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God’s Word and the Universal Problem of Suffering


“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”)

Sherlock Holmes so succinctly put the question that every human who’s ever suffered asks. What, after all, is more universal to human experience than suffering? And what is more important than the perspective we bring to it?

I came to know my friend Jim Harrell after he read my book “Heaven.” We talked on the phone, exchanged e-mails, and quickly connected at a heart level. Jim, a successful businessman, strong and athletic for most of his life, contracted ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2003. Yet he called the last six years of his life the most significant. In his last dictated e-mail, he told me he now had no ability to move from his neck downward. While his body deteri­orated and he’d lost normal functions, one after another, Jim touched more people (and was touched more by God) than at any other time of his life.

While writing my book “If God Is Good, Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil,” I drew on Jim’s wisdom, as well as that of many other sufferers.

During the two years it took me to research and write the book, many people asked about the project. I expected that my answer, containing the words evil and suffering, would prompt a quick change of subject. Most, however, expressed keen interest and asked penetrating questions. Several launched into their own stories, as if having received permission to uncork the bottle.

How we answer the central question of why, if God is good, do we suffer, will radically affect how we see God and the world around us.

We may want to turn away from world suffering and refuse to reflect on the significance of our own pain; we just want it to go away. But despite the superficiality of our culture, we remain God’s image-bearers—thinking and caring people, wired to ask questions and seek answers.

If God loves us, how can He justify allowing (or sending) the sometimes overwhelming difficulties we face?

While traveling the long road of researching and writing “If God Is Good,” I found something surprising: the journey was not only rewarding, but fascinating, enlightening, and at times downright enjoyable. I know it sounds counterintuitive—shouldn’t it depress someone to meditate on evil and suffering? In fact, I’d already seen enough evil and suffering to feel deeply troubled. What I needed was perspective. Instead of being disheartened, I was encouraged. In fact, I was astonished at how much insight Scripture offers.

In looking for answers to why we suffer, I beheld a God who says, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7). I found great comfort in hearing God speak of a time when He could bear His people’s misery no longer (see Judges 10:16). I revel in God’s emphatic promise that He will make a New Earth where He will come down to live with us, and on which “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Above all, I’ve seen Jesus.

In his book Deserted by God? Sinclair B. Ferguson tells the story of the first physician to die of the AIDS virus in the United Kingdom. A young Christian, he contracted the disease while conducting medical research in Zimbabwe. In the last days of his life, he struggled to express himself to his wife. Near the end, he couldn’t talk, and had only enough strength to write the letter J. She ran through her mental dictionary, saying various words beginning with J. None was right. Finally she said, “Jesus?”