Some have concluded that God simply doesn’t exist. The answer, however, is much more complex. What does the Bible reveal about the causes of suffering?
British author and historian Paul Johnson writes of one of mankind’s greatest theological dilemmas in his book The Quest for God, stating,”I suspect that the problem of evil drives more thoughtful people away from religion than any other difficulty” (1996, p. 61).
Many people believe that if God is truly the God of love and mercy, He would be bound by His own character and principles to prevent suffering in the world. This brings up a good question. Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent suffering?
The evil that God allows, and the tragedies He chooses not to prevent, leads many to question the wisdom, goodness and even existence of God. Some atheists cite the reality of evil as their trump card in the argument about the existence of God. Julian Huxley, one of the 20th century’s leading proponents of evolution, opined that the existence of evil “is a challenge to God’s moral character” ( Religion Without Revelation, 1957, p. 109).
Huxley concluded that divine revelation and a divine Revealer do not exist. (For proof that God is indeed real and evolution a fable, please read our free booklets Life’s Ultimate Question: Does God Exist? and Creation or Evolution: Does It Really Matter What You Believe? )
Why does God allow evil? Anyone who has ever felt pain or experienced tragedy wonders about this. Theologians, philosophers, historians and scientists have mused over the issue. Let’s consider some of their conclusions.
An evil God vs. a good God?
The second-century gnostic teacher Marcion, who was declared a heretic because of his views, believed that “there were two rival Gods: one, the tyrannical creator and lawgiver of the Old Testament; the other, the unknown God of love and mercy who sent Jesus to purchase salvation from the creator God” ( Webster Encyclopedia, one-volume edition, 1985, p. 561).
In Marcion’s view the lawgiver God was responsible for the existence of pain and evil, and the work of the Savior was to deliver the world from the pain and evil caused by that God. Ironically, this erroneous outlook was modified and refined by others and gradually took root in the body of the doctrine of the mainstream church, where its influence has fostered confusion and misunderstanding to this day.
Many assume God angrily intervenes to punish us whenever we step out of line, when in reality He generally allows us to suffer the consequences of our own selfish, shortsighted behavior (see Jeremiah 2:19 Jeremiah 2:19Your own wickedness shall correct you, and your backslidings shall reprove you: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that you have forsaken the LORD your God, and that my fear is not in you, said the Lord GOD of hosts.
American King James Version×; Jeremiah 10:23 Jeremiah 10:23O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps.
American King James Version×). Most people fail to recognize that God doesn’t have to directly intervene every time we sin; the spiritual laws He set in motion are self-enforcing, bringing their own punishment in the form of painful consequences when we break them.
Is this God’s handiwork?
Historians have addressed the seeming contradiction of a world created by God but replete with evil. The English historian Arnold Toynbee noted that “one of the conclusions that have been drawn by human spectators of the moral evil of the Universe is that this chamber of horrors cannot be any God’s handiwork” ( A Study of History, abridged version, 1957, Vol. 10, p. 300).
Toynbee recognized that much of the world’s suffering is caused by the misrule of tyrants. Scripture shows that God can remove wicked men from power (Daniel 2:21 Daniel 2:21And he changes the times and the seasons: he removes kings, and sets up kings: he gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:
American King James Version×). He humbled and removed Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar, the mightiest ruler of his era. As an emperor over many conquered peoples, Nebuchadnezzar “executed whom-ever he wished” (Daniel 5:18-19 Daniel 5:18-19 18 O you king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar your father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honor: 19 And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down.
American King James Version×). Yet God brought him down to size, neutralizing his influence for seven years.
So why doesn’t God do this more often? Nebuchadnezzar, in his pomp and arrogance, caused only a fraction of the misery inflicted by some dictatorial rulers of our era.
Physicist Paul Davies reflects on this side of the good-vs.-evil argument. He considers the issue of why God, if He truly is all-powerful, does not simply intervene and stop all evil. “Is God free to prevent evil?” Davies wonders. “If he is omnipotent, yes. Why then does He fail to do so?” ( God and the New Physics, 1983, p. 143).
Davies’ questions are reasonable. Is God powerless in the face of suffering? If He exists, why doesn’t He act to remove evil and pain from the face of the earth? The questions are troubling, though not because they are hard to understand. They are unsettling because the answers are not what we would want them to be.
The truth of the matter forces us to reconsider our ideas about God and His plan and purpose for us. When we understand those, we understand that God has His reasons for not acting now.
A greater purpose?
Why doesn’t God simply ban evil? To understand the answer, we must consider the consequences such an action would bring.
Understanding why God allows evil and its resultant suffering requires a fundamental understanding of one of God’s greatest gifts—as well as how man has continually abused that gift.
The gift is free will —or, as it is more popularly called, freedom of choice. God granted this freedom to our first human parents, Adam and Eve, at creation. But over the millennia we have proven ourselves to be woefully inept stewards of this precious gift and its far-reaching responsibility.
As God explained to ancient Israel, the freedom to make choices is essential to developing righteous character (Deuteronomy 30:15-19 Deuteronomy 30:15-19 15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil;
16 In that I command you this day to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that you may live and multiply: and the LORD your God shall bless you in the land where you go to possess it.
17 But if your heart turn away, so that you will not hear, but shall be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them;
18 I denounce to you this day, that you shall surely perish, and that you shall not prolong your days on the land, where you pass over Jordan to go to possess it.
19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live:
American King James Version×). Without freedom to choose, we would be little more than robots, with our behavior either preprogrammed and unchangeable or dictated in all its details by an outside force such as God Himself.
But that is not God’s intent. He has different expectations of us because of His much higher purpose for us. He wants us to choose to obey Him from the heart. He wants us to enthusiastically love and cherish His values and standards, which are based on two overriding principles —loving Him with all our hearts and loving others as much as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:35-40 Matthew 22:35-40 35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
American King James Version×).
As we will see, choosing to obey God and learning to love others when we have the freedom to do otherwise is vital for the future God has planned for us.
Different levels of decision making
Of all the earth’s physical creatures that God has made, man alone can exercise free will. Simpler life-forms, such as microbes and insects, are preprogrammed to react in certain ways to certain stimuli. They behave in accordance with their environment and have virtually no independent decision-making abilities in the sense that man does.
The actions of more-complicated life-forms, such as mammals, are also largely governed by instinct, though they do make rudimentary decisions when reacting to stimuli and adapting to situations.
Human beings alone among earthly creatures have an advanced sense of time. Ecclesiastes 3:11 Ecclesiastes 3:11He has made every thing beautiful in his time: also he has set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God makes from the beginning to the end.
American King James Version×says that God “has put eternity in [our] hearts.” In other words, we can contemplate the future. We make far-reaching decisions and plan our lives months and years in advance.
We also study the past; we have a sense of history. We learn lessons from our experiences and the experiences of others. God gave the capacity for advanced decision-making abilities only to man among His earthly creation.
God designed human beings to make choices. Yet we have never learned how to make consistently wise and properly informed choices. Nor have we learned how to effectively manage our emotions, motives and desires and their influence on our decisions.
The first exercise of man’s freedom of choice
Our freedom to decide what we want to do can result in acts of good or evil. God gave us freedom both to reach out and help our fellow man and freedom to act self-servingly and in ways that harm ourselves and others.
We frequently exercise our freedom of choice in wrong ways, and we reap the consequences—which take the form of often-unexpected penalties. This is nothing new; it occurred in the Garden of Eden with the first human beings, Adam and Eve.
God had placed two trees in the garden. One was the tree of life and the other the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9 Genesis 2:9And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
American King James Version×). God told Adam he could eat of the former, but he was not to partake of the latter: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17 Genesis 2:16-17 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: 17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.
American King James Version×).
As the book of Revelation explains, the tree of life symbolized obedience to God that would ultimately lead to eternal life (Revelation 2:7 Revelation 2:7He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the middle of the paradise of God.
American King James Version×; Revelation 22:1-2 Revelation 22:1-2 1 And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. 2 In the middle of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
American King James Version×). The other tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—represented rejection of God’s direction by determining good and evil for oneself. This choice would eventually lead to death.
Eve, tempted by the serpent, exercised her free will unwisely and was deceived (2 Corinthians 11:3 2 Corinthians 11:3But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
American King James Version×). She rationalized her way around God’s instruction. Although the apostle Paul tells us that Adam was not deceived (1 Timothy 2:13-14 1 Timothy 2:13-14 13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
American King James Version×), he allowed his wife to persuade him to join her in disobeying God (Genesis 3:17 Genesis 3:17And to Adam he said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it: cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life;
American King James Version×).
Adam’s full realization of his actions made him all the more guilty for what happened; God held him responsible even more so than Eve. Nevertheless, acting together they chose to listen to and follow the serpent (Genesis 3:1-6 Genesis 3:1-6 1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, Yes, has God said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
2 And the woman said to the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.
4 And the serpent said to the woman, You shall not surely die:
5 For God does know that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat.
American King James Version×), identified in Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
American King James Version×as the devil and Satan. (To better understand Satan’s influence, be sure to read Is There Really a Devil? )
Adam and Eve reaped the consequences of their sin. God told them they would die—and eventually they did—but the immediate consequence was that God expelled them from the garden and cut them off from the tree of life.
Now they had to make their own way in a difficult world (Genesis 3:22-24 Genesis 3:22-24 22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from from where he was taken.
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
American King James Version×). They were left to their flawed wisdom—their own judgment (Genesis 3:6 Genesis 3:6And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat.
American King James Version×). Life from that point would include sorrow, pain and toil because of their rebellion against God’s clear instruction (Genesis 3:16-19 Genesis 3:16-19 16 To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. 17 And to Adam he said, Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree, of which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it: cursed is the ground for your sake; in sorrow shall you eat of it all the days of your life; 18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to you; and you shall eat the herb of the field; 19 In the sweat of your face shall you eat bread, till you return to the ground; for out of it were you taken: for dust you are, and to dust shall you return.
American King James Version×).
Since that time “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23 Romans 3:23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
American King James Version×; Romans 5:12 Romans 5:12Why, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed on all men, for that all have sinned:
American King James Version×) and reaped the penalties Adam and Eve incurred.
Many people disdain the Bible because it includes many accounts of people’s bad behavior. Yet we should understand that Scripture, in part, is a historical account of the sinful way of life man chose when he rejected God’s commandments and reaped the resulting consequences.
God inspired the recording of the lessons in the Old Testament so that we might learn from the experiences of others (1 Corinthians 10:6-11 1 Corinthians 10:6-11 6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.
7 Neither be you idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
8 Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.
9 Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents.
10 Neither murmur you, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer.
11 Now all these things happened to them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the world are come.
American King James Version×; Romans 15:4 Romans 15:4For whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
American King James Version×). Although the New Testament includes similar lessons for us, its focus is mostly on the message of the Kingdom of God and the good news that God sent His Son to save us from our sins (John 3:16 John 3:16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
American King James Version×). It also reveals how suffering and sorrow will eventually cease.
A choice of blessings or curses
About 2,500 years after Adam and Eve, God offered tangible relief from suffering to the Israelites. He began working with them while they were still in bondage in Egypt. He promised not only to free them from slavery but to give them the opportunity to be a model nation others would want to emulate (Deuteronomy 4:5-8 Deuteronomy 4:5-8 5 Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do so in the land where you go to possess it.
6 Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
7 For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call on him for?
8 And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
American King James Version×).
As a part of God’s agreement with them, they were to become His obedient people (Exodus 19:5 Exodus 19:5Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure to me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
American King James Version×). He instructed them in the 10 cardinal points of His eternal, spiritual law—the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-26 Exodus 20:1-26 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 I am the LORD your God, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that takes his name in vain. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: why the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. 12 Honor your father and your mother: that your days may be long on the land which the LORD your God gives you. 13 You shall not kill. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor’s. 18 And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. 19 And they said to Moses, Speak you with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. 20 And Moses said to the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not. 21 And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. 22 And the LORD said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall you make to you gods of gold. 24 An altar of earth you shall make to me, and shall sacrifice thereon your burnt offerings, and your peace offerings, your sheep, and your oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come to you, and I will bless you. 25 And if you will make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone: for if you lift up your tool on it, you have polluted it. 26 Neither shall you go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not discovered thereon.
American King James Version×). He gave them additional laws and statutes, which we find primarily in the books written by Moses (the Pentateuch).
That law, He told them, would be their “wisdom” and “understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:6 Deuteronomy 4:6Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
American King James Version×).
God told the Israelites they had the freedom to choose between the two ways of living: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20 Deuteronomy 30:19-20 19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live:
20 That you may love the LORD your God, and that you may obey his voice, and that you may hold to him: for he is your life, and the length of your days: that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.
American King James Version×).
He informed them that if they obeyed they would reap many blessings (Deuteronomy 28:2 Deuteronomy 28:2And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of the LORD your God.
American King James Version×), but if they disobeyed they would be accursed (Deuteronomy 28:15 Deuteronomy 28:15But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day; that all these curses shall come on you, and overtake you:
American King James Version×). Many of the curses God said would result from disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:15-68 Deuteronomy 28:15-68 15 But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day; that all these curses shall come on you, and overtake you: 16 Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. 17 Cursed shall be your basket and your store. 18 Cursed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your land, the increase of your cows, and the flocks of your sheep. 19 Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. 20 The LORD shall send on you cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that you set your hand to for to do, until you be destroyed, and until you perish quickly; because of the wickedness of your doings, whereby you have forsaken me. 21 The LORD shall make the pestilence stick to you, until he have consumed you from off the land, where you go to possess it. 22 The LORD shall smite you with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue you until you perish. 23 And your heaven that is over your head shall be brass, and the earth that is under you shall be iron. 24 The LORD shall make the rain of your land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down on you, until you be destroyed. 25 The LORD shall cause you to be smitten before your enemies: you shall go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them: and shall be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your carcass shall be meat to all fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the earth, and no man shall fray them away. 27 The LORD will smite you with the botch of Egypt, and with the tumors, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof you can not be healed. 28 The LORD shall smite you with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart: 29 And you shall grope at noonday, as the blind gropes in darkness, and you shall not prosper in your ways: and you shall be only oppressed and spoiled ever more, and no man shall save you. 30 You shall betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: you shall build an house, and you shall not dwell therein: you shall plant a vineyard, and shall not gather the grapes thereof. 31 Your ox shall be slain before your eyes, and you shall not eat thereof: your ass shall be violently taken away from before your face, and shall not be restored to you: your sheep shall be given to your enemies, and you shall have none to rescue them. 32 Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, and your eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long; and there shall be no might in your hand. 33 The fruit of your land, and all your labors, shall a nation which you know not eat up; and you shall be only oppressed and crushed always: 34 So that you shall be mad for the sight of your eyes which you shall see. 35 The LORD shall smite you in the knees, and in the legs, with a sore botch that cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the top of your head. 36 The LORD shall bring you, and your king which you shall set over you, to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known; and there shall you serve other gods, wood and stone. 37 And you shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations where the LORD shall lead you. 38 You shall carry much seed out into the field, and shall gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it. 39 You shall plant vineyards, and dress them, but shall neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout all your coasts, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil; for your olive shall cast his fruit. 41 You shall beget sons and daughters, but you shall not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity. 42 All your trees and fruit of your land shall the locust consume. 43 The stranger that is within you shall get up above you very high; and you shall come down very low. 44 He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him: he shall be the head, and you shall be the tail. 45 Moreover all these curses shall come on you, and shall pursue you, and overtake you, till you be destroyed; because you listened not to the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded you: 46 And they shall be on you for a sign and for a wonder, and on your seed for ever. 47 Because you served not the LORD your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; 48 Therefore shall you serve your enemies which the LORD shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron on your neck, until he have destroyed you. 49 The LORD shall bring a nation against you from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies; a nation whose tongue you shall not understand; 50 A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor show favor to the young: 51 And he shall eat the fruit of your cattle, and the fruit of your land, until you be destroyed: which also shall not leave you either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of your cows, or flocks of your sheep, until he have destroyed you. 52 And he shall besiege you in all your gates, until your high and fenced walls come down, wherein you trusted, throughout all your land: and he shall besiege you in all your gates throughout all your land, which the LORD your God has given you. 53 And you shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters, which the LORD your God has given you, in the siege, and in the narrow place, with which your enemies shall distress you: 54 So that the man that is tender among you, and very delicate, his eye shall be evil toward his brother, and toward the wife of his bosom, and toward the remnant of his children which he shall leave: 55 So that he will not give to any of them of the flesh of his children whom he shall eat: because he has nothing left him in the siege, and in the narrow place, with which your enemies shall distress you in all your gates. 56 The tender and delicate woman among you, which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot on the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil toward the husband of her bosom, and toward her son, and toward her daughter, 57 And toward her young one that comes out from between her feet, and toward her children which she shall bear: for she shall eat them for want of all things secretly in the siege and narrow place, with which your enemy shall distress you in your gates. 58 If you will not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD; 59 Then the LORD will make your plagues wonderful, and the plagues of your seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. 60 Moreover he will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt, which you were afraid of; and they shall stick to you. 61 Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the LORD bring on you, until you be destroyed. 62 And you shall be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God. 63 And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nothing; and you shall be plucked from off the land where you go to possess it. 64 And the LORD shall scatter you among all people, from the one end of the earth even to the other; and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known, even wood and stone. 65 And among these nations shall you find no ease, neither shall the sole of your foot have rest: but the LORD shall give you there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: 66 And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and shall have none assurance of your life: 67 In the morning you shall say, Would God it were even! and at even you shall say, Would God it were morning! for the fear of your heart with which you shall fear, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see. 68 And the LORD shall bring you into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spoke to you, You shall see it no more again: and there you shall be sold to your enemies for slaves and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you.
American King James Version×) are virtually identical to the pain and suffering that wrack modern nations. Some of these troubles would affect the nation as a whole. Others were to be personal afflictions, both physical and mental.
Regrettably, Israel disobeyed and reaped terrible misery that God foretold. These included agricultural catastrophes, poverty, family problems, ill health, crime and violence, military defeats and eventual captivity.
After the Israelites’ centuries-long experiment with freedom of choice—during which they consistently chose to ignore God and do things their own way—they were returned to a state of national enslavement.
Cause and effect: often overlooked
God has often tried to impress on man the crucial principle that every effect has a cause. But we have difficulty grasping this truth, so we continue to suffer the debilitating effects of our transgressions.
We can trace many tragedies and much suffering to our own all-too-human actions and decisions. In a world of freedom of choice, some choices inevitably lead to harmful and painful results.
Actions yield consequences. Many people recognize the saying “You reap what you sow,” but they do not realize that it comes from the Bible (see Galatians 6:6-7 Galatians 6:6-7 6 Let him that is taught in the word communicate to him that teaches in all good things.
7 Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap.
American King James Version×). Proverbs 22:8 Proverbs 22:8He that sows iniquity shall reap vanity: and the rod of his anger shall fail.
American King James Version×says that “He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow.”
When we analyze the phenomenon of suffering, we can learn much if we will trace the circumstances back to their cause. Proverbs 22:3 Proverbs 22:3A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished.
American King James Version×warns us to consider the long-term consequences of our actions: “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.”
When we look for the main causes of suffering, we often need look no further than ourselves—the decisions and actions of individuals and humanity as a whole. In one way or another sin is usually the underlying cause, and suffering is the effect.
Causes of misery
Nations and individuals suffer many miseries because of ignorance of and disobedience to the same spiritual laws of God that Israel disobeyed. God’s commandments are living laws, with universal application, providing benefits for obedience and punishments for disobedience. His inspired Word tells us that those who love His law have “great peace” (Psalms 119:165 Psalms 119:165Great peace have they which love your law: and nothing shall offend them.
American King James Version×), but the way of the lawless and unfaithful is difficult (Proverbs 13:15 Proverbs 13:15Good understanding gives favor: but the way of transgressors is hard.
American King James Version×).
The Bible points to many agonizing human experiences that are direct results of sin. One such example is military aggression. The apostle James wrote of the origin of armed conflict: “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (James 4:1-2 James 4:1-2 1 From where come wars and fights among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?
2 You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war, yet you have not, because you ask not.
American King James Version×).
These words apply to nations as well as individuals, since nations are simply groups of people looking out for their own interests. Aggressors go to war out of a desire to enhance their power, prestige and wealth. In so doing they thrust aside law, ethics, morality and peace. They kill and maim to further their ends, putting into practice the might-makes-right principle and the maxim that to the victor go the spoils.
Will and Ariel Durant understood this human tendency when they wrote in The Lessons of History : “The causes of war are the same as the causes of competition among individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, and pride; the desire for food, land, materials, fuels, mastery” (1968, p. 81).
Ironically, nations that freely choose violence, including warfare, often inherit a fate similar to that of the countries they crush. Jesus understood this when He said: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 Matthew 26:52Then said Jesus to him, Put up again your sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
American King James Version×). History is a chronicle of the succession of empires conquering and being conquered. Mankind is doomed to repeat the cycle as long as disobeying God remains our chosen way.
Decisions have consequences
Many forms of suffering are simply the inevitable consequences of personal decisions. For example, in many advanced nations pockets of poverty persist in spite of billions of tax dollars spent to combat the problem.
Often that poverty can be traced to individual decisions. Students drop out of school, cutting short their education and consigning themselves to lifetimes of difficult jobs, low wages, financial hardship and frustrated ambitions.
Many teenagers become sexually active, with millions of girls giving birth out of wedlock to children who may never see their fathers. Studies have shown that children abandoned by their fathers are far more likely at an early age to turn to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, adopt criminal behavior and become sexually promiscuous in their own turn, bringing suffering on themselves and others.
Many young mothers—often unmarried because the fathers ran from responsibility—find themselves trapped in low-paying jobs with young mouths to feed and forced to rely on handouts, usually from the government or charities, to survive. The pattern repeats itself in a cycle of poverty spanning generations—usually because of shortsighted personal choices and actions.
Health and choices
Untold health problems plague us because of our individual decisions. We eat poorly, fail to exercise, consume harmful substances and carelessly injure ourselves and others in accidents. Many suffer from mental afflictions as a result of violating the principles governing relationships that the Bible clearly spells out.
Physical and psychological problems result from the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Such abusers not only risk taking years off their own lives, but their habits exact a huge toll on their families and friends. Even more tragically, many abusers are involved in accidents that cripple or take the lives of innocent bystanders.
The physical harm caused by smoking is solidly documented. Smoking-related illnesses take 400,000 lives each year in the United States and millions more worldwide. Many of these deaths are excruciatingly painful and slow. We readily acknowledge that the best cure for the grief caused by smoking is simply to quit, yet many are so addicted they spurn this obvious solution.
Smoking is but one of many behaviors that cause pain. Dr. Paul Martin notes that instances of seemingly innocuous behavior can add up over time: “There are plenty of commonplace behavior patterns that kill people gradually but in huge numbers” ( The Healing Mind, 1997, p. 58).
In a book with Philip Yancey, Dr. Paul Brand reported that, at a major national health conference, he began a list of the serious behavior-related health problems on the agenda that take a serious toll on Americans’ health. They include “heart disease and hypertension exacerbated by stress, stomach ulcers, cancers associated with a toxic environment, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, emphysema and lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking, fetal damage stemming from maternal alcohol and drug abuse, diabetes and other diet-related disorders, violent crime, automobile accidents involving alcohol. These were the endemic, even epidemic concerns for health experts in the United States” ( The Gift Nobody Wants, 1993, pp. 226-227).
In making decisions that lead to such problems, our bodies often alert us to the dangers. Brand and Yancey note that “an astounding proportion of the health problems stem from behavior choices that show disregard for the body’s clear signals” (p. 226).
We reap what we sow
The conclusion should be obvious. Much suffering is caused by wrong choices. The Bible offers guidance as to how we should live. Yet as far back as Adam and Eve we have repeatedly spurned God’s instruction and brought enormous pain and sorrow on ourselves.
The Bible offers practical advice on virtually all aspects of life. Many of its principles reveal how to avoid—and to some extent relieve—suffering. (We have compiled much of this guidance in Making Life Work , a booklet showing that many things in life go better if we simply apply principles God reveals in His Word.)
We cannot live substantially free from suffering until we are reconciled to God and His commandments: “My son, do not forget my law, but let your heart keep my commands; for length of days and long life and peace they will add to you” (Proverbs 3:1-2 Proverbs 3:1-2 1 My son, forget not my law; but let your heart keep my commandments:
2 For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to you.
American King James Version×, emphasis added throughout).
Were we to follow God’s instruction on a national scale, we would see immediate and drastic reductions in crime, disease, hostilities between nations, pollution, accidents, mental illness, broken families, shattered relationships and many other phenomena that cause us grief. God’s law is not harsh or onerously restrictive. It is a law of liberty (James 1:25 James 1:25But whoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
American King James Version×) that would eliminate most of the world’s pain if it were universally obeyed.