Christians often say that God, in His unconditional love, redeems our suffering. But one might well ask the question: why does God allow suffering to occur in the first place?
If God intends to redeem every aspect of suffering in His unconditional love, why didn’t He simply eliminate the possibility of suffering so that we could avoid pain—and He wouldn’t have to redeem it? Why not nip the entire suffering business in the bud—at the beginning of the world?
As will be seen, there are several reasons why God would allow suffering to occur in the world. All of them, according to the Christian view, would have to be linked to the advancement of love.
Does God Cause Suffering?
If God is unconditional love, He would not directly cause suffering (except to impede those headed toward imminent self-destruction). Furthermore, if He allows suffering, He does so to advance love and strengthen His invitation to eternal, unconditional love.
Well, then, if God does not directly cause suffering and is therefore only an indirect cause of suffering, what or who are the true direct causes of suffering? There are three major sources. The first two are not related to our identity decisions, and the third is.
Where Does Suffering Come From? The First 2 Sources
The two sources, which are extrinsic to our identity decisions, are:
- Suffering caused directly by human agents (individuals or groups, e.g., Joe causes suffering to Mary, or a political regime persecutes hated minorities)
- Suffering caused by natural forces (e.g., tsunamis, earthquakes, drought, disease, old age, etc.)
There are many nuances and combinations of these two sources of suffering. For example, a preventable disease such as leprosy (a natural cause) is not prevented or delimited by a particular country in order that tax money can be used to incite a new war (a human cause); or a tsunami (a natural cause) hits a particular country, but the country next to it decides not to use easily accessible resources to help because the victims are thought to be troublesome or unworthy (a human cause).
Many forms of psychological suffering are attributable to such combinations. For example, a person might feel depressed because of a chemical imbalance (a natural cause), which causes him to be marginalized by people who are fearful of his peculiar conduct (a human cause), which, in turn, exacerbates his depression and its physical symptoms.
Where Does Suffering Come From? The
Third and Fourth Sources
The third source of suffering is a result of the intentional or unintentional decisions we make about our identity, purpose in life, and happiness along the stages of life’s way (e.g., a comparative identity or a contributive identity; a decision to be fundamentally autonomous or interpersonal; etc.). These identity decisions define happiness and life purpose for us, and those definitions, in turn, determine whether we believe ourselves to be happy or unhappy, purposeful or unpurposeful, worthwhile or un-worthwhile, etc.
According to Jesus, God does not want anybody to suffer. Indeed, He should be likened to the most compassionate and affectionate of parents (Abba—the father of the Prodigal Son), who would gladly suffer in the place of his/her child but realizes that this child must make her own decisions and must deal with the challenges of life as a free human agent.
We must remember that God suffers with everyone who suffers and intends to redeem every scintilla of suffering in His providence for all eternity. Indeed, God the Father sent His only begotten Son into the world to suffer with us and for us—so that He could be a companion with us in our suffering and bring us to our eternal salvation.
God may allow suffering to occur in the world, but His intention is to transform it into love. If He does not do this now, He might do it later; if He does not do this later in this world, He may do it in the eternal world, which is to come. The key idea to remember is that God has an eternal perspective and that He will transform all suffering into love for all eternity.
Why Does God Allow Humans to Cause Suffering?
So why would an unconditionally loving God allow human beings to cause suffering to one another? In a phrase, because love requires the freedom to be unloving, and “unlove” frequently causes suffering.
In other words, without the capacity to cause suffering (through choices of unlove), human beings could not be truly loving, and this would defeat the purpose of an unconditionally loving God.
Why Does Love Require the Freedom to Choose Unlove?
If one does not have the freedom to choose unloving behaviors, then one’s loving behaviors are not really chosen—they are merely programmed (like impulses, desires, or instincts). Beings that have no real alternatives are not the true initiators of their actions; they are merely responding to stimuli in the only way they can. Thus, if one’s love is not chosen, one’s love is not one’s own. It originates from a cause other than one’s self.
This insight may be deepened by examining what would happen if God made us incapable of unloving behaviors.
What If God Didn’t Allow Us to Cause Suffering?
Let us suppose that I did not have the capacity to choose unloving behaviors. It would seem that the world would be a better place. After all, I would be incapable of lying, stealing, coveting, egocentricity, arrogance, anger, jealousy, contempt, and all of the other attitudes or dispositions which could cause me to do harm to another human being.
There are a few problems with this “better world,” not the least of which is that my incapacity to act on these harmful dispositions and attitudes would reflect rather poorly on my intelligence and reflectivity. Indeed, I would be, well, virtually lobotomized.
Imagine, for a moment, that you were not capable of fearing another person’s superior talent—that you were incapable of being jealous or wanting more than you could ever really need. If you were truly incapable of these things, you would either:
- Be incapable of imagining them, or
- Would not have the self-consciousness to want to make those things your own
In either case, your intelligence (characterized by your powers of imagination and self-consciousness) would be manifestly inferior to what it currently is. Without these powers of imagination, you would not be able to create; you would not even be able to identify obstacles to a better life so that those obstacles could be overcome.
The limits to your imagination would be the limits to your apprehension of a future, and the limits to your self-consciousness (your awareness of yourself) would be the limits to your recognition of your future. You wouldn’t be able to see alternative possibilities in your future, making your apprehension of cause and effect merely a response to stimuli (desire for food = lunge at meat). Cause and effect would certainly not be set within the context of a possible future but only the satiation of a sensorial appetite or instinct.
Thus, God is caught in a dilemma from the very beginning: If God is to create a loving being, He must create that being with the capacity to create a loving action anew; and if He is to create a being with that capacity, He must create a being with the capacity to choose love or unlove; and if He creates a being with that capacity, He creates the very possibility of unlove leading to suffering.
Created in His Own Image and Likeness
Note here that God does not create the actuality of suffering in the world, but only the possibility of suffering, by creating agents who have the real choice, the real power, to act contrary to love. As noted above, God must create this possibility; otherwise, He could not create a free agent and, therefore, could not create a loving being—a beloved with the freedom to love others with self-initiated love.
In sum, if God were to create a creature incapable of unlove, He would also have to create a creature incapable of love. Thus, he could not create beings capable of jealousy, egocentricity, or hatred. Yet to create a being incapable of jealousy is to create a being incapable of magnanimity; to create it incapable of egocentricity is to create it incapable of altruism, and to create it incapable of hatred is to create it incapable of forgiveness and compassion.
Thus, if God truly wanted to create beings in his own image and likeness (Genesis), He had to create them capable of unloving choices and behaviors—with self-consciousness, creative thought and imagination, and free will. If He wanted to create beings in His own image and likeness, He had to create them with power for evil—meaning that He had to create the possibility, but not the actuality, of evil.
Why Does God Allow Suffering Caused by Nature?
It is somewhat easier to understand why God would allow suffering to occur through human agents than it is to understand why He would allow suffering to occur through natural causation. After all, it would seem that if God created the natural order, He could have created it perfectly—so perfectly that there would be no possibility of human suffering. He could have created each human being in a perfectly self-sufficient way so that we would have no need. Or, if we had need, He could have created us with a perfect capacity to fulfill those needs within a world of perfectly abundant resources.
So why did God create an imperfect natural order? Why did He create a natural order which would allow scarcity, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis? Why did He create a natural order which would permit vulnerabilities within the human genome that lead to blindness, deafness, or muscular degeneration? Why did He create a natural order which would permit debilitating diseases?
The brief answer lies in the fact that a perfect natural order would leave no room for weakness and vulnerability, yet weakness and vulnerability induce many positive human characteristics, perhaps the most important human characteristics, such as the five opportunities outlined in the next section (identity transformation, natural virtues, compassionate love (agapē), interdependence and human community, and the possibility of contributing to the kingdom of God).
This list of characteristics represents the noblest of human strivings, the propensity toward greater civility and civilization, and glimpses of perfection, which is unconditional and eternal by its very nature. Though weakness and vulnerability seem to undermine human potential, they very frequently detach us from what is base and superficial so that we might freely see and move toward what is truly worthy of ourselves, what has truly lasting effects, and what leads us to our true destiny—eternal and unconditional love with Him.
St. Paul’s Delight in His Weakness
We may turn for a moment to Saint Paul’s insight in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10:
“Therefore, I was given a thorn in my flesh, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from getting proud. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, it is then I am strong.”— 2 Corinthians 12:8-10
Paul probably had a physical malady (possibly progressive blindness), which caused him to experience a loss of power and autonomy, yet he felt that his power had increased.
The power about which he is speaking here is love—a love that forced him to make significant changes in his life and identity and which drew him toward greater virtue, interpersonal relationship, compassion, community, and zeal. His power is truly perfected by weakness, which reveals why God would create a natural order with intrinsic imperfections that could cause genuine suffering.
Suffering as the Path to Virtue
Since the time of Jesus, Christians have advocated that suffering is an indispensable path to virtue—and, therefore, an indispensable means for solidifying and establishing our eternal character and identity. Christians have not made this suggestion cavalierly but rather compassionately within the context of following the example of Jesus.
Christians have spent themselves trying to alleviate suffering, encouraging trust and hope in God—while helping those who “find life burdensome” to seize the opportunity within it.
Speaking of these opportunities, it now remains to explain how an imperfect natural order—and the suffering it produces—can be one of the most powerful opportunities to achieve identity transformation, the natural virtues of fortitude and temperance, and the supreme virtue of love (agapē). The imperfect natural world (and all forms of suffering) also provide the opportunity for human collaboration toward the common good as well as the pursuit of the kingdom of God.
As we shall see, suffering is indispensable (for most of us) in achieving our highest happiness, fulfillment, dignity, and destiny. It is also indispensable for achieving our contribution and legacy for the common good and the kingdom of God.
Though life would be less painful and difficult without suffering, it would also be less meaningful, loving, just, good, and transcendent. Our temporary immersion in an imperfect natural order is the perfect pathway to the eternal and perfect order of unconditional love.
Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Why would God create an imperfect world? In a word, for the sake of love; for the sake of people like me; the sake of love manifests as life transformation, virtue, empathy, compassion, humility, agapē; love manifests in creating a better world and even building up the very kingdom of love—the kingdom of the unconditionally loving God. Every one of these reasons not only gives a noble purpose to this life but also carries forward to its fulfillment in an eternal and perfectly loving life. It is a noble purpose that lasts forever. Temporal imperfections in this world lead to eternal perfection in the next. This is the logic of unconditional love.
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God works through our suffering. He doesn’t waste any of it. For those who are open to seeing the horizon of love embedded in it, there is a future, nay, an eternity, for each of us to manifest our own unique brand of unconditional love within the symphony of love, which is God’s kingdom.
Note: This article is an abridged version of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Article “Why Would A Loving God Allow Suffering.”