Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow suffering?

Here’s my answer in the form of a sermon.

To be strictly honest, I’m not sure that it is particularly my answer. I think it may be the only answer.

And I’m moved to have seen that this has been shared by people since I preached it and has been avidly watched in New Zealand. It has also, apparently been used by a religious studies teacher today to engage with Higher Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies students in a school in Glasgow.


This is a church which helps people to articulate questions.

Not just little questions but big questions.

I hope that we can help people to answer questions too, but in a way I’m more concerned that we keep building this place as a place where good questions can be asked and articulated.

Good questions. Big questions. Questions that matter.

That was a part of the diocesan pilgrimage days that we have had over the last couple of weeks welcoming friends from around the diocese. A key part of the day was gathering the questions. Indeed, one of the things that I’ve learned from working with Cedric is how important it is to devise processes for gathering questions and allowing people to give voice to what matters to them.

We’re now running God Factor 12 or 13 or something like that. I’ve started to lose count.

But one question keeps coming up – I think it has come up in most if not all the God Factor session at one time or another.

And it is some variation on one of the questions that is behind the gospel reading for today.

Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

Why do disasters happen and what is God’s part in it?

Why does God let people suffer? Make people suffer? Allow suffering at all?

And in the gospel reading this morning we have an attempt to answer that question.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one real answer to that question and that Christians keep on asking the question because they don’t like the answer but it is the only one that exists.

In this morning’s gospel reading we get the same and only answer that I can give to the question. But then we get a wee story tagged on the end.

And maybe the story is interesting.

Firstly, Jesus is asked about the Galileans who have been killed by Pilate. Were they worse than other Galileans?

No he says, but then says, “Repent, or you will die as they did”.

Then he remembers 18 people killed in a disaster when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Were they worse than all the others in Jerusalem?

Why do disasters happen to some people?

Why does God allow suffering?

No, he says, but then repeats, “Repent, or you will die as they did”.

So, does repentance stop you getting killed then Jesus?

The question lingers on the lips of people through the centuries. If you put things right will God will that stop bad things happening to you.

The trouble is, he’s already answered that. No, he has said clearly – the ones killed by the tower were no worse than the ones who were not killed. Repentance doesn’t stop bad things happening to you.

So why does he tell them to repent?

Well, I think it is because repentance isn’t a way to stop death, it is a way to bring life.

And that’s maybe why we read this difficult gospel in Lent rather than at some other time of the year.

Repentance, metanoia, turning around – it is good for us to turn ourselves around. Good for us to change. Good for us to put things right. It is life enhancing to take stock – to stop, to work out where we are going wrong and to turn towards what it good; to turn towards God.

Will it make bad things stop happening – well it might make us stop doing bad things, but no, it won’t make suffering come to an end

The Buddha said life is suffering. Jesus says take up your cross and follow me.

Part of having a mature grown up faith is accepting that this is just the way life is – being alive means knowing suffering and also knowing that it doesn’t seem to come fairly or equally. There’s a randomness to life that we can’t fathom and it won’t make sense even if we project it onto God and talk as though God afflicts us.

God never afflicts us. God loves us.

Bad things happen but not from God.

God still loves us.

Terrible things happen unfairly to some rather than others.

And God goes on loving us even as we rage about how unfair life is.

But Jesus isn’t finished there. He tells us this perplexing story about a man with a fig tree that won’t produce figs.

“Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

His gardener replies – ‘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.’”

What on earth do we make of that. We never find out whether the tree ends up cut down or not? We never find out whether it bears fruit or dies? We never find out who the gardener or the man are supposed to be.

People say Jesus was good at storytelling but this time there’s no plot – no development, no conclusion.

Just the image of a tree that isn’t growing and a gardener who believes in second chances.

And the smelly reality of what they used to fertilize their trees with in those days.

Our translation describes it as manure but there are other rather earthy words that could be used.

You want my learned interpretation of this passage?

You want to know what I think Jesus might have been trying to convey in telling this story – a fragment, surely only a fragment of which survives in our gospel today.

It is a free translation and a flight of the imagination to be sure, but I think he’s saying this.

You grow best when the manure is piling up around you.

God loves you there just as much as anywhere.

You grow nearer to God when you just can’t seem to shake off the dung.

God loves you whether you smell of heaven or the “earth” from which you were made.

And, yes, oh yes, you grow most when you are in the shit.

God loves you anyway.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


  1. Martha Pollard says

    Thank you Kelvin, I find this really helpful. I especially like: ‘Will it make bad things stop happening – well it might make us stop doing bad things, but no, it won’t make suffering come to an end.’ ‘It might make us stop doing bad things.’ I think that is very hopeful — the realisation that in repenting, changing, turning around, we *can* choose to stop inflicting suffering on others that we had been inflicting before our decision to change, and to begin to try to do things differently instead. In other words, there is a lot of suffering that is our own fault, even though it can be hard for us to see or understand this about ourselves. And we have the power to stop inflicting that kind of human suffering on at least those nearest to us (even if there are many other kinds of suffering that we are powerless to stop). So we can’t stop all suffering, but we can stop causing suffering that we ourselves have the power to stop inflicting, provided we are willing instead to undergo the personal suffering (to take up our cross) that is a necessary part of any self-learning process to change heart, mind, and behaviour. I wonder if this is one of the reasons why contemplative prayer can reduce suffering in the world: for this is what sitting in silence helps to accomplish, even as it is ‘doing nothing.’

  2. Julia says

    My mother has always been ill but would never go to a doctor. I’ve looked after her all of my 65 years. She is 87 now and I love her no matter what. I love God even more and trust in Him.

  3. Keith Barber says

    Thank you Kelvin, wonderful stuff.

    But sometimes suffering is necessary. Julian of Norwich is saying something similar, I suspect, when she says: “Sin is behovely”. And in my work (I’m a psychotherapist) I know I need to take people into their suffering, into the pain they’ve avoided all their lives yet which they need to experience and pass through to find healing. The pain of uncovering a festered wound, cleaning out the pus (it is a filthy job sometimes) and then rubbing salt in as an antiseptic that will promote the formation of a healthy scar.

    And of course, Julian’s next words are: “But all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”. And God knows, there are times when I need that gentle reassurance as i stick the knife in yet again…

    • Julia Laine says

      Thanks Kevin. I would like to go to Catholic church again, makes me feel whole. Mom will never heal, but I can do my best. Wish me luck. Thanks Kevin, God be with you always.

    • Julia says

      Keeping your sermon to read over and over again. Kevin thank you

  4. Anthony Birch says

    There is a further twist to the parable of the fig tree. The gardener is showing tough love to the tree. Left to itself a fig tree sends its roots everywhere and produces leaves in abundance but no fruit. To produce fruit the tree must be root pruned: the gardener is going to dig to cut out the roots of the tree’s self will. Without that suffering there will be no fruit.

    • Julia says

      Very good — wish previous generations had known this. What I’ve learned is that the alcoholic control issues in my family have been very destructive in that the alcoholic tries to control everybody and everything. Great Kelvin thank you for being you and being there for us. God bless you

  5. I think your answers are pretty good Kelvin.
    I’m not sure we ever fully triumph over loss and suffering (at least not in this life) but I agree that God loves us in the midst of our mess. And that helps.

  6. Julia says

    I pray a lot, lightens my days.

Speak Your Mind