The Problem of Suffering
SUFFERING is a problem in life that comes home to everyone. A child is born blind, deformed or mentally afflicted; and the question comes: Why? The child has done no harm.
A man or woman of fine character and in the prime of life is racked with pain in a hopeless disease that can only end in death. Why him? Why her? These are the people who can least be spared.
Millions in the world are suffering semi-starvation and disease in countries with vast populations and little fertility. Others perish or are made homeless in floods and earthquakes. Why should they suffer?
Where do Suffering, Evil and War come from?
What possible answers are there?
- Time and chance - Natural Disasters
- The Devil or Satan
More than one answer may be true
Natural Disasters - Flood, Famine, Earthquake, Forest Fire etc
Are these truly natural?
- Flooding linked to Global warming. Plus Links to deforestation etc.
- Famine - there is enough food in the world, but politics, war etc, keep it from getting to where it is needed, or prevent people from growing or harvesting it.
- Earthquakes may be natural, but cities such as San Francisco and Tokyo are built on well-known fault lines. If people moved to a more stable area, the casualties would be minimised.
- Disease - Many diseases thrive on the poor sanitary conditions that a lot of people have to live in. Better housing and sanitation, plus a clean water supply would greatly improve the situation. AIDs has been spread by sexual promiscuity, like other sexually transmitted diseases before it. CJD was introduced to humans through messing around with the natural order of things and feeding meat products to a herbivore.
As well as the above, Man is responsible for War, Crime, violence in the home and on the streets. Other suffering caused by debt, unemployment etc is directly caused by Man.
This rather depends in whether you believe in a devil. The Bible teaches that the devil is another way of describing Sin, called personification. Other examples are Wisdom being personified as a woman and Israel as a prostitute etc. This is a subject dealt with elsewhere, so I won't be dwelling further on it here. Suffice to say that Sin IS at the root of much evil, but not some fallen angel or whatever.
Does God CAUSE suffering? That is a concept which is difficult for many to consider
Exd 32:14 So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.
2Ki 21:12 therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel: 'Behold, I am bringing such calamity upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears will tingle.
Of course, this is evil from a human perspective, which is different from God's perspective. Yet even if the suffering does not emanate from God, He allows it to happen.
Indeed , the question is often asked, "If there is a God, a loving, merciful God, why does He allow people to suffer? How can He allow humans to experience the terrible accidents, illnesses, crime, wars and troubles that are so common in this world every day? Doesn't He care?"
God does care. He knows when humans suffer. But, let's remember, God isn't a mere human. He is God. His perspective is infinitely greater than ours. He sees the "bigger picture" - that our experiences as mortal humans, however painful or unhappy, will be to our eventual benefit. In His full knowledge of everything, God knew that the plan He chose, even though it allowed for sin and suffering, ultimately would bring about the greatest good and glory. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that God was overcome by the power of sin; that suffering was forced into His universe against His will. No. He is the sovereign who "works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11).
When a parent takes an infant to the doctor for a regular vaccination to prevent some childhood disease, it's because the parent cares for and loves that child. The young child however will almost always see things very differently. When the doctor's needle goes into that little arm, the child will often cry out and howl from the pain. It may look up at the parent, with those big innocent eyes, in the most pleading and pitiful way, as if to say, "Look at the horrible thing that's happening to me! Don't you care about my terrible suffering? How can you just stand there and allow this to go on? Don't you love me?"
The parent however knows better. He or she is aware that everything is going to be all right in a very short time (even though it almost always has an emotional impact on the parent to see the child distressed in such a way). A minor, brief pain is the price the child pays for a healthier life later.
It is the same reason that someone puts themselves through chemotherapy or radio-therapy, because ultimately we hope to be better. As it is often said, no pain, no gain.
Just as an infant cannot possibly understand the motives of its parent while it is still only a child, so too we cannot comprehend God's will for us while we are still as we are. It's a matter of perspective - the brief few years of a physical human lifetime, versus the eternity, time without end, that will follow.
The Bible makes it very clear that all human suffering is the result of Adam and Eve disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. Our suffering is directly related to the curse that came upon the earth as the result of sin. Its origin is succinctly put by the Apostle Paul:
" Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).
The result of this disobedience was the removal of mankind from the perfect conditions in the Garden that only sinless people could enjoy. Instead, they were to live in the outside world, with all its problems. This was the choice that our first ancestors chose for us. The sentence upon the woman after the disobedience in Eden says:
"I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."
To the man God says: “
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3: 19).
The teaching is simple. With man's disobedience there came a dislocation in the relationship between the Creator and the created; the relation between God and man is out of joint. The first sin brought a fundamental change in Man's relationship with God and with the World. But God has a plan.
God, Our Father
God is our ultimate parent. He knows all about the problems we often have, but He also knows that our experiences with pain and suffering, along with all of the good experiences that we may have, will, among other things, help to make us more understanding and compassionate - necessary qualities for those who themselves may one day be priests and kings in the Kingdom of God.
"Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.." (John 15:13)
Greater love even God could not have than to give His beloved Son to the suffering of the cross for the redemption of mankind.
It is true, therefore, to say that even God suffers, and His suffering was for us. And this is the answer to the question "Why doesn't God intervene?". God has intervened. He has given His only Son, Jesus as the once and for all sacrifice for sin. Whosoever believes in him, will not die, but will have everlasting life.
"Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered " (Hebrews 5:8).
In accepting suffering in obedience to the will of God, Jesus raised it to a new plane, and showed it no longer as the greatest evil but as a means to an end: for through suffering, in his perfect obedience to God, he overcame the power of sin in human nature, and so made possible resurrection from the dead to eternal life with the Father. In this he obtained perfection, a tried and tested faith, completeness in obedience, wholeness in the love of God and the service of man -- an example to all his followers. Jesus Christ Himself, when He died for our sins, did not die without terrible suffering. He did not die peacefully in His sleep. Even though He had lived a perfectly sinless life, and had committed no crime, He was brutally beaten, flogged and crucified in great agony. Like his Father, Jesus' suffering was for us.
But God has not intervened to take away our freedom of choice. Those of us who are parents know that to wrap our children in cotton wool will ultimately not prepare them for the world at large. Eventually, they must learn for themselves where danger lurks and how to avoid it. When they run to us with a scraped knee or a bump on the head, we are not indifferent; we care for them and hopefully, a lesson has been learned and they will not make the same mistake again. So it is with God. He lets us learn life's lessons for ourselves; He is there to pick us up if we ask Him to.
Let's remember that even the longest human life is merely like a single grain of sand on the infinite beach of the eternal life to come. After we have become immortal, even a century of the worst human pain and suffering would seem to us as almost insignificant, a momentary jab with a vaccination needle, and we will surely be the better for having experienced it.
Eternal Good in View
Some time ago, so the story goes, a few ladies met to study the scriptures. While reading the third chapter of Malachi, they came upon a remarkable expression in the third verse:
"And He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver" (Malachi 3:3).
One lady decided to visit a silversmith, and report to the others on what he said about the subject.
She went accordingly, and without telling him the reason for her visit, begged the silversmith to tell her about the process of refining silver. After he had fully described it to her, she asked, "Sir, do you sit while the work of refining is going on?"
"Oh, yes ma'am," replied the silversmith; "I must sit and watch the furnace constantly, for, if the time necessary for refining is exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured."
The lady at once saw the beauty and comfort of the expression, "He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver."
God sees it necessary to put His children into the furnace; but His eye is steadily intent on the work of purifying, and His wisdom and love are both engaged in the best manner for us. Our trials do not come at random, and He will not let us be tested beyond what we can endure.
Before she left, the lady asked one final question, "How do you know when the process is complete?"
"That's quite simple," replied the silversmith. "When I can see my own image in the silver, the refining process is finished."
We are the silver; God is the silversmith. The fire and the heat get rid of the impurities and ultimately, we become more like God.
Whatever calamity befalls us, God has our eternal good in view. God may not have a specific lesson to teach us every time we suffer, but He does have a good purpose in view. In Romans 8:28 we read: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose". God has designed all of life (including suffering) to make us in His image. Nothing that we suffer in this life can prevent this process from reaching its divinely purposed outcome.
If, then, God suffered, and if, in obedience to the Father, Christ suffered even to death, the whole problem of man's suffering is raised to a new level. Without faith in God, suffering is an evil to be endured. With faith, and the example of the Son of God, suffering may purify and ennoble, and be a means by which God brings the sufferer nearer to Himself. It can be truly a divine education, preparing us for life everlasting in the Kingdom of God.
So, how can we come to grips with our suffering? How can we endure it? Here's a plan of action:
- Expect suffering. Realize that in a fallen world suffering is the abnormal normality (see 1 Pet. 2:12-14).
- Realize that God in control; nothing can happen unless He allows it. We should be humble before Him (see Ex. 4:11; Job 40:2; Provide. 6:4; Isa. 45:7; Jer. 49:19; Amos 3:6; Rom. 9:20-23).
- Understand that though God is sovereign and man is responsible for his actions, suffering is a product of the Fall (see II Sam. 12:11; 16:21,22; Acts 4:27,28; Rev. 13:2,7,8).
- Accept the reality that God allows suffering for good and necessary reasons: to prepare us to comfort others (see II Cor. 1:4-6); to teach us to trust in Him and not in ourselves (see 1:9; 4:7,16, 18; 12:1-10); to turn our hearts toward heaven (see 5:1-4); to develop maturity (see James 1:1-12); to discipline us for sinful behavior (see I Cor. 11:30); and to judge wickedness (see Ps. 37:12,13).
- Remember that God has entered into our suffering to redeem us from it. He did this through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Rom. 8:18-23).
- Remember that we do not yet see clearly. We must trust God until answers to suffering are made clear (see Job 13:15; I Cor. 13:12).
- Remember that this life is nothing when compared with eternity. What is a lifetime of suffering in comparison with an eternity of heaven? (see Rom. 8:18).
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