WHERE IS GOD WHEN WE SUFFER?
By MIKE PATRICK
I received an email one night from a couple in California. They had a friend searching for a way to deal with her relative’s severe illness and lack of any improvement. Another relative blamed the sick person’s lack of healing on the family’s lack of faith. This couple had given their friend encouragement and even shared appropriate scripture verses. However, they felt dissatisfied with how they dealt with suffering and “unanswered” prayer. They felt helpless when responding to their friend. They asked for my thoughts.
My response the next morning went something like this, in part.
I didn’t answer last night because I wanted to think a little more about my response. This has forever been one of the most difficult discussions because no easy answers exist. Below, I will simply touch on some of the issues.
The theological term for questioning God’s power and goodness in the midst of our suffering is “theodicy.” Through the years, writers have posed the problem like this: If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does he allow us to suffer? Do we suffer because God is not all powerful, and therefore, can’t help us? Or, is his goodness limited and thus he does not care enough to stop our suffering or to bring healing when we pray, and therefore, will not help us? People who don’t believe in God (atheists) don’t have this problem because a God who doesn’t exist has neither power nor compassion.
People who do believe in God come to various conclusions as to why we suffer. Some of the simpler answers include responses like 1) we suffer as a direct result of our sin; 2) we suffer as the consequence of someone else’s sin; 3) we suffer because we live in a fallen world; 4) we suffer because God wants to teach us something; 5) it is not for us to know; and so on. Though all of these statements contain some truth, they offer little or no comfort to the one suffering.
There have been two major views since the early centuries of the church—one from Augustine (354-430 AD) and an earlier one from Iranaeus (died about 202 AD). Each of these church leaders wrestled with this problem and came to different conclusions.
Augustine’s view serves as the official view of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the chosen view of many Protestants. He gave more emphasis to God’s power and control than to God’s goodness and love. This view says God has a purpose for everything in your life. God controls all things. Since God controls all things, there is no such thing as “innocent suffering.” Augustine, as well as John Calvin, taught that a baby is born in sin, and therefore, is not innocent. When a baby dies, God is still in control. I have had students who believe that God causes everything that happens. I personally don’t believe this because Satan also works in the world as well as our own sinful nature.
Iranaeus’ view went another direction. It serves as the view of the Greek Orthodox Church and that of a growing number of Protestants. He chose to give more emphasis to God’s goodness and love than to God’s power and control. He would say that because God gives humans free-will then he relinquishes some of his power, though not His ultimate will. God allows many things in the world, including suffering, without intervening; yet, he still loves us supremely…
Theodicy deals with an unsolvable conflict. It pits two aspects of God’s perfect nature—his omnipotence and omni-benevolence—against each other. Choosing one aspect over another tends to take away the perfection of the other aspect of God’s nature. So how does God help us? I will share about that in the next article.
Mike Patrick retired as Chaplain and Ministry Education Coordinator after 27 years at Hendrick Medical Center.