The suffering of children: my response to a hard-ball question

Egyptian child in "Garbage City". Painful procedure with doctor

FIELDING A HARD QUESTION: A few weeks ago, just the day after my brother died, someone asked me a question about suffering. I’ll post the gist of the letter (names removed) :

Hey, Derek – My friend’s daughter just died of a brain tumor. She suffered horribly and was just 4. I’ve been very preoccupied with the concept of suffering. Right now my daughter has an undiagnosed issue which I expect will be ok, but [she is] hurting and I want it to stop… 

What about kids? What if you haven’t had a good dose of life’s joy yet? How on Earth does a 4-year-old suffering in agony mesh with the will of a loving God that would send his son to die for us?

I hear of these stories with kids and I can’t help but think “Hey God… how’d you let that slip by on your watch… you missed one.”

I know this is kind of a fundamental question about Christianity. Atheists have a ball with this. I myself can’t help think about the kids… the innocent. As an adult, well I’m a big tough man. I can handle it, right? It makes sense in my mind that older you get the more natural it becomes to face a tough or painful ailment.

Does my question make sense? I think there is a question buried in my ramblings somewhere….

DON’T GO THERE: “So why bring this up in your blog?” You may ask. “There’s no way to craft a tidy ‘now it all makes sense’ answer. You’re setting yourself up. You’ll be inviting other impossible comments and questions. Why not just leave well enough alone?”

I hear you. But, first off, this is not about me. I’m not the one with the answers, and I honestly don’t have a stake in looking all polished and tidy. Plus my God doesn’t need me to make God look good. I’m not an apologist, I’m a follower of Jesus. So I’m going to write this post on that basis.

Children on the street in Garbage City, Egypt

SUFFERING BITES: Suffering bothers me a lot. I understand that suffering is a fact of life, and I understand the very direct relationship between free will, separation from God, and this tragically broken world. I also get the fact that literally thousands of years of cumulative rebellion has given us a world that is  – as Paul writes in Romans 8, “Waiting in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it…

In other words the earth itself, the very ground beneath our feet, is waiting for the glad day when people finally begin to realign themselves with God’s purposes and make an active choice to live as faithful stewards of both creation and one-another.

Yet, even in the face of all of that, I find myself saying, “God… Jesus… Why-oh-why do you allow innocent children to go through such hell? What would it hurt to – just this once – reach in and make everything alright?”

But it’s not alright, is it? This world is full of evil. People live knee-deep in selfishness and hate. Fact.

Sacred Heart

FIRST-HAND PAIN: When our daughter, Naomi, was three-years-old, she had to spend five days in Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital for serious abdominal surgery. The details are in my 2008 book, IN MY HEART I CARRY A STAR. Long story short I’d have given anything to have taken her place, given anything to have endured all that pain on her behalf. But I couldn’t. Meanwhile, a few doors down, another child – two-year-old Sharon – occupied a bed; only this child had no-one to hold her hand and no-one to volunteer to take her place. In fact, it was her parents who had caused her pain.

What I’m saying is that, while I have all the intellectual ammunition in the world to explain suffering in children, I have no emotional understanding or visceral response other than a heart-wrenching mixture of anger and love.

WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE LOVE? And so the question – really – becomes, “What do I do with the love?” and, “What do you do with the love?” I am convinced that a huge element of God’s plan for suffering children is tied up in how people like me, and good people like you, chose to respond to both our anger and to our love.

Jesus may have defeated death on Easter Sunday, but he didn’t stick around for long. Instead, he activated Part Two of the ambitious plan of redemption. Part Two is you, and it is me, and it begs the question, “What do we choose to do with the energy that created our compassion?”

And so I find myself without a pocket-full of tidy answers, but with the gift of Jesus as my companion and guide.

MY ANSWER: Emotionally, I’m never going to come to terms with the idea of a young child having to deal with pain. If I’m honest I thank God for my unwillingness to accept as inevitable the long-term results of a broken world literally wallowing in its cumulative sin. It’s a status quo we shouldn’t be willing to accept when we have an ounce of strength left to fight.

  • Maybe, just maybe, the fact of your friend’s four-year-old child dying in agony is going to make you angry enough, and compassionate enough, and love-driven enough to do something creative and amazing that will alleviate the suffering of a thousand other children?
I've always been a sucker for cute kids!

Just maybe, when – one day – you arrive in Glory and enter into the presence of God, you will approach the throne still dripping with righteous indignation. And maybe you will yell, and cry; and maybe you will beat your fists against the chest of The Almighty; and God will embrace you and hold you close, and say, “Bless you, you good and faithful man, for sharing this burden with me and for enthusiastically choosing to be the presence of Christ, on my behalf, in the hurting places of your tragically broken world.”

GOD will say – “Bless you, you good and faithful man, for sharing this burden with me and for enthusiastically choosing to be the presence of Christ, on my behalf, in the hurting places of your tragically broken world.”

No, I don’t have any answer for your question, other than the life-charged imperative of Love. And for now, love is going to have to be enough.

– Compassionately – DEREK


  1. Our cat, Bib Kitty, is dying. He is becoming worse and almost unable to do things he want and needs to do. He is almost completely deaf. And now one eye has gone blind whch makes getting around very tricky for him. And he has abviously lost a lot of weight. What do we do? Do we watch him as he slowly dies? Do we take him to the vet and ask that he be put down? I don’t know. And somehow these questios are resonating with yours.

    I pray for all of us in our times of concern.



  2. Hi, Derek! Life is an inherently difficult proposition and life is inherently an unfair proposition. Every human being regardless of age, is governed by those propositions. I hate to see suffering in anyone, regardless of age, from the infant all the way to the very elderly. We just feel it more when we see it in children, who are more innocent in nature because they have yet to absorb adult evil. But because we are all equally human, God has democratized suffering and God does not discriminate with respect to age. And that’s what’s hard to accept. Peace and Blessings, Henry


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