Suffering. It's not a pleasant subject to discuss, but a necessary one. A dictionary defines suffering as the state of anguish or pain of one who suffers—the bearing of pain, injury or loss (The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary).
Suffering plagues our world. In its many forms it affects us physically, psychologically and emotionally. Whatever its manifestation, extended suffering can crush the body and spirit.
Suffering falls on the just and the unjust. It afflicts innocent victims. This uncomfortable fact makes it difficult for us to reconcile such obvious unfairness with the existence or fairness of an intelligent divine being.
Some are so disturbed by this state of affairs that they try to remedy the situation. They devote much of their energy to performing charitable works aimed at relieving undeserved suffering. They long to make the world a more just and equitable place to live.
But, commendable as these efforts are, good works don't solve the world's problems. It appears that our efforts to stop suffering at best only delay the inevitable. And nobody, it seems, has a believable explanation of why so much human misery persists.
What is the answer? Why is suffering so indiscriminate? Why isn't it meted out to only those who deserve it? Why do the innocent suffer from actions and events they have no control over and often cannot foresee?
Thinkers and philosophers have weighed in on the issue for years, but they have failed to provide a satisfying rational answer. Those in pain—including many reading this booklet—need answers to their questions.
The Bible view: Realistic and encouraging
Let's examine the causes of suffering from a biblical perspective. God's Word is the key source that can help us discover the reasons people suffer.
The biblical view of life is realistic and encouraging. The Bible explains why pain has always been with us and why it will remain, at least for a time.
At the same time the biblical view is also encouraging, especially when we expand our thinking to see life in terms of God's plan and His purpose for mankind.
Jesus Christ tells us that His mission includes the offer to us of an abundant life (John 10:10). Psalm 16:11 tells us that "at [God's] right hand are pleasures for-ever-more." The Bible also reveals how God will lighten our burdens and how relief will one day come to the whole world. It also tells us of a time even further beyond when suffering will completely disappear.
But that is not the condition of humanity in our age.
Jesus understood that suffering is an inextricable part of this physical life. He reminded His followers, "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33, New International Version).
Suffering won't go away—yet
Suffering strikes rich and poor, religious and irreligious, small and great. In this life virtually everyone will experience it. Disease and health problems seem to strike most people at some time or other.
In centuries past common diseases caused immense suffering. But in spite of advances in medical science that have greatly lengthened the average life span, we know we will still die. Rather than having our lives cut short by the killer diseases of earlier years, now many of us will expire at a greater age from such debilitating afflictions as cancer or heart disease. Many will lose their mental faculties long before their bodies wear out.
In poorer nations, suffering and death from diseases that are largely preventable still cut an enormous swath of misery and despair.
Barbarity is responsible for much mental and physical suffering. Nothing reduces man to brutal cruelty more quickly than war, and man is always fighting his fellow man. A few decades ago historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote that in 3,421 years of recorded history "only 268 have seen no war" (The Lessons of History, 1968, p. 81).
War causes not only deaths and crippling injuries on the battlefield but heartbreak, the destruction of families and poverty. It sows the seeds of enmities that last for centuries. Jesus prophesied that the period immediately before His return would see the greatest suffering of all time, much of it directly attributable to warfare (Matthew 24:6-22).
After the terror of the wars of the first half of the 20th century and the worldwide disruption they engendered, mankind has enjoyed a moderate reprieve in the sense that wars since then have been regional rather than global. Yet nothing has changed in human nature that offers much enduring hope for the future.
Where suffering is a constant
Suffering exacts its greatest toll on people in poorer, backward countries. In many countries people struggle simply to have enough to eat. United Nations statistics explain that more than 800 million people suffer from the effects of constant hunger, and a child dies of hunger or hunger-related ailments every five seconds. According to the World Bank, almost a billion people earn less than a dollar a day, and almost half the world's population survive on less than $2 per day.
"You have the poor with you always," said Jesus (Matthew 26:11). This is depressingly true not only in pockets of poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but virtually everywhere. What makes the existence of the abject and underfed more tragic is that much of this kind of suffering is avoidable.
Political ineptitude, corrupt leadership, war and rapid population growth that outstrips food supplies fuel hunger and starvation. Inefficient farming methods and inadequate transportation and food-delivery systems are factors that contribute to chronic shortages and man-made famines. Conditions beyond human control also play a part.
Starvation and disease are problems that are going to get worse even if short-term relief measures are successfully implemented. Jesus foretold a time of unprecedented trouble in the "last days" that will include widespread famine. He prophesied of "famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places" (Matthew 24:7).
Pestilence—disease epidemics—often accompanies famines. When destructive earthquakes strike, particularly in poor nations, a ravaged infrastructure prevents the flow of food into the afflicted areas. Disease and hunger soon take their deadly toll.
Although wars make the headlines, the number of deaths from armed conflict is small compared with those who die from disease. According to some estimates, AIDS kills 10 times as many in Africa alone as die in wars worldwide.
Mankind willfully spreads suffering
Although the toll of suffering from food shortages and disease is monumental, raw greed brings yet more suffering. Slavery, for example, is an ancient and supposedly obsolete institution, yet it remains a cancer in many countries.
The United Nations estimates that more than 12 million people are enslaved today. Other organizations believe the true number is more than double that. Time magazine describes the situation: "Millions of people around the globe, including children as young as six, are working in bondage—in dangerous and degrading conditions that often involve 18-hour workdays, beatings and sexual abuse" (March 22, 1993).
Many more, although not held against their will, live in virtual slavery, trapped by economic circumstances and long work hours while eking out a meager living. Such conditions crush the human spirit. Imagine a life bereft of joy, an existence in which people never enjoy such simple pleasures as the sound of beautiful music, the fun of good humor, the feel of a new garment or the comfort of a secure roof overhead.
Greed takes a deadly toll in hundreds of more subtle ways. Advertisers hawk products that can ruin our health and eventually kill us. Entertainment promotes selfish, arrogant lifestyles that focus on short-term pleasure even as they ultimately destroy personal relationships and ruin opportunities for long-term happiness. Some businesses, manufacturers and governments poison the air, land and water with toxins that threaten others' health and safety. The list goes on and on.
Will the picture change?
When Jesus Christ came to earth two millennia ago, He saw His share of misery. He witnessed the plight of outcast lepers, widows in need and people with debilitating mental disorders. He reacted with compassion to alleviate misery.
Jesus' concern and compassion were evident when He wept openly as He approached Jerusalem for the final time (Luke 19:41-44). He could foresee the anguish that warfare would bring on the beloved city and its people in A.D. 70 when a Jewish rebellion would result in Roman armies laying siege to the city, with horrible consequences.
He proclaimed that part of His mission was "to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18). Such a time has not yet occurred for all mankind, but God promises He will bring an end to suffering in general during Christ's millennial reign and will eventually banish it (Revelation 21:4).
In the coming pages we'll discover how and when this will occur. But, to understand how suffering will end, we must understand how it began—and why it continues.