Why is this happening?
Anyone else asked that question a time or two in 2020?
I used to drive myself crazy wondering why bad things happen the way they do. And it was usually followed up pretty quickly with, and how do I make it stop?! A few years ago, I obsessed over some suffering in my life until the most surprising answer brought startling comfort.
2020 has been a wild ride. It’s brought important questions to the surface. No, we’re not talking about which combo of streaming platforms is the best, or even whether or not you have to pretend to be interested in your friend discussing the virtues of intermittent fasting….again.
The most difficult question that 2020 has brought to the surface for most of us is: WHY?!
Why did I lose my job?
Why is this virus devastating so many lives?
Why am I still alone?
Why does racism feel impossible to beat?
Why did my baby die?
Why can’t my friends find relief from depression?
Why do some people have so much and others so little?
Why isn’t my kid getting better no matter how much I pray?
Why is the world so messed up?
Probably most of all, I ask, God, why won’t you fix this?
Whether it’s low-grade suffering that lingers in the background or something especially painful that stares us in the face wherever we look, wondering can feel like torture.
As if whatever is already bothering us isn’t enough, asking adds an extra ache. But here’s the bigger problem - usually a theory develops that unconsciously makes it even worse. Spoken or not, dark beliefs can grow and subtly corrupt our view of the world, God, and ourselves. Because we don’t have a better answer, we come up with our own:
Maybe I messed up too much.
Maybe I’m just not good enough.
Maybe there’s something wrong with me.
Maybe God isn’t good.
Maybe He doesn’t care.
Maybe He’s just cruel.
Maybe it’s all random, and there is no God at all.
There are common answers Christians give: It’s a broken world. God gave us free will, and we messed it up. We should pray and hope, anyway. We don’t get to understand why.
But are those responses really supposed to help?
I get that God had an impossible decision to make.
- Option #1: He could give us free will—the ability to choose good (Him) or evil (everything else).
- Option #2: He could not allow us choices so that everything could remain good, but true relationship would never exist. We would function as robots, programmed to love but never actually experiencing it.
But is that really worth it? And even so, can’t God still stop our pain? If He’s real and good, why doesn’t He help more often? For the love, can’t He intervene already?!
There are a lot of popular answers out there that usually do more damage than good. Most of us need a reset from the most common offenders before we can receive something that helps:
Christian Myth #1
If you’ve ever been told you aren’t being healed because of your sin or because you didn’t have enough faith, there are so many more factors at play than that.
Could we not pile shame over not being good enough onto our suffering? Yes, Jesus says that we need faith, (but he was usually telling the person praying they needed more faith, not the one suffering, see (Matthew 17:20). And sin (anything we do or think that isn’t good) pervasively taints our life, creating more pain.
So any time we’re suffering, it’s always worth asking God to reveal where we’re acting out of line with Him and causing ourselves pain (Psalm 139:23-24). It’s a great first move to look for any areas where we can repent (which simply means to turn back to God). Every step we take out of sin is liberating. So, repent often and even eagerly, knowing it’s for our good, but it’s not the definite, only factor for suffering. (And if you have surrendered and repented of everything you can think of, you can quit beating yourself up. This is not the only possibility.)
If you have a picture of God always punishing you or withholding help, that’s not who He is. There are plenty of examples of bad things happening to really great people, and it’s not a punishment at all (keep reading for examples.)
Christian Myth #2
If you’ve ever been told that “everything happens for a reason,” that’s NOT in the Bible.
This one actually makes me angry. That car crash? The family that can’t conceive? That inoperable tumor? Unwanted singleness? God is definitely, always causing these for a reason?
What I hate about this one is when someone implies that God specifically chooses each and every suffering we encounter for us. If all of this started with His priority on our free will, it can’t always be that God is micromanaging every outcome. He gave us the freedom to choose evil, and that means stuff can happen outside His will.
Christian Myth #3
If you’ve ever been told that you’ll never be given more than you can handle, sorry again. Also wrong (and not helpful).
God often allows us more than we can handle. He’s not actually afraid to see us break because there are other goals more important to Him than our contentment—knowing Him (Proverbs 8:17) and becoming mature (Colossians 1:28). In fact, sometimes we have to break to admit that we need help. His primary goal is not our comfort. He’s about our growth and establishing a deep relationship with Him. He wants to see us strong, free, and mature, but that only comes through radical dependence on Him (not ourselves).
The good news is, if you’re exhausting yourself trying to muster up the strength to conquer your struggles, you can let go. What was meant to motivate usually just creates unhealthy expectations to keep striving in our own power. Sometimes letting go of our expectations, letting ourselves fall apart, and embracing our vulnerability before the God who saves is the best thing we can do (Ps 51:17).
So, if those aren’t the reasons—why is suffering happening?
In hopes of sparing someone some heartache, here’s what I’ve found: Guessing is maddening and not a great use of our time. Trust me. I’ve tried. I don’t think we’ll ever be sure, but it helps me to know there are a lot of factors at play.
The Bible references multiple different causes in different situations. Recognizing the complexity has 1) protected me against the false beliefs (like God doesn’t love me), and 2) given me the clarity to do the one thing that is always worth doing.
Factor #1: It really is a broken world.
When God made the world, He put humanity in a garden called Eden, which means “Delight.” His intention for creation was goodness, relationship, and flourishing. It was gorgeous and perfect, but those were just bonus gifts. The real beauty was a perfect relationship with God. That’s all that any of this has ever been about.
When humans chose not to trust God and take matters into their own hands, that world broke. God was supposed to be our source of everything. Food, light, love, worth—everything came from His provision and our relationship with Him alone. But we traded that for trying to do things on our own, and it’s never been the same.
The impact of those ripples reach all of us, and we continually perpetuate that brokenness all the time. We face suffering and pain that God never intended. He designed us to live in “Delight.” So, when you find yourself longing for it, that is perfectly natural because we were made for it.
But we won’t experience perfection here. It’s not a reality we can expect (or feel entitled to) until Jesus returns to restore what was broken. Any glimpse of goodness we see is His grace despite living in a broken world.
Delight, comfort, wisdom, or our own wishes of any kind can’t be found apart from God. They’re a byproduct of relationship with Him. So what should our response be to brokenness? Turn to God. Seek Him as the only source of good because that’s the only place real goodness exists.
Factor #2: There really is an enemy.
I know this sounds completely crazy if you don’t believe in God, but there is an angel who rebelled against God and has been cast out of heaven. It started a cosmic war, and that angel became an enemy who is hell-bent on destroying us (1 Peter 5:8).
His mission is to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). That’s not a dramatic metaphor. He actually wants to destroy you—physically, relationally, financially, etc. The Bible says our battle is never against flesh and blood but against forces of the dark world (Eph 6:12). He is called the Father of Lies and is constantly whispering to us that God is holding out on us. It’s the same lie he told Adam and Eve.
God has way more power, though, and through Him, so do we. There is a whole set of tools to fight back called “spiritual warfare.” But it’s similar to the lifestyle we’re meant to be living all of the time. Sometimes bad things are happening because of the ripple effects of sin tainting the world. Sometimes the enemy is specifically crafting it against us. He will try anything to get us to turn away from God, but the answer is to keep turning towards Him. He’s stronger than anything the enemy has planned.
Factor #3: There’s a lot going on that we can’t see.
To believe in God requires accepting that He is so much bigger than we can understand. We’re always tempted to look at our situation and come to spiritual conclusions about it (ex. my prayer didn’t work, so why pray?) But spiritual breakthrough comes from faith, which, by definition, is believing what we do not see (Heb 11:1). There are some crazy stories in the Bible that show us there is often more going on than we could ever know.
- In the book of Job, we see the enemy and God talking about a man of deep faith named Job. God lets the enemy ruin his life in what seems like a competition—a test of Job’s faithfulness. It’s a brutal story of loss and tragic suffering, but we learn from Job that 1) we can’t go wrong being honest with God about our emotions and choosing to worship Him anyway. 2) It’s a chance to remember that nothing is actually ours. Job beautifully models that we aren’t entitled to anything. Any blessing we have is a gift that is God’s to give or take away for any reason He says is worthy. And in Job’s case, we saw God restore it all and then some.
- In the book of Daniel, we again see another example of someone totally faithful to God, but it seems like God is ignoring him. Later, an angel comes to him and says he was “delayed” in coming (Daniel 6:11-13). He tells him that he is respected. Daniel wasn’t doing anything wrong. God wasn’t just twiddling his thumbs, debating whether he wanted to help. The angel honors Daniel and reveals there really is a war. Sometimes even the army of God gets held up somehow. “But help will come,” he says. “Don’t be afraid.”
These stories show that God does hear us. He does care. Most of all, He eventually restores. Faithfulness in bad situations is always rewarded someday. It’s OK to be authentic about how we feel. Be as real as you can with God—he knows what you’re thinking anyway. But still choosing to trust Him even when we don’t understand—that’s one of the boldest moves of faith we can make.
Factor #4: Sometimes God is behind it.
Sometimes He does send “bad” things. He sent a flood, (Genesis 6:13) and plagues, and has hardened hearts (Exodus 7).He “prunes” (John 15:2). He refuses to remove “thorns” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Sometimes He allows bad things without intervening in the world and sometimes he directly intervenes in the world with something painful. Sometimes He’s training us. Pain is a powerful teacher. Sometimes He is discipling us (Hebrews 12:6). As a Father, King, Creator, and Judge, anything is within his rights. But it’s not the way most of us expect1. Because of his goodness, even this kind of suffering can still be used for our good. Sometimes we’re prioritizing something over Him and it needs to go2. Sometimes it’s because of something bigger than us altogether and it’s not about us at all. Sometimes He personally opposes us (James 4:6). Whatever the reason, our best move again is to turn towards Him trusting that if He’s behind it, it’s still for our good.
Corrections that come directly from God, however, don’t appear to be the norm. The punishment for sin is usually built into the sin itself, so God doesn’t have to pile on. The majority of the time God uses the bad and evil that already exists in the world for good.
Factor #5: The story isn’t over yet.
Jesus initiated his Kingdom (meaning He began to share his power with us in real ways we can actually tap into), but it’s not fully established. The war is still on, and while we will see glimpses of miraculous breakthroughs, we will also still see darkness. Sometimes so much, it seems hopeless.
Countless people in the Bible spent years in prison, in hiding, in suffering, being overlooked, or seemingly forgotten. But God was building something in them. He hadn’t forgotten them. And in each of those stories, we see the response again: they turned to God. Clung to Him even.
Turning to God in the darkness when it seems like He’s nowhere to be found may not reveal any change at the moment, but it can trigger deep shifts in the spiritual world, and it deeply changes us. Whether you fast, pray, grieve, hope, worship, or repent—do it with faith. Seek God. Ask Him your hard questions. Ask Him for help. The more we pursue these things, the more we partner with him in pushing the darkness back.
TL: DR; I don’t think we can pinpoint why. There are too many factors, but we can prevent false beliefs from sneaking in to tear us down. A bad situation doesn’t mean a bad God.
You are loved more than you could ever know. (Rom 5:8)
God delights over you. (Zeph 3:17)
He is still with you. (Ps 23:4)
He even grieves with you. (Ps 34:18)
He will redeem this. (Gen 50:20)
He will never leave you. (Deut 31:8)
He will someday, somehow use this for good. (Rom 8:28)
Saying, “I don’t know” becomes surprisingly comforting if we turn to Him—clinging to the faith that He’s somehow still good, somehow still for us, and that someday he will make it right.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. - 1 Peter 4:12
In this world, you will have trouble, but I have overcome the world. - John 16:33
Need some tangible next steps?
- Memorize a verse or two. Saying God’s words over and over again does something supernatural to our belief system. It gets inside of us.
- Sing. Worship is ascribing worth to God. It turns our focus there (which is where our focus was always meant to be in the first place.) We can’t explain it, but it actually beats evil. It changes things in the spiritual realm. We’ll never see or know how, but grab a song like this, and put it on repeat.
- Remember the prayer of “help my unbelief.” One of the most beautiful verses in all of the Bible for me is when a father praying for his son says to Jesus, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). It’s OK for belief and unbelief to coexist. Jesus didn’t rebuke that guy. He healed his son on the spot. God isn’t grading you. He loves you. He says even faith the size of a mustard seed (which is SUPER small) matters. This prayer is a perfect go-to when you’re struggling to believe. He loves it. It counts.
1See Hebrews 12:6, 11—For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives, For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Or 1 Cor 11:32—But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 2 The Bible does say:
- We should endure all suffering as his discipline (Hebrews 12:7). Meaning, God will use every hardship. “Use” means He’ll leverage the pain to create something stronger. If we’ll let Him, He won’t waste it. It’ll strengthen, cleanse, and mature us every time.
- God will use everything to the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). While we don’t know why it’s happening, we do know that if we love Him, He will make some good on it somehow, some way, some day.