Can a Loving God Give Suffering?

September 3, 2014 

Suffering often brings people to ask, “Can a loving God give suffering?”

As your read my answer to this question, please recognize it is not an easy answer. God is complex; if we could understand Him, we would be god. We are not, so we will never fully understand.

I base my arguments on two suppositions: 1. God is good. and 2. God is in control.

If I say that God is good, then what He does is good. That is why people become confused when they see suffering and wonder about God.

Let’s look at suffering, specifically pain. Can this be from the hands of a loving God? Can we call this love?

What is pain?

Pain is felt by nerve endings (receptor cells) that send a chemical and electrical code to the brain, where they are given meaning.

In the presence of pain, all other signals are ignored and pain is given top priority, alerting the entire body to respond: changing blood flow (pressure increases, may be pale or flushed), effecting digestion (causing spasms, nausea, vomiting), increasing adrenaline.

Where are these receptors of pain?

Consider different parts of the body. If dust lands on your arm, you may not feel it. But let that same speck of dust fall into your eye and you are immobilized until it’s removed. Your eye is hypersensitive to pain and pressure.

Every part of the body has a unique sensitivity to pain and pressure depending on its function. The face and nose’s sensitivity are acute whereas the foot allows the stomping of the day. 

Even the fingertips have a special hypersensitivity. Because of their constant use, they are sensitive to pressure and temperature, enabling the blind to ‘see’ with them. Yet with all this sensitivity, they still resist pain. 

What about the vital organs? Because they are ‘vital’ they have four times the number of cells as other parts of the body to alert to pain.

How do these pain receptors work?

Think of sitting. You never sit still. You fidget. You move. Your brain tells your hip and leg cells to shift weight. They obey.

This communication between the brain and the nerve cells whispers subconsciously, “Ease up. Rest.” When the message is ignored, it becomes a shout; blisters form to change the behavior.

What happens in the absence of these cells telling you of pain?

Consider a person with leprosy. His nervous cells do not respond to pain stimuli. They feel nothing. They experience no pain. If he walks five miles, he returns with foot ulcers. Why? He does not feel the pain as a normal person would.

A healthy person changes the way he walks from the first mile to the fifth mile. Pain cells in his toes, heels, arches, and lateral bones tell the brain to rest. All the changes are performed subconsciously. Every spot on a healthy person’s body is talking to the brain.

Pain is good. It tells us to change our behavior or get hurt.

When a person twists his ankle, his brain tells his body to remove all weight from his leg immediately. He falls. He protects his ankle from further harm. Later, limping compensates for the damage and redirects the weight and pressure from the injured cells.

Take the same accident with someone who has leprosy. He twists his ankle. He doesn’t hear the pain signal. He continues to walk on the foot, even though the bottom of the foot is turned completely inward. He walks without a limp. He has just irreparably damaged his left lateral ligament. He lacked the protection of pain. Due to more complications, his leg may eventually be amputated.

Is pain good?

Another leprosy patient was released for a weekend trip home after four years of extensive surgeries and preventative care training. His visit home would prove that he was normal.

After the first night, he rose to examine himself. To his dismay, he found his left index finger mangled. He knew by the blood and marks in the dust that his finger had been gnawed by a rat. Unable to find a rat trap for the next night, he determined to stay awake to prevent further harm. That night, unable to fight sleep any more, his hand slipped to one side against the hot glass of a hurricane lamp. In the second morning, he found his skin burned off. The man lost his hands because he had no signal for pain.

He returned to the doctor who had conducted all the surgeries and had trained him to prevent injury. “I feel as if I’ve lost all my freedom. How can I be free without pain?” (p. 239)

Pain signals something is wrong.

Is pain good? Absolutely.

Can a loving God give suffering?

Can God love us without giving us suffering?

God gave us pain for our protection, for our good.

God is good.

Brand, Paul and Philip Yancey. In His Image. Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1987. Pp 227-242.
My series on suffering is available in booklet form here.

Displaying 1 comment

Very good. Just watched God's Not Dead this eve., and the student talked about this. No suffering it said in the movie could be the devil's way of leaving us in a comfortable cell, door open, but we don't want out. Thanks for your messages, I really appreciate them.

Author of Biblical fiction, married to my best friend, and challenged by eight sons’ growing pains as I write about what matters.

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