Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?

Q.  My question has to do with suffering and the fairness of God. Why do some people suffer, even terribly, while others do not?  Judging from the stories of Job and Peter, Satan was given permission to cause suffering in their lives.  It seems even worse that God would allow some people to suffer by this means.

I’ll do my best to answer your question, although it’s one that people of faith have struggled with for all of human history without definitively resolving.

Without freedom there can be no love.  But freedom creates the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of suffering, as freedom can be, and is, misused.  I believe that God knows, in a way that we cannot know, that a world with both love and suffering is infinitely better than a world with neither love nor suffering, and that those are the only two possibilities.  Love is worth what has to be for it to be.

But I don’t think this means that certain individuals are singled out for suffering. Every individual is liable to the possibility of suffering.  But precisely because suffering is the result of freedom (misused), the “free” (undetermined) nature of the world means that some will likely suffer more than others.  While the Bible does say that Satan specifically asked for and received permission to torment Job, and that Jesus warned Peter, “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,” this is actually what Satan wants to do to everybody, with or without permission.  If God granted permission in those two cases, it was because God knew He could bring a result out of the suffering that would advance His own purposes and defeat Satan’s—turning Satan’s own weapons against him.

But this means that all of us must be willing to suffer if that will advance God’s purposes through our own lives.  The difficulty is that we see such a small part of the big picture that usually we can’t understand why we are suffering.  It feels pointless and useless.  But God is trusting us to trust Him, that He indeed is at work in the situation (that He has chosen to work in it, given the nature of the world He created, not that He directly caused the suffering) to bring about a purpose that is so positive and redemptive, that in the end, when we do understand, we will rejoice in this work of God.

Not that any of us should seek out situations of suffering.  But we should know that, as Amy Carmichael often said, “The love of God is very courageous,” and that God will therefore trust us to accept difficult situations as a part of His plan that we will only understand in the end, when we can see everything clearly.

Giaquinto, “Satan Before the Lord” c. 1750, Vatican Museum. The painting depicts the scene from the book of Job in which Satan requests, and receives, permission to torment Job.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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