Where Is God in a World of Suffering?

If God loves us and has a purpose for our lives, why is there so much suffering? What does it mean that God doesn’t stop tragedy from happening? Is God truly good?

Trying to make sense of suffering is as old as Job. One common tendency is to suggest a person did something wrong to incur God’s disfavor or discipline. However, the author of Job rejects claims that bad things only happen because God is angry. Innocent people do, in fact, suffer. When asked why a man was born blind, Jesus denied the cause was sin (John 9:1-3). Instead he says God is actively working to bring good into painful situations. Similarly, the author of Acts describes God directly opposing the forces that cause suffering (10:38).

Anglican pastor and theologian, Rowan Williams, says when it comes to trusting God sometimes the first baby step is to look to people who take responsibility for God:

Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in . . . This turn of phrase, about taking responsibility for God, I owe to one of the most striking believers of the twentieth century, one of the many who made God believable by their resistance to the nightmares of modern totalitarianism and violence. Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman in her twenties when the Germans occupied Holland . . . Imprisoned in the transit camp at Westerbork . . . she wrote, “There must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times. And why should I not be that witness?”[1]

As you continue to process your image of God, be patient with yourself. Talk with a spiritual director, mentor, or friend who can walk alongside you. Trusting God takes time. Wrestling with pain takes time. The question “Why?” may never be answered, but it is possible to arrive at the same understanding as witnesses before us: God is light and in God there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:15).

During this time, the following suggestions may be helpful:

1. Ponder the stories of others who have suffered such as Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for Son or Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.

2. Engage in practices of lament. This could be as diverse as praying the Psalms, writing your own lament, or symbolic acts (e.g. tying a burden to a helium balloon and sending it into the sky etc).

3. Daydream about previous experiences of God in your life. When Mother Teresa went through long periods without sensing God’s presence, her distinct and memorable call to ministry as a young woman kept her going.

4. Meditate on Scriptures that remind you of God’s love, even if part of you still struggles to believe them. For example, consider contemplating stories of Jesus’s caring ministry to those around him.

5. Practice self-care, including recreation/exercise, talking with trusted friends and family, eating healthy, journaling, listen to comforting music, etc.

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[1] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 21-22.