Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

unhappy face.jpgThe other day Beyond Blue reader Larry Parker sent me this piece he wrote on why God allows pain and suffering. I wanted to share it with you because many of you knew Larry back when he was very depressed. His happiness today, with his fiancé Ana, whom he met on Beliefnet, inspires me. Good things can and do happen to people working so hard toward sanity. Here’s Larry …

I believe that in pain there is a certain purpose — or, indeed, perhaps the most important purpose.


You can read it in Ecclesiastes, in Job, in the story of Paul’s thorn in 2 Corinthians 12 (or, for that matter, in the entire story of Christ’s Passion). You can read it in C.S. Lewis or his student, Sheldon Vanauken, in their stories of Christian love shattered by early death — what Vanauken called “a severe mercy.”

Bad things happen to good people, as Rabbi Kushner famously said. There’s just no getting around it.

Does this mean there is no God? There is the explanation that God weeps with the suffering — and I think that is necessary, but it’s not sufficient to explain God’s existence to the woman on the rooftop for days after Hurricane Katrina, the boy wailing at the loss of his entire family in the Asian tsunami, the family who have suddenly learned to their joy yet horror that the girl they thought dead is alive, but after 18 years of torture and unspeakable assaults.


I met my fiancee (or more precisely, encountered her on Beliefnet) when I was going through the worst time in my life — which is saying something for someone who was once in a mental hospital during a messy divorce. Yet somehow, today, I think those facts are related.

It’s not just that we have to have the bitter in life to appreciate the sweet, it’s that I don’t think we can have the sweet in life without the bitter. The Byrds took the words straight from Ecclesiastes for their song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”: “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” EVERY purpose.

At the bottom of Pandora’s Box, under all of the world’s evils now run amok, was hope. As Rod Dreher, a Beliefnet writer who comprehensively does not share my politics, said recently, hope is not optimism. Rather, hope is the belief that suffering has some purpose, some meaning that will explained someday, in whatever belief system we embrace.


If that is the case, I am a very hopeful person.

On the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, a crowd of African-Americans gathered in Indianapolis, understandably in a rage. Robert F. Kennedy (himself in the last days of his short life) was in town, and it was thought he might be able to calm the situation with an impromptu speech.

Kennedy quoted from ancient Greek poetry in an attempt to explain the loss to the angry mob:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

There was no rioting in Indianapolis, that night or anytime during the terrible year of 1968 — the year I was conceived in my parents’ (unlikely at the time) hope of a better world to come. Again, awful grace.


And THAT is why I think God allows pain.

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  • Clare

    I think that if we didn’t have pain and suffering…how would we know joy? I think that there is a balance. If everything in the world was wonderful all the time, how would we learn?

  • kalibhakta

    Thank you for Larry’s words–they’re more thoughtful than most of what you read about the “problem of evil.” Aeschylus’s outlook is the sanest one, I believe (tho I wonder about that translation) :)
    I think part of the reason that the “problem” of evil is such a problem is a questionable image of God, in which the Deity is reduced to a CEO who drafts policy, metes out raises and pink slips, and manipulates the stock market of daily events.
    It’s understandable that we’d want to anthropomorphize God, since that helps us have a personal relationship, but it pays to remember that when we do this we limit the ways we can experience God. Perhaps if we were more concerned with becoming one with God rather than becoming Employee of the Year, we wouldn’t worry so much about the pain… which is **definitely** real and I’m not minimizing it! But God is infinitely more than a boss, a parent, a teacher, a cop… and we, too, are infinitely more than we imagine.

  • Dawn

    At the end of Job, God does not answer why he allowed so much suffering to come to one man. God has not answered the question of why, but he has promised love, mercy and grace in the midst, and a promise someday of it ending. And not just with death, but with redemptive grace and glory. Having suffered some, and working with those who suffer much, I have come to believe that the answer to why rarely if ever comforts. Love which produces hope does.

  • Nick

    I see concepts such as “good,” “bad,” “happy” and “suffering” as subjective constructs of our individual and collective interpretations of the Universe and how it functions. In objective reality, things just are. What has warranted us to manufacture and append purpose to all of our experiences in this world? And at what deficit are we, really, without such purpose?
    The problem of evil is silly. In fact, God does not allow “evil.” We, ourselves alone, allow evil — because evil is likely to be a mere human institution. It is probably a very old meme, or some sort of evolutionary byproduct, that has helped us survive since the time of tribes and small communities.

  • Walter

    We are the ones who allows pain and suffering into our life, not God. He has nothing to do with it. Pain and suffering is a condition of our existence, just like comfort and happiness. The thing we need to understand in this life is that all are lessons. Life will unfold the way it is and we have no control of it; however, we have control of how we act upon it. Just as Jesus have acted upon His suffering, He took it as it is. :-)

  • Your Name

    We are the ones who allows pain and suffering into our life, not God. He has nothing to do with it. Pain and suffering is a condition of our existence, just like comfort and happiness. The thing we need to understand in this life is that all are lessons. Life will unfold the way it is and we have no control of it; however, we have control of how we act upon it. Just as Jesus have acted upon His suffering, He took it as it is. :-)

  • Mia

    Congrats to Larry (and Ana)! And thanks for sharing that powerful observation that HOPE is not “optimism” — indeed, it’s much sturdier and heartier stuff, having tasted full the bitter depths of darkness and yet still trusting the eventual return of dawn. I was recently at a funeral where the Ecclesiastes passage — the whhhoooole thing — was slowly and deliberately read. The man was far too young, at 62, to die of cancer and yet he’d struggled with it a few years already. When it made a surprising and surprisingly swift return recently, he ended up having days left instead of weeks or months. And yet he had the grace of his far-flung family all around him, no real pain, good energy until his very last day. His family kept loving vigil for the last couple of days, being constantly present to him and each other, acting as “midwives” to birth him gracefully from this life to the next. A couple weeks later, the family isn’t reeling but is still buoyed because the entire thing was SUCH a profoundly spiritual experience, for each person present, no matter what their personal and widely varied beliefs. It was exactly as it was supposed to be, maybe even as it was “destined” to be. The event, as sad as it was, was also rich with meaning and purpose.
    My own view about God’s role in all of this remains the same. God is not a puppet master, giving to some and taking from others. God is not necessarily a scorekeeper, a cop, or an accountant maintaining some divine ledger — or if God is the latter, God forgives an awful lot of debt!
    Rather, God is both a wise parent and a supreme artist. As parent, God’s abiding love means we don’t always get what we want. Like a good parent, God knows that “No” is sometimes a necessary and loving response — like the parent who, wanting the best for her child, does not allow a diet of non-stop candy AND “allows” a child to fall while learning how to walk. A good parent does not allow her child to live in a bubble, doing everything for the child and protecting them from everything unpleasant about life (including the natural consequences of a child’s mistakes or misbehavior) — “helicopter parents,” take note! — because doing so stunts the moral and psychological growth of that child. It’s keeping them in a cage that may protect, but which also deprives them of freedom. And that, to quote another, is “the most hideous form of child abuse there is.”
    And speaking of freedom: The best writers and painters let inspiration lead them and then commit that spark to paper or canvass. They don’t control or renege. Just think, Da Vinci could have tinkered and tinkered and tinkered with the Mona Lisa — there’s ALWAYS something you can improve upon or think to add later — but their genius is in letting the piece they create speak for itself, to have its own inherent and divine claim to FREEDOM. What’s created is poured from sheer imagination into tangible physical form — and the artist, like God, says “That’s good” (and thus “good enough,” which is saying a lot!) The artist lets it be, grants his/her creation its freedom to be in the world — just as it is — to have the inevitable ripple effect on hearts and minds. I feel God did — and does — the same with us. God respects our freedom far-far too much to take it back from us, even for a minute. Even at a planetary or molecular level, whether we’re talking about what naturally sparks a forest fire or sets cancer into motion. But when God does intervene — out of sheer love, or the divine glimpse of a larger purpose we cannot hope to see — THAT’s both miracle and exception, and the answer to prayers. A relative of my husband testified, years ago, at the beatification of St. Padre Pio — having had his aggressive and inoperable brain cancer miraculously/completely/instantly cured while attending Mass with Pio in Italy many years ago. (The young man and his wife experienced an intense flash of heat/light at the words of consecration that nobody else noticed.) Later, doctors in the U.S. confirmed the inexplicable irradication of his tumor. You know what, tho? The relative eventually died in his mid to late 60s — of cancer. His healing was still a miracle, because it bought him the priceless chance to become a loving father and raise a beautiful family. But nature, temporarily abated, still needed to take its course — because that’s what the Supreme Artist set into motion.
    The older I get, the more I appreciate that we truly are “wonderfully and fearfully made.” Leave it to God to create a being where mere positive thoughts are capable of creating more dopamine for our own brains, or an adrenaline burst enabling a mom to lift a car off her pinned child. Leave it to God to weave the ultimate truth of RELATIONSHIP — the divine fingerprint of the Supreme Artist — into everything God set into motion, from electrons orbiting in an atom to solar systems orbiting a life-giving star, relationship that we humans absolutely need with each other and are wise to have with our God. For if anything mitigates the awful truth of unfettered freedom — which sometimes produces tragedy instead of triumph — it’s the God-given truth/gift of relationship, created perhaps to be freedom’s eternal twin. In relationship, we pull together to fight fires and cure disease — or comfort each other thru the hurt of divorce, disease, disaster, or death.

  • Anonymous

    I certainly agree. I think pain and suffering, even the extremes of suffering have absolute purpose in God’s kingdom.
    Just because pain hurts and tortures torture, does not mean they are “bad.” That is a very human view.
    And since we are not God, I don’t think we should assume that our view, is his view.
    I am disabled, and have had great struggles for a few decades.
    To me, I view serious chronic pain, and all forms of greater suffering as the journey itself. That, while I am on earth, I am paying a price. And that price is going to be rewarded with bliss in the afterlife.
    When the mystics talk about entering the Godhead…they do not seem to be talking about a limited human experience…but something Infinite. If the price of receiving that is 60 or 70 years in pain..or even agony….who are we to question the wisdom of it?
    Would we even want to receive some Infinite Reward, without putting forward some extra effort?
    I absolutely think there is Perfect Purpose in the sufferings that God brings into our lives.

  • carol falcon

    i loved this story. it fits right into my life now.i had a stroke and hope and pray i will get better but i overlook all the little things that god has allowed to happen so far. i am truly blessed.

  • anthony

    Are any of you guys ever been in severe chronic pain. I think your attitude will change if you have.

  • curragh

    I don’t believe in a god – good men like Christ,Budda, the Dalai Lama- but not a god. And the past year I have had a son turn on us (DIL and he has no backbone) – cancer,depression, HBP, worse year financially, and now, to see our grandchild, have to take orders from my controlling son and wife. My husband is a believer.
    Nothing anyone can tell me that this world is anything but a valley of tears – and that we die and that will take us out of this horrible world to nothingless. My husband says he admires people like me who can be loving and good with no reward at the end.
    I, contrary to what it sounds, am known as an upbeat person!

  • Kitt

    At this time I am suffering also with depression. I consider myself a christian, but I have lost a lot of faith in God. I have had many hardships with family problems. My dear daughter is moving two hours away with my 2 grandchildren whom I love dearly and see as often as I want to. This is the only thing that I look forward to. I feel so sorry for myself. I want to get out of this but its very hard. I am not happy in my marriage of 34 years, and my son has also married someone who controls everything and she doesn’t want to be part of our family unless it suits her, which is only on some holidays. I miss my son and his friendship we had all these years. I try not to get down but it’s real hard. I keep trying to tell myself that I don’t have it as bad as some others, this works temporarily. I am in counseling but it is not working too well. I don’t want to go back on meds but I think I may have to. All I want to do is cry.

  • B

    Those of you who are whining, just keep praying. You sound really self-centered and selfish. Kids don’t need us to be friends, they need PARENTS so grow up please. Start giving more and see if you don’t start receiving more. Turn your life over in Faith.

  • B

    Those of you who are whining, just keep praying. You sound really self-centered and selfish. Kids don’t need us to be friends, they need PARENTS so grow up please. Start giving more and see if you don’t start receiving more. Turn your life over in Faith.

  • nikki

    thank u for this blog ive had so much pain and suffering in my young life (im only 22) and it just seems that no matter what i do and try to do bad things happen and i still want to know why god gave me a second chance at life since i almost died in a near fatal car accident and i know that god had a reason for me on this earth i just would like to know what it is so i can do whatever it is god wants me to do and make him proud! your article really touched me and made me feel a little better and made me realize alot of things i just have to keep my head up and have hope and faith that one day things will be better i really hope it does because it hurts me alot to suffer and to see my parents suffer too i was not givin a perfect life but i am grateful for all i have and to still be able to wake up to a new day each day. thank you so much for writing this! you really givin me hope that one day my suffering will go away and i can finally be happy and not cry anymore. thanks and god bless

  • zunge

    I have had many hardships with family problems. My dear son is moving two hours away with my 2 grandchildren whom I love dearly and see as often as I want to. This is the only thing that I look forward to.

  • Barbara

    Thank you for this blog. It is an affirmation of God’s work. It give’s me hope that know matter what I am going through that God is still there and working in my life.

  • carelee

    I pray to God you don’t have anything to do with people. You are not a person I would want to be my friend. Your heart appears to be to hard even for my”whining”. May god bless you in your time of need. We all have them. I’ll pray for you.

  • Solman

    Not to be negative about this post, i’m seeing plenty of that from some of the commenters about hurting people “whining”. But I think accurate information is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other as part of the love we show. Therefore, an amend needs to be made that the Byrds did not write the song “Turn Turn Turn” so they didn’t take the words from the Bible. Look into the wonderful writing done by Pete Seeger please. Thanks and God bless…

  • justaman

    Another amend for Solman.
    Having been a fan of both the Byrds and Pete Seeger for more than forty-four years; and as one who
    is very much for giving credit where credit is due.
    I suggest you refer to the New Testament in the Bible. Looking up the book of Ecclesiastes, where you
    will find most of the lyrics to Pete Seeger’s tune, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, where indeed he did find them.
    What Pete Seeger did was take poetic license, rearranging some of the words, then setting them to music.
    You’ll also find in the same books of Ecclesiastes, where it says, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… there is nothing new under the sun.”
    So, it seems, we may have already been through all this before.

  • Shorty

    I believe God allowing suffering to show that he has the power to control all things, and through him is there a way to gain peace.

  • Solman

    Gee it’s hard to avoid criticism sometimes. I didn’t even try to imply that Pete Seeger didn’t get lyric/words from the Bible, just that it wasn’t the Byrds as stated in the featured post. Sheesh. Oh well, I just hope anyone who reads the comments won’t get frustrated looking for the words in the New Testament as stated in one of the comments. The book of Ecclesiastes is located in what we humble folks call the Old Testament.
    Again, no negativity is desired here. Just accurate information.

  • Your Name

    I don’t know that God allows suffering. He loves each and every one of us and love would not allow pain or suffering. When you love someone, you do not wish pain or suffering on that person. You want that person to be happy. We, however, do not live in a perfect world thanks to Adam AND Eve. If we get sick, we are thankful when we’re feeling better. If God does “allow” pain and suffering, I think it is to teach us how to be greatful and thankful for who or what we have, realizing who or what can be taken away in a nano-second. Sing as though no one is listening; dance as if no one is watching and love as though you’ll never be hurt.

  • r81801

    This answer begs the question. If god can control all, then why not create a universe that allows for experiencing the sweet without having to suffer.
    If you want to believe that suffering is grace or somehow justified by god’s plan, then fine. I think people adhere to these beliefs so they can deal with harsh reality–there actually is an incredible amount of suffering in the world. Various cultures/belief systems make up a story that gets them through the night.
    I particularly “love” the people who say god won’t give you more suffering than you can handle. I guess if having anxiety attacks, going crazy, leaving your family, drinking/drugging to the point of suicide is handling stress/pain/suffering, then you’re right.

  • Tara L.

    I have been suffering through trials and tribulations for over seven years now. I have lost both my parents (they both passed away from cancer) My marriage ended, I lost my car, house, three jobs. Have been hungry, broke, and depressed. I lost the ability to have children through a medical condition, and am all alone in the world. I have no close family. I lost one of my beloved dogs two weeks ago while I was at work. (they are my “surrogate” kids) He was involved in a fight between my two other dogs and was killed. I came home to find him dead.
    I wake up every morning with hope and anticipation that this darkness will end. I pray to God daily to give me the strength to keep going, and things will get better. I don’t know why God allows suffering, but I believe it is allowed to enjoy the good things in life when they come your way. Even the smallest joys can be cherished when you thank God for your blessings.

  • Ella the Wag

    A few reactions from me, and maybe some random sharing.
    I don’t think that the word ‘allow’ is appropriate. That would mean that there are some things that are allowed, and if the goal is to have a perfect society where everyone is healthy and normal and everything happens as it should, there would be a lot more things that actually shouldn’t be allowed. Freedom wouldn’t be allowed, either, because freedom also means being allowed to make mistakes, and a perfect world can’t afford to allow mistakes or to take even the smallest of risks.
    Rather, and without going into my view of any Supreme Being (and who am I to call God God the way many do!), I tend to think that pain and suffering ‘happen’, the way mistakes happen. They may be the result of wrong decisions, or may come in the form of the unexpected, but they are ‘there’, they exist, and the fact that they do is simply a confirmation for us that the world we live in is imperfect. This is not an invitation to the die-hards to drag God into the picture out of nowhere and defend why he needs to play a role. That’s not the point.
    Neither is it the point to rationalize pain and suffering; i.e. to explain why, simply because THERE IS NO ‘WHY’.
    What further strikes me is that, come to think of it, happiness and satisfaction actually have no reason, either. They also just ‘happen’, sometimes as the result of our actions or decision, and sometimes also in the form of the unexpected. Again, God, if he is out there, doesn’t have to have anything to do with it either.
    What I’ve observed is that it is OUR perceptions and definitions which determine what pain and suffering, and what happiness and satisfaction, are. Now this is more than a matter of taste. We are the ones who can see whether or not our decisions will give us the desired or undesired results, and there are always two sides to a coin. What we may consider to be our gain, will inevitably be someone else’s loss. When we are happy, is it logical or understandable to say that ‘God is on our side’, the way a gambler celebrates when ‘his’ horse gets to the finish line first?
    Perhaps by looking at both the up and the down side of life this way, we will be less depressed when we experience bad things, just as we may experience less euphoria with the good things. The result? A more balanced outlook at life, plus we do away with the need to figure out too many ‘whys’ for which there are no answers anyway.

  • Nancy

    To those who are suffering, it is a test of faith. The story of Job didn’t just happen once. It is on going and should be viewed as a compass.To those who are witnessing suffering, it is a call for compassion and charity.Left to our own designs, we are self-ish. Compassion to our fellow man makes us self-less.

  • aenea

    “God respects our freedom far-far too much to take it back from us, even for a minute.”
    “To those who are suffering, it is a test of faith.”
    I always wonder just whose freedom God respects, and whose faith he is testing?
    Over the years it’s been interesting trying to reconcile a Christian faith with the lives that my children lead, and the experiences that we’ve had. When I sit there and watch my son eat the skin off of his fingers (he gets a little piece in his teeth, and pulls it off one strip at a time…yes, when we duct taped gloves to his hands he had a hospital admission, so that’s not an answer), is he testing my son’s faith? Or respecting his freedom (as a severely autistic child) to injure himself? When he beats his head against the wall until he’s bloody and unconscious, is God allowing him free will, even though my son can (at least at this point) never even having the possibility of forming a concept of a God in his mind?
    When my daughter had cancer, and we spent six months in a pediatric oncology ward, was God testing the faith of the little boy born with an adrenal cancer, who started chemo 2 days after he was born, and continued treatment until he was 9 months old and died? Did that little boy make a choice to be born in pain, and continue that way? Or is he just an example of God’s grace? One of my friends has a daughter with PVL (Periventricular leukomalacia- holes in the brain), coupled with a nerve disorder, which means that she has screamed in pain every non-medicated waking moment of her life for the last 13 years)…whose faith is God testing there? It must be her parents’, as she’s not cognitive enough to have faith. When my 8 year old daughter had 68 staples from her sternum to her pubis and couldn’t breathe or walk without pain, was she being tested, or was I?
    My kids have had it lucky compared to most children in most parts of the world. Even though they’re autistic, they’re not chained up, left to rot in a crib, or beaten to death. They weren’t raped by relatives when they were 3 days old, sold as sex slaves, and they’re only beaten up and bullied occasionally at school. I’ve actually had it said to me that my children enable other people to show God’s love…my kids should not be vehicles for someone else’s faith, or “examples of God’s love”.
    I almost envy people who can see suffering children and still believe that there is a benevolent force in the universe. I liked the feeling of community and belonging that I had when I was raised in the church, but the idea of God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent is almost laughable to me now (or would be, if it weren’t so sad). You can have some, but not all 3 at once.
    And “At the end of Job, God does not answer why he allowed so much suffering to come to one man”
    There doesn’t have to be an answer at the end of’s pretty clear from Job 1:12 that this is a contest between God and Satan, and has nothing at all to do with Job the individual. Poor Job just got the short end of the stick.
    “Various cultures/belief systems make up a story that gets them through the night.”
    Too true. And I’m glad that some people can see past the suffering in front of their noses and find some comfort in their belief system- I sure wish that I could.

  • Kevin

    In my limited world, I find that suffering has often been a wake-up call to appreciate the little things in life. When my life is going too well–so to speak–I seem to lose appreciation for things that are important like moments spent with family, or just a sunny fall day.
    And there is no doubt that suffering is a humbling experience that makes me feel more compassion and understanding towards others. I am certainly less likely to look the other way or shrug it off next time I see someone suffering. I realize how blessed I am to have folks around me who can comfort me and help me through challenging times.
    I’m going through a rough patch right now, and if nothing else, I have gained some extra perspective on what’s important in life and how I have, in my arrogance, passed by some of the simple things that are more important than some of the material and egocentric things I thought were important in easier times.
    That doesn’t explain all suffering, I suppose, but I would say it does have a certain value in making our lives richer. To see a spoiled child screaming and hollering for that one extra toy he doesn’t have, knowing that once he gets it he will be even more miserable than before, is a pathetic sight. In contrast, to see a deprived child enjoy a bowl of rice or some other kid’s old used toy is a different experience. Which child is better off?
    If we see ourselves as God’s children, there is some sense in suffering. Why some of his children seem very spoiled and others extremely deprived, I don’t know.
    I suppose it’s possible that some people’s suffering is there to help others. If my suffering can make a difference in someone else’s life, I feel better about it, even though it may be no less painful. I don’t mind being used a little bit if it’s for a good purpose.

  • Praising Jesus

    Sadly, everything comes with two sides. There is good and evil in the world and one inflicts itself on the other. If God didn’t allow suffering, He couldn’t allow happiness. Something can’t have a top without a bottom, it is how things are defined. If God took it all away, then you wouldn’t have free will. You would simply be a puppet and behave in whatever way God designed you. God didn’t want that, and you shouldn’t either. Not only that, you never be able to help someone or improve their lot, because all would be the same. The diversity is what makes us interesting. Jesus said it best, Matthew 5:45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

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