Why does God allow his people to suffer while worldly people prosper?

Q. Why does God allow his people to suffer while worldly people prosper?

Your question is exactly the same one that’s asked in Psalm 73:

I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.

The psalmist eventually gets an answer to this difficulty, and I’ll discuss it in a moment. But first I’d like to observe that the perception that God’s people suffer while worldly people prosper actually represents a snapshot from a particular moment in life. If we think back over our whole lives, and if we look at the people all around us, we realize that God’s people actually go through seasons of prosperity and seasons of suffering over the course of their whole lives, and so do people who live without any particular devotion for God. If we took the snapshot at a different time, it might show the godly people we know prospering and the worldly people we know suffering.

But I think the perception nevertheless points to an important issue. We would expect, everything else being equal, that God would bless those who live in devotion to him, that God would protect them from misfortunes, and for that matter that they wouldn’t create so much suffering for themselves as those who live without regard to God. In other words, we would expect a positive correlation between godliness and prosperity, and a positive correlation between ungodliness and suffering. But we don’t see this in our world. I think that’s the real concern, and it is indeed borne out by experience.

So what’s the explanation? The author of Psalm 73 finds one part of it by taking a longer-term view. He sees that in the end, the wicked will not prosper. “How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors!” People who pursue a path of ruthless selfishness in this life are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. God has set up the moral universe that way. And even if these consequences are not experienced in this life, they will be experienced ultimately, when God finally judges the world. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not obvious cannot remain hidden forever.

However, even this assurance may be small consolation to a person who’s faithfully trying to serve God in this life but who is struggling with suffering, persecution, and failure. The psalmist has a further insight that addresses this concern. He describes going into the temple, encountering God there, receiving reassuring insights, and finally saying to God,

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing I desire on earth besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

The psalmist realizes that what matters most, in this life and the next, is knowing God and loving God. In a mysterious way that we cannot understand, God works through all of the events and circumstances of our lives to help us know and love Him better. This includes allowing suffering at times. In those times, we need to trust God and cling to him all the more.

I’ve written another post that you might find helpful. It’s entitled, “Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?” In that post I observe that Amy Carmichael often said, “The love of God is very courageous.” She meant that God will courageously 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. I think we have a hint of this in the middle of Psalm 73:

When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

It may not be until we enter the heavenly sanctuary of God that we are no longer troubled deeply by the problem of human suffering and the fact that it seems to affect godly people as well as ungodly ones. But when we do come into that sanctuary, we will understand not only the final destiny of the wicked, but the glorious destiny that God has been preparing us for all along, even through suffering.

“This,” as the book of Revelation says, “calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.”

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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