Suffering: How It Began, How It Will End

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How It Began, How It Will End

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The Bible tells us that God created human beings in His own image and gave us the privilege to manage—to "have dominion over"—the rest of His earthly creation (Genesis 1:26-28). Yet we find that many aspects of human life here on earth are not yet completely under our control.

Human suffering is a prominent example. That a loving, all-powerful God—as described in the Bible—would allow terrible human anguish to go on perplexes many people. Some even use human suffering as justification for denying God's existence.

Of course, we need to realize that suffering became a possibility when God created beings with free will—able to choose right or wrong. He could have made preprogrammed robots incapable of choosing wrongly; but devoid of free will, such creatures would also have been incapable of a genuine relationship with Him as He desired—just as we desire to have with others.

So much of human anguish is the result of people making wrong choices with the free will given them. They hurt others as well as themselves, and God is at this time allowing us to learn important lessons from hard experience. Here are a couple of scriptural examples of God allowing people to learn by consequences:

"Laziness casts one into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger" (Proverbs 19:15, emphasis added throughout). Also, "A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again" (verse 19, New International Version).

A major scriptural principle sums up what these examples teach: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Galatians 6:7).

Warfare is the prime example of humanity reaping what we sow. Millions have been maimed and killed, even systematically murdered, in war. Consider just one modern example.

In the first half of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler's use of bold, calculated deception and unbridled lust for power led to the global tragedy of World War II. One of the darkest chapters of that war was the premeditated Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews in what is now called the Holocaust. The genocide he unleashed is a classic example of man's heartless inhumanity to man.

This historical example gives us only a glimpse of the incredible anguish, suffering and death that human choices and actions can cause. No period in human history has been exempt from such afflictions, often occurring on a colossal scale.

How did the world come to be so mired in suffering? And what does God intend to do about it?

The great deceiver

The most active contributor to human suffering is one of the first personalities introduced in the Bible. Masquerading as a cunning serpent, he is the grand architect of delusions. God calls him what he is, an adversary (Satan) and a slandering accuser (the devil), who has greatly influenced the world in a variety of ways.

The Bible refers to him as the "ruler of this world," the "prince of the power of the air" and "the god of this age" (John 12:31; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4). How did this twisted being come to exist?

In His discussion with the patriarch Job, God refers back to the time "when I laid the foundations of the earth" (Job 38:4). On that occasion, "all the sons of God [referring to the angelic host] shouted for joy" (verse 7). Here we see that God had created the angels even before He made the earth.

But one of those angelic beings rebelled against God. With his slander he convinced a third of the other angels to also become God's adversaries (Revelation 12:4). As a result, "they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him" (verses 8-9, NIV).

God's purpose for giving us only temporary life in our fleshly body is to provide us the time and opportunity we need to develop the same character God has.

Those who succeed in developing godly character will receive the gift of eternal life as God's perfected family of sons and daughters (Ephesians 3:14-19; 2 Corinthians 6:17-18). Those who accept the gift of salvation thanks to the atoning sacrifice and spiritual help of Jesus Christ will receive greater power than even Satan and his band of fallen angels. As the apostle Paul wrote: "Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?" (1 Corinthians 6:3).

Throughout the Bible we read of Satan's antagonism toward this plan for humanity's salvation. He is motivated by intense hatred because he understands what God has in store for us. That is at least one reason why Satan and his fallen angels are constantly seeking to lure human beings away from God's truth. They do not want God's plan for mankind to succeed, so they actively oppose it.

One of Satan's most powerful tools is deception. Revelation 12:9 speaks of "the great dragon...called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world." His massive deceptions have led mankind to follow him rather than the true God. Suffering caused by sin is one of the consequences.

Why people's minds are spiritually blind

That pattern began with Adam and Eve, who chose to believe and follow Satan rather than God. God gave them freedom of choice, just as He gives it to us. But at the present time God has not opened most people's minds to comprehend that choice.

A persistent trait of human nature consistently interferes with the relationship that all peoples and nations have with God. It arises from the natural pressure that our selfish, fleshly impulses and desires exert on the choices we make.

As the apostle Paul explained to Christians in the ancient city of Ephesus, "we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others" (Ephesians 2:3). As a result, we approach life from a fundamentally selfish point of view.

Paul also explained to the Christians in Rome: "For the mind-set of the flesh [which responds to fleshly desires] is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God's law, for it is unable to do so. Those whose lives are in the flesh [that is, without additional spiritual help] are unable to please God" (Romans 8:6-8, Holman Christian Standard Bible). The deceptive pulls of the fleshly mind are too powerful.

The "Spirit" mentioned by Paul is God's Holy Spirit. He describes it as "a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7, New Revised Standard Version).

He also says to those who become fully committed to God's teachings, "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:13, NIV). The Holy Spirit is the divine power that enables the servants of God to recognize and subdue the selfish, harmful inclinations of the flesh.

Paul's implications are clear! Without assistance from God—through the power of His Spirit—no human being is capable of correctly perceiving and effectively applying the principles of love and responsible behavior that the Scriptures teach. Without this help, all will persist in contributing to misery and suffering within themselves and among others.

The natural motivations of all human beings are mixtures of good and evil—with the evil consistently spoiling the good. That's what Paul had to see in himself and that's what has to be changed in each of us. (See "How Paul Described His Thinking Before Conversion.")

That's why Paul tells us: "As it is written: 'There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who [always] does good, no, not one'" (Romans 3:10-12).

The prophet Jeremiah explained this so clearly: "O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps. O Lord, correct me, but with justice; not in Your anger, lest You bring me to nothing" (Jeremiah 10:23-24).

Recognizing our need for God's guidance—and yes, His correction, as Jeremiah did, is the first essential step in really understanding God and His teachings.

Hardness of heart and its consequences

Paul further described the mind-set of people of his time in terms that are still applicable to humanity as a whole: "They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity [especially to biblically morality] and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity" (Ephesians 4:18-19, NRSV).

At the core of those motivations is a selfishness that distorts people's thinking and shapes people's choices. Millions of people choose to smoke cigarettes even when they know that smoking is harmful. What begins as a choice often becomes an enslaving addiction.

Such addictions are but the tip of the iceberg of the hurtful human choices that lead to suffering—for which God is often blamed. In reality, they illustrate why humanity's hardness of heart is such a serious obstacle to meaningful change in the right direction.

Interestingly, the word heart in the Scriptures rarely refers to that organ that pumps blood through our bodies. More often it refers to a state of mind, to how people think and feel—especially to the motivations that affect their choices and actions. Currently humanity's "heart"—state of mind—is to react to God's laws with disbelief and hostility, not understanding that they define the love that all peoples and nations should have for one another.

That hostile state of mind will continue until the return of Jesus Christ. God is now allowing humanity to reap what it sows. He is permitting individuals and nations to try every possible way of life, regardless of how contrary it may be to His principles.

He also has set a time when Jesus Christ will return to earth to establish a godly world government that will enforce His righteous principles and change humanity's way of thinking. Then vast, sweeping changes will occur in God's relationship with all peoples on earth. They will learn how to think with the same principles that God relies on to guide His reasoning—the principles taught in the Scriptures.

At that time, "many people shall come and say, 'Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.' For out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3). The attitudes and thinking of the whole world will be transformed!

The different stages of God's recovery plan

The Bible reveals that those changes are to occur in two distinctive time periods. The first begins at Jesus Christ's return to earth as its King of Kings. A second will begin a thousand years later—with the resurrection of all who have died without establishing an obedient relationship with God.

At Christ's return, there will be millions of weary and distressed survivors of the prophesied time of "more trouble than there has ever been since the beginning of the world until now" (Matthew 24:21, New Century Version). It is with these people and their children that the first massive transformation of human behavior and character will begin and continue for a thousand years.

Who will assist Jesus Christ in implementing the promised changes? Revelation 20:6 gives us the answer: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years."

Those raised to eternal life in this first resurrection will help Jesus Christ teach and transform all of the living human beings who are willing to change their thinking and way of life. Under the ideal conditions of that time, most people will evidently repent, surrender their lives to God and receive His Holy Spirit.

Since only the spiritually converted servants of God will be resurrected from the dead at the first resurrection, what happens to the rest of the dead?

Here is the answer: "But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (verse 5). The fact that they will live again is important. They will be the second group to be reeducated and given an opportunity to have their minds, hearts and understanding transformed.

At that time billions of people who will have lived and died—with little understanding of either their selfish thinking or God's plan to resurrect them—will be brought back to life and given a wonderful opportunity to reform their ways and thinking.

That is why the apostle Peter wrote: "The Lord is not slow in doing what he promised—the way some people understand slowness. But God is being patient with you. He does not want anyone to be lost, but he wants all people to change their hearts and lives" (2 Peter 3:9, NCV).

And God's plan includes two major blocks of time—one starting with Christ's second coming and another a thousand years later—to make that desire a wonderful reality.

Learning where wrong choices lead

In His master plan, God's highest priority is to develop in every willing person the same traits of character and self-discipline that He and His Son Jesus Christ exhibit in their thinking, choices and actions. During the various stages of His plan, those who willingly commit to obeying Him are to receive everlasting life as His glorified children. The forgiveness of their sins through Jesus Christ's sacrifice is a crucial aspect of that plan.

But a crucial aspect of our developing that godly character is to learn to love God and His ways above all else. And to do that we must learn, through personal experience, the sorrow and suffering that sin—rejecting God's ways—brings.

We must all learn the folly of choosing our own ways—which too often reflects Satan's ways—over choosing to obey God and His way. God wants us to understand that every change we make in our lives in the direction of obeying His laws brings improvement into our lives, while every action that takes us further from His laws brings damaging consequences, often including suffering.

Indeed, this is why the world is filled with suffering today. God wants man to learn the lessons of where wrong choices and the wrong way of life lead—so we will loathe that way and never want to go there again.

The end of suffering

From the beginning, God's long-term goal has always been to prepare sons and daughters to whom He could give eternal life as His glorified children.

But He first created man mortal, subject to death. In doing so He made sure that eternal life would not be extended to those who, even under the most favorable circumstances, stubbornly refuse to accept His law defining godly love. "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Galatians 5:14, NRSV).

When God's plan is complete, no suffering will remain!

Here is the apostle John's description of those final results: "Then I saw [in a vision from God] a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away...And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God...

"There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!' Then he said, 'Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true'" (Revelation 21:1-5, NIV).

Paul understood God's wonderful and merciful plan. And with God's inspiration he made a critical declaration that should inform our perspective on why God allows suffering in this present time. In Romans 8:18-23 he stated, as should we: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.

"For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

"We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (NIV).

May God speed that day! It will lead into the time when all mankind joins in this marvelous future and when suffering will ultimately be no more! GN