THE PROBLEM OF SUFFERING
The question of evil is the most serious problem that confronts religious belief, but it is also an enigma that must be addressed by every philosophy and system of social ethics. Any inquiry into ultimate origins and empirical issues is beset with this puzzle of life: just where and for what reason did sorrow and suffering begin? The problem for sociology and philosophy is not quite as intense as it is for religion, however, because non-religious thinkers can simply accept evil as an integral part of the cosmic order: i.e., apparently there is a dualistic foundation to the universe, which incorporates such opposites as light and darkness, heat and cold, truth and error, goodness and evil, etc.
Unfortunately for theologians, religion cannot get off the hook by simply accepting evil as a fact of existence, because the problem ricochets throughout the whole field of theology, impacting such fundamental doctrines as:
Theism: “Does God care?”
Theodicy: “Is God good?”
Determinism: “Is God less powerful than Fate?”
Monotheism: “Does God have an evil Alter Ego?”
Omnipotence: “Is God powerful enough to prevent evil?”
In fact, the problem of suffering is so complex, that none of the world religions have been able to agree on a common answer.
“Suffering is due to kismet (fate), or the predestined will of Allah, for an individual. God curses whom He will curse and blesses whom He will bless.” Islam means “submission” to the inevitable, inflexible, immutable will of Allah.
“Suffering is repayment for sins of former lives - the law of karma.” This explanation is based upon the premise of a belief in reincarnation.
“Karma decrees suffering, but the individual should be indifferent to suffering and above it.” To the enlightened ones, there is no difference between joy and sorrow, which are merely manifestations of maya, the “illusion” of the reality of sensory experience.
“Suffering is a necessary part of life, which is a tapestry woven of black and white threads of evil and good.” Both colors are necessary to give a pattern to the tapistry of Nature. Happiness would be meaningless without the existence of sorrow.
“Suffering is the wrath of God upon sinners.” One must be patient in adversity, as was Job.
“Suffering is subject to the sovereignty of God, and it may result from either His permission or His direction.” Examples are:
God’s permission, which allows man’s free will to operate.
(Freedom to choose is worth the price of possibly making a bad choice.)
God’s permission, which allows the impartial operation of natural law.
(So-called “acts of God” may not be deliberate actions on the part of the Creator. The inflicting of injury is a fact of existence, since most complex life forms can survive only by destroying other life forms for food. Random occurrences of fortune or misfortune ignore the moral state of the victim.)
God’s permission for Satan to have temporary freedom.
(Paul was subjected to a “thorn in the flesh” from the Devil.)
God’s direction as a result of the Original Sin of Adam.
(The law of Cause and Effect means that sin brings sorrow, and even innocent bystanders may be hurt.)
God’s direction as a corrective punishment upon His children.
(God chastises believers, and He may intervene harshly in world affairs in order to control history.)
God’s direction of trials to test man’s faith and to provide educational experiences.
(Wisdom comes from painful education; the sufferer can be a witness to others of God’s justice and mercy, can come to realize sympathy for other sufferers, and can be tempered in a crucible to reject conceitful notions.)
God’s direction toward some ultimate unknown purpose that seems painful from the human point of view.
(Christ’s suffering made possible the ultimate plan of salvation. Human suffering can also be patterned on that of Christ, i.e., voluntary self-sacrifice.)
For the gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, and therefore I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know Whom I have believed, and I am sure that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. 2 Timothy 1:11-12
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28
The Bible assumes that suffering is the inevitable lot of God’s children. This pessimistic attitude came about because of the frequent oppressions of the Jews. Their prophets came to expect affliction and to see God’s hand in it.
O Yahweh, thou hast ordained (the Babylonian invaders) as a judgment; and Thou O Rock, hast established them for chastisement. For thou makest men like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. Is (Babylon) then to keep on emptying the net, and mercilessly slaying nations forever? Habakkuk 1:12,14,17
This philosophy was perpetuated by apocalyptic writing, which was always composed during periods of intense persecution and hardship, as for example:
Ezekiel and Isaiah writing under Babylonian oppression.
Zechariah writing under Samaritan oppression.
Daniel and “Enoch” writing under Greek oppression.
Esdras and the Essenes writing under Roman oppression.
John, Peter, and Hermas writing under Roman oppression.
In apocalyptic literature, the present time of the prophet or the time near at hand was viewed as a time of “tribulation,” a term that connoted “birth pangs” of the coming New Age of peace.
Wail, for the day of Yahweh is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come. Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every man’s heart will melt, and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in travail. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame. Behold, the day of Yahweh comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger to make the earth a desolation and to destroy sinners from it. Isaiah 13:8-9
Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail; for now you shall go forth from the city and dwell in the open country. You shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued, there Yahweh will redeem you from the hand of your enemies. Micah 4:10
When a woman is in travail, she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. John 16:21-22
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Romans 8:22-25
When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. 1 Thessalonians 5:3
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for her delivery. Revelation 12:1-2
The Book of Job addressed the problem of suffering but gave no real answer to it. The author of that book arrived at the same conclusion as Muhammad, that the sufferer is not to question his afflictions, but simply to accept them as God’s will. By the Islamic definition, a religious martyr is one who “lays down his life in the path of Allah” to be trodden by the juggernaut Deity into the earth.
The best and final answer to the problem of evil was manifested in the life of Jesus, as God Himself came to share in the sad lot of mankind. And it is through His example that the experience of suffering was sublimated to the level of a sacrament - a new rule which affirms that the highest act a man can do is to lay down his life for another. Jesus said His followers would:
a. be “blessed” in persecution (Matt. 5:10-12),
b. take up crosses of affliction (Mark 8:34),
c. drink the cup of pain that He drank and be “baptized” in His suffering (Mark 10:38-39),
d. go through the Tribulation of the present age (Matt. 24:9,21-22, John 16:33). (Note: It is not true, as some preach, that believers will be taken up, “raptured,” out of harm’s way.)
In like manner, Paul said that Christians would:
a. endure thorns of physical suffering (2 Cor. 12:7),
b. be privileged to share in Christ’s suffering (Acts 14:22, Rom. 5:3, Phil. 3:8-10, 2 Tim. 2:3, Rev. 1:9, 7:13-14).
Vicarious suffering would, at first glance, seem to be characteristic of the highest specimens of mature human behavior. But actually this sacrificial spirit is also found everywhere in nature. The mother bird will suffer pangs of starvation while diligently seeking food for her brood, and will, at great personal risk, feign being crippled to lure a snake away from her nest. How much more then, should all upright and noble human beings be willing to take on the burdens of those in unfortunate circumstances, and even, in perilous times, perform deeds of courage and selfless sacrifice. Such acts effectively solve the problem of suffering by thereby transforming these kind and thoughtful deeds into the ministrations of angels.
Richard L. Atkins
THE FIVE SOURCES OF SORROW
Discernment of the cause of a particular calamity in one’s life is often quite difficult. It was the pattern in primitive society to blame all evil upon God - hence, the so-called “acts of God.” That this concept is false can be seen from the following categorization. It will be noted that God is only directly responsible for the fifth category.
1. Natural Law
a. “Acts of God” (incorrectly labeled): fire, flood, famine, wind, hail, lightning, infectious disease, highway accidents, drowning, snakebite.
b. Human Mistakes: accidental poisoning, surgical error, pollution, poverty, mental illness from social pressures.
c. Impartiality of chance occurrences: “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.”
2. Evolutionary Imperfection
a. The Law of the Jungle: the weak die to feed the strong, poor specimens are weeded out of the garden of life.
b. Physical Defects: hereditary disease, genetic weakness.
c. Residual Animal Imperfection: trouble from tonsils, the appendix, backache and varicose veins from upright posture, unwanted body hair, the pain of childbirth, racial differences like animal breeds.
a. Retribution to the Sinner: just punishment.
b. The Law of Cause and Effect: reaping what has been sowed.
c. Harm to Innocent Bystanders: wartime atrocities, robbery, rape, slander, effect of divorce upon children, birth defects from the mother’s sinful habits.
a. Supernatural Oppression: the afflictions of Job.
b. Results of Temptation to Sin: Satan “tempts” to weaken; God “tests” to strengthen. It is hard to know if an attraction is a temptation or a test.
5. Chastisement and Redemption
a. God whips His Child: as a warning against further sin.
b. God urges Conformance to His Will: He applies an “ox goad,” “pruning shears,” and “refining fire” as corrective measures.
c. God tests Faith: He never “tempts” to wrongdoing.
d. Suffering builds Character: life is a school, a probationary period.
e. Suffering may be Voluntary:
- a sacrificial gift of self. “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.”
- Jesus set the example of suffering for others, “cross-bearing.”
- Christians can share in Christ’s suffering to redeem others to Him.
It is not necessary to know the source of sorrow in order to deal with it. What matters is whether the Christian is overcome by life or whether he remains true, strong, and faithful. One can rely upon the help of God to be the victor. Also, believers can help one another by sharing burdens.
A difficulty is a mountain that must be climbed in order to get higher.
Richard L. Atkins