One of the greatest struggles I have in my profession is trying to deal with the unanswerable question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Books have been written on the topic. Among doctors, we often drop the comment about a patient, “the prognosis is undoubtedly bad because he (she) is so nice.” I lose sleep at night over patients who have always taken care of their bodies, having always eaten right and exercised, avoiding cigarettes and drugs, stayed away from fatty foods or excessive alcohol, only to end up getting the rarest of cancers for which their is no cure. I have seen small children go through the rigors of bone marrow transplant for a cancer they developed through no fault of their own, enduring the side effects of harsh chemicals in their sweet little boy or little girl bodies that until that illness had never seen such trauma and poison.
In The Emperor of All Maladies, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee explains in vivid and moving detail the history of cancer through generations past, with remarkable stories of early cancer surgeries and first chemotherapy efforts. He describes stories of small children stricken with acute leukemia who were brought to the basement halls of early chemotherapy wards to have new chemicals infused into their veins with the hope that possibly the toxicity of the treatment would be all worth it if the child would only survive a little longer. I just cannot imagine the anguish of the parents of those first tiny chemotherapy patients who were not even old enough to know how to write their name or read a book yet. Tiny little bodies suffering through treatments but changing cancer history with their journeys. None of those early patients survived to see the rewards of finding cures to some cancers with the very treatments they were brave enough to endure in those early years.
So why do people have to suffer? Why do children get sick or injured? My stepson and daughter in law have a daughter who suffered a tragedy when she was born, having developed a severe infection after her delivery that ultimately led to an injury to her brain’s basal ganglia, resulting in cerebral palsy. The pregnancy and delivery were “unremarkable” (to use the medical term that doctors love to use, indicating a totally healthy and perfect status of a circumstance such as pregnancy). The delivery seemed textbook and their baby was the most beautiful baby girl ever born (ok I might be a little biased here). She fell ill within 24 hours and in the days to come, we all began to realize the damage that was done, and how her sweet little life would be forever different than anything we had ever planned or imagined it would be.
I have shared thoughts with my daughter in law on this, and we both have the same question, “why why why does a child ever have to suffer?” I truthfully have not a single answer for this question. I do not know why – if our all powerful all-knowing, loving God has the ability to heal the sick and raise the dead, then why.would.this.happen.
I wonder, though, what if things really were different and there was no suffering of any kind during our lives here in this world?
Let me preface this discussion by assuring you that I firmly believe – unequivocally – that God is real, and heaven exists, and our lives are not just the result of random molecules clashing about, happening upon this or that and resulting in our very existence. This narrative is not meant to provide the proof of God’s existence, but to emphasize my thought process, and that the basic acceptance to the reality of God is assumed to be a truth and is not the argument here. I have wondered often if not constantly, about the difference in this world that would result if there were no suffering….this is an elaboration on that never-ending question of why do bad things happen?
First, I think about what would then drive us to look to God for anything? If we were all provided all of our needs without a want for anything, what kind of choices would we make? We would have no sickness, no pain, no evil in this world at all. We would be wealthy with abundant food and water, safe shelter and peace. Our world would exist solely for our unlimited use in whatever way pleased us.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? I envision Eden being very much this way. There was – at that time -no original sin, no anger or fear, no suffering, no hurt. Mankind was in perfect union together with God. And then came the one original sin…the one mistaken move that forever changed the perfect spot we held in this world. And all sin and suffering that has persisted since then was the direct result of the once fateful choice made in that very place.
Throughout the Bible and throughout history, people have suffered and paid the price for the original sin and for the sins that followed. We have paid the price for the sins of generations past and present. The child born with a genetic disorder did not bring the illness on herself or himself, but rather the genetic change occurred in past generations and perpetuated until the illness developed in an unwilling participant – the innocent child. A baby is born from a healthy pregnancy then contracts a devastating infection from a bacteria that deviously penetrates into the central nervous system of a small and perfect human being. This bacteria, which may have not even come into existence before the turn of the century or before it was first recognized in the 1930’s, has undoubtedly taken the lives of countless children in years past.
To explain how suffering developed is only to emphasize that God is not the reason for our suffering. He certainly did not cause it….we as mankind – the human race – have only brought it on ourselves. So the next question is, “why does God allow it to happen?” Certainly, could God not prevent us from hurting? Certainly God knows about our suffering! He knows more than any other! He has experienced our suffering beyond anything we could ever imagine! The cross is proof of the suffering endured by the most blameless human being who ever lived – Christ Himself surely never deserved one moment of what He went through only for our sakes!
The scriptures address the single issue of suffering more than any other throughout the passages of the old and new testaments. To cite just a few reflections of His words for us on pain and suffering:
- Romans 5:3-5 ESV …More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
- James 1:2-4 ESV
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
- 1 Peter 5:10 ESV
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
- Romans 8:18 ESV
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
- 1 Peter 4:12-19 ESV
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
- Revelation 21:4 ESV
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
- John 16:33 ESV
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
There a literally hundreds of verses explaining God’s presence in our suffering. In Beth Moore’s Daniel: Lives of Integrity, Words of Prophecy, she describes three possible scenarios in which God uses our suffering to bring us closer to His presence in our lives.
God will prevent you from the fire. In other words, you do not even know the tragedies God has saved you from in your life because you never even saw the fire in the first place!
God will deliver you through the fire. You will surely suffer. But just as Daniel saw the angel of The Lord when thrown into the lion’s den, God can use the event to rescue you from the fire, showing His presence to you through the journey and thereby drawing you closer to His graceful loving arms.
God will deliver you by the fire into his eternal kingdom. We may not in fact survive the fire. It may be the fire that rescues us from this broken world. But the reward is beyond the safest greatest healing we could ever imagine in this world. We are eternally in His presence, free forever from suffering or hurt any longer!
We know our presence on this earth is only transient and we will surely at some point pass away. We have nothing to fear in where we are going. In fact what we mostly fear is the journey getting there. We fear suffering. But knowing that it is truly in suffering that God is drawing us closest to him, we should not fear this at all. Take comfort in Him, and knowing that through all storms, all fires, all suffering, He is there for you when you call on Him. When you are ill. When you are battling a terminal disease. Cancer. Trauma. Pain. A sick or troubled child. The loss of a child. The loss of a loved one. The only peace that can comfort you is that which is in the heart of Christ who is there waiting to be called to your needs whenever you will invite Him. You cannot escape His love for you in any hour of sadness or happiness. You are forever imprinted on His hand and His love fills your heart in unmeasurable volume. You are His and He is yours eternally when you call Him in any circumstance.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Moore, Beth. Daniel: Lives of Integrity, Words of Prophecy. Revised/Expanded ed. Nashville, Tenn.: LifeWay, 2006. Print.
Mukherjee, Siddhartha. Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York: Scribner, 2010.