When I was a 19-year-old youth group leader in a local church, I remember the day that two of my fellow youth group leaders fronted up to confess their sins to the pastor.
My two friends, one guy and one girl, had been dating for quite some time, and well… you know… one thing lead to another, and now they were sitting in the pastor’s office about to announce their unexpected pregnancy. Being unmarried teenagers, they had committed the cardinal sin of the evangelical church world, and now they were bracing for a fresh spray of righteous indignation from the gatekeeper of their faith.
I would like to say that the pastor responded with the kind of grace you might expect from the representative of an all-loving God, but the good pastor chose instead the path of wrath.
“How could you let this happen?” Spat the pastor, “What were you thinking?”
His gloriously redundant questions were met with bowed heads and silent contrition, though this was not enough for the pastor. His displeasure soared to a new level when the girl made the mistake of saying that she was excited about being a mother in spite of their wicked deeds.
The pastor took this as a sure sign that they were not sorry enough for the evil act they had indulged in and offered, in a moment of deranged prophecy, “God says that unless you repent, you are going to lose that baby.”
Several months later, when, by pure coincidence, a miscarriage actually occurred, the pastor felt vindicated — perhaps even a little more righteous — for faithfully delivering the “Word of God,” despite its hard message. And the heartbroken couple were left to lament the fact that their “God-of-love” had killed their baby because they weren’t sorry enough for doing what seemed the most natural act in the world to them.
Your suffering is the result of your sin.
It’s a common theological position given by the church to explain why people suffer. And, while there is some truth to the idea that we can suffer as a result of our own poor choices if this explanation is misapplied to other situations, it can be incredibly damaging, like in the example above. Because suffering is not something that is reserved for the supposedly wicked. Good people suffer too — sometimes, it seems, for no good reason.
Yet the church is notorious for offering trite, simplistic, and just plain stupid theological answers to the problem of suffering that do more harm than good. What’s worse, it often seems that the greater the suffering, the more stupid the explanation. Here are a few of the ridiculous reasons that I have heard used in the church to explain suffering:
Suffering is the result of moral decline
The late televangelist Reverend Irvin Baxter was able to confidently pinpoint the root cause of the Coronavirus pandemic. An avid Trump supporter, Baxter claimed during a TV Interview in March 2020 that COVID-19 was caused by “sinful lifestyles” such as premarital intercourse and intercourse between same-sex individuals.
Baxter was quoted as saying, “If we think we can just ignore God and live a sinful lifestyle, well, we cannot do it.
God may be using this as a wake-up call. This coronavirus may be a privilege because, I will tell you right now, there is a much bigger judgment coming.
In typically unoriginal, evangelical style, Reverend Baxter found a way to blame the LGBTIQ+ community for COVID-19. But let’s just follow his line of reasoning here for a moment. Baxter effectively said that because the USA legalized same-sex marriage back in 2015, God decided to punish the USA in 2020 by unleashing a pandemic in China where same-sex-marriage is still illegal (which is no doubt pleasing to God, right?). Sounds a bit far-fetched to me. Besides which, as far as I am aware, God “unleashed” coronavirus in equal measure on conservative Christians despite their apparent faithfulness to their interpretation of the word. How very unfair of God not to spare the supposedly righteous!
And spare the righteous God certainly did not! Sadly, but somewhat ironically, Irvin Baxter succumbed to COVID-19 himself in November 2020 — his death coming on the same day Donald Trump was defeated in the presidential election.
Thank God that a growing number of Christians view equal rights for the LGTIQ+ community as a necessary and long-overdue moral advancement, rather than the kind of superstitious nonsense pedaled by Reverend Baxter and his kinfolk.
By Iryna Budanova on Shutterstock (purchased with license)
God is trying to test you
Sometimes, when things go wrong, a well-meaning Christian might suggest that God is trying to test your faith. As far as stupidity goes, this is right up there.
Imagine that you had the supernatural ability to give people diseases — kind of like a superpower. Could you imagine giving your own child cancer, just so you could draw out of them all those wonderful qualities you’ve been trying to instill since they were toddlers — things like perseverance, patience, and managing their priorities?
Even though you are a far-from-perfect parent, you wouldn’t dream of such a scenario. And yet, we have Christians who try to suggest that the all-loving Father-of-all would do exactly that to his children.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that God can use the difficulties we face in a constructive way to help us grow — just like all good parents would. But to suggest that he hand-delivers those difficulties doesn’t really make for a positive parent-child relationship, does it?
Of course, the whole “God is trying to test you” explanation for suffering is best applied to terminal, unchangeable circumstances. For everything, non-fatal… try this:
God is trying to get you to rest
This is a common explanation given by well-meaning Christians for just about every non-fatal illness under the sun — from the flu to glandular fever. Whenever you end up having to spend a few days in bed, surely God has stricken you for your own good because you need a break.
Again, since evangelicals love to refer to God as a loving father, let’s go with that metaphor again. Could you imagine a loving father breaking their own child’s leg because he thinks that child needs to slow down a bit and have a rest?
If he did, we would call that child abuse — not the actions of a loving and caring parent, but the actions of a monster.
Photo by Rex Pickar on Unsplash
You didn’t have enough faith
There is nothing more awkward than when a circle of well-meaning, zealous Christians gather around a sick or injured person and offer up fervent prayers for that person’s healing, only to have God not come through with the goods.
What do we do when God doesn’t heal?
We can’t blame God because, well… he’s God. And we can’t blame those doing the praying because we don’t want to discourage prayer amongst the believers. That leaves one person: It must be that the person who was being prayed for simply didn’t have enough faith. God must have been unimpressed with their level of belief, and so he held out on them.
This reduces the relief of our suffering down to whether or not we achieve some unknowable, unmeasurable level of belief. We have to reach the right level before God answers — we have to appease and impress him with our faith. This kind of usurps the idea that God’s favor is unmerited.
There is another option, though…
God and Satan are locked in a cosmic battle
That healing that you’ve been begging for has been caught up in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil!
When in doubt, blame Satan for your suffering. That’s what Kenneth Copeland did when he “drove out Satan” to protect the United States from Coronovirus back in March 2020. (To Hell with the rest of the world, I guess).
Unfortunately, for poor Kenneth, half a million deaths later, Satan still seems to be up to his old tricks. At least the vaccine that Copeland commanded to come “Immediately, in Jesus name!” has finally arrived, 12 months later.
Now, don’t get me wrong, here. I believe in the supernatural, sure. I believe that, for all I know, there could be cosmic forces of good and evil having it out in the heavenly realms. However, looking for a demon to blame for everything is just plain weird, not to mention unbiblical.
You did not stub your toe because Satan tripped you up. If Satan even worked that way, I’m sure he’d have someone much more important than you to trip up anyway.
You’re not giving enough money
While despairing about my broken-down car and how much money it would cost to repair, I was surprised when one of my brothers-in-Christ gently put his hand on my shoulder and looked me squarely in the eye, and asked me, “Brother Dan, have you been holding back your offering from the collection plate?”
“What does that have to do with it?” I asked, more than a little confused.
He said, “Dan, you can’t love both God and money. God will get it out of you one way or another. It’s for your own good. You might as well put it in the offering plate of your own free will.”
Now there’s a variation on a theme that I’d never heard before. Apparently, God caused my car to break down as a way to draw out of me my missed tithes and offerings as a kind of back-pay arrangement.
If I gave money to God (which by this guy’s definition really means “The Church”) would my car break down less? And if that were true, wouldn’t I be merely paying God off? Would it still be a free-will offering if I were doing it to manipulate God into protecting me and my vehicle?
How a supposedly orthodox Christian cannot see that this flies in the face of the Christian gospel — which purports that God’s favor is unmerited — I’ll never know. By this line of reasoning, your failed business deal, your bankruptcy, your redundancy could all have been because you didn’t pay the price for God to protect you.
Image by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay
You must have loved _______, more than God
Insert your own answer in the blank space. Whenever one loses something or someone they love, they are presented with the idea that perhaps God is removing something that they apparently valued above their own relationship with God.
Lost your job?
Lost your child to leukemia?
Lost your wife in a tragic car accident?
I guess you held onto them a bit too dearly. They became idols in your life, and because God loves you, he had to take them away from you. It’s for your own sanctification, don’t you understand?
Jesus must be coming back soon
The Bible is full of all kinds of vivid descriptions of end-time disasters, so you can bet your bottom dollar that whenever rising sea levels swallow up a Ssouth Pacific nation, or a tsunami crashes into the coast of Japan, or bushfires ravage the outback of Australia, it’s a sure sign that Jesus must be coming back soon! Hallelujah!
No need to take responsibility for our complicity in the destruction of the planet. All of these things were prophesied about in Scripture, and surely they will come to pass. All we have to do is sit tight until then!
The problem with these explanations
Confession time: I am sorry to say, I am guilty of using some of these terrible explanations for suffering in my past life as a evangelical Christian and I regret it.
The problem is that all of these explanations suppose and presume certain things about the nature of God. Firstly, they imply that God needs to be appeased before he will offer his protection or healing and we must earn his favor by behaving in certain ways and achieving certain standards. If this were true, it would, by implication, mean that those who suffer, suffer because they haven’t sufficiently appeased God, or met his invisible standards. The belies the reality of life. Jesus Christ himself said that God, “Causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
In other words, both good and bad people prosper. And both good and bad people suffer. Your level of suffering is no indication of your standing before God. To say, “You need more faith,” or “You should give more money,” or “You are suffering because you have sinned,” is to suggest that you can curry favor with God by doing and giving. The Christian message, on the other hand, is that God’s favor is given to undeserving people.
The second problem with these explanations is that they paint God as both callous and aloof from his creation. “The loving father” is the most enduring metaphor used to describe God, both in the Bible and beyond. To use explanations like, “God is trying to test you, or make you rest,” or “You must have loved _______, more than God” is akin to describing God as the kind of Father who would kill his son’s puppy because the son loved the puppy more than he loved the Father. We would call that narcissism and psychopathy! God ain’t like that!
Image By Bricolage on Shutterstock (purchased with license)
So what do we do with the problem of suffering?
I suppose I ought to cut them some slack. In reality, people who offer these kinds of unhelpful answers to the problem of suffering are most likely well-meaning.
Because let’s be honest. Who hasn’t thrown their hands in the air and looked to the heavens and asked the question:
“Why is this happening to me!”
People ask me all the time, “If God is so good, then why do bad things happen?” It’s a fair question, but it’s not a problem that’s exclusive to Christianity. Every worldview has to answer the question: The Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, and even the Atheist are all confronted with the same dilemma. Why do bad things happen? And it feels like every answer simply leads to the pain of more questions. But that’s a whole other article waiting to be written.
Perhaps the best and most honest answer to the question of why God allows suffering is, “I don’t know.” Perhaps Christians would be well-served by offering this instead of their trite, simplistic, and stupid theological explanations for suffering.
Or, even better, instead of trying to provide answers to unanswerable questions, they follow the example of Christ.
Christ came not to give answers but to give himself — to fully invest and participate in what it means to be human with all its mess, and struggle, and pain. He walked next to the broken-hearted and didn’t offer any glib explanation.
Rather, he offered himself.
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This post was previously published on medium.com.
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