The Problem of Human Suffering

By Batsell Barret Baxter

One of the most puzzling of all problems is the problem of human suffering. Why must humanity suffer? Why must there be heartache and disappointment? Why must there be disease and death? Even more especially, why must the innocent suffer? Some of us have especially wrestled with this problem. We have wondered how it is that God, who loves us so much, should allow suffering to come into homes like ours. Sometimes our questionings come at the death of a parent upon whom we have depended through the years. Sometimes it is through a long and severe illness that we come face to face with the problem of human suffering. Sometimes it is in connection with a beloved child.

An Illusion

Many answers to the problem of human suffering have been given and many of those answers are very wrong.. One of the answers given glibly by a few people of our time is that suffering is just an illusion. Mary Baker Eddy and her followers tell us that all suffering is a product of twisted thinking, rather than an actual reality in the physical world.

Most of us find it difficult and even impossible to accept this point of view. When a loved one, who has been an intimate part of our home, is taken from us it is very difficult for us to believe that it is not real but simply twisted thinking. Such a description of suffering is, to say the least, unrealistic. When someone who has been in good health for many years finds his life blighted with painful and incurable cancer, it is rather unconvincing to tell him that it is all in his mind, simply a product of the wrong kind of thinking. The great masses of people are too realistic to accept this explanation of evil.

A Result of Sin

Another explanation sometimes given is more plausible because it has in it a large element of truth: Suffering is a result of man's own sin. This has in it so much truth that it is easy for us to feel that it is the whole answer.

There are many evidences of suffering as a result of man's own sin. The man who drinks heavily, after awhile, pays the price in his own body and in the tangled strands of his own life. The person who misuses his body in any way will eventually pay the price. The liar, the cheat, the hypocrite also inevitably suffer. But, to say that this is the explanation of all suffering is to speak too quickly. It explains much suffering, but it certainly does not explain all suffering. Think of the innocents who suffer.

Job in the Old Testament is an example. Most of the book of Job is devoted to the arguments of his friends who said, “Job, you must have sinned grievously, because you are suffering grievously." The answer continually came back, "But I have not sinned; I am innocent; there must be some other explanation of suffering." Job was right.

In the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Luke our Lord faced this question. “Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? "I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:1-5). He is simply saying that these catastrophes did not come upon them because they were more wicked than the rest.

In the gospel according to John the same subject is discussed briefly. “As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?" Jesus answered, "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 9:1-3). Taking the word of Christ as final authority, we turn from the idea that sin in one's own life is the full explanation of suffering. Much suffering comes to the innocent without his having deserved it in a special way.

God Cannot Prevent It

There is another explanation of suffering: God cannot do anything about it. It is the idea that God does not want suffering here, because he is an infinitely loving God, but that he is powerless to put it out of the world. There are impressive reasons behind such a belief. If God does infinitely love his creation – man, and if God is all-powerful, it would seem that there would be no suffering. Yet we must look a little deeper, for there are many other factors in the story. We have a number of express statements in the Bible that indicate that God is powerful beyond our comprehension. For example, the three Hebrew young men who were cast into a fiery furnace made the statement, "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us”. (Dan. 3:17). Their meaning was that God was able to do anything that he wanted to do. In Matthew in the New Testament, there is a sentence, "With God all things are possible' (Matthew 19:26). We are not ready, therefore, to take the explanation that evil and suffering are in the world because God is unable to cast them out.

Having suggested some inadequate explanations of the problem of suffering let us now notice some principles that are in the right direction. We would not want to say, in wrestling with this problem that has been a concern of thinking people through all the centuries since the beginning of time, that we have an easy, fully satisfying solution. We do believe, however, that there are some principles that will help us. There are some observations, at least, that can help to explain why suffering is in our world. The first of these observations is: God is all-powerful to accomplish that which is according to his own will and according to his own nature.

God Limits Himself

This limitation is not a limitation imposed upon God by some external force, for there is no external force in the universe that can limit God's power. The only limitations upon God's power are placed there by Himself. The very nature of the universe which God designed and created makes it impossible for Him to do things that are mutually opposed. He cannot be present and absent at the same time. He cannot create a mountain that He cannot climb. He cannot dig a hole that He cannot fill. He cannot make a square circle. Actually, these are childish conundrums rather than real impossibilities. These are certainly not limitations placed upon God by Satan or by some other force, but are simply limitations which he has included in the makeup of the universe.

The Bible speaks of certain impossibilities for God. For example, in Hebrews 6:18 we read that it is impossible for God to lie. By the very nature of God it is not possible for him to lie. In James 1:13 we learn that "God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone." This is another impossibility with God. Back in the Old Testament in Habakkuk 1:13 there is the statement that God himself cannot look upon, or approve, evil. All of this simply means that when God created the universe he created it in such a way, his own nature being what it was, that certain things are not possible. This is not a limitation upon God in the ultimate sense; it is merely a limitation because of the nature and the will of God.

This background prepares us to understand that when God created man he made him a creature with freedom of choice and freedom of will. When God chose to make man a creature of freedom an inevitable result was that man could choose evil as well as good. God determined that man should not be merely an automaton, but a creature of freedom who could choose good. Thus, when man chooses to love God it has real significance. The decision that man should have freedom having been made, it was necessary that this freedom include the possibility of choosing evil as well as good. Because man has freedom of will, there have been mistakes, blunders, and wrong choices. The events of history give ample evidence of the fact that man has often chosen wrongly and has suffered as a result.

Nature of the Universe

The second observation that we wish to make is: The very nature of the universe helps to explain suffering. Let us think for a moment of what we call the laws of nature. As we look at the whole universe it is a system of law and order, a system in which everything is faithful. Scientific investigations made in one part of the world can be verified through the same experiments in another. There is uniformity throughout the natural laws of our universe. There must be, or our world would not work. Principles true today must be true a year from today. Principles true in one part of the world must be true in another, or else we will not know how to build a civilization.

This uniformity, this system of law and order, also has much to do with man's suffering in the world. For example, take the subject of fire. The natural laws of the universe which God has created include certain principles which enable man, if be uses the right elements and the right processes, to create fire. We now do it through the striking of a match, which is simply a cooperation with the laws of the universe. The same law that enables us to have fire for the cooking of our meals and the heating of our homes also enables us to have fire which will bum our houses and destroy our lives. The law that made it possible to have fire for constructive purposes may be misused for destructive purposes.

Two of man's greatest achievements has been the production of the automobiles and airplanes, but along with these fine uses, there are also tragic uses. Similarly, steel which makes possible great buildings can also be used for guns and tanks which destroy lives in war. The principles of nature, if used properly, result in good; but, if used improperly, they have within themselves the power of destruction.

Rules Are Necessary

It is a bit like a football game. A ball-carrier running down the sidelines is pressed closer and closer toward the edge of the field. He would like, suddenly, for the boundary line to move over a yard or two, so that he could stay within the field, but the rules of the game say that the boundary line is fixed and cannot move. To move the boundaries at the whim of either team would make the game of football impossible. The only basis on which a game can be played is that there be rules and that those rules apply in every instance. Similarly, the only way in which a world can possibly work is for the laws to be constant and faithful. When man uses God's laws of nature as he ought to use them, he prospers and is happy. When he misuses those laws, he suffers. The law of gravity is a very wonderful and necessary thing, but its misuse can bring death. So it is with the other laws of our universe.

Let us apply these observations to the problem of suffering. When God made man a creature of freedom he opened the door to suffering. It could be no other way. When God made the universe he made it possible for man to use his freedom to find the good, but this inevitably included also the possibility of evil and suffering. Why does man suffer? It is because he, or his ancestors, or his neighbors, have misused their freedom. In some way he has violated some of God's laws and has thus destroyed that which God wished to be perfect and whole.

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