“Tough Theological Questions: Why does a loving God allow innocent suffering?”

January 11, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Jan. 11, 2015


“Tough Theological Questions: Why does a Loving God allow Suffering?”

II Cor. 1:5


Today we begin a new sermon series on “tough theological questions”.  In the next few weeks, we will be exploring things like:

  • What is the nature of God; is there one God or many?
  • What is the purpose of prayer?
  • Is there a God and is God active in our world?
  • What can you believe about resurrection?
  • What is salvation, being “born again”, and is there a heaven?

The tough question today is: why does a loving God allow innocent suffering?  This is one of those big questions which have plagued humanity for centuries.  And it is not as simple as it sounds at first, because the answer to the question is rooted in God’s nature, the way the universe is set up, and the nature of humanity. Take a look at the bulletin for some insightful quotes and the traditional word from II Corinthians.


I remember asking this question of my grandmother.  She was almost ninety at the time and being a 3rd grade Sunday school teacher for decades, I figured she knew about these things.


“Ah, yes.  An old, old question.”  My grandmother picked at her teeth.  “Are you prepared to find the answer?  It will take some thinking, honey.  And answering other questions first.”


“I’m ready.”


“Well,” she began, “since you asked a difficult question, let’s begin with talking about God.  You know God is the root of all questions and all good answers?”


“Of course.”


“Why do you suppose God wanted us in the first place, honey?”  She produced a piece of tablet paper, like I used in grade school… and a large pencil.  “Why did God make us?  Write it out.”


I thought for a while about the lessons of creation.  I thought about God, existing in the chaos – with no place, no substance, no creation.  I thought about Genesis and I looked at the paper.  “God made us to share love and life”, I wrote.


Instead of complimenting me on my great theology, the depth of my intelligence, my concise answer, or even my neat handwriting, she simply went on.  “Lesson two”.


“Wait a minute…. I don’t get it.  How does lesson one fit in with my question of how a loving God allows innocent suffering?”


“Lesson two,” she repeated, undeterred.  “Why does God allow people to do unjust, mean, evil things to others?  Why doesn’t God force overeating people to share food with the starving?  Why doesn’t God make couples love each other and their children perfectly?”


“I’ve been married long enough to know a bit about that, Grandma,” I said.  “If Eric had no choice but to act like a puppet, doing all the things I secretly wanted him to do, it wouldn’t mean anything when he whispered, ‘I love you, you beautiful, wonderful, intelligent, sweet, love of my life!’ even if I would like to hear that!  But I would know he was saying it because he had no choice but to say it.  It wouldn’t mean anything since he was forced to act the way I wanted him to.”


Again, she gave me the pencil.  “So what have you learned about really loving and sharing someone’s life?”


I thought about it and wrote, “Love and sharing require choice.”  “But now I’m really confused,” I complained.


She was patient.  I suppose when you are ninety, you learn patience.  “From lesson one, you learned why God made us – to share love and life.  And from this lesson you learned that God allows people choice so that love could be real.  Stick with me, honey,” she soothed.  “Now, lesson three.  Write down what you know about God.”


I made two lists – things I believed God is and things I believed God isn’t.

God is: God isn’t:
Justice Unjust
Holiness Immoral
Truth Lies
Love Hate
Peace Violence
Kindness Cruelty
goodness Evil


“Are you ready to tie it all together?”  She put a plate of warm cookies out of the oven on the table in front of me.  Theology is hard work.


“Um,” I mumbled, “It’s still fuzzy.”


“Okay,” she said, “Why does God allow a child to bear the scars of a parent’s abuse?  Why does God let children make fun of classmates who are different?  Why does God let a husband and wife fight and divorce?  Why…?”


“Enough!  You are wearing me out!”


“Wears God out too, honey.  At any minute, people can choose God’s way or not-God’s way.  The choices are real, so the consequences are real.”

“But when we choose the good thing – the thing that is loving, just, peaceful, or right – sometimes it hurts someone.  You still haven’t answered my question!”  I complained.


“You see, we live in a world which isn’t perfect, with people who aren’t perfect, with machines and schedules and crowded lives.  Each of us make choices minute by minute and we don’t always make the best choices.  On top of that, there are millions of other people out there making choices and messing up occasionally.  Our best intentions can’t change that.”


“I think I understand the choice thing.  But sometimes bad things are just random.  Good people get cancer… and it is not linked to anyone’s poor choices.”


“That is the hardest part,” her eyes grew sad.  “Things happen to good people through no obvious fault of their own or anyone else’s.  When that happens, we all look to God for an explanation.  Some people even say that God uses these bad things to bring an ultimate good about.”


“I think that’s a bunch of hooey!”  I exclaimed.  “Except that I did expose all three of my children to chicken pox at the same time so that I could deal with 3 sick kids for a week rather than 1 sick kid three times over a month…”


“But it is repugnant to think of God zapping one person with cancer and another with the loss of a child so that they can become stronger.”  My grandma had become animated.  “And sometimes people do get more than they can handle!” she asserted.


I put my pencil down.  “Is it possible that God isn’t in charge of all that happens in this world?” I whispered.


“Now that is pretty radical,” she began.  “You know you can’t just go around saying something like that – especially not at church!”


“But,” I continued.  “what if God isn’t a big guy who looks down on the world and moves creation around with strings – controlling and manipulating – infecting and healing – answering some prayers and not others…?”


She jumped in, “And what if God is the connection we have to one another?  What if taking soup and cookies to someone who is ill is the healing God offers?  What if someone becoming a foster parent is the care God provides?  What if our actions – visiting the sick, advocating for the poor, reaching out to the lost, making a difference in someone’s day – what if those are ways God alleviates suffering?


She stood up.  “That’s lesson four and the final lesson for today.”   I realized she had brought me around the circle.  I started out with God’s love for us and I ended up with our love for each other and for God.  In the middle, I learned that choices come with love and we don’t always choose wisely.  I learned that we like to blame God for our inactivity and injustice.  And that maybe, just maybe, God’s not in charge of the bad things that happen to good people.


Next time (when I get up the nerve), I’m going to ask Grandma about the birds and the bees!