Answering Radio Interviewers on Why Suffering

Scott Simon interviewed the Jesuit priest James Martin on NPR Saturday morning, March 6. Martin just published The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (Harper One, 2010). The last question Simon asked was this: “If there is a God, why do little children suffer?”

Martin answered, “That is the hardest question, and I think the answer is, we don’t know.” To his credit, Martin did go on to say that, for the Christian, Christ has entered into our suffering and gives consolation. He also asks wisely, “Can we believe in a God whose ways we don’t understand?” He answers Yes.

I am glad that Martin pointed to Christ’s sufferings. And I am glad he affirmed that we can believe in a God whose ways may be inscrutable to us. But the Bible does not want us to say “We don’t know,” when the overarching Why questions are asked about suffering and death.

It is true, we may not know for sure why any particular child suffers in this particular way. But the Bible wants us to speak what it says about death and suffering.

Hungry children

Why do little children suffer and die? We ask it with the awareness that it is happening this very moment by the hundreds, and we ask it through tears of personal experience and empathy. Here is one biblical answer: “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—” (Romans 5:12).

Death came into the world through sin.

That is the fundamental biblical answer for where all suffering and death came from. Or to use the words of Romans 8:20, “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope.”

In other words, because of sin, God subjected the entire creation to the futility of mortality with all its suffering and death. The whole creation groans under the judgment.

If the interviewer says, “That seems a bit harsh, to bring the whole creation under the judgment of suffering and death, including little children, because of one man’s sin?” we answer,

“That is how outrageous sin against an infinitely wise and good and holy God is. We don’t measure the outrage of our suffering by how insignificant we think sin is; we measure the outrage of sin by the scope of suffering.

The really amazing thing is that you and I, as sinners, are sitting here talking, when we deserve to be in hell. God is remarkably patient. And he gave his Son to die in our place so that everyone who believes may escape from this judgment and have eternal life.”

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.