ASK JASON ANYTHING: Why does [an infinitely benevolent] God allow suffering?

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Why does God allow suffering?

When you first study theology, this is one of the questions you find endlessly fascinating as a Freshman, and downright elementary as a senior. I almost feel like I’m cheating by using this question as content for an article.

However, the question was posed to me recently, and it occurs to me there are many unsatisfied with the apparent contradiction of a benevolent God and a world full of suffering.

To me, however, the arrangement makes perfect sense.

God’s Robots vs. Free People

The most obvious answer to the question is that suffering is a required by-product of free will. God could have created us as mindless slaves to do his bidding. If we always did God’s will, there would be no suffering. But we would not be free. We would be worse than zombies or robots playing a pre-scripted role and unable to deviate.

If God gives you free will, you are suddenly able to disobey God, by definition. You can murder. You can rape and plunder and pillage. You can rob. You can cheat on your spouse. You can do anything you want — including create suffering for others.

And most human-created suffering is caused accidentally or by ignorance. The drunk driver doesn’t intend to murder, but by ignoring basic common sense, he does. Likewise, an alcoholic without a family may nevertheless be slowly destroying himself. Neither situation is part of God’s will, but both are possible if you are free.

The only occurance this portion doesn’t cover is natural disaster. Don’t worry — we’ll get there.

God as Parent

Atheists seem to view the espoused God of Judeo-Christians, Deists, and even open-minded Agnostics as a kind of vengeful and selfish ruler. This is hardly the view held by most.

Instead, God is viewed as a loving and protective parent. But parenting (like god-hood) is full of little dilemmas that aren’t easily solved.

Some spout anger or disbelief at God’s “restrictive” rules, like, say, those against extra-marital sex. Yet nobody has a problem with parents who forbid small children from playing the street. Extra-marital sex is the grown-up version of playing in the street. At the most basic level, you risk your own life and health. (Duh.) You risk pregnancy, the greatest single responsibility any human can face, because you wanted to have an enjoyable 5 minutes. Way to go. You risk emotional entanglements not easily disassembled.

I’m a regular listener to a financial show where people call in and ask the host for advice. Those whose lives are the worst financial turmoil are always caused by some fallout with an ex: ex-husband, ex-wife, ex-lover. When you tangle your lives together sexually, you’re bound to do so financially, and without a solid marriage, your financial life AND your personal life will both be in shambles. In other words, God says don’t play in the street. You’re going to get hurt! DUH!

But the “protective” side of parenting/godhood is God trying to prevent suffering by offering certain sensible guidelines for living life. (It’s amazing how if you match those guidelines up to basic common sense and clean living, there isn’t much difference.) But there’s the other side of parenting/godhood: PERMITTING suffering.

I predict that your initial reaction is dubious: What (good) parent would permit his/her child to suffer?

Well… any good parent.

A child that’s scared to sleep alone suffers. So you can let the child sleep in your bed the rest of his/her life, or at some point the child has to cope with the loneliness of sleeping alone.

A child that gets bad grades is going to suffer — either the same of performing poorly now (if he cares), or the reality of being unprepared for life later. So you can do all the child’s homework all her life, or you can let her struggle on her own to make the grade.

A teenager that can’t handle money is going to suffer a lifetime of un-payable debt, no savings, and live in a state of perpetual money emergency as an adult. So you can handle your kids’ money their whole life, or you can teach them the best you can and set them free. For most families, this means at some point, the kids will not have enough money to live comfortably.

A young adult that decides to work hard is going to suffer the normal aches and pains of labor, be they mental, emotional, or physical. If you want your son or daughter not to suffer, you can try to see to it that he or she never has to work. (Good luck with that, considering that you will eventually die.)

In each case, you have the option to allow your progeny to suffer, or to step in and prevent it. Obviously, the scale shifts the older your charge: Infants must be protected from everything, toddlers from all but the first scrapes and bruisers, children from the meaner world beyond your walls, teenagers from car wrecks and drug use and poor long-term planning. You cut your kids free, little by little, not because you don’t love them but because you do.

No loving parent could ever shelter a child from everything. That child would never grow.

Why would you believe God doesn’t understand this basic principle?

The Most Boring Story Ever Told

Let me tell you the most boring story ever told:

There was once a man who had everything he ever wanted. The end.


Is this man a hero? No. Do we love him for achievements? No. Did he learn anything? No.

This man cannot “succeed” because there are no challenges for him to succeed at. He can’t “win” because there’s no possibility of loss. And he doesn’t grow, because he is never outside of his comfort zone. Because he doesn’t suffer, he doesn’t learn.

Now, for contrast’s sake, turn your attention to your favorite stories, be they books, movies, or favorite tv episodes. Even plays. Anything you like.

Some of my personal favorites are quintessential examples: Bastion in the Neverending Story suffers almost as much as it is possible for a human being, and he learns the most important lesson a human being can ever learn. (Of course, if you’ve only seen the sad excuse of a movie for this book, you have no idea what I’m talking about.) Stanley Yelnats in Holes spends most of the movie in hard labor in the hot sun. His victory in the end is all the sweeter for it. Maximus in Gladiator had everything he cared about  violently ripped away from him. The same can be said for William Wallace of Braveheart. Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. The young marine in Avatar. Sarah Conner from Terminator. LT Ripley in Alien and Aliens. John McClane in Die Hard literally walked on broken glass.

Need I go on?

Having made the point in fiction, turn your attention to reality. Whom do you respect: The self-made millionaire, or the spoiled heir? Who makes a better hero: The soldier who risks his life in battle, or the playboy who hides behind a cushy lifestyle? Why do you respect cops, firefighters, paramedics? Athletes who push themselves to the limit of their bodies and yet push further?

Forget about others for a moment: Which if your own exploits was most satisfying? What do you value: That which was easy, or that which was difficult? Your most gratifying moments were those you clawed tooth and nail to reach, those you overcame in spite of adversity and beat the odds.

Every one of these examples, and thousands more like them should point to one very simple question:

Q. What makes a hero?
A. How s/he handles adversity.

Without the adversity, without the suffering, there are no heroes. No victories. No successes. Nothing worth doing or discussing or retelling.

Why does God “allow” suffering?

Because without suffering, nothing would have any meaning whatsoever. Not one damn thing.

Which way do you prefer?

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