In the book Grief and Pain in the Plan of God, Walter Kaiser gives eight reasons why God allows suffering in this present world. They are Retributive, Disciplinary, Empathetic, Vicarious, Doxological, Revelation, Apocalyptic, and Testimonial. The issue of suffering is complex indeed! The implications of a survey such as this are far reaching and remarkably practical. First, we must exercise a degree of restraint in reading too much into any given tragedy. Most of the time, a simplistic answer will not do. Consider the responses that the American people heard on 9-11 when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Many people on the conservative right understood this event to be the judgment of God against Americans for immorality and apostasy. Not to be outdone, some from the liberal left assumed the opposite: God is judging America because of its birth defect of slavery, oppression of women, and exploitation of the poor. Both pulpits were essentially crying, “America’s chickens have come home to roost!” (to quote Jeremiah Wright).
On the surface these two responses appear to be antithetical. One is conservative and other is liberal. One believes that God judged the nation because of sexual sin, while the other pointed to social sin. What is easily missed here, however, is that both sides are in essence drawing the same theological conclusion: this must be the result of God’s judgment (Retributive). Each side is offering a simplistic answer to a very complex question. There are other possibilities here. Could God have caused or allowed 9-11 to allow His people to weep with those who weep (Empathetic)? Is it possible that God wants to grow Christians through pain and suffering (Disciplinary)? Perhaps this was God’s way of bringing the lost to faith? Why is it that both sides of the aisle automatically assumed a retributive purpose?
This brings us to a second point. Even in a single event, we should recognize that God has many different purposes. As a case study, consider the book of Lamentations. In the book, Jeremiah the prophet laments the capture and fall of Jerusalem. The destruction is so terrible that the prophet finds himself in a state of shock.
Why did God allow the city to be sacked? Why this national tragedy? A careful study of the book of Lamentations shows not one, but multiple reasons. Some parts of the book do highlight a retributive purpose (Lam. 1:12; 2:1). God does seem to be judging people for unbelief and unfaithfulness, but there is more. In the midst of this tragedy Jeremiah is given the opportunity to weep with those who weep (1:16). For the prophet, the purpose was empathetic. By the time we get to the third chapter, we see yet another reason. This event was designed to bring glory to God (3:21-26). In addition to all of these, this is a great opportunity for the nation to turn her face to the Lord and grow spiritually (3:20-26). To say that God has only one purpose in any given tragedy is far too simplistic.
In light of the fact God has many reasons for allowing pain and suffering, each individual must personalize a response. The question is not, “God, why did you allow this?” A better question is, “Lord, how do you want me to respond? What are you trying to accomplish in my life?” Even through a single event, the Lord may have a different purpose for each individual.