Like free will, God’s allowance of suffering is a perennially difficult and distressing topic.
For instance, why did God allow the Israelites to suffer under Egyptian slavery for 400 years? The text does not say. Why, indeed, has God allowed the sin of racism to persist in the United States and its colonial antecedents for 400 years and counting? Why does God allow the horrors that we humans so often perpetrate? Why does God allow other kinds of suffering?
In the case of the plagues: why did innocent people (and animals) suffer because of the Pharaoh’s obstinance?
One answer is, that is the way things happen! Innocent people suffer on account of the decisions of their leaders, and those repercussions can last many generations. It’s a tragic truth about life in general. But as a society, the Egyptians used the Israelites in slavery, and thus the kingdom was complicit in Israelite suffering.
Another answer is: God had a plan to use Egyptian was an unforgettable example of the divine power. This was a unique situation.
The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides about the problem of suffering. (8) Older Jewish traditions had considered suffering as a divine decision to lead a person to righteousness. Psalms 94:12-13 and 119:21 (as well as Hebrews 12:5-11 in the New Testament) reflect this teaching.
But Maimonides distinguished among types of suffering: those natural causes that are part of physical, mortal existence, those caused by social ills (like war and poverty), and the suffering we bring on ourselves. Maimonides left no room for what in Hebrew is called yisurin shel ahavah, “chastisements of love,” and so the doctrine lost favor within Judaism, especially since the Holocaust.
The Bible does uphold the sovereignty of God over all things: for instance, Exodus 9:29, Psalm 77:16-19, 1 Kings 8:35-36, and Nahum 1:5-6. In his sermon, “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes,” John Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5, as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6, to show biblical praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances. (9)
But Wesley’s sermon raises even more urgently the question of God and natural disasters---where is God when they occur, and why does God allow them to occur? Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God.
Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken in someone a new relationship with God due to crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rainstorms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin.
Short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. It’s human to wonder where God is amid tragedy, though all of us are mortal and live among many, many potential dangers, just in the course of living. God intervenes in many situations, but we do not see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in other circumstances.
A scripture that answers the question of “Where is God?” is Matthew 25:31-46. God (in his passage, Christ) is with the suffering, and therefore that's where we need to be, too.
1.If someone came to you and said, “I think God is punishing me for something, because I lost my job” (or “because my medical tests came back that I’m really sick).” What would you say?
2.What are a few ministries of your church, which contribute to the well-being of people in need?
3.The Bible has stories where innocent people—or people uninvolved in the main events of the story—suffer. The death of the first-born of Egypt is one such story. The slaughter of the innocents by Herod is another (Matthew 2:16-18). How do you explain such suffering?