The Problem of Suffering

At that very time, there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1–9)

Jesus contradicted the popular notion taught by the religious leaders of Israel, that suffering and disaster were necessarily the judgment of God upon sinners. Instead, Jesus taught that we can do everything right, be good people, follow all the directions and disaster can still strike us.

On any given morning most people will wake up and go to work. But there will be some who go out and murder, have an affair, or embezzle money. On any given morning some people will be doing what they are supposed to do and some will not. One bright September morning three thousand people who went to work as they always did never came home again. Terrorists chose to fly airplanes into their workplaces that particular day. They were not greater sinners than all the other people on the planet. Jesus explained that bad things can happen without warning and without reason and it isn’t because God is mad at us or loves us less than those who didn’t suffer that day.

When we’re driving down the freeway and traffic slows in front of us and we put on our brakes to stop, it is not our fault when the person behind us doesn’t and plows into the back of our car. Just because we drive carefully, doesn’t mean our neighbor will drive carefully. As the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “time and chance” happen to us all (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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