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Can We Explain All Suffering?

Perhaps the suffering most difficult to understand is that which seems to come out of nowhere and for no discernible reason. We must realize that individual tragedies may occur over which we have no control and that are impossible for us to foresee. In such instances the Scriptures encourage us to pray, asking God to remove or relieve the problem or help us deal with the difficulty and learn from it.

Our Creator in His wisdom doesn't always give us the answer we want. Rarely does He reveal the specific reason for the decision He makes. Yet He always has a good reason.

For example, God delivered the apostle Paul from many trials, but in at least one He declined to intervene in spite of Paul's fervent prayers (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). On this occasion the response to Paul was, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."

In this instance, strengthening an aspect of Paul's spiritual perspective or character was ultimately more important than his personal comfort.

This example should help us understand that God's perspective is different from ours (see Isaiah 55:8-9; 2 Peter 3:8). He sometimes places the character lessons we should learn in difficult circumstances above our physical and mental comfort. At such times we may think God doesn't hear our prayers, but He does. It's just that we often don't want to accept that His answer is "no" or "not yet"—or, as in the case of the apostle Paul, "I have something better in mind for you."

We need to be aware of God's promise never to test us beyond our ability to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). Paul set a wonderful example. He simply trusted God's wisdom and determined to continue doing the work God had called him to do.

If we are ever burdened with suffering that God does not soon reverse—especially if it is caused by circumstances beyond our control—we should follow this sound biblical advice from Peter: "Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God's will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good" (1 Peter 4:19, New Revised Standard Version).

Notice the particular area of suffering Peter had in mind: "If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name" (verses 14-16, NRSV).

If each individual's suffering could be traced directly to his own transgression of a specific law, it would be easier to understand and accept as a just consequence. But it is rarely that simple.

In giving us freedom to choose, God has given us room to accept or reject His guidance, to choose rebellion or submission, to make foolish decisions or wise ones. In doing so He has given each of us an undetermined future.

We are free to drive carelessly or after drinking too much, free to dump toxins into our environment, free to eat unwisely. Each of us has that freedom, as do our neighbors and everyone else around us. All of our actions—and theirs—bring consequences. Sometimes we suffer because of our own decisions—and sometimes because of our neighbor's decisions. The reverse is also true. Freedom to choose is a wonderful gift, but we have seldom handled this responsibility well, as evidenced by our sorrowful, suffering world.

This gives us some understanding of why the innocent, including little children, at times suffer as a result of the poor choices of others. It is during these times that we most need the comforting help of a loving God and support of family and friends.

None of us is immune to the consequences of actions—ours or others'. The person who develops a disease that is not traceable to his specific personal behavior and the infant born with a congenital birth defect both suffer, though not necessarily because of anything they did.

Those who are injured or killed in accidents or natural disasters are often innocent victims too. Not all suffering is the result of personal disobedience or irresponsible behavior by the one who suffers. Even in the Ten Commandments God reminds us that the consequences of wrong actions can affect one's descendants for several generations (Exodus 20:5).

Often the specific cause of instances of suffering simply cannot be precisely explained—at least not in this lifetime. Sometimes the best we can do is to accept it as explainable only by what the Bible calls "time and chance" (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Although God does not cause accidents, neither does He micromanage the lives of every human being to prevent them all. Paul tells us that in this life we see through "a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV). We will never fully understand some things during this life, but we will in the world to come.

We should realize that even suffering that is a result of time and chance is not causeless. If it cannot be connected to a specific behavior, it is often nevertheless a consequence of one or more behavioral patterns followed by the human race since creation.

Adam chose, by sinning, to turn away from God. The rest of mankind has taken the same path: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, ... death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12).

One of the consequences of humanity's decision to live contrary to God's instruction is a world subject to the capriciousness and vagaries of "time and chance" and the actions of others. This pattern will prevail until Christ returns to establish God's Kingdom on earth. The entire world will then be filled with the knowledge of God and His righteous laws (Isaiah 11:9). All of humanity finally will thrive in a world that is just and fair.

 

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