The Problem of Suffering
Are you presently enduring physical illness and pain? Are you encountering financial problems, facing rejection from a dear loved one, or going through a particularly difficult trial in life? Have you come to the point of believing that your life is futile, that your dreams have been shattered, and that life really is not worth living? If so, you can see that life on earth is filled with disappointment, failure, trouble, and even heart wrenching tragedies. I can assure you that God has answers to this human dilemma and that your present feeling of brokenness can lead to genuine joy, deep peace, and a blessed hope for the future!
Human suffering has posed a problem from the very beginning. Unbelievers often refer to the existence of suffering as proof that there is no God, at least the God of the Bible. They insist that there cannot be a God with the attributes of love, wisdom, power, and mercy as long as unrelieved suffering continues in the world. They say that if there really is a God, He must either be powerless to prevent suffering, or lacking in mercy to alleviate suffering, or without the wisdom to overcome suffering. Therefore, they assert that God must either be lacking in omniscience (all knowledge), or power (omnipotence), or the quality of love.
In contrast to this skeptical view, the believer knows that God does existand human, earthly suffering likewise exists. How can this be? What is responsible for the problems, troubles, trials, and tragedies of life? What is the underlying cause of these problems? What is the source of human suffering? Whator wholies behind the hurts, the problems, and the distress of life?
Some people assume that they have the answers. First, the naturalist would say everything that happens is the result of natural causes in the natural world. They claim that everything, including bad things, have naturalistic explanations and we should not go beyond these to the supernatural realm to explain them. Obviously, most of these people are evolutionists, asserting that there is no Godor at least not the God of the Bible.
Second, others would say that were personally responsible for many of the problems in life. If we were to act wisely, prudently, and responsibly, most of the problems would not exist. We are not only the cause of our problems, but they say that we also are the only ones who can solve them. Third, still others would claim that Satan is the underlying cause of our problems. This spiritual, supernatural, malicious enemy of our soul and his evil demons work in the world system to cause trials, disease, calamities, and tragedies.
Fourth, many others would say that pain, hardship and trouble comes because we are living in an imperfect world, in imperfect bodies, among imperfect people, and life on this earth is subject to all kinds of suffering. Fifth, certain Eastern religions and cults would say that suffering is only an illusion. There is no real pain, thus we should train our mind to deny its reality.
Finally, certain religionists would assert that God is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. He lies behind the problems in the world and in our lives, thus we should recognize His sovereignty over all events, whether good or bad. Therefore, these people would claim that the underlying and basic source of suffering is God Himself.
How do these various views work out in actual experience? Consider an example. An automobile is involved in a tragic wreck, with the death of several members of a family. Why did it happen? Who or what is responsible for this calamity? First, did this occur because God planned for the car to have this accident and the occupants to die? Did He arrange for this horrible and bloody tragedy, determining it before the beginning of the world? On the other hand, did Satan cause the wreck, perhaps because he wanted to destroy a Christian family, or because he wanted to send a lost family to hell, or simply because he wishes to destroy people and property?
Third, maybe the driver of the vehicle or another driver is to blame. The driver may have been driving too fast, or maybe he didnt repair a dangerous condition on the vehicle, or maybe he was drunk. Finally, maybe there is a natural way to explain the accident. Normal wear and tear on the car may have been the reason or bad weather may have been the cause. We are just living in a world where all kinds of bad things happen.
Take another example. Suppose John discovers that he has a malignant tumor in his body and this finally proves fatal. Who or what is responsible for the death? First, is God responsible for this tragedy? Did He cause the cancer? Even if He didnt actually cause it, He could have either providentially or miraculously healed Johns body. Maybe John was a sinner and God wanted to punish him or, if John was a faithful Christian, maybe God wanted to take him home to heaven! Conversely, maybe Satan caused Johns cancer. Satan, the great destroyer, wanted to either destroy this effective servant of the Lord or wanted to destroy a lost person so he will not have further opportunity to repent.
Third, maybe John is responsible for his own disease. Up to two-thirds of cancer cases are preventable. Maybe John used tobacco, or worked with carcinogenic chemicals, or ate a high-fat dietall of which can cause certain cancers. Perhaps the fact that we live in a fallen world is the explanation. Natural processes on this defective sin-cursed earth may be the breeding ground for cancer development. Finally, some may suggest that maybe John died because he didnt deny the existence of his cancerous growth.
How do we view this perplexity? There must be an element of truth in some of these factors, at least in many of our life situations. Scripture confirms this. For example, Jobs trials and suffering are attributed both to God (1:21; 2:10) and to Satan (1:12). In reality, both God and Satan were involved in Jobs adversities and physical condition. God said to Satan, He [Job] still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to ruin him without cause (2:3). At the end of the book, the record refers to the evil that the LORD had brought on him (42:11). It is true that Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job with sore boils, thus Satan himself was responsible for Jobs loss, distress, and trials. But God permitted him to sufferthus, in a sense, He also was responsible for the trials.
The book describes how Jobs friends wrongly attributed the sufferings to his own great wickedness (cf. 22:5-11). In reality, Job was blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil (1:1). As we read this book, we also notice that sinful men (1:14-17) and weather conditions (1:16?, 18-19) were involved in Jobs loss. But as we read through the book of Job, we can see that something beyond mere natural processes were responsible for sufferingat least in the case of Job and his family.
Christs own redemptive suffering might be a clear example of how several elements were involved in the same horrible event. God was directly involved. Jesus was delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). Later, the disciples prayed to God, saying that Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Jews did whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur (4:27-28). But not only was God directly involved in Christs sufferings, Satan also was very much involved. The devil used the apostate Judas to accomplish his diabolical schemes. The Bible says that the devil put into the heart of Judas Iscariot . . . to betray Him (John 13:2; cf. v. 27). Both Jews and Romans also participated in this wicked act of rejection and crucifixion (cf. Acts 2:23; 3:13-14; 5:30; 13:27-29). Thus, various causes led to Christs deaththe Fathers plan and will, Satans scheme and instigation, Judas betrayal, the rejection of the Jews, and the actual torture and crucifixion by Pilate and the Romans. (See our article in this website, Who Killed Jesus?)
What about your own life? What about mine? Sometimes the underlying causes of our suffering may be clear. A smoker uses tobacco and develops lung cancer or emphysemaand dies. A drunk driver or drug addict is reckless on the road and kills a family of five. An undisciplined obese person sinfully yields to the flesh and eats too much or eats the wrong foods, then develops diabetes, high blood pressure, and eventually dies of heart disease. Satan, of course, is also involved in such instances.
However, often it isnt this clear-cut. We may not be able to determine the source or causes for hardship, trials, and suffering. We may pray to the Lord, analyze and seek advice, read Scripture, and do much morebut still were not entirely sure what has brought trials into our life.
I write from experienceand I know that you can do the same. In my own life, there are many perplexities. Why did I need to remain celibate for most of my life when I earnestly wanted and prayed for a dear Christian wife to help in my labors for the Lord? Why did I need to place much of my Christian supplies and books in storage twenty-four years ago and, again, six years ago I needed to place most of the remainder of Christian literature, supplies, and equipment in storageso that the work of the Lord has been greatly hindered for many years? Why have I been without housing, without reliable transportation, without a meaningful profession or occupation, without adequate income, and without meaningful and fulfilling Christian fellowship for so many yearswhen all of this lack has severely limited my work for the Lord Jesus? Many other instances could be cited. Im sure that you also could describe perplexities in your own life.
As we earlier stated, these kinds of circumstances are an enigma. They leave us puzzled for they seem to work against what we believe is Gods work in our life and in the lives of others. In my own case, did all of this occur because Satan was hindering Gods work in my life (cf. 1 Thess. 2:18; Rom. 1:13; 15:22)? Did it come about because God willed it so (James 4:13-15)? Did it come because of something irresponsible or unwise on my part (cf. Prov. 27:12)? Or did it come because we all live in an imperfect world that is under the divine curse (cf. Gen. 3:16-19; Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 22:3)? This we can say: Even when we cant know the precise answers to such questions, we can trust a wise, gracious, and loving God who will do all things well.
Think of your own illnesses, broken relationships, wayward children, loss of employment, educational defeats, financial struggles, injuries, rejections, and a hundred other troubles and problems. Did all that I have experienced and all that you have experienced occur because of Gods will, because of Satans activity, because of our own faults and failures, because of other peoples wrongs and sins, or simply because we live in an imperfect, fallen, degenerate, sin-filled world?
This shows that we must beware of answers that are too simple. We may be able to identify the cause of some illnesses; at other times, it may not be entirely clear. We may be able to recognize the reason for various problems, troubles, hardships, or trials that we encounter, but in other cases, we may not be able to see the answers that plainly.
Why Do We Face Trials?
Although we have noticed above some of the underlying causes of our distress, it may be good for us to look at these more carefully and notice what Scripture tells us about them.
God may be responsible for some trials. There would be many cases of this source of earthly, human, physical trials. For instance, when Moses objected to being sent to deliver Israel from slavery, he claimed to be slow of speech and slow of tongue (Exod. 4:10). God replied, Who has made mans mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? (v. 11). He then told Moses that He would be with his mouth and teach him what to say (v. 12). God must somehow, in some inexplicable way, be involved even in physical handicaps.
Scripture says that God sometimes has brought physical sickness on people. Exodus 12:29 says that the Lord struck or killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Second Kings 19:35 says that the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrians. Deuteronomy 28 warns that if Israel disobeys the Lord, the LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me (vv. 20, 28).
God may also have something to do with suffering in the life of His faithful children. Hebrews 12:4-14 says that God disciplines us for our good. The Father sends this into our life (or at least allows them to come) for our good and spiritual growth. Part of this discipline or chastening might be physical illness, distress, and earthly troubles. God may bring trials into our life to correct us and lead us to change. The glorified Christ said, Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:19; cf. 1 Cor. 11:29-32; 5:5).
Satan may be responsible for some of our trials. Since Satan seeks to devour us, it is clear that he would use all means at his disposal (1 Pet. 5:8). You may remember that one woman Jesus met had experienced a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all (Luke 13:11). For eighteen years, this poor woman had been bound by Satan (v. 16), but Jesus healed her infirmity (vv. 12-13). When Peter preached to Cornelius in Caesarea, he said that Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38). Could it be that many illnesses today are also caused by Satans oppression? Jesus said to the community of Christians at Smyrna, The devil is about to cast some of you into prison (Rev. 2:10). Although evil men did the actual imprisonment of Christs disciples, we see that Satan was behind this oppression and persecutionand was responsible for it. The devil is the cause of some of our own trials.
People are responsible for some of their own personal trials or the trials of others. This has been the history of the world, from the very beginning. Adam and Eve sinned and brought lifelong sufferingfor themselves and others (Gen. 3). Cain murdered his righteous brother Abel (Gen. 4:8). Jacob married two sisters and this resulted in life-long jealousy, pride, and competition (Gen. 29-30). Josephs brothers, filled with jealousy and envy, sold him into Egyptian slavery, which led to years of imprisonment (Gen. 37, 39-40). David committed adultery and murder, and this brought lifelong distress to his family (2 Sam. 11-12).
So much of the pain, rejection, injury, death, suffering, and hardship on earth is caused by personal irresponsibility or sin. Just today, the newspaper mentions suffering caused by mankind:
- A husband kills his wife who filed for divorce.
- Two brothers are arrested in home invasion.
- A woman is sexually assaulted.
- An ex-convict receives life sentence for shooting a deputy.
- The 9-11 mastermind is put on trial for his life.
- Poor construction leads to Chinese earthquake deaths.
Yet, some suffering does not have this human origin. When Jesus and His disciples saw a man who was blind from birth, the disciples asked, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind? Jesus replied, It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him (John 9:2-3). We must not attribute all suffering to personal sin. Remember that we noted that all of Jobs suffering was not caused by his sinbut by his righteousness (cf. Job 1:1-12)!
We may bring suffering and hardship upon ourselves. As we earlier mentioned, a drunkard may die of cirrhosis of the liver, a smoker may die of lung cancer or emphysema, an overweight person may die of heart disease or diabetes, a miner may die of black lung, a speeder may be injured in an accident, a depressed person may commit self-murder or suicide, and a music lover may listen to loud and worldly music that results in loss of hearing. We bring suffering and sickness on ourselves!
Additionally, we may bring hardship and suffering on others. The drunk driver may be responsible for killing a family on the highway, may lose his job and bring poverty on his family, or may beat his wife or children. A wife and mother may feed junk food to her family, thus beginning a life of poor nutrition and premature death. A smoker may subject his family to second hand smoketo their physical harm.
Think of the millions who have died in local military conflicts, world wars, and personal homicide. Hitler killed millions of Jews and others in the gas chambers, Stalin killed tens of millions of fellow-Russians, Idi Amin killed many of his own Uganda countrymen, and Mao Zedong murdered millions of Chinese during his cultural revolution. War has always brought suffering to vast numbers of people. About 17 million soldiers died in the Second World War. Tens of millions of civilians also died, including 19 million Soviets and 10 million Chinese. We must conclude that muchbut not allof suffering comes from our sins or the sins of others. Scripture rightly says, One sinner destroys much good (Eccles. 9:18).
Earthly life itself is subject to much suffering. When God created the heavens and the earth, He made everything well. He placed Adam and Eve in a perfect environment, with perfect weather, enjoying perfect health, and a perfect relationship. Scripture says, God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good (Gen. 1:31).
However, when the first man and woman sinned, through the temptation of Satan (Gen. 3:6), God changed the created order. He introduced the suffering of childbirth as well as toil and difficulty in providing food into earthly life (Gen. 3:16-19). Along with this came death as well as the debility, illness, and suffering that is part of physical living in this world (Gen. 5:5; Rom. 5:12). Jobs words are plainly true: Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil. Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain (Job. 14:1-2). Eliphaz echoes this in saying, Man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward (5:7).
Paul discuses this universal experience of suffering while living our earthly life: We know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. . . . Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Rom. 8:22-23). While here, we become weary, hungry, and thirsty (cf. Matt. 8:24; John 4:6-7; Luke 4:2); we also have pain in childbirth and other physical conditions (Gen. 3:16; 27:1). Our physical bodies age and wear out (Eccles. 12:1-8). We may eat nutritious food, exercise regularly, and avoid bad habitsbut still our outer man is decaying and we will one day die (2 Cor. 4:16).
Living on earth may subject us to many natural calamities, disasters, and catastrophes: Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, floods, snowstorms, windstorms, dust storms, rainstorms, fires, draught, pestilence, cyclones, tidal waves, extremes of temperature, and much more. Even some of this may come from personal irresponsibilitysuch as building a city in a flood-prone area, building too close to a volcano, wrong methods of farming, cutting down trees that results in erosion and consequent flooding. Living on earth may be dreadfully tragic!
Each of us has been touched by illness, disease, and bodily injury, either to ourselves or those near to us. While it is true that many illnesses come through personal irresponsibility and sin, many come from merely living on a sin-cursed earth. The very components of our cells are affected by sins curse. The DNA that is found in every living thing is affected. We merely postpone death through the practice of health principlesbut inevitably we die.
Following Christ Jesus will bring suffering on earth. Look at the life of the Lord Jesusthe sinless, perfect, all-loving, all-wise Savior. He was subject to hunger (Matt. 4:2), thirst (John 4:7), weariness (Mark 4:38), and other effects of living in a physical body. Most of all, Jesus suffered because He stood for truth in the midst of deception, holiness in the midst of evil, righteousness in the midst of sin, and light in the midst of darkness. The Hebrew writer said that Jesus learned obedience from the things which He suffered (Heb. 5:8; cf. 2:18). The Lord Jesus was reviled, rejected, and experienced the depth of physical suffering (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21-23). Just as He suffered in the flesh, so must we (4:4). He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Likewise, we will be forsaken by those who reject Christ. We will have sorrow and grief because of our walk with Christ, the rejected and suffering One.
The Christian life is a life of joy, peace, love, and assurance (cf. Rom. 5:3-5; 8:1; 14:17; Gal. 5:22-23). But it is also a life of sorrow, loss, rejection, and hardship. The Lord Jesus warned, In the world you have tribulation (John 16:33). Every true Christian must take up his cross of suffering, shame, rejection, and persecution (Mark 8:34). Notice a few among the many passages that make mention of this inevitable result of following the Lord as a true disciple:
- Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me (Matt. 5:11; cf. Luke 6:22-23).
- Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
- Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:3).
- All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12).
- If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you (John 15:18).
- They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God (John 16:2).
- Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death (Matt. 10:21).
- . . . heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him (Rom. 8:18).
- I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christs sake (2 Cor. 12:10).
Although this is only a sample of the many verses that show we will suffer because we follow Jesus and His way of life, we can see that this is a leading reason for earthly trials.