Why does God allow suffering?

© Jaime Valdez Photography

Typically when someone comes to the door I either A. Don't answer it. or B. Point to the "No soliciting" sign, say, "no thanks," and shut the door.

So when a Jehovah's Witness came to my door the other day, I'm not sure why I didn't do either of these things. Instead, I listened to his introduction until he said:

"Why do you think God allows suffering?"

To my great surprise, I laughed a little and answered promptly with the air of a schoolgirl reciting a lesson:

"So that we can learn."

Then he asked:

"What do you think we're supposed to learn?"

"How to be better people."

I thought this was a pretty good answer and didn't realize until long after he'd left that it was not at all the one he was looking for. I didn't understand how any of what he said after that had to do with God allowing suffering and eventually realized he didn't have an answer to his own question.

The whole thing made me feel like I'd just taken part in an inkblot test. It's not often that someone walks up to you unexpectedly and asks your philosophical views on the reason for your pain. I was quite surprised to learn that I had an answer on the tip of my tongue. But what did it mean? And do I really believe that? Do I really believe that Malachi had a brain injury to teach me how to be a better person?

If so, I think it's working. I never accepted how prejudiced I was toward people with physical and mental disabilities until my son was one of their number. In many ways, I still am prejudiced, but I'm getting much better: I saw how cool a wheelchair-bound man's backpack was; I enjoyed seeing a severely disabled person's delight at the sunshine at the zoo. I wouldn't have even seen those things before. My eyes would have slid right on passed them.

I also feel more compassionate towards others — I know that the bad things that happen to them are not because they are bad people or stupid people. I'm more likely now to take it as a given that they tried their best to achieve the best outcome, but that it wasn't in the cards for them.

Before, I would say: "Don't build your house in a flood zone, dumbass." Or, "Put down the KFC, chunky, and maybe you won't get heart disease." Or, "Duh, take better care of yourself when you're pregnant and your kid won't be screwed up."

Now I know that these are lies we tell ourselves to make us feel immune to that suffering, to make us think that we're safe from tragedy because obviously we would never do something so stupid. Now I know you can try your hardest to avoid catastrophes and still run smack dab into them.

So perhaps I have learned something and perhaps I will become a better person. But, wow, what a terrible price and why does Malachi have to pay it? Even Jesus got to live for 33 years before being asked to make a sacrifice. It hardly seems fair to exact the cost of my shortcomings from the brain of my newborn son.

I guess what I'm saying is, I still don't understand, God. Why do you allow suffering?


  1. Anonymous11:50 PM

    I do not believe that God allows suffering so we can learn. At least, not suffering at the expense of others. If he wanted you to learn how to be more accepting of people with disabilities, he could have made you disabled. Lesson learned. Probably better than giving it to Malachi; you only know what it's like to raise a disabled kid. We'll never, ever truly know what it's like to be disabled.

    I believe he does it because he chooses not to interfere. The "Bruce Almighty" philosophy, with a little bit of "Oh God" thrown in; you can't have good without bad, light without dark. If everybody got everything they prayed for, the world would be a mess. Maybe God learned his lesson from the flood, and Sodom & Gomorrah - you can't save people from themselves, they just get in the way. Or they don't react the way you expect (like, they'll risk turning to salt for one last look). Things just play out the way they're going to.

    I believe he is sad for us. And cheers us on. But I don't think he intervenes. That is what I believe, when I choose to believe he exists. Most days I believe just because if I don't, it means I'll never get to see Caitlin again. If there is a heaven, though, if I get there and find out that your version is right, and that he did pick and choose who would be saved, I am storming the gate, finding my daughter and leaving, because that is *not* the kind of God I would want to spend eternity with.

  2. Anonymous9:21 AM

    I think Amy is right in that God doesn't cause others to suffer so that we can learn. What we, as parents learn through our own heartache, is to love regardless of the difficulties. It seems to me these special kids are here as teachers, at least while they're small, to teach the parents/caregivers about the depth of love that is possible. Once they are close to being a teenager, like my son, the lessons become their own.

    Someone once told me their view of God and His plans, and it made sense since I come from a family that sews.

    God is making a quilt. Each of us is a piece/patch. We have no idea if we are the bright red dot or the large blue square. We don't know if we are in the center or on the edge. God is in charge of the design.

    As He designs, he must sew the pieces together and then sew the top and the backing together. The needle pricks are the trials and troubles we have here on Earth. We learn, bend, and join together to form a beautiful mosaic.

    The needle pricks hurt.

    Some of us are an easy fabric to work with, so the needle pricks are less traumatic. Others are made of a fabric that takes more work to form, so the needle pricks REALLY hurt.

    I live in hope that I will become an easy fabric to work with!

  3. My belief is that suffering has value, but suffering doesn't have a purpose. Bad things happen - sometimes caused by poor choices, and sometimes due to bad luck - and the converse can be said for good things that happen.

    However, I also believe that each person does have a purpose, and how we choose to act in the face of suffering (or in good fortune, for that matter!) shapes us and contributes to achieving our purpose.

  4. I love it that you guys are willing to debate this. I feel like most people are willing to comment only when they agree with what I've said ...which seems to be infrequently considering the number of comments I receive! ;)

    Anyway, Amy and Faith, I guess I'm not saying God hurts someone just so that I can learn (very egocentric) but just that without mountains to climb, we'd never know how to surmount them. I also feel this way for Malachi. In his life he'll probably be more understanding and compassionate because of what he's had to go through. (At least, I hope so, and based on what adults with disabilities have told me, I think this is true.)

    Faith, I love, love your quilt analogy. I think there's a poem in there somewhere.

    Andi, I think I understand what you mean. I definitely like the idea that suffering has value but no purpose. I'll have to mull that one around for a while.

  5. Anonymous1:46 PM

    A very good point, without mountains to climb, how can we know if we can?

    I think you're right, Shasta. Either a poem or a song of some sort could be made of the quilt theory. Go for it! :o)

  6. Hi Shasta! I love this post and your insight. BTW, thank you so much for your kind comments on my blog. I love how the world of blogging has introduced so many wonderful people :-) Congratulations on the Circle of Moms! Did you know that you are mentioned on "Bringing The Sunshine"?

  7. Hi Anna! Welcome, welcome! Yes, I found you through Andi's blog. I thought, well, a friend of Andi's is a person worth knowing! I also think it's so great how I can find people who can empathize. These three lovely women (above) particularly!

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  9. I have to agree in part with Amy - mostly because I cannot believe that God wanted my child, or any other for that matter, to die, or the brain bleed to happen and affect my other son for life, or for my daughter to go through so much in her first 2 years...

    I beleive that he doesn't WANT this to happen, but that he stands beside us and mourns with us.

    How else could I instill a faith in God and the greater good in my surviving children? How could I look at my son and tell him that God made his twin brother go to heaven so that he could learn something?? And how could I continue to hold faith in the HOPE that I will be able to hold my son again one day.

    And Amy - if we're wrong, I'm breaking down the gate with ya!

  10. Thanks for being a new commenter, Erika! I also followed your blog.

    I guess it comes down to who's in charge? Is God a manager-figure or is he literally omnipotent — in charge of every breath and blade of grass?
    Personally, I believe that God is not a person and cannot be personified — this post was sort of a thought exercise. I believe God is in all of us, God is spirit, life, emotional energy. I don't believe in a dude sitting in judgement in the clouds.

  11. Anonymous9:41 PM

    Amy, your comment brought tears to my eyes. Beautifully said. I may not know you, but I understand your mother heart - and I would storm that gate by your side!
    - Jill W.

  12. Carissa10:05 AM

    For Faith and Shasta, I offer this poem from an unknown source that my Aunt gave me at my confirmation:

    My life is but a weaving between the Lord and me, I cannot choose the colors He workith steadily.
    Oft times he weavith sadness, and I in foolish pride, forget He sees the upper and I the underside.
    Not 'till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly, will He reveal the pattern and explain the reasons why.
    He knows, He loves, He cares, nothing this truth can dim.
    He gives his greatest gifts to those who leave the choice with Him.

    As a mama with a little tender child who's only begun his journey with a life altering disability... I honestly must say this is a hard idea to swallow.


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