How can there be a God when there’s so much tragedy in the world?


March 13, 2010

By Kevin M

“There are starving children in the world, so how can there be a God?”.

Have you ever heard that question, or a variation of it? Have you maybe wondered about it yourself?

If you’re not a believer, rest assured that even believers wrestle with this question. We see the same injustice and human misery that everyone else does, and yes, we struggle to come to terms with the existence of a loving God in the midst of it. But while as believers we may not fully understand what often looks from a human standpoint to be an apparent contradiction, we don’t allow it to be an obstacle to faith either.

That faith isn’t an abdication of rational thinking, but a willingness to accept some self-evident truths, including this one:

A true God does not exist to serve man

If you’re a believer, that’s a foundational concept. If you think that the proper behavior for an omnipotent God is to please us and make sure we’re always happy, then you seek that which can never be found within the scope of logic.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, God addresses the Apostle Paul by saying, “…my power is made perfect in weakness”. Ouch! The human side of me, the side that demands earthly justice, doesn’t like that verse one bit! But as the du jour but redundant saying goes, “it is what it is”. I’m not God, I don’t make the rules, but I have to live within them nonetheless.

Some of the apparent conflict in this thinking is that non-believers don’t fully comprehend the concept of “salvation”. In the case of Christianity, salvation is other-worldly, referring to the spiritual saving of the believer for eternal existence with God.

That’s the very definition of faith, believing what you do not see. Most people have such faith in areas other than religion–think about the unbacked currency sitting in your wallet as an example, or our willingness to get into our cars and head for public roads where we’ll risk accidents, injuries or even death. Why do we do it? Because we have some sort of faith that it will be OK.

But back to God and weakness…if as Christianity tells us, that God is seeking man, why must he do it through human tragedy? I would submit that we only “see” God when we’re in a state of weakness and ready to bow down and to accept the unequal nature of the relationship. When we’re doing well, when we feel strong and self-sufficient, we only see ourselves.

When things are going our way, we even develop a heightened sense of our own goodness. How does God see this? Jesus gives us a clue in Luke 18:9-14:

9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10″Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about[a] himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13″But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14″I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Do you see the consistency of this passage with the concept of human weakness? Only in humility can we even dare to come before God. Against the backdrop of this connection, human tragedy and suffering begin to look more consistent with the idea of a loving God. His purpose is to bring us to him, not to alleviate our suffering and to fix our problems, and it’s through that suffering that we can even begin to perceive him.

Jesus was not an earthly king

None of us can claim that Christianity has disappointed us by somehow not living up to its promise, because in truth it never promised us anything in this world beyond redemption in eternity. The perception that God exists primarily to solve the worlds problems is a man-made concept that isn’t born out in Scripture.

In the exchange between Jesus and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, the Apostle John records that Pilate asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ response: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:33-36). I think that this exchange gives us a clear idea why the world functions as it does, and why it can even within the existence of a Sovereign God.

Jesus didn’t come to fix the world, to deliver us from our troubles, or even to bring peace on earth and goodwill toward men (the popular Christmas season phrase from Luke 2:14 is cut short, substantially changing its original meaning). Jesus came to reconcile men to God, that “…whoever believes in him (Jesus) shall not perish but have eternal life.”—John 3:16.

We don’t and can’t know the mind of God, but if we did we might come to realize why this is entirely necessary. Understand, I’m not saying that human misery will ever be OK—the Bible even says that God himself grieves over it—but we would come to accept it.

Jesus instructed his disciples that they would face persecution and death for his name’s sake, and yet none of them left the faith in favor of preserving their own lives. What hope was he offering them that kept them from deserting, even after Jesus himself faced public execution by the unspeakable sentence of crucifixion? What would motivate a group of people to face persecution and death for the purpose of advancing a new way of thinking?

A resurrection might do it.

If Jesus had power over death, and God promises us that hope through Jesus, is the human condition the real story, or is there something bigger in motion here?

The Utopian “faith”

The idea of a world without suffering is actually Utopianism. defines utopian as 1. of, pertaining to, or resembling Utopia. 2. (usually lowercase ) founded upon or involving idealized perfection. 3. (usually lowercase ) given to impractical or unrealistic schemes of such perfection

Religions of all stripes, and Christianity in particular, have had to exist and even compete with Utopian ideas for thousands of years. It isn’t a true competition of course, because Utopianism is based on the notion of a perfect world. Christianity holds that the world isn’t perfect and never will be, and it is precisely this condition that Jesus came to deliver us from.

The job of the Christian is to seek a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, to bring other people into that relationship, with the alleviation of suffering as an effort that flows out of that relationship, not as a stand alone effort. Christianity’s primary purpose isn’t to address the human condition.

If that sounds hypocritical–and I’ll admit that if you’re a non-believer that might seem to be the case at some level–it’s also worth pointing out that no secular efforts have succeeded in alleviating suffering either. In fact, many of history’s most brutal dictators were worldly reformers bent on creating a more perfect world at any price, including human blood. Who can forget Hitler’s infamous claims of developing a “master race”, or the determination of the dictators of the old Soviet Union of engineering a “workers paradise”? Utopian dreams know no limits, and are doomed to fail because that isn’t the world we live in.

Humanity hasn’t done a very good job of alleviating suffering through secular channels, despite many public pronouncements and programs aimed at doing just that. Against that backdrop, faith at least offers hope to the downtrodden in a world that cannot save them. Would it be better to deny them that hope? Is anyone certain that hope isn’t real? What’s the evolutionary purpose of hope at all and why do we have it? Why do only humans have hope? Perhaps it’s because as the Bible tells us, we were made in God’s image.

Do we need a perfect world in order to believe in God?

There are basically two things we can do in regard to human suffering:

1) Pray that God will have mercy on the afflicted, and
2) Do what we can to help in the effort

On a personal note, I’ve found that the world is a better place and life is lived with more peace when we abandon the self-imposed fantasy requirement of a perfect world. Once we ditch our perfect world desires, we can see human misery for what it is, and within it perhaps we see the presence of an Almighty God.

I see the power of God in a world that often seems as if it’s descended into chaos. How is it that the human race, and even life itself, can survive our vast miscalculations, purges and boondoggles? We make much of the concept of synergy—the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts—but does humanity really operate synergistically, or does humanity live in competition with itself? The evidence for competition is all around us, so how have we survived “survival of the fittest”?

Clearly a Higher Power is holding this ship afloat.

9 Responses to How can there be a God when there’s so much tragedy in the world?

  1. Kevin – great topic! It’s funny that we were on the same page with the post ideas. Suffering and injustice are hard things to grasp and accept. I look forward to that day when there is a new heaven and a new earth and all the tears and sorrows are gone.

    We can either shake our fists at God and say “how could you” or we can humbly accept that His ways are higher than our ways.

    You know, something I didn’t put into my post, but thought about was the fact that God is most interested in His glory – and that He even uses suffering to ultimately bring about His purposes for His glory.

    Anyways, great post!

  2. Jason – You’re right on the money with that last point. Bringing God glory is a hard concept for us as sinners to grasp. We selfishly ask, “what about MY glory?” With each of us seeking our own glory, it isn’t hard to see why there’s so much injustice in the world. That’s the side of the human condition we’re loathe to own up to.

    If we could submit to God’s glory, and realize that we’re not the center of the universe, we might get this right.

  3. God created man with freewill. He wants us to honor him from our hearts and of our own volition. In other words, we have choices.

    There is also, however, a natural order of things to the Universe that keeps things from spinning out of control. We must respect that order or pay the consequences.

    If we ignorantly or consciously violate natural law, we can’t separate the choice to do so from the consequences of the act. That’s justice.

    As long as man has freewill, there will be suffering. Personally, we accept responsibility for the suffering that befalls us because we value freewill and the opportunity we have to learn from our mistakes and more harmoniously live within the laws of nature and nature’s God.

    There is only one method to eliminate human suffering. That method requires the abolition of human freewill. Then we become automatons or robots.

    The ideal solution is when mankind strives more earnestly to live within the laws of nature and nature’s God. This won’t eliminate human suffering altogether, but it will greatly reduce it. The reason it won’t eliminate human suffering completely is because of the learning curve we are all in from the time of our birth to the time of our death. No one individual can assimilate ALL truth within their own lifetimes. The best we can do is stand on the shoulders of our predecessors and keep seeking truth earnestly until we draw our last breath.

  4. S & D – If we eliminate human suffering via the abolition of free will, we will have merely replaced human suffering with a different form of suffering. It would be like being in jail.

    My own sense is that life in the world is better than we deserve, which I attribute to the grace of the same God that many of us curse. If you seriously consider the malice inherent in the human heart in conjunction with our penchant for magnifying problems when and by operating collectively, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the human race even survives.

    The human condition actually starts to make sense when you put God at the center, rather than man. Only then can you see our rebellion against God, against each other and against the natural order which God established.

    We curse God for the troubles that we mostly (at least collectively) bring on ourselves while ascribing the blessings we enjoy to either normalcy or to our own brilliance. I think we have it backward.

  5. “On a personal note, I’ve found that the world is a better place and life is lived with more peace when we abandon the self-imposed fantasy requirement of a perfect world.”

    I like this point. I often share a similar idea when people ask me for relationship advice–don’t even try to make the relationship perfect. It won’t be. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderful. 🙂

    …same goes for a job.
    …or an investment strategy.

    “His purpose is to bring us to him, not to alleviate our suffering and to fix our problems, and it’s through that suffering that we can even begin to perceive him.

    But why the inequality in the degree of suffering? I don’t know much about your personal life, but if I had to guess, I’d guess that you haven’t ever been close to starving to death. And yet whatever suffering you’ve experienced in your life has been sufficient to bring you faith.

    So why do others have to starve to death? Is it really just to bring them to God? Might they not be brought to God without such an extreme degree of suffering?

    I could never answer those questions satisfactorily during my years as a believer. The best I could come up with was that perhaps God is not, in fact, loving of humans. Or if he is, then his love is something I truly do not want. I don’t want to be loved in the manner in which people starving to death are “loved” by an all-powerful God who chooses to let them starve.

    Now, as a non-believer (though, to be clear, a non-believer who neither begrudges you your faith, thinks less of you for it, nor has any intention of attempting to persuade you to relinquish it), I’m convinced that the unequal distribution of suffering throughout the world is simply random.

  6. Mike,

    If we may respectfully weigh in on some of the points you made…

    We wholeheartedly agree with your statement, “I often share a similar idea when people ask me for relationship advice–don’t even try to make the relationship perfect. It won’t be. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderful.” As long as man has freewill, there will be some choices made that are bad and some choices made that are good. These choices, whether they are good or bad, are made either ignorantly or consciously.

    The consequences of our decisions and actions can’t be separated from those decisions and actions. Sadly, some decisions we make adversely affect not only ourselves, but also others who could be considered innocent victims. In our view, however, the idea of “innocent victims” represents a very small minority or category of people such as babies in the womb, toddlers, and the mentally challenged and very young children. Even very young children have physically escaped abusive home situations because of their strong and independent will while others in similar situations not only remain in those abusive conditions, but also carry their victimization well into adulthood attempting to blame everyone but themselves for things that happened twenty or more years ago.

    We can definitely see the inequality of suffering in society, at large, but it is even more apparent when we see it in the family unit. Consider a family unit in which the father is an abusive drunk. How is it that two children growing up in the same abusive situation and experiencing the same trauma often take different paths as they assume their stations in life, as adults? One may become a drunk like his or her Dad while their sibling rises above the situation as a teetotaler and becomes successful in everything they do. If we can blame God for the suffering of the one child, who gets the blame or credit for the sibling who rose above the challenge? Is it fair to blame God for the bad things that happen while neglecting to give God credit or blame for the good things that happen? Or, does God have anything to do with it at all in a world of freewill other than granting freewill? How much of what happens to us, or others, is simply the result of the choices we make?

    Until individuals recognize they must be willing to accept responsibility for everything that happens to them, the victimization mentality often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They put on their victim faces and reap the consequences of their inherited belief system and associated choices and actions.

    In looking at society, at large, man often endures a lot of unnecessary suffering when they group together in uniformity of thought and action. They eventually, more often than not and much like lemmings, march off the cliff together. We need look no further than at the financial calamity we are currently enduring. There were those economic mavericks like Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers, Marc Faber, and Ron Paul who predicted these events very early on but were somewhat marginalized by the establishment media at the time they made their predictions. Dissenters are not usually tolerated in such societies and diversity of viewpoints is seldom condoned as exemplified by the slogans, “United We Stand and Divided We Fall” and “Strength Through Unity” and “My Country, Right or Wrong” and “My Family, Right or Wrong” and “My Church, Right or Wrong.” Diversity and uniformity are at opposite poles.

    The ultimate in uniformity, in this world, is a one world government and a one world church with neither institution, in our view, being conducive to the individual liberty we believe to be our birthright. We are not concerned, in the slightest, that either possibility has any chance of becoming a reality even though tyrants and religious authoritarians may seek to take advantage of those who adhere to such end time doctrines.

    Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the foundation of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have advanced not one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites.Thomas Jefferson

    We deal thoroughly with the issue of secular and religious tyranny in our recently released book titled The END TIMES Hoax and the Hijacking of our Liberty (shameless plug).

    As we indicated in an earlier post in this thread, it is our view that our Creator established a natural order of things to keep our world from spinning out of control. Individuals or societies who fail to recognize this order and live within its bounds suffer for it. Likewise, those who recognize this natural order and live within its boundaries reap the opposite of those who ignore it. That’s justice. We see God’s love in this arrangement as it ties consequence to choice with the exceptions noted in the cases of those in the womb, toddlers, and the mentally challenged and very young children.

    We recognize the following two basic natural laws established early on that, if violated, contribute much to suffering and oppression throughout the world:

    1. There is no free lunch: (Genesis 3:17-19)
    2. The Golden Rule or The Law of Love: (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34;
    Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-14; James 2:8-9; Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31; and I John 3:10-11)

    The violation of these two natural laws results in starvation, suffering, and oppression. The closer we adhere, individually or collectively, to these laws the more harmonious (or Utopian) the outcome. Individuals who value these laws will quickly recognize other individuals or groups who don’t value these two laws and can take protective measures. Because of the diversity of cultures and languages (Tower of Babel) and the fact that different cultures and societies are in different stages of their unique life cycle, there will always be cultures who are living closer to this ideal while others are moving away from it…thus the rise and fall (cyclical nature) of nations. There will always be an avenue of escape for those who recognize these principles and take action upon them.

  7. Steven and Debra – “Is it fair to blame God for the bad things that happen while neglecting to give God credit or blame for the good things that happen?”

    Point very well made. The Book of Job addresses this issue–will we blame God for our afflictions while not being thankful while accepting His blessings? I think a big part of the human reaction vis-a-vis God is our tendency to claim credit for the good things in life, then openly question how God can allow suffering.

    In fairness to Mike however, I think his questions centered mostly on those who are suffering by no choice of their own, ie those afflicted by terminal illness, crippling deformities or under the opression of diabolical leadership.

    The point on leadership points right back to your point, S&D, since leadership comes from the realm of man. Leadership chooses to be self serving, rather than to act in the way modeled by Jesus, that of SERVANT/LEADER. In human understanding, leadership brings power that’s lorded over others and used to control them.

    Much of the suffering in the world stems from this single issue.

    Conformity is another human induced driver of problems. The attempt to somehow force people or entire cultures to conform to some desired standard causes both dysfunction and disenfranchisement. We do this in the name of “progress” then when we see the works of our own hands, we ask how it is that God could allow such a thing.

    How does man both create and allow such a thing?

  8. God is in control. Everything happens for a reason. I often wonder why God allowed 9.11 to happen. He knew about it. Could have stopped it but did not. The bible says “the Lord does as he pleases”.

  9. I think it may be no more complicated than God humbling us to get our attention. Let’s be honest, when we’re sitting atop the mountain of life, how aware are we of the ‘still, small voice’.

    When we’re facing tragedy, we’re all ears!

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