not be able to see exactly how a particular suffering is accomplishing anything but producing pain in our lives.   But this again is a matter of rational faith in a God of good character and competence.

I have seen that the suffering that Terry went through has made me face my own limitations and weakness.  I hope that this has made me more humble and weakened my pride.  I have come to see that only God’s strength can get me through hard times because without it I am just sad and tired.  I am sure there is more good than this created out of Terry’s struggles and death, but at the moment that is one key one that I see at this moment.

If I trust the person in charge of the universe, to be one of character and competence then my trust will be that in allowing this particular pain to exist in this circumstance, that somehow good will follow.  To the degree we believe that this is true, it shows us the degree of trust we have in the integrity of God.  None of us believe this perfectly so to some degree we struggle due to the doubt that is in us about Gods’ competence, compassion, and character.

My trust in God’s character and competence is due to the person and work of the Messiah Jesus.   In this story of incarnation, moral integrity, compassion for moral failures, surrender to a sacrificial suffering that substituted our condemnation to Messiah Jesus and provided us freely HIS perfect righteousness as a gift.   Finally, in HIS demonstrating the completeness and truthfulness of this claim with a space and time resurrection from the dead to convince us that the story about this sacrifice and love is true.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus the Messiah is the reason for my trust in God’s character and competence.  It is “Jesus only Jesus” upon which my hope relies.  [2]

This was where Terry placed her hope as well.  She was the one suffering.  For her it was not merely looking at a loved one suffering, but she was inside a body that had radically broken down and was suffering from a multitude of medical complexities.   In the midst of this her comfort and her hope was the conviction that Jesus was not some myth but a solid truth upon which her anticipation of a better future and whole body rested.  She believed that at the end of her horrible struggles the Lord Jesus would embrace her and she would know wholeness, perfect holiness, and happiness.  This allowed her to have great courage facing great pain and struggles..  I agree with my wife’s hope in Jesus.  In this one person we can have good reason to believe in God’s competence, compassion, and character.

In conclusion

There are many more things that could be said.   If we were having a dialogue on this problem I am sure much more would be said on both sides.  My few thoughts here should not be taken as any final explanation.  But perhaps they will help some and encourage others to search.

Does suffering, even the suffering of those we dearly love, make faith in a competent and compassionate God of good character impossible?  No, I don’t believe that such experiences force us to reject the idea of God as caring, compassionate, and competent.   I believe the suffering of Terry is consistent with faith in a good, great, and graceful God revealed in Messiah Jesus. [3]

[1] For a defense of the idea that a good, great, and graceful God exist I would recommend The Reason For God by Tim Keller as a starting point to find good reason to believe in the objective reality of God’s existence. 
[2] To come to a conclusion about the Messiah Jesus requires some careful and prayerful time examining who HE is and what HE has done.  Here are some good books to get started on a quest to see if the Messiah Jesus can provide evidence for God’s competence, compassion, and character.

More Than a Carpenter Paperback – by Josh D. McDowell, Sean McDowell – A book that tells us about reasons to believe in the resurrection.
The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective by Pinchas Lapide  (Author), Wilhelm C. Linss (Translator)
The Greatest Story Ever Told: A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived by Fulton Oursler

[3] For further reading:
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle ;  The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis ; The Many Faces of Evil (Revised and Expanded Edition): Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil by John S. Feinberg ; God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga