Understanding the Problem of Suffering

By David McClister

Every one who has ever lived, or who ever will live, must deal with the problem of suffering some time in his life. It is the universal experience of the human race. Either directly or indirectly, we all come into contact with suffering or pain many times during the course of our brief lives. Suffering can be very difficult to handle at times. It leaves us perplexed and confused, often wondering why it had to be or even why God could allow such misery to touch us or anyone else. The question of why man suffers in life is certainly not a new one. People have been asking that question from the beginning of human record. Furthermore, the answer to that question can be so difficult that it has led more than one person to abandon belief in a loving God.

In this article, I shall propose no absolute answer. But I do believe that we can understand a little concerning the nature of human suffering, and if we can understand it better, we can handle it better. I offer these thoughts in the attempt to provide some hope, based upon the Scriptures.

The first thing to consider is not the nature of suffering, but he nature of human existence itself. Fact number one is that life does not come with a guarantee of constant happiness. Nowhere do the Scriptures tell us that God, even though He loves us greatly, has promised to anyone a life free from pain. As a matter of fact, we may confidently say that the Bible assumes that suffering is a part of living, and we must simply resign ourselves to accept this fact. 1 Timothy 6:7 further confirms that we are not born with any innate hope or guarantee in life. We are simply brought into the world the way it is.

The realization of this fact is not, however, a very satisfying answer to the problem of pain. Saying that pain is part of life really offers no comfort. On the other hand, no one said that the answer we seek would necessarily be wonderful and pleasant. The truth is that any discussion of pain and suffering must necessarily involve itself with life’s unpleasant side. Both the problem and its answer are unpleasant. Yet I believe that there is more of an answer than this.

The second fact we must learn to accept is that much of our suffering is caused by ourselves, not God. The Bible affirms that God made a good world in the beginning. The phrase “. . . it was good” is repeated seven times in the first chapter of Genesis in connection with the creation. Verse 31 emphatically states: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Man, however, became the inventor of evil things. “Behold, this only have I found: that God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccl. 7:29). In other words, much of our suffering is accounted for by our sin. It is part of God’s law that sin results in suffering and death (cf. Rom. 5:12; 6:23). We cannot expect to violate God’s will and be treated as innocent. Sin brings suffering with it! There is a plethora of examples in the Bible to this effect-the flood, the tower of Babel, the plight of Lot’s family, and so on.

Before we blame or accuse God of being cruel in allowing suffering, we should understand that much of our misery is our own doing, and we should not expect God to save us from ourselves in spite of ourselves. God has given man the responsibility to obey Him. If any man rebels against God, by an act of his own free will, then he has chosen the path of conduct that leads to suffering. This is not God’s fault. God is not to blame for the choices we make which lead us to suffering the penalty of sin.

Now there are two ways in which we suffer as the result of sin: directly and indirectly. When we suffer directly from sin, it is because of our own sins. Take, for illustration, the prodigal son (Lk. 15). He was hungry and in misery as a result of his own decision to leave his father’s home. The fault was his own. As the parable applies to us, we learn that even though we may be forgiven of the guilt of sin, this does not remove the consequence(s) of that sin, and that consequence often involves suffering.

When we suffer indirectly from sin, it is either because some one sins against us, or simply because we live in a sinful world. For example, the sin of the murderer almost always brings suffering to others who were quite uninvolved in his evil. In this case, one man’s sin causes suffering for several others. Another case in point is the persecutions directed against the early Christians. The Christians suffered not as evil-doers, but because of the plans of ungodly men who rejected God and Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 4:15f; 2 Tim. 3:12). Here again another’s evil caused suffering for many. The point is that suffering comes with living in a sinful world.

Suffering also comes with living in a temporary world. The Bible teaches that this world and all it holds is not meant to be a permanent residence for man (2 Pet. 3:10). It is our experience that a temporary world “falls apart” from time to time, thus causing a certain amount of suffering. Whether it be by natural disaster or the death of the human body, the things of a temporary existence must necessarily be connected with suffering. It is for this reason that the Bible exhorts us to set our affections on the permanent things of heaven (Col. 3:2).

But is this fair? Why is it that seemingly innocent people must suffer because of the sins of others? A third fact we must learn to accept is that we are really not innocent. Romans 3:23 painfully reveals to us that “all have sinned.” I have sinned, and so have you. Thus we cannot say to God that we do not deserve any suffering at all. After all, we all have sinned at some time, and remember that sin brings suffering with it. To sin is to share in the ways of the world, and we cannot sin — not even once — and avoid the pain which sin brings and which is found in the world.

Yet we are compelled to ask why God had to make His law so that sin had to result in suffering. Could not God, being all-powerful, have designed things so that sin could be dealt with in a way that does not involve pain?

I believe that God designed His law on sin the way He did because that law is simply the reflection and statement of God’s attitude towards sin. God hates sin, and He wants everyone to know that. Now in order to be fair, God must punish sin. It is completely just that God deals with sin the way He does: in terms of suffering. In fact, it would be very unjust and very unfair if God did not punish sin, because that would take the virtue out of obedience. Furthermore, what use would God’s law have if God was not strict in His enforcement of it? There is no value in law unless there is a strong deterrent to violations of it, and God has decreed that His method of enforcing His law is to provide the deterrent of suffering. This is why, then, God’s law says that sin must result in suffering.

As we speak about God’s law, it is important that we correctly understand what sin is. 1 John 3:4 plainly tells us that sin is the transgression of God’s law. Any violation of any of God’s laws is a sin. Consider the following facts. Law is necessary to order in life. Without laws there would be no continuity, and we simply could not live in a world where nothing was constant. We depend upon God’s natural and moral laws to provide continuity in life. Now if one of God’s laws is broken, then the continuity that law provides is lost, and disorder, and the suffering disorder brings, results. For example, when man breaks the natural laws that hold the atom together, the destructive force of the atomic bomb results. A law is broken, and the resulting disorder brings suffering. So it is also with God’s moral laws. If we break one of God’s commandments, then we introduce moral disorder, and thus bring suffering upon ourselves or others.

If, therefore, we were to live without any pain of any kind, it would require either a world in which there was no law at all, or a world in which the breaking of established laws was miraculously prevented from resulting in any kind of painful consequences.(1)

Either situation would be quite impossible in terms of human survival. We could not live in a world without law; we depend upon laws for day-to-day existence. Nor could we live in a world of constant miracles, for we depend upon law to consistently produce its designed effects, even when we break that law. Furthermore, a world of constant miracles would only be a world with a different kind of law, and so the problem of suffering would still exist, although in different forms.

Thus we are left to return to our starting point. If we could not live without pain in a different kind of environment, this still does not answer the question of why those who are truly innocent must be subject to the suffering others have caused. Why is it, for example, that little children, who have done no wrong, must often suffer? Why is it that even a righteous man, whose sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ, must continue to suffer in life?

Much of our suffering is for our benefit, and that suffering is a problem only when we fail to recognize or understand this important fact. For example, Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-9) not because he had sinned greatly against God, but simply in order to keep him humble. In this case, God used suffering to spare Paul from further, more severe suffering that would have resulted if he had become proud and boastful of God’s working in him. Furthermore, God told Paul that it was in Paul’s own human weakness, seen in his physical suffering, that the power of God was most easily seen by others (v. 9). Another example of beneficial suffering is seen in Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Gen. 22). Surely it must have filled Abraham with great sorrow to think that he had to offer his only son in sacrifice in order to please God. Could God be pleased with something that brought pain to his beloved Abraham? But that is the wrong approach to the situation. Abraham dealt with it not by looking at the suffering itself, but by looking to God in faith. Faith took Abraham through that trial, and faith will do the same for us. See James 1:2-4. A proper attitude keeps suffering from seeming like suffering. By looking at the problem correctly, it is possible to take the pain out of suffering.

Now if there is any answer at all to the ultimate question of “why?” we may expect to find it in the book of Job. Job was a righteous man, yet he suffered greatly. Why? We may say that it was partially due to the fact that Job himself had violated God’s law, but Job knew better (Job 6:10). His suffering seemed to be completely out of line with his character and conduct. Unable to find the answer from his friends, Job finds the ultimate answer from God. In chapters 38-41 God shows Job, through a series of very difficult questions, that he is really not in a position to press God for the answer. Man is not God, and thus man should not suppose that he is in the position to demand of God the answer’ as to why He allows unexplained suffering. God alone is omniscient, and in His omniscience He knows what is best for man. What man, who is far from omniscient, must do is simply accept in faith the way God works things. Job finally confesses that even if God told him the ultimate answer, he would not understand it anyway (Job. 42:1-6). What we must do is let God make His decisions and not question or accuse God. Man cannot make God give account.

This, then is what we must do with the problem in its furthest reaches. We must put our faith in Him, and live as He directs; do what He says and not challenge His wisdom in giving the orders. After all, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts,” says God (Isa. 55:9). God loves us, and we should believe it. Any suffering that we endure must be perceived as being only in our best interests from the hand of a loving and just God.


1. See C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1962), pp. 26-36.

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 21, pp. 649-650
November 7, 1985