Several years ago (when I was about 16 or so), I wrote a blog post about why humanity suffers. Some of what I wrote back then (what I can remember, anyway) still holds true in my mind. But other statements, I think, were a little short-sighted. Now that I’m a bit older and wiser, I’m going to take another stab at it. This comes at an appropriate time, as a deadly shooting just occurred at a Connecticut elementary school.
Human suffering is a topic of serious discussion in modern times. Atheists and agnostics hold it up as proof of God’s nonexistence or evidence of divine cruelty. The logic goes, “If a just and loving God did exist, He would not allow us to suffer.” For those who aren’t aware of the Bible’s position on suffering, that can be a compelling argument. Hopefully, I can shed some light on the subject. Here are the following reasons God has given me for why people suffer:
Sin brought, and continues to bring, suffering into this world. When God first created the world, it was perfect. Man and woman were immortal, equal, and in close fellowship with the Almighty. There was no pain. No disease. No death. No murder. No greed. No abuse or slander. It was a world of beauty, peace, and plenty. God only had one rule: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
When mankind rebelled against God, death and pain entered the world. Thorns sprang up among the world’s vegetation, and the natural bounty of food shrank. Equality between the sexes was lost. Man now had to toil to achieve the pleasures God had freely granted to humans before the fall. Worst of all, the intimate relationship between God and man was damaged (Genesis 3:16-19, 23).
Some would ask, “Why did it have to be this way? Couldn’t God just overlook the incident? Why even make a forbidden tree in the first place?”
Because God needed to give mankind a choice. Love involves choice. Love must be willingly and freely given, or else it isn’t love. How loving would we think God is if He made following and obeying Him mandatory? Probably not at all. By having a rule in place, humans could choose of their own free will whether to adhere to God’s wisdom. That people can choose to deny the existence of God and refuse to worship him is proof of God’s fairness and liberty.
Also, there had to be consequences for rejecting God. To reject the authority of God means to accept the authority of Satan. Satan challenged God’s authority at the beginning of the world; he called God a liar. If the world had kept spinning in perfection after mankind’s sin, Satan would have been proved right. However, it’s impossible for God to lie (Numbers 23:19; Hebrews 6:18). It’s also impossible for Satan to tell the truth. The Bible calls him “the father of lies” (John 8:44).
When mankind chose to trust in Satan’s words over God’s decree, he crowned Satan “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). But because there’s no good within him, he cannot offer humanity the good gifts or righteous justice that God provides. Satan’s authority only creates more suffering. As such, both Satan and humanity prove themselves incapable of ruling this world fairly.
The consequences of sin don’t just affect the person who sins. Every day, innocent people are killed by murderers and drunk drivers. This brings suffering to the victims’ friends and families. It often brings suffering to the criminals’ families as well, as they experience guilt, horror and ostracism due to their loved one’s actions.
Even God and Jesus have suffered because of sin. God grieves every time a person turns away from Him–just like a father who grieves over a rebellious, self-destructive child. Jesus died a brutal death to redeem mankind’s sins, experiencing betrayal and rejection in the process. At the end of time, Satan will suffer divine judgment in the Lake of Fire. No one is immune to the suffering caused by sin.
2. A Corrupt Environment
The Bible says that sin “defiles the land,” along with our bodies and souls (Leviticus 18:24-28). Consider the effects of greed, lust and materialism on our world today. In the pursuit of wealth, we’ve clear-cut forests, polluted lakes and rivers, leveled hills, hollowed out mountains, destroyed countless habitats, damaged the soil, filled the air with smoke and rendered many species extinct. As a result, people suffer from historic rates of cancer, heart disease, asthma, allergies and diabetes. Mental illness and obesity are epidemic. Increasing numbers of children are being diagnosed with autism, Aspergers, Down Syndrome and ADD. Our fruits and vegetables contain far more sodium and fewer nutrients compared to just 50 years ago. The modern sexual revolution has caused the rate of sexually transmitted illnesses, HIV in particular, to explode. Our toxic environment, the result of our ongoing sin, makes people ill and causes catastrophic natural disasters.
3. The End Times
Jesus told his disciples that as his return to earth drew near, sin and natural disasters would increase:
“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:4-13)
Of course, an increase in wickedness means an increase in suffering.
4. God Allows It
It might seem strange for a believer to admit this. But, yes, God does allow His followers to suffer on occasion. Here’s why:
a). To draw us closer to Him. When suffering comes, believers often turn to God for strength and comfort. Sadly, most people feel less inclined to do that when life is sunny. Their thoughts are usually on their job, kids, hobbies, bank account, political party, upcoming vacation or favorite TV show.
When suffering came to Job, his full attention rested on God. He wasn’t off counting his money because his wealth had been destroyed. He wasn’t out herding donkeys because his donkeys had been carried off by raiders. He wasn’t managing his servants because his servants had been killed. He suddenly had lots of time on his hands to pray and contemplate the ways of God. God eventually showed up in a whirlwind to speak to Job directly (Job 38).
Wealth and ease often obscures our need for God, which is why the Bible contains so many warnings against excess wealth:
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelations 3:17)
Suffering gets our attention and highlights our need for God’s grace and power. Therefore, it’s no surprise that believers in poorer countries are often happier and more faithful than believers in wealthy nations. When suffering, we learn to lean on God.
b). To remind believers of His provision. Often, we forget that the good things we have in life came from God. Instead, we attribute them to our own efforts: how hard we worked at our job, how well we managed our budgets, how much we exercised, etc. But when God steps in to alleviate suffering, we recognize the source of all that is good and comforting.
c). To reveal Himself to all. The Bible speaks of a woman who suffered from bleeding for 12 years. She had spent every dime she had on doctors. She had tried every home remedy available. Everyone had told her there was no cure for her condition. So when she received instant healing by touching Jesus’ garment, no one could deny that God had done the work (see Mark 5:25-34).
Imagine if this woman had simply prayed after a month of bleeding and had been healed. Or six months. Or a year. Would any of her neighbors have acknowledged God’s power? Would she have? Or would people simply have assumed that her healing was coincidental or the work of doctors? The breadth and depth of this woman’s suffering left no room for doubt when her relief finally came: Only God could have healed her.
d). To teach us compassion, thankfulness and humility. Imagine if believers never suffered at all. What would we act like? I imagine we’d become very self-assured, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees believed that only sinners suffered. They strutted around in their fine clothes telling people that if they just obeyed the Mosaic law (like them), then they, too, could have a life of health, favor and ease. The Pharisees congratulated themselves on earning God’s favor. They had no concept of grace and zero empathy. Anyone who didn’t look, talk, act, dress or smell like them wasn’t worth their time. Sound familiar? There are many prominent Christians with this attitude today.
Suffering reminds us that we are all sinners saved by grace. It knocks us off our self-erected pedestals and gets us thinking about others. It makes us thankful for the good things in our lives and helps us minister to the hurting masses with wisdom.
e). To increase our hunger for Christ’s return. When tragedies occur, people begin to yearn for justice and comfort. Jesus will bring both when he returns to earth for his followers. The wicked will be judged, the world’s corrupt systems will be destroyed, and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of His hurting children.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).
5. For the Sake of the Gospel
Jesus said those who follow him will suffer because of the gospel (John 15:18-23; 2 Timothy 3:12-13). Friends and family will turn their backs on them (Matthew 10:34-36). Powerful rulers, content in their sin and domination, will persecute them. The cross stands to remind people of what they are: sinners needing grace. Many find that offensive. They don’t want to acknowledge their wrongdoing. They don’t want to show love or true equality to others. They don’t want to be reminded of their eternal destination. They don’t want others to turn from their influence, either. Therefore, they attack and slander believers, sometimes with violence. Christians in America have been largely spared from this type of suffering, but our day is fast approaching.
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Notice what’s not on this list: suffering as divine punishment. I don’t believe God inflicts suffering on people to punish them. All of the suffering we experience is either a direct or indirect result of sin, hate and rebellion.
I believe suffering in hell is also a consequence rather than a contrived punishment. People ask, “Why couldn’t God just create a separate paradise where people who didn’t want to be with Him could go?” Because it would be impossible. Every good thing comes from God–not just originally, but continually. In other words, good cannot exist apart from Him. For paradise to exist, He would have to be present. Hell is a terrible place not because He made it so; it’s terrible because God is not there. When people reject God, they reject all that is good. And God loves us so much that He allows us to make that choice.
God is the only One who can ultimately relieve suffering. When we’re hurting, He welcomes us with open arms, ready to lavish His love and care upon us. Today, our hearts may be broken. We may be asking why and searching for answers. But God promises complete healing for His followers–if not in this life, then in the next.
I, too, believe that social evil is caused by the human abuse of freedom. If the Gift of life came with strings attached it would have been more of a loan than a gift.
That does not explain the suffering caused by natural disasters; but perhaps the same principle applies. The entire gift of Creation was given the freedom to evolve, constrained only by the inevitable limitations imposed by the intrinsic finiteness that not being God imposes.
Rabbi Kushner reminds us that “Nature is value-free. It can’t tell the role between the deserving the undeserving. God’s role is not to decide where the hurricane goes and how severe it is. God’s role is to motivate people to help neighbors and improve methods to predict hurricanes. God is found not in the problem, but in the resilience.”
For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? – Augustine, Enchiridion (Marcus Dods translation, 1876)
I think natural disasters can be explained by the environment we have corrupted through our sin. Scientists say storms are increasing in strength and frequency due to global warming. We detonate powerful nuclear weapons underground and then wonder why earthquakes are so severe. I’m not entirely sure Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 were an admission of what he would cause. Instead, I think he was being prophetic of how the world would grow worse on its own.
I agree that nature is value-free. The Bible says as much in Luke 13:1-5: ‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or 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.”’