Pain and sorrow are everywhere. A child is born deformed. The future of another is only hunger, disease and death. A worthy citizen is cut off in his prime, while another battles on through years of pain. The list is endless.
Every day the media brings us more scenes of disaster and tragedy. Who has not asked “Why me?... Why us? ... Why them?”In many countries there is intense suffering due to the lack of food and medicine that many take for granted. Yet not the wealthiest home is immune from the suffering, the sorrow and the heartbreak that is part of the human condition. Why? Often the victims are in no way to blame.
This question of suffering challenges every thinking person.
Only the Bible provides the reason and the solution for this universal problem. Many scoff at the Bible, especially the book of Genesis, but without it the problems of evil, pain, and death remain inexplicable. Genesis tells us how and why suffering became an integral part of human experience, and the first stage of the solution. The full program is outlined in the rest of the Bible.
In the beginning God created all living things, each generation of each species instinctively following the behavioural patterns programmed into their genes. Only man is different.
Human beings were created able to reason in the abstract, to appreciate beauty and to know right from wrong. These are characteristics of God Himself (Genesis 1:26,27). The LORD’S purpose was to create a race able to recognise His supremacy, and reverence Him as a result. Given this response, He planned to make them immortal. Instead of making us robots, God made us intelligent beings capable of choice. God gave the first human pair the ability to decide how they would respond to Him, but He warned them of the consequences of disobedience! (Genesis 2:17) He could not tolerate eternally those who ignored Him.
Our first parents disobeyed and so God’s sentence came into operation. Whereas Adam and Eve had been created “very good” (Genesis 1:31), all their children would be born with a tendency to sin so strong that every one, except Christ, would transgress. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) is the law of the Creator. Not only would all eventually die, but sorrow and pain would be part of their very existence (Refer Genesis chapters 2 and 3). There was a purpose in this. It was not merely the vengeance of an angry God, as we shall see.
The Purpose of Suffering.
Pain serves an important purpose. It is a signal that something is wrong.
The writer once heard the tragic case of a boy who had no sense of pain, discussed at a medical meeting. Every day the boy’s parents inspected him for deformities indicating broken bones he could not feel. He was the only child who had ever jumped off the kindergarten roof. He went all day with a stone in his shoe and the resulting damage was difficult to heal. Bigger boys delighted in running lighted matches up and down his bare arms, ... and so on. He was in constant danger and life was a nightmare for his mother.
Suffering and pain are all around us every day; it is God’s message to mankind that something is wrong. Action is needed.
Our understanding of the purpose of suffering is confirmed by the fact that the Bible tells us that it will continue, although to a much lesser degree, even when Jesus reigns over mortals on the earth. So long as sin remains a possibility, so long will people need reminding that all is not well and they need to put themselves right with God (Ezekiel 47:12, Isaiah 65:20).
Our Creator has the right to tell us what to do. If justice was His only characteristic, He would have long ago destroyed us all for disobedience. That is not His way. He loves us and wants to save us from ourselves, if only we will listen. The laws he gave are wise and good.
Had humanity heeded the regulations He gave Israel around 1600 BC, many major health problems would never have occurred. There would have been no Black Death and the spread of many infectious diseases which have caused untold suffering down the centuries, would have been minimised. If God’s laws for healthy living were respected today, much of the stress, and many of the problems that afflict humanity throughout the world, would be eliminated.
Human greed leads to exploitation of the weak. The lust for power means that resources that should be spent on agriculture, health and education, are diverted into armaments, or flamboyant luxury for a few families. Much misery is the result of unrestrained human nature. Anger and violence bring suffering to countless innocent victims.
Numerous organisations and individuals devote their energies to the relief of suffering, but they find themselves up against two insurmountable obstacles.
First, while they do have some success in providing relief, they find many of the underlying causes too difficult to solve. The repeated failures of the various United Nations organisations demonstrate this.
Secondly, the solution of one problem often creates another, and regularly a new crisis arises. For example: Wonderful strides have been made in medicine and great is the sense of triumph that devastating illnesses are being brought under control. However, in recent years a number of these infections have re-appeared in drug-resistant strains, and diseases never previously known have come to light. In raising life expectancy, over-population problems have been increased. Also, as the proportion of the elderly in the population increases, new social dilemmas arise. Without God, man is in a “no win” situation.
Humanity is powerless to solve its most basic problems.
The Unfair Distribution of Suffering.
As is very obvious, suffering does not come alike to all.
The Bible acknowledges this.
“One man dies full of vigour, completely secure and at ease.............. Another man dies in bitterness of soul, having never enjoyed anything good”
Note the finality. “Side by side they lie in the dust. “ Job 21:23-26
When Jesus was in Jerusalem this question was raised with him. A building had collapsed. He said
“Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, No! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” Luke 13:4
The Psalmist wrestled with this problem.
“I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil but he soon passed away and was no more...
Consider the blameless, observe the upright:
there is a future for the man of peace.” Psalm 37:35-37
The lesson is plain. There are only two alternatives for any of us - God’s gift of eternal life, or oblivion. All of us have sinned by disobeying God’s commands, and so we deserve nothing but death. It is presumptuous to be asking “Why do I suffer?” It would be more appropriate if our question was “Why don’t I suffer more?” Part of God’s mercy to us, is that He sends pain to encourage us to stop and think; to realise our need and seek Him.
“God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish,
but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9
A wealthy person in good health, may feel secure and powerful, but let disaster or pain strike them or their loved ones, and immediately their helplessness becomes apparent. Death reduces a man to nothing. Suffering provides him with opportunity to turn to God before it is too late. A place in the Kingdom of God is infinitely better than the best that anyone experiences today.
If everything was comfortable on earth, we would have no reason to pray
“Your Kingdom come........” Matthew 6:10
and no reason to look beyond the confines of our little lives.
God created the universe to run on the law of cause and effect. Natural disasters, disease organisms or genetic disorders that are all part of His curse upon humankind, cannot effect all alike. Human exploitation and tyranny crush the weakest. Some do suffer much more than others.
God will not remove the effects of wickedness, and thus allow rebellion against Him to flourish unchecked. If God removed the evils that are the result of sin, and thus all suffering, He would be relinquishing control to the beings He has made. Men could do what they wanted unchecked. This is unthinkable. But God is part way through His great purpose of ridding the world of sin for ever.
Life and death, pain and joy, evil and good, are all the work of God.
“I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form the light, and create darkness,
I bring prosperity, and create disaster,
I, the LORD, do all these things.” Isaiah 45:6 and 7
The Message to the World.
God wants people to realise their own inadequacy and the ultimate futility of human effort. To that end He wants us to feel what Jeremiah the prophet felt:
“I know, O LORD, that a man’s life is not his own;
it is not for a man to direct his steps” Jeremiah 10:23
God wants men and women to be saved. We have already noted that
“He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish,
but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9
However, to force us to obey, would frustrate His original purpose in creating us with free will.
We are so used to sin-stricken human nature, that we see it as the norm. Even if life is easy for us personally, the suffering and injustice around us every day, remind us how urgently changes are needed; of the choice each of us must make for ourselves.
The Reason the Righteous Suffer.
There is no doubt that some good people suffer far more than many people who are evil and cruel. This is acknowledged in the Bible.
“There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth:
righteous men who get what the wicked deserve,
and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve.” Ecclesiastes 8:14
Job (refer Job 3:11) and Jeremiah (refer Jeremiah 20:14,17,18), two of the most worthy men who ever lived, each became so distressed that they wished they had never been born. Moses (Numbers 11:15), who did so much to improve the lot of his people, and the great prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), both reached the point where they just wanted to die.
The book of Job is a long discussion of the sufferings of an innocent person. It is significant that the events it records, took place around four thousand years ago. This is a very old problem.
Job was prosperous and highly respected. In rapid succession he lost his family, his property and his health. Three of his friends came to be with him and they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of his afflictions. Initially, they offered comfort by reminding him of all the good he had done and encouraging him to trust in God. Then gradually they talked themselves into believing that he must have been guilty of some terrible crime to be thus punished. Through great suffering, Job’s character was perfected and he was eventually blessed. A glorious future yet awaits him. This book remains very relevant today.
When we are distressed and everything seems to be going wrong, it is easy to blame God if not for the actual problem, at least for not protecting us, or our loved one, from it. This is a test to see if we really do believe that God is greater and wiser than we are, as Job did. Throughout the Bible we are exhorted to trust God.
No human has ever endured more than Jesus. The reason for Christ’s sufferings is a whole subject in itself, but we note that it was all part of the great purpose of God. Without his sacrifice the world would be without hope.
In universal suffering, we see God’s appeal to the world.
In the specific sufferings of those who have chosen His way, we see God’s education of the individual for immortality. The first twelve verses of Hebrews chapter twelve deal with this subject and repay study.
“The LORD disciplines those He loves
“God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness and punishes everyone He accepts as a son.”
When we accept Christ, God becomes our Father caring for us and disciplining us, as is individually appropriate.
As children we are not sufficiently wise to know what is best for us, let alone for others, but the Bible helps us towards understanding by recording how some outstanding people came to view their own afflictions.
Earlier we quoted the example of the sufferings of righteous Job. He had been very self satisfied but when his trial was over, he declared his new insight:
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent......”
David was a man of great integrity, although there were times when he disobeyed God’s commands and suffered as a result. He wrote a long Psalm in praise of God’s law. In it he says
"Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.” Psalm 119:67
The apostle Paul who did so much to establish Christianity, by preaching the gospel and writing a significant part of the New Testament, went through such terrible persecution that he thought he was going to die. Note his conclusion:
“This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” 2 Corinthians 1:8-11
When a man or woman comes to rely on God completely they have reached the state of mind He wants.
After experiencing torture, imprisonment, danger and privation on many occasions (2 Corinthians 11:24-33) Paul wrote words of great comfort to his fellow believers in Christ,
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us...
And we know that in all things God works for the good
of those who love Him.” Romans 8:18 and 28
In the Bible God has given us the reasons for human suffering and His requirements of those who want to enjoy life in the everlasting future when
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death,
or mourning, or crying or pain
for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:4