The Problem of Suffering
For many people, the existence of suffering and evil in the world constitutes a great insurmountable hurdle that prevents them from believing in God or in a God that is good. The wrong view towards the existence of suffering in this world has caused many errors. The atheist says, "There is no God, because an all-powerful and good God wouldn’t allow such to happen". It is ironic that when the atheist makes an assertion, he speaks as an all-knowing God would speak. The pantheist argues that suffering and evil are just illusions. The polytheist argues that God isn’t all-powerful, and that suffering is often the result of a clash between opposing deities. This problem of human suffering is by no means new. Every generation has asked the same questions, "God why did you allow this to happen to my child, my wife…" The Gnostics argued that all matter was evil and God was good, therefore God couldn’t have anything to do with the material world. Of course this completely undermined the incarnation (1 John 4:1-3). The friends of Job were under the misconception that bad things only happen to bad people (Job 8:2-6; 4:7-8). The writer of the 73rd Psalm was initially perplexed because it seemed that bad things happen to good people while the evil doer lives in security and is untouched by adversity (73:3-5, 12-14).
1 Peter 4:12 "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you"-"as though this were some abnormal experience" (Phi).
The above verse reveals that if we view suffering as inconsistent with the idea that God is good, then somewhere along the line we have bought into some wrong assumptions. In this lesson I hope I can give you something in which you can better handle adversity that comes your way and the questions of those who are suffering.
Did God Create Evil?
Some would argue that since God created all things (John 1:3), and that evil exists, therefore God is responsible for all the evil in the world. There is a big difference between what God created and then what man makes of those created things. Many "good things", when abused or misused by man, become harmful, like when drugs that can heal or alleviate pain, are used for mere recreational purposes. In fact, every work of the flesh, is simply a perversion of something that in itself is good (Galatians 5:19-21). Barclay notes, "Immorality, impurity, licentiousness are perversions of the sexual instinct which is in itself a lovely thing and part of love. Idolatry is a perversion of worship...Sorcery is a perversion of the use of healing drugs in medicine. Envy, jealousy and strife are perversions of that noble ambition and desire to do well which can be a spur to greatness. Enmity and anger are a perversion of that righteous indignation...Dissension and the party spirit are a perversion of the devotion to principle which can produce the martyr…The awfulness of the power of sin lies precisely in its ability to make the raw material of potential goodness and turn it into the material of evil" (Flesh and Spirit, p. 39). When the Bible talks about God "creating evil", it is using the word "evil" in the sense of calamity, that is, God does bring judgments upon the unrepentant, "creating calamity" (Isaiah 45:7;Jeremiah 18:11). The Bible makes it clear that God doesn’t entice anyone to sin, "He Himself does not tempt anyone" (James 1:13), and that everything that God initially created was good, "And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31).
The Consequences of Free Will
We tend to forget that God took an incredible risk in creating mankind, we also forget that God has probably suffered more than anyone else (John 3:16). The suffering of the individual human beings is always limited, for the individual is never exposed to all the suffering happening at one moment and the individual only lives for a very short time (1 Peter 1:6; 5:10). But God has been slighted by every generation. God must witness all suffering, and God must also allow suffering to happen in many cases, because He created mankind with a free will. If God were to stop all suffering, it would mean that Jesus would come in judgment, but stopping all suffering also means ending the opportunity to repent (2 Thess. 1:7-9). Some people complain, "Why couldn’t God have created a world wherein everyone would make the right choice?" The truth is that people will make wrong choices no matter how wonderful or how little temptation exists. For example, man still made wrong choices when he lived in a perfect world (Genesis 3:1-6). If we ask the question, we end up rebuking ourselves. For we are surrounded by comforts and blessings, and yet we still sin. How much better would God have to make this world for you to stop making wrong choices? Another might add, "Why didn’t God create us without freewill?" We must view "choice" in the right light. Choice isn’t a curse, rather, it is one of those things which we have in common with the Creator Himself (Genesis 1:26). Free will is a compliment from God, it is one of those things which makes man just a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:3-8). Then we need to realize that certain attributes cannot exist without choice. Love that is forced is not love at all. To prevent man from choosing to love God with all his heart, would be to prevent the greatest good from happening (Mark 12:30-31; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Thus to create a world in which freewill didn’t exist, would also mean having a world in which the greatest of all virtues didn’t exist. Geisler notes, "a world of freedom without evil would actually be morally inferior to the present world. In this world, men are challenged to do good and noble things and to overcome (Revelation 2:10-11; 12:11; Romans 5:3-5; 1 Peter 1:6-8) evil tendencies. That could not happen in a world without evil…Courage can only occur where there is a real fear of danger. Self-sacrifice is only noble where there is need of an opposing selfishness to overcome...It is better to have the opportunity to reach the highest good rather than be confined to achieving lesser goods with no opposition." (p. 72) Someone else might ask, "But couldn’t God create a world in which there is just one less sin". That is, does there really have to be so much evil and suffering? We quickly forget that one less sin, depends upon the person sinning, that is you and I. Sin is something that is chosen (Revelation 2:21 "I gave her time to repent; and she does not want to repent."; Romans 6:16,19). The inquiry is a good question, because it confronts all of us with the really big question, "How serious am I about seeing that this world has a little less suffering?" Am I willing to stop the sin in my own life?" Am I willing to do something to help those who are suffering? (Matthew 25:35-40). As with earthly suffering, eternal suffering is also an area in which mankind has a choice (John 3:18; 3:36; 5:39-40; 8:24; 12:48). Let me also add one more thing, the purpose of free will isn’t to do what we want to do all the time, the purpose of choice is so that our love for God will mean something (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
The Benefits of Suffering
Pain Prevents Further Suffering: The reason that lepers lose their fingers, toes and noses usually has nothing directly to do with the disease. Rather the disease causes the loss of feeling in these extremities, hence they end up hanging onto hot pans, running into something at full force without slowing down, and so on. A small pain can often keep us from inflicting greater pain upon ourselves (Psalm 119:71). C. S. Lewis wrote, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world" (The Problem Of Pain, p. 93). Without some suffering in this life, the warning of eternal suffering would be something that people couldn’t comprehend. Every earthly pain is in effect saying, "This is nothing compared to the suffering that awaits the disobedient" (Matthew 10:28; Hebrews 10:29 "how much severer punishment…").
Suffering Stops the Abuser: Someone once said that the good thing about death and disease is that they slow down and eventually stop the sinner. In a sense suffering does curb future suffering by limiting the physical endurance and lifetime of evil men. Even in this life man cannot sin with impunity. Sin takes its toll upon the sinner (Galatians 6:7-8; Romans 1:27).
Suffering Doesn’t Stop God’s Purposes: I am reminded of Joseph’s statement, "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20). When confronted with suffering, we have two basic choices, either the suffering can move us in an ungodly direction (questioning God, turning to immediate sins for temporary relief, feeling sorry for ourselves, lashing out against those we love, and so on), or, suffering can be used to produce spiritual growth (James 1:2-4). The choice is ours, "And let endurance have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:4). Be impressed that God can bring "good" out of suffering, in fact, by one individual suffering, many can be spared from future suffering. Suffering doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care or that God is powerless. What a limited view of life we tend to have at times. How I handle my personal struggles and trials can effect generations! At this point I really need to say something to our young couples and young parents. No matter how difficult life becomes, God must be trusted (Matthew 6:33), for your own sake (Luke 14:26-27), and then for the sake of your children, their children, their grandchildren. The example and tone you set, can affect either in a positive manner or a negative manner those who follow in your footsteps. I have just seen too many families in the Church adversely affected, neutralized, or destroyed because someone was an inconsistent example of a Christian. We have just placed one nail in our children’s spiritual coffin if we dare give them the impression that God cannot be trusted in all circumstances.
So You Want To Stop the Suffering?
Our reaction to this last point will determine whether suffering really bothers us or whether it is nothing more than an convenient excuse that we are using to cover our rebellion to God. The following are some practical ideas for the person who really wants to do something about the suffering in this world: 1. Share the gospel with someone who is lost. How much suffering will be prevented, if just one person starts living the Christian life? 2. Comfort someone who is suffering (Matthew 25:34ff). Suffering can often produce some of the most cherished friendships. 3. Bring your children to every service. How much suffering will be prevented in their lives, if they become Christians? And if they become faithful husbands, wives, parents and grandparents? 4. Love your mate. Probably one of the most important things for a child to see growing up, is the dedication, loyalty, honesty, and happiness that exists between their mother and father, through thick and thin. 5. Never argue in front of the children. 6. Control your tongue! I often find the people that gripe about suffering, then using the same tongue to inflict suffering upon others (James 3:9-10). 7. Die in a right relationship with God. To die outside of Christ is just to place another burden upon loved ones, for there will always be the temptation to justify your choice. 8. Stop the habitual sins in your life, which for many means, become a Christian. If you’re not willing to stop the sin in your own life, then you don’t have any right to complain about the other sinners who have made the same choice you have.
Mark Dunagan/Beaverton Church Of Christ/(503) 644-9017