Every human being will experience some degree of suffering. Suffering is caused by evils which can be put into three classifications. (1) Natural evils are a result of the corruption of nature. (Genesis 3:17-18; 5:29; Romans 8:21) They include such things as tornados, hurricanes, floods, famines, earthquakes, fires, animal attacks, diseases, and physical or mental bodily defects. (2) Moral evils are a result of the corruption of human nature. (Romans 3:23; Matthew 15:19; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; Hebrews 11:36-37; Acts 20:9) They include such things as lying, stealing, hating, murder, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, racism, wars, failure to love, disrespect for authority, persecutions, human failures resulting in accidents, fears, guilt, depression, breakdowns in communication and relationships, and so forth. We humans cause much of our own suffering. (3) Supernatural evils are a result of the acts of supernatural beings. (John 8:44; Job 1-2; Luke 8:1-2; Genesis 6:11-13; Mark 1:13) They include such things as demon possession, witchcraft, satanic temptations, acts of satanic power; and in a sense, evil can be “rained upon us” by the judgements or acts of God, though always with a righteous purpose. (Judges 9:23-24; 1 Samuel 16:14; 1 Kings 22:23; 2 Kings 6:33) Death is a consequence of evil.
The existence of evil in our world is a horrendous problem. Every culture, religion, philosophy, and individual must deal with it; we try to find an answer to it, or we ignore it. The existence of evil is one of the big reasons some people choose not to believe in God, and from their viewpoint, such a choice is understandable. How can there be an all-powerful, good, and loving God when these evils exist and cause such unthinkable sufferings. We, who are not as good and powerful as God, will do all we can to help alleviate the suffering of our loved ones, and of other unfortunates. But a supposed almighty and loving God remains silent, absent, and does nothing. We could never let ourselves be like that and stand by and do nothing. Either such a God does not exist, has left us on our own, or does not care. Such is their viewpoint and it is well taken. People with a hard time understanding why anyone would not believe in God have perhaps not seriously experienced or dealt with the magnitude of evil and suffering. Suffering is not easy to accept. Many confessing Christians have been angry at God in the midst of evil tragedy and have found themselves questioning and being tempted to disbelieve. We can easily question, “Why isn’t God helping us?” Suffering has caused some to fall away from faith in God.
All kinds of answers have been proposed to justify God in the face of evil, some better than others, and although God allows suffering to continue, He does have the ultimate answer. God has planned a time of judgement in which all wrongs will be righted, all evil will be eliminated, and a new world will be brought into existence. Why evil was allowed to exist in the first place, God never says. But evil is here and God assures us that persons born of God from all periods of history, many having suffered unjustly, will live again in resurrected bodies, and enjoy His righteous world forevermore. God is all-powerful, good, and loving, and He will prevent and destroy evil, but not yet. (Acts 17:31; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Peter 3:7-14; Acts 3:19-21) Personally, I agree with the theodicy that says, in an imperfect world like ours, it is possible that God has a good and sufficient reason for allowing evil to continue. Viktor Frankl witnessed and experienced extreme inhumane treatment in a prison camp during wartime. He said that he was able to endure the horrendous sufferings by knowing that there was a reason – he did not need to know the reason. Could it be that a Godly reason for allowing evil to continue is that each person needs the opportunity to experience the value of suffering?
Jesus makes it clear, that even in the face of sufferings, God does care about us. Jesus was an exact representation of God, the Father. (John 14:8-9; Hebrews 1:2-3) This means that what Jesus said and did shows us how God really is. Since Jesus had compassion on people who were suffering, He showed us, by His many acts of kindness, healings, and feeding of the poor, that God does care about us. (Matthew 9:35-36; 15:32-38; Mark 1:40-42) Even in the Old Testament, where God is sometimes unjustly criticized as vindictively angry and condemning, it says of Him that He is a God of compassion. (Exodus 34:5-6; Deuteronomy 4:31; Lamentations 3:21-24; Jonah 4:2) Peter agreed with the fact that God cares by telling us to “cast all of our anxieties upon God, for He cares for us.” (1 Peter 5:7-10) Admittedly, it is hard to accept that God cares if He seems not to be helping us in our sufferings, does not answer our prayers, and if the pain we experience is overwhelming.
Here, briefly described, are four types of responses, or reactions, people make toward the problem of evil and suffering. Although there are differences in ideas, beliefs and temperaments from one person to another and each person may require an individualized approach to their concerns, the point of discussion here is simply to describe the basic types or responses. It goes without saying, although I will say it, that one or more of these responses may be made by the same person. (1) Skeptical responses are found in people who look at the problem of evil or personal pain, and use it as a reason to question the existence of God. People with these types of responses may end up with minds that are bent toward agnosticism – we can’t know whether God exists; or minds bent toward atheism – it is likely that there is no God. (2) Seeking responses are found in people who are open to hearing answers to the problem of evil. They want to pursue the issues involved and try to come to an understanding of evil and suffering and God in a way that makes sense to them, or helps them. (3) Overcoming responses are found in persons who accept evil and suffering as a part of life and they work at coping with suffering when it comes to them. Christian overcomers continue to believe and to rely on God; that He is good, He cares, and He is helping them. (4) Grieving responses are found in those who are experiencing the deep pain and hurt of losing something or someone very dear and important to them. They need comfort more than they need answers to the problem of evil, or to their questioning of why this happened. They need permission and freedom to express their pain and their anger, even toward God. Initially, it is not best to say to a grief sufferer, “God has a reason for this”, for they cannot accept that kind of an answer at this time, if ever. They need people, not to give them explanations and platitudes to help them feel better about what happened, but people to come along side of them and love them by listening, accepting, and comforting them. (Job 2:11-13) There is no need to panic concerning friends losing their solid faith in God. They may question God or express anger at God, but more likely than not, they return to their faith. It is those already experiencing doubts about God, or the weak in faith, who are at risk of falling away. Still, they need love, not answers.
God does not choose to eliminate evil and suffering from this world, and from our lives, (Job 5:7; Romans 8:18) Therefore, each of us must choose how we will respond to our sufferings, hopefully in the most beneficial way possible. Of course, there is always the question of whether our suffering is deserved or not. We may, or may not, have a right to be angry at it. But, be that as it may, the concern of all of us who find ourselves in the midst of suffering is to find a way to cope with it. Why God relieves the suffering of some of His people, while others suffer unto death, is not known, but faith’s reward is the same for both (Hebrews 11:32-40). Our great hope is through faith in Christ (1 John 5:4). If you have ever had a miserable night and were very glad to see the light of morning, you can imagine the hope that people of faith enjoy, knowing that morning is coming. But for the present, it may be helpful to consider the value that there is in suffering. In spite of the evil, injustice, or pain, could it be that there are benefits to suffering that are good for us, thus making the experience more bearable?
What value is there in our suffering? One of my favourite illustrations comes from the caterpillar emerging out of its cocoon to become a butterfly. I was told of a person who decided to help the process along by opening the cocoon for the butterfly so as to ease its struggle of trying to get out. The result was that the butterfly could not fly and it died. Apparently, it needed to struggle for its wings to be strengthened so it could fly. God tells us about many good and necessary things that can result from suffering. Perhaps you have already experienced some of them.
(1) As a result of suffering, some are led to belief in God, or in the case of those already believing, they may be led closer to God, or back to God. In my own life, I mentally and emotionally suffered panic attacks and mental anguish at the thought of my inherent death. This led me to want an answer to the question, “Is there any way for me to escape death?” The suffering of fears led me to be open to the gospel message, to the very words of Jesus, “he who believes in me shall never die”. Trusting His words brought eternal life and peace to my troubled mind and heart. Sufferings can remind us of the need for repentance and faith, lest we perish. (Luke 13:1-5; 2 Corinthians 1:9) Sufferings can humble us and cause us to draw near to God for help and strength. (Psalm 4:1; 22:11; 119:28; Matthew 26:36-44) The Gideons is an organization that puts Bibles in places frequented by people going through sufferings. Many have shared how they turned to God’s word during these times and found the answer they needed to enable them to go on. Persons without any other hope can find that God alone is sufficient for all their needs and wants. The Psalmist recognized that God was His greatest good. (Psalm 73:23-28) Perhaps that is the place we all need to get to, but cannot without suffering.
(2) Sufferings serve as a test of our hearts – they reveal what is in our hearts, and often our need to grow stronger. Do we have faith, love, and hope, or do we doubt, lose heart, and give up? (Job 2:9-10) From our reactions or responses, sufferings reveal what kind of persons we are. They may reveal unbelief, or some lack of character necessary for our increased maturity or health. Through sufferings, we often are “forced” to make decisions and changes that cause us to overcome bad habits, or to grow in character or faith so that future sufferings are more ably endured. (Psalm 119:67, 71; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10) According to the Bible, sufferings lend to the genuineness of our faith by helping to bring about perseverance, and the assured hope that the love of God will never fail us. (Romans 5:3-5) Instead of resenting them, and trying to get out of our sufferings, we are encouraged to endure them because sufferings help to make us perfect and complete, lacking in nothing that God has for us. (James 1:2-4)
(3) Suffering has the value of loosening our grip on this world, enabling the important things of life to surface. Suffering can change the priorities of our lives by helping us to see that money or fame or material things or self are not the important things to live for. Jesus talked to a man who had much wealth and when asked to make a decision between wealth, or following Jesus, he chose wealth. We can easily hold on to this world’s goods more than God’s goods. (Mark 10:21-22) How many times have persons in trouble or life-threatening situations told us that they discovered the more important things in life - like loving family, the value of friendship, appreciating the simple everyday things that happen, or enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. In His story of the farmer who lived his life to gain bigger and better assets, Jesus reminds us that some things in life are more important than others. Life if not found in wealth or possessions. (Luke 12:15-21) Without sufferings threatening to take away, or taking away, the lesser things we live for, would we ever give our efforts to living for the things that are most worthy?
(4) Suffering helps us discover the necessity of relationships and brings us closer together. More than we may realize, we need each other to help us cope and to encourage us to stay the course. Being lonely is one of the greatest sufferings imaginable. Sharing our struggles and pain with each other in our sufferings helps us to realize that we are not alone. I once needed a friend to listen to me regarding a life threatening situation that had me scared and depressed. My wife was gone for a couple days, so I called another friend. He was there for me, allowing me to infringe upon his time, listening and accepting my feelings without trying to fix me, and without any attitude of condescension. By doing those things, he encouraged me immensely and my bond of friendship with him was deepened. If I can’t be there like that for others, how true am I, really, to what life is all about? When people suffer, we are given the opportunity to love each other through our involvement in helping to alleviate those sufferings. Because God works through people, experiencing the care of others helps us to know that God cares and that we are not alone in this universe. Suffering also gives us opportunity to learn to be more sensitive to others and more understanding of what others may be going through. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) Through suffering, we become more accepting and loving.
(5) Suffering can show us God at work, accomplishing good things, which apparently could not have come about in any other way. God often seems hidden and absent when we are suffering. (Psalm 22:1-2; Mark 15:34) When we are able to see that He is working in ours or others’ sufferings, it encourages us to know that He cares, has not abandoned us, and is in control, even in our seemingly worst situations. Perhaps the greatest example of this is seeing God at work in the sufferings of Jesus Himself. Through His sufferings, we see that many people are able to be saved and possess eternal life. This could not have happened apart from His sufferings. (Isaiah 53:10-12) In the Old Testament story of Joseph, he is suffering at the hands of his brothers by being sold into slavery, being grievously separated from his family, and being falsely accused and imprisoned in a foreign land for two years. (Genesis 37; 39; 42:21) But as much as Joseph suffered, we see God working to produce unimaginable good. Many lives were saved from starvation through his unfortunate sufferings, and reconciliation between himself and his brothers was also a benefit. (Genesis 50:20-21) In Jesus day, a man was born blind from birth. He suffered this condition in order that God could show His miraculous work and reveal Jesus as God’s true Son, the light of the world. (John 9:1-3, 5, 35-38) Seeing that God is working through people’s sufferings gives us hope. When He seems absent, it is very encouraging for us to remember what we have seen Him do, and to believe that He is now doing something good through our own sufferings. He is still there, just as the sun is still there, even though hidden by clouds.
All in all, suffering seems necessary in a world where evil has gotten a foothold in our lives. If it were not for suffering, it is very unlikely that the needed benefits listed above would be gained. None of us likes to suffer, but efforts to only escape sufferings would leave us less whole and complete. It seems that imperfect people, living in a world where they themselves are ingrained with evil and self-centeredness, need suffering in order to overcome the evils that plague them. The things that can be shaken need to be removed so that what is unshakable can stand in their place. (Hebrews 12:27-28)
What is acceptable and not acceptable to say about evil and suffering? It is not acceptable to say that God creates or allows evil and suffering in order to create these kinds of good. In my mind, to create evil, just so these kinds of values can be experienced, would be inexcusable for a loving, righteous, and good God. The fact is that we do not know a lot about why God allowed evil to come into the world, but since evil is in our world, we must learn to overcome. None of us needs to say that the evil and sufferings themselves are good. No! Evil causes the most painful sufferings. Rather, we can say that, through God’s caring and loving power, good can come from the worst of evils. (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20) We might possibly say that humanity’s choice is what allowed evil to come into our world (Genesis 3:1-7), and that we ourselves are responsible, but God seems to have taken responsibility for the evil that is here. He took responsibility for evil when He came in the person of His Son to suffer evil Himself and to die a tortuous death in order to destroy evil and its cause. (1 John 3:8; Revelation 20:10; 21:4-5) And for all who believe, we can say that there is hope for the obliteration of evil and suffering, sometimes in this life, but completely and forever in the next. It is ok to pray for relief from suffering, but we need wisdom to know when to help alleviate it, knowing that to accept it is one of God’s only ways to enrich our lives.