Current Issue

If God is in control of our world, why do bad things happen to good people?

The famous writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was, at age 15, deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. In his book Night, he describes a horrific scene from his ordeal that shouts out a question encompassing all of humanity’s questions.

“Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames,” he said “They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load—little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it—saw it with my own eyes . . . those children in the flames. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare. . . .

“Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

“Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”1

Later on, when Wiesel described other horrors, he remembered a man who time after time asked the same question: “Where is God now?”

“Why do I hurt so bad?”—the title of this article—is perhaps too ambitious a question. In reality, for those who believe, there is a deeper query: Why does God allow all this suffering?

The mere presence of suffering, evil, and tragedy raises doubts about the existence of a God who watches out for our happiness. It is the main obstacle to faith and one of atheism’s most powerful arguments, because if God is all powerful and good, He could prevent the evil and the suffering in the world. If He chooses not to relieve the suffering, then He isn’t good. And if He can’t, then He isn’t all powerful. The Greek philosopher Epicurus raised this question some 2,500 years ago, and religious people and philosophers have been debating it ever since.

Is our sin the cause?

Fifteen centuries before Christ, Job’s friends expressed the idea that suffering is evidence of a person’s evil and guilt, and, conversely, that success is evidence of God’s favor. Upon observing the patriarch’s grief over the loss of his children and his possessions, Zophar tells Job: “Oh, how I wish that God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom. . . . Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.”2 The idea that God keeps an account of our sin in order to punish us, that God is behind every evil that befalls us, is embedded in the minds of millions of believers.

My mother-in-law, a lifelong believer, searched her conscience for the cause of a disease that kept her bedridden for several years. She would ask God to show her what evil she had done so that she could repent—and then He could cure her of the disease.

Jesus’ disciples tried to explain someone’s congenital blindness based on the same idea: “Who sinned”—they asked—“this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”3

Their words expressed Judaism’s answer to the question of suffering. Suffering was evidence that a person was evil, just as success would reveal a person’s good standing with God.

The “why” of suffering

When we think of the “why” of suffering, we need to remember Jesus’ words to His disciples: “An enemy did this.”4 The Bible says that in the beginning, everything God made was “very good.”5 However, the Bible also tells of an enemy, the devil, who is doing everything he can to misrepresent God and destroy human happiness. Revelation says, “Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury.”6

Suffering is also caused by evil people. God has given human beings free will. We don’t operate on mere instinct. We can choose our actions, including our moral actions. And in order for our choices to be truly free, God has to allow us the privilege of choosing evil as well as good. From time to time, all of us choose to do things that we know to be wrong, and God doesn’t intervene to stop us. Unfortunately, our wrong choices sometimes bring suffering to others. People we think of as basically good sometimes make choices that bring intense suffering to others.

Think of the consequence if God would intervene to stop evil in the world. It’s nice to think that murderers would have to stop killing people and pedophiles would have to stop molesting children. But would God force everyone to drive under the speed limit? After all, speeding cars kill people too.

Our response

There’s also the matter of our response. When Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer, he didn’t ask, Why I am hurting? Instead, he fought for his life and for the gift of fatherhood. When he started the treatment for a cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain, he elected to have some of his sperm frozen. While receiving chemotherapy, his desire to live became so strong that a few years later, he was not only a father, he also became the legend he is today after winning the Tour de France for a record seven times.

And Armstrong didn’t stop with fighting just his own suffering. After his recovery, he created a fund to help fight cancer through the sale of yellow bracelets—the color of the Tour de France winner’s jacket—with the insignia LIVESTRONG. Armstrong’s foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars for cancer research and cancer survivorship centers.

When I watched Lance Armstrong win the last stage of the Tour de France a few months ago, I realized his pedaling was leaving a lesson to all of humanity. Pain is part of life; your choice is how to respond to it. Armstrong chose to excel and, in the process, has inspired countless others.

God with us

Two thousand years ago Jesus came to this world to save humanity from evil and its eternal consequences. One of the greatest biblical passages about Jesus says that He, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”7

Why do I hurt? Where is God when we suffer? God is much closer than we think. He is one with us through His Son, who can understand and comfort us because He himself has experienced suffering.8

My mother used to read me a text that has stuck with me through the years: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me. . . . Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you . . . or needing clothes and clothe you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ”9

This passage tells us that God is also with the suffering, and He invites us to participate in the joy of service. God is constantly inviting us to bring relief to the hurting, to expand the frontiers of good. He invites us to be part of His solution.

1Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Collins Publishing Group, 1988). 2Job 11:5, 6. 3John 9:2. 4Matthew 13:28. 5Genesis 1:31. 6Revelation 12:12. 7Philippians 2:6–8. 8See Hebrews 4:15. 9Matthew 25:35–40.

Ricardo Bentancur is the associate editor of El Centinela. He writes from Nampa, Idaho.

Why Do I Hurt So Bad?

by Ricardo Bentancur
From the February 2006 Signs