Human suffering exists because sin exists. When Adam and Eve disregarded God’s command and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “the eyes of both of them were opened” (Genesis 3:7), and death, along with all the suffering the reality of death implies, came into the world (Genesis 2:16–17). The results of sin are explained in Genesis 3:14–19. Sin affected humanity’s relationship with God, with each other, and with the animals. Even the ground was cursed (see also Romans 8:20–21). Sin would specifically result in increased pain in childbearing, laborious toil in work, and contentiousness in human relationships. Ultimately, sin would result in physical death. In broader terms, sin opened the door for all kinds of suffering throughout all of creation.
Since God is the “First Cause,” He is responsible for the fact that suffering can exist. God created Adam and Eve knowing that they would sin. He knew the suffering that would exist in the world as a result. However, He also made redemption possible. God’s ultimate plan was for God the Son (Jesus Christ) to take on human flesh, live a human life complete with all the suffering of a fallen world, be crucified though He had not sinned, and rise again to life, having defeated sin and death. All who put their faith in Jesus will be saved. God’s gift of grace to us cost Him greatly. God knows the fullness of human suffering in ways we do not. And yet He also knows the fullness of joy that redemption brings. God certainly allows suffering; ultimately, He does so for His good purposes (Romans 1:18–32; 8:18–39).
God is good, and everything He does is good (1 John 1:5). God can never be the author of evil (James 1:13–17). Suffering is a direct result of sin running rampant. Humanity’s sin opened the door to Satan’s limited rule as god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4). We suffer due to our own sins, the sins of other people, and the general fact of living in a fallen world. Often, God allows the natural consequences of sin to play out.
It is true that God sometimes takes more direct credit for suffering. Sometimes, God causes suffering as a judgment against the wicked or as a call to the wicked to repent, such as with the plagues in Egypt or the end-times judgments described in Revelation. We see God enact consequences upon Israel for their disobedience—consequences we would call “suffering” (Deuteronomy 28; 1 Kings 17:1; 1 Chronicles 9:1). We see God more passively “cause” suffering by giving people over to their sins (Romans 1:18–32). But we know that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked; He would much rather they “repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:32; cf. 33:11). In 2 Peter 3:9 we read, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” God does not inflict suffering out of sadistic pleasure, but out of a desire to draw people to Himself. When people refuse to repent, the suffering serves as part of the due penalty for sin (Romans 6:23).
God also uses suffering to train His children and refine or test their faith (James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–9; Hebrews 12:7–11). Of course, “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Whether God intentionally causes a hardship in our lives or allows a hardship into our lives, He uses it for our growth and good (Romans 8:28–30). We can and should examine our lives and ask God to reveal any sinful tendencies He is ridding us of. If needed, we should repent and seek to put those sins to death. Putting our sinful tendencies to death generally feels like suffering, but it results in life (John 15:10–11; Galatians 5:13–26; Colossians 3:5–14). Even if there’s no sin associated with our suffering, God can use it in our lives to draw us closer to Him and to deepen our faith. No matter the reason for our suffering, we can bring our pains and struggles to God, knowing that He cares for us and will walk with us through the suffering (1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 43).
Another aspect of suffering is spiritual warfare. God allows Satan and his demons certain latitude, such as we see in the case of Job. In Ephesians 6 we read about the spiritual armor with which God has equipped us so that we can stand firm against the devil’s attacks. First Peter 5:6–11 encourages us to cast our anxieties on God, resist Satan, recognize others are suffering similarly, and trust that “the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).
Too, we sometimes suffer from persecution (Matthew 5:11–12; 2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus told His disciples, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). As with any suffering, when our hardships are a result of persecution, our response is to turn to God, as only He can sustain us.
It should be noted that sometimes the source and purpose of suffering is not immediately obvious to us. Sometimes, hardship can seem like too much, or we wonder why God allows a certain person to suffer so deeply through no fault of his own. Jesus offered a glimpse at an answer when His disciples wanted to know why a man was born blind (John 9:1–12). They rushed to the conclusion that someone’s sin must have caused it. “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:3). This tells us that, in part, God allows or even causes human suffering in order to bring about a greater good. Sometimes, it takes suffering to enlarge our view of God. Paul talked about being given a “thorn” in his flesh to help him not become conceited. He pleaded with God to remove it, but God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
An additional consideration in the question of whether God causes suffering is God’s sovereignty and human free will. We know that God is in control of all things. We also know that human choice has a meaningful impact in the world. We know that God cannot be the author of evil of any kind. So, when God “causes” suffering, is He simply orchestrating the results of natural evil to work to His good purposes? Could it be that everything we deem to be “suffering” is not antithetical to good?
Suffering, no matter its cause or its precise type, is not an experience any would choose. But the more we come to know God and see His character, the more we understand how He can take even the hardship of suffering and work it for His purposes. Not only that, but we can share honestly with God about our struggles and even our doubts. Hebrews 4:15–16 says, “For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We can and should also share our struggles with others, being willing to weep together and lift each other up in love (John 13:34–45; Romans 12:9–16; 2 Corinthians 1:3–7; Galatians 6:2, 7–10; Hebrews 10:19–25). Paul encouraged, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
The Lord God Almighty is sovereign. That means no matter how much suffering we endure, He has not relinquished control over His creation. If He were helpless to stop suffering, He would not be God. If He instigated evil, He would not be good. But when a good and sovereign God causes people to suffer, it is for their eternal benefit and His eternal glory (1 Peter 5:10). Those who know Him can live in confidence that, no matter how difficult the journey, the moment we see Him face-to-face our eyes will be opened and we will exclaim, “Now I understand why I went through that! Of course! Thank you, Father. It was the only right thing to do!”