Why is there pain and suffering?

An edited version was published in the April 2011 issue of Faithlink, the magazine of Faith Methodist Church

Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanic eruptions, moral degradation, senseless killing, terrorism and murder … the world seems to be going down the pits and lives are lost every day. The evils today are not new; wars, violence, sexual immorality, diseases and natural disasters are mentioned in the Bible. Can the Bible help us understand what is going on? Let us take a look at evil, pain and suffering in the Bible.

Man’s corrupted nature

The first human death was by murder! Cain was jealous that God accepted the sacrifice of his brother, Abel but not his. He directed his anger at Abel and killed him (Genesis 4:3-8). Ever since, man’s fall in the Garden, man’s corrupted nature has been the cause of much evil (Mark 7:20-23).

God’s judgment on sin

The flood during Noah’s days was the first “natural disaster”. It was God’s judgment on man’s wickedness, corruption and violence (Genesis 6:1-8, 11). But the people did not turn from their evil ways. They simply went on with their lives, absorbed in its worldly pursuits (Luke 17:26-27; Matthew 24:37-39). This was not because they had no warning or no time to repent. There was an interval of 120 years from the pronouncement to the execution of judgment. Then there was the construction of the massive ark in plain sight and Noah’s preaching which would have warned them of the flood (2 Peter 2:5).

During the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the prophets tried to call the people back to God, reminding them that blessings follow obedience but judgments (i.e., invasion by foreign powers, captivity and exile) follow disobedience (Hosea 14:1; Joel 2:12-13; Zephaniah 2:1-3 c.f., Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 38:3-5). The city of Nineveh is an example of a people (the Assyrians) who averted God’s judgment when they heeded the prophet Jonah's preaching and repented.

Means to a greater good

Ups and downs of Joseph In the biblical story of Joseph, he was sold into slavery by his brothers at the tender age of 17. He was later imprisoned because of false accusation. One could attribute Joseph’s pain and suffering to his father’s favoritism which led to his brothers’ jealousy (Genesis 37:3-4) and the lust and lies of his Egyptian master’s wife (Genesis 39:7-20). But 23 years later, as viceroy of Egypt, Joseph discerned a divine hand behind his suffering.

In Genesis 45:5, he comforted his brothers who came to Egypt to buy grain, saying, “And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” There was then a widespread famine but Joseph, with God’s presence and help, had stockpiled grain during the years of plentiful harvest to ride out the famine. Joseph’s suffering was the means of salvation of all Israel.

Means to maturity

Young Joseph was naïve even proud. He blurted to his brothers about his dreams which portrayed them bowing to him (Genesis 3:5-11). Years later, we see a different Joseph – one who patiently kept his identity a secret and put his brothers through a drawn-out emotional drama (Genesis 42-45). If Joseph did not go through pain and suffering, he probably would not be a patient, humble, forgiving and wise man.

God disciplines us for our good and when discipline is received positively, it produces righteousness (Hebrews 12:10-11). Trials and tests of our faith produce not only sorrow but also perseverance and maturity (James 1:2-4).

Satan’s temptation of man

The book of Job perhaps records one of the most intense of human suffering that happened to anyone. Overnight, Job lost everything literally --- his family, wealth and health through a series of dramatic events. We find him sitting among ashes with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head and scratching himself with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:7). In this instance, we are told that Satan inflicted suffering on Job so as to instigate him to rebel against God (Job 1:9-12; 2:5-7 c.f., 1 Thessalonians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Peter 5:8-10).

Conclusion

The reasons for pain and suffering in the Bible are diverse. If you are suffering, the reason could be any of the above. No one is exempt from suffering - it occurs to both the guilty and innocent.

Referring to Pilate’s massacre of some Galileans (Luke 13:1-5), Jesus asked, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?” Similarly, He asked, “Do you think the 18 who died when the tower fell on them were more guilty than all the others alive?” His answers to both questions were the same: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

What was Jesus’ point? We are all guilty! We all deserve God’s judgment. Do not think that bad things only happen to "bad people". Do not boast if you escape calamity because sooner or later, we all will face God and have to give an account of our lives; therefore, repent! The question then is not “Why is there pain and suffering?” but “Why are not more people facing God’s judgment?”

On the other hand, the Book of Job acknowledges that the innocent do suffer (c.f., Psalm 7:3-5, 8; 1 Samuel 20:1). Job’s sufferings were not because of his sins; he was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil (1:1). Yet when God appeared to Job, He did not address the issue of “Why do the innocent suffer?” Instead God fired a battery of questions e.g., Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation (38:4)? Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place (38:12)? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth (39:1)?

What was God’s point? There are many things that a finite human (i.e., Job) does not know and cannot do. If Job cannot understand God’s ways then how can he judge God’s management of the universe (40:1)? Instead of chiding God for treating him unjustly (10:1-7), Job must learn in suffering to trust God by enlarging his concept of God … that God is all-wise, all-good and all-powerful. Job finally acknowledged, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:2). What is your concept of God?

Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; 
   burst into song, you mountains! 
For the LORD comforts his people 
   and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. (Isaiah 49:13) 



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Alan's Gleanings | Copyright © March 2011 by Alan S.L. Wong