The Question of Unexplained Suffering

November 15, 2013


I recently co-officiated the funeral of a 49 year-old man who died of cancer. He left behind a wife and two children. This man was active in the community and spent much of his professional life as the principal of various elementary schools. He was esteemed and loved by many. A man who pours himself into the future is not easily forgotten – he was such a man.

The question inevitably arises, ‘How is that fair?’ ‘There are murderers who live long lives and this man, who served the community productively, while being a good husband and father, dies of cancer at 49.’ It is easy to be angry and shout to the heavens ‘why’ when you hear a story like that.

It may even be biblical to do so. Just read the Psalms.

During the Celebration of Life, I felt the stirrings of sadness and anger, as did others who worked with him. Anger that cancer crippled him so early in his life. Anger that his wife is a widow, anger that his children have to navigate the teen years without their daddy as a trusted source of love, encouragement and counsel.


What follows is not an argument – it is an intuition. Why do we sometimes get angry when we hear stories like this? There are probably several possible answers to this question. But here is one plausible response: we are angry because it doesn’t seem fair. During the celebration of life one old friend commented angrily, ‘My friend was fair, but this doesn’t seem to be.’

It is not fair!

This is another way of saying, ‘things ought not to be this way.’ My friend shouldn’t have died, tragedy shouldn’t strike, and my dad should still be alive! My anger is a protest against the way things are, in light of how I intuitively sense they ought to be. There IS a way things ought to be, and things aren’t that way, therefore, I am frustrated, upset or furious.’

Are those emotions rooted in something illusory or real? And what worldview, what over-arching narrative, makes sense of my response to the indiscriminate nature of cancer, or the grievous wounds inflicted by injustice?

Surely, not a ‘godless’ worldview because in atheism there is no objective ‘ought’ there is only a subjective ‘is.’ This is just the way things are – accept it and move on because there is little point getting angry when a bad person lives and a seemingly good person dies. Your anger, which is deeply rooted in a sense of perceived injustice, is irrational. There is no objective standard of fairness to which our world must conform in an atheistic universe.

But, (and it is a big ‘but’) is it possible that every vote we cast, every protest we attend, and every white-hot surge of anger that arises within testifies to a fundamental biblical truth – the world is not supposed to be this way?

There is a way that things ‘ought’ to be and this circumstance or this tragedy doesn’t resemble it, therefore, I am angry.

This doesn’t answer the ‘why’ question, but at least it gives our angst some objective legitimacy. Atheism is not the answer; as a worldview it doesn’t even have the resources to validate the question.

The Face of God

In light of these tragedies many of us still believe in God. But whatever we believe about God – God can’t just make sense in the good times, or during the peaks of human experience. We need a God for the valley’s, for the pitfalls, for the unexpected illnesses and for the heartache that occasionally floods through the front doors of our homes.

In Jesus, this God comes to meet us.

I believe that in the midst of loss the only tears that can ultimately provide comfort, and shore up floundering faith, are tears on the ‘face’ of God. The other ‘gods’ have dry eyes, but every reader of the gospels has, at some point, stumbled across the wet cheeks apparent on Jesus’ visage and had their soul leap to attention in salutation of a small but significant scripture, ‘Jesus wept.’

In the face of Jesus we glimpse the character of God, and there we find traces of His tender tears shed over a broken world – we see his angry outburst at the alien intruder of death. Wipe this God away from the horizon of our lives and we lose the healing balm of His tears and keep the biting bitterness of our own. And in Him there is hope of a renewed heavens and earth devoid of sickness, death and disaster.

This world is fallen. This world is broken. God is redeeming it all. He is picking up the shattered pieces of shalom and piecing them back together through the work of His Son and Spirit and the witness of His church. The world is groaning in the travails of child birth right up to this present point, but one day, some day, it will give birth to a whole new world.

That day is not today. But I have hope for tomorrow.

Religious Experience – A Lifeline in loss?

Imagine there is a statistic that indicates 98.5 percent of Albertan’s don’t know how to climb trees. Your friend Bertha is an Albertan. The above statistic would lead a stranger to believe that it is highly likely that Bertha can’t climb trees. You, however, know Bertha and last summer you went camping with her and you spent some time tree climbing.

The fact that 98.5 percent of Albertans can’t climb trees makes it highly unlikely that Bertha can scamper ably up a pine, but your experience tree climbing with Bertha overrides the statistical probability that she would be unable to climb.

In a similar manner, the existence of what seems to be gratuitous evil (by itself) might make it unlikely, or improbable that the Christian God exists; just like the stats about Albertan’s and tree climbing make it doubtful that Bertha is an accomplished tree climber – especially to the stranger looking in from the outside.

Suffering and loss, however, is not the only thing we experience in life. In addition to the horrific suffering people endure and our experience of moral evil, there has, in many cases, also been an equally powerful sense of God’s presence, comfort and love. Our experience of God’s presence, comfort, and love can be a personal defeater of the argument from evil that the outsider looking in has no access to.

Many have testified to a profound experience of God in the midst of tremendous hardship, both within (and without) the canon of scripture. Consider, as C.S. Lewis would have us do, that the Bible was written before modern painkillers were in existence. The authors of scripture were intimately acquainted with evil and suffering – more so than modern westerners who have access to modern medicine. Why did they confidently proclaim that God was good?

I think the answer is simple – God was good to them existentially, if not circumstantial. We are invited by the psalmist to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’. Many have tasted the sweetness of God’s presence and the nearness of His love, not in spite or tragedy, but in the very midst of it.


In 2005 the Washington Post conducted a large survey of Hurricane Katrina survivors who found themselves as refugees in Houston. Asked about their faith in God, “Remarkably, 81 percent said the ordeal had strengthened their belief, while only four percent said it weakened it.”[1]

How can that be? How can a tragic, natural disaster shake the faith of people who didn’t experience it more than the people who lived through its horror? I think the answer must be that alongside of the horror there is the equally real and sustaining presence of God. Those who suffered through Katrina with strengthened faith testify to this fact.

Again, how do I know that God is good in the midst of suffering? Simply, because God has shown Himself to be good in the midst of suffering and evil – both at the cross of Christ and through the comfort of His Spirit.

How does one argue with that type of personal testimony? Those who aren’t quick with a counter argument are often fast to sneer and name-call, spewing out labels like ‘religious delusion.’ Yet, reason should remind us that ridicule is not a refutation. If a person is emotionally healthy and in their right mind they are justified in believing in God’s goodness based on their religious experience, even in spite of unexplained evil in the world.

[1] Alcorn, Randy. If God is Good. Multnomah Books: Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2009. pg. 406



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