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How Could God Allow this to Happen?

I recently became aware of a tragic automobile accident which claimed the life of a young man and seriously injured a fellow passenger. I don’t know any of the people directly affected by this tragedy personally, but I am aware of many people who do. This death, as all deaths are, will be devastating for a huge network of people connected in a variety of different ways.

I don’t know how those directly affected will react to this event; I suspect there is no “right” way to respond to these kinds of things. I expect that in the coming weeks there will be a coming-together of family and friends, a celebration of a life cut short and the impact he had on others. The tragic nature of the accident will be lamented, prayers for those closest to the victims will be offered, and God will be implored to speak amidst the pain and confusion that this event has caused.

And some will undoubtedly wonder how God could allow something like this to happen.

I wonder the same thing every time I hear about a story such as this, and with every such reaction it strikes me as odd that these things have to hit relatively close to home before we think about them. I have thus far been spared having to navigate a horrible situation such as the one this family is in the middle of right now, but in a sense it shouldn’t require something awful directly happening to me to spur reflection upon the problem of evil and suffering.

The thing is, “something like this” is always happening to someone somewhere. The problem of evil undoubtedly becomes more acute when we have to face it in our own lives, but suffering is as universal a feature of human experience as you could hope to find. When we are faced with incomprehensible tragedy such as this one, the problem of evil moves from the shadowy background of our lives, where we know that it exists but can avoid it at a personal level, to the foreground where it screams belligerently and mercilessly in our faces, refusing to be ignored any longer.

Simply put, Christians have to reconcile belief in a good and sovereign God with the fact that this same God is always allowing incomprehensible suffering to happen. Over the last few days alone, God has

I found these stories in five minutes of browsing the internet—I’m sure that anyone who is reading this could think of, or is in the midst of struggling through others. In each of the stories mentioned above there are grief-stricken family members forced to comfort loved-ones, explain to little children why mommy or daddy isn’t coming home, plan funerals, pick up the pieces, and somehow summon the strength to go on living. Our distance from these events does not make them any less tragic, any less evil. The point, again, is that God is always allowing awful things to happen. It might sound disrespectful to say it so bluntly, so bereft of necessary qualifications, but a quick look at the world around us combined with even the most general view of divine providence can yield no other conclusion.

To be honest, it can sometimes be a scary thing to affirm faith and confidence in a God who has set things up in such a way that devastating things routinely happen to his children. Yet this is precisely what, as a follower of Christ, I must do. I cannot simply affirm that God is good as long as terrible things are not happening to me, as long as they remain half a world away, a few paragraphs on a screen which can be clicked away in as much time as it takes to blink an eye or change the channel. As a Christian, I claim that Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the problem of a world reeling under the weight of sin and evil in the full knowledge and expectation that evil will continue to be a prominent feature of human experience—quite probably my own experience at some point—until God finally judges the world and restores it to what it was intended to be.

And so we do our best to place our faith and confidence in God and his plan for the world. Sometimes God’s providential care for the world seems so obvious that it barely warrants mentioning; other times it seems so ridiculously implausible—even immoral—that it takes nothing less than a herculean effort of faith to affirm that God is lovingly watching over his creation. I’m not sure which way the family who lost their son/brother/husband/uncle/father is leaning right now, but I hope and pray that they find comfort and healing in their pain. And I pray that God will grant them, and all of us, the strength and the faith to cling to the promise of a better day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes” and when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think a danger with the phrase “God allows suffering” is that we often subconsciously equate it with “God wills” us to suffer for some “greater purpose.” (Don’t worry, I don’t think this is what you are doing!)

    While I don’t doubt God uses the horrible suffering in our broken world to redeem and renew in countless ways, it’s pretty tough, as I am sure you would agree, to suggest that God “wills” these events to happen. The unfortunate part is that this misconception often gets used as a comforting word to those closest to the tragedy. We need better words of comfort then the cop-out phrase, “it must have been part of God’s plan.”

    Any suggestions???

    July 26, 2007
  2. Dave Chow #

    Pray for the family of Nathan Toews. He was just installed as the interim worship pastor of Ross Road Community Church in Abbotsford. Just married last year, and was enroute to a friend’s wedding where he was to sing. Tragic indeed.

    My wife and I had Nathan as a youth in junior high while serving in Dalhousie MB Church’s youth program in Calgary. Nathan was always a joy, always quick to encourage and always a blessing to those he encountered. He will certainly be missed, as he leaves a massive hole in the lives of those he touched. Pray for his family and his young wife as they cope with the loss.

    Pray for his parents, and family as they continue to serve the Lord.

    Pray for the rest of us as we wonder about God’s plan in all of this, and as we wrestle with our hurt, shock, anger and pain.

    July 26, 2007
  3. Dave W, perhaps not surprisingly I completely agree with you – we desperately need to be able to offer more (or less!) than “it was part of God’s plan.” As far as suggestions go, I suppose as good a place as any to start, as Dave C reminds us, is simply to tell people who are suffering that we are praying for them.

    Beyond that I am an utter novice when it comes to dealing with painful situations such as this. Silence and a willingness to listen to and hurt with those who suffer would seem like good and necessary things to offer.

    When people are still so close to tragedy, and the wounds are still so raw, even the idea that God can somehow bring goodness out of the situation will likely seem fairly hollow. I guess this is a really long-winded way of saying “I don’t really know.” But I think that if we can admit this it will at least prevent us from saying some of the really hurtful, offensive, and untrue things that you allude to.

    July 26, 2007
  4. hey Ryan
    i just posted some thoughts on suffering as well – unaware that you had done a far more eloquent job of some of the same ideas. Unfortunately, I think my comments sound preachy and prescriptive in light of the tragedy that you have mentioned here.
    I guess I have sort of given up either crediting or blaming God for suffering – even finding some greater cosmic purpose for it. The ugliness of suffering is starting to look like beauty to me. This morning I got to walk with the victim of a stroke (we both need to lose weight). I would never want to walk through what he has gone through – but he looks at me and says, don’t feel sorry for me there are people a whole lot worse off. I think he has learned something about embrace suffering in a way looks beautiful to me.

    July 30, 2007
  5. Thanks Dale. I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. I do tend to emphasize the ugliness of suffering and evil – perhaps disproportionately to the goodness that can come (sometimes, can only come) through suffering.

    I guess I would always want to make sure that we don’t confuse the beauty that we, as God’s image bearers in partnership with God, can bring out of suffering with the claim that there is something inherently beautiful about suffering. I think there is good biblical, rational, and experiential warrant for the former claim, but not the latter.

    July 30, 2007
  6. Yeah, I think your right.
    I think it is twisted to think that suffering is beautiful.
    In our culture there is such an emphasis on self improvement and even this whole idea that we are so much better/smarter/richer/healthier than people were years ago. I think it breed the idea that some how we do not deserve to suffer. Almost like it is our right to lead a life that is devoid of suffering.
    Again I would not say that we deserve to suffer. Suffering just seems to happen. But there is a real arrogance about thinking that we are entitled to a life without pain.

    July 31, 2007
  7. Well I’m a little late to this conversation. I just read this excellent post for the first time today.

    I agree that we should not confuse the beauty of the believer’s response with the actual ugliness and messiness that pain and suffering brings. However, the more I learn about this topic, the more I am confronted with the issue of the Christian response to pain and suffering. When we find ourselves in the midst of suffering, our natural inclination is to shun the pain and pursue pleasure in it’s place. I don’t see Christ doing this (nor Paul, John or any other of the apostles). Instead, they embraced pain and suffering because they knew that the reward was far greater than the rewards of immediate relief or even pleasure.

    My wife once said that this short time we spend on earth is the only opportunity that we will ever have to share in Christ’s suffering. That makes sense to me. However, I would be hard pressed to respond in such a way to someone in the middle of their suffering. Most people, when suffering, need to be shown the love of Christ and not a theological explanation.

    I am often saddened by the idea that most Christians are not prepared to suffer- and yet we are told that we will face persecution and suffering.

    August 10, 2007
  8. Teleia Philia, thanks for your very thoughtful response. I think that you are right – Christ’s followers are a lot more reluctant to embrace suffering than their namesake. This could be chalked up to simple human weakness, lack of commitment, or any combination of other factors. It’s hard to know how to balance what I feel to be a proper aversion to pain and disorder – which can and ought to properly move us toward alleviating suffering and promoting flourishing in the world – and the numerous Christian examplars who embrace and grow through suffering.

    I think you’re also right to suggest that a discussion of the virtues of suffering is not what people want (or need) to hear when they are in the middle of some painful situation (as your excellent post on the subject demonstrates). Self-giving, suffering love trumps good theology any day – thanks for the reminder.

    August 10, 2007

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