Suffering touches everyone who lives on this planet. All you have to do is pick up a daily newspaper or listen to a news broadcast to know that a great many people are suffering. They suffer because of automobile accidents or because of terrible diseases or because of crime. Some suffer because they were born in poverty, others because they were born in countries ruled by dictators. There are many causes of suffering, and the list could go on for pages. But our question is not concerned with causes. We are looking for the reasons for suffering.
To say there is suffering because there is crime, or because there are auto accidents, is not nearly enough. Our question goes far beneath the surface, where it hits at the very roots of human pain and anguish.
The first thing to be said about suffering is that most of it comes about because of the activities of a powerful supernatural being called Satan, or the devil. He delights in hurting man and in trying to turn man away from God. Very often people blame God when they suffer, but is it God’s fault? Satan takes great pride in seeing God gets the “credit” for his misdeeds.
Suffering is also caused by man’s rebellion against God and by the evil in men’s hearts. How much suffering has been caused in the modern world, for instance, by Communism, or by men hurting other men? Godless dictators hurt their own people, and they hurt the people of neighboring nations as well. Just consider how much suffering has been caused, in this century alone, by men such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung. As the result of godless dictatorships, there is suffering in the form of heartbreak.
You might say that suffering is a result of freedom. God has given man a certain amount of freedom. If man were merely a robot, an automaton, then God could always force him to do what is right. But God gives man the freedom either to love and obey Him or to rebel against Him. When man rebels against God, he hurts not only himself but also his fellow man.
Something else to remember about suffering is that God set up certain natural laws to govern the universe. If it were not for the law of gravity, we would all go floating off into space. But that same law is going to cause pain to people who jump from the tops of tall buildings!
Consider the hurricane, the earth’s way of releasing pentup heat and energy. Heat from the southern climates has to move north and be discharged from the earth. When that happens, it causes a violent wind to blow. That wind, in turn, stirs up huge waves when it passes over the ocean. The hurricane is not meant to cause suffering, but if people ignore the warnings of nature, they will be injured by hurricanes.
The same is true of faultlines, such as the San Andreas Fault. Faultlines are necessary to keep the earth from just breaking apart. But if people insist upon building houses on the San Andreas Fault–as they do–then they are going to suffer when an earthquake comes. Such suffering does not result from God’s intentions, but comes rather from man’s foolishness. We can either go along with natural forces and accommodate ourselves to them, or we can ignore them and be hurt by them.
Much sickness, too, is man-made. Some of it is because of improper nutrition. People do not eat the right things. God gives us natural sugar, but we bleach it and make it white. We eat white bread, when whole wheat is much better for us. God gives us naturally fibrous fruit and plants, but we boil the fiber away. We do the same thing with oranges, when we squeeze the juice out of them and throw away the pulp, which is a beneficial part. We also peel potatoes and eat only the inside. In doing so, we throw away the part that God made to help us stay healthy.
It is probable that 75 to 80 percent of the illnesses in the United States are psychosomatic. We have not learned to cast all our cares upon God, as we are advised to do in I Peter 5:7, and so we let our worried and harried minds make us sick.
We also make ourselves sick voluntarily through doing such things as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and ingesting drugs. Automobile accidents cause fifty-six thousand deaths in our country each year–and half of those involve drunken driving.
The technological state of our society contributes to suffering too. If there were no automobiles, there would be no deaths and injuries resulting from highway accidents. Our air would not be polluted with smoke from factories and automobile exhaust if there were no cars and factories. All of these things are part of the price we pay for our state of civilization. If we do not want to pay the price, we can go back to a more primitive society. In today’s world, our lifestyle is a large contributor to sickness and disease.
To illustrate again how man contributes to his own suffering, consider what has happened in Africa. The northern plain of that continent was once a beautiful, fertile, wooded area. But over several centuries, people cut down all the trees. As a result, the topsoil eroded and there was nothing left but desert. Without the protective cover of the trees, temperatures in the region rose steadily. The people moved farther south, seeking fertile land. As they moved southward, they continued cutting the trees, and consequently the desert moved southward. Today there are three-and-a-half million square miles of desert in the northern part of Africa. In northern Africa and in many other areas of the world, men have disturbed the ecological balance in nature. As a result, poverty and hunger are worse and worse.
India has a similar problem. India was once one of the most fertile lands in the entire world. But the Indian people have embraced a philosophy that says rats and cows are sacred. So the cows eat up much of the vegetation, and the rats devour a good deal of the grain. Given a new understanding of nature, proper agricultural techniques, a forestation program, and a cleansing of rivers which are now polluted, India could be agriculturally self-sustaining.
The problem is not caused by an act of God, but it stems from man’s foolishness over a period of years, perhaps centuries. And the problems are steadily compounded over successive generations.
There are other forms of suffering that men bring on themselves. Consider, for example, such diseases as genital herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, and AIDS. These all result from a conscious lifestyle that is opposed to God’s Word and breaks God’s laws. God did not send herpes. It is a natural consequence of immorality. When it spreads, it becomes an incurable disease, affecting millions and millions of people.
Why does God allow this to happen? When we ask this question, it brings us back to the statement that God has created man as a free being–free even to the point of ruining much of God’s creation. God has sent preachers, prophets, and other holy men to warn the people to change their ways but most will not listen. They would not listen to the prophets four thousand years ago, and most of them will not listen today.
It is true that the righteous often suffer, and this will continue as long as we live in a world of wickedness. If someone speaks out against wickedness, he is going to be involved in a struggle, and that struggle may result in pain and suffering. Jesus said, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
Jesus Christ was the only perfect man who ever lived, and people killed Him. Why? Because He came into contact with evil and tried to do something about it. John the Baptist was beheaded because he told people they were breaking God’s laws (see Mark 6:25-28). It has been true throughout the ages that those who are God’s messengers are often set upon and hurt by the people they have tried to warn. That kind of suffering is virtually unavoidable as long as we live in a wicked world of superstition, hatred, and ignorance.
Suffering, if we allow it to, does have a way of purifying us. Many people have had to suffer in order to turn to God. Until they had their material things stripped from them, and often their health taken away, they had no desire for spiritual things.
Those who are suffering may be tempted to turn away from God. They should never allow this to happen. Instead, they should worship God and be blessed and benefited, even in the midst of their suffering. Those who hurt must remember that it is not God’s will for anyone to suffer.
They must remember, too, that He will intervene for those who diligently seek Him. Thousands of people can testify that God will intervene to relieve pain and suffering, but this depends on a closeness and an intimacy with Him. Should we, then, accept everything, and thank God for whatever happens to us–good and bad?
God answers this question specifically in the Bible. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
It is important to understand that accepting things is not the same thing as being resigned to them. You must accept suffering without becoming bitter, and you can accept it without resigning yourself to it. It is not your “lot in life” to suffer. Those who do suffer should never quit seeking God’s touch and asking Him to set them free. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). The key is to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking.
One final word about suffering. There is a certain amount of pain involved whenever growth is taking place. When people are moving to a higher level of intellectual activity, there is a struggle that has to take place, and in that struggle there is pain. When people who are great athletes are pushing through the limits of endurance to get to new records, there is constant pain. There is pain when you are running a mile or two at top speed, when your lungs are gasping and your body wants to quit. But there is also the overwhelming joy that comes when you finally do break through into that new dimension.
This kind of pain is not the same thing as suffering. Some people do not recognize the difference between the suffering that is caused deliberately by evil and the pain that comes about through striving to reach a new plateau of experience. Such suffering merely marks the transition period of going from one level of accomplishment to a higher level.
All suffering is temporary. It will all pass away when Jesus Himself returns to the earth. Revelation 21:4 reads: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”