Why Pain and Suffering?

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Homes Damaged by Hurricane Katrina

Do Natural Disasters Disprove God's Existence?
Or Why Didn't God Make a Better World?

One of the frequent challenges we hear is the question "if God created the world, why didn’t He do a better job?"

People look at the world around them and they see a lot wrong with it. Babies are born with birth defects. People die tragically of cancer, leukemia, and a variety of genetic diseases over which they have no control. Earthquakes kill thousands of innocent people. Humans battle depression, loneliness, all kinds of mental illnesses and disorders. We suffer from drought, insect infestations, war -- the list is endless. Why didn’t God create an earth where bad things, misery and pain simply could not happen?

A wise teacher said, "If I can know the mind of God, then God isn't God." Anyone who claims to have all the answers is a person to avoid. We certainly have no interest in attempting to pretend to be God, but even with our limited human wisdom we can understand some of the reasons why God created the cosmos the way He did.

Natural disasters are not in themselves evil or a failure of God. A classic example of this is earthquakes. An earthquake causes massive damage to humans and can result in extreme losses of life. The fact is, however, that earthquakes are a part of the processes that keep the earth living and suitable for life. Land masses wear down with time because of rain, snow, freezing, heating, glaciers, landslides, and gravitational forces. If there were no forces that lift the land to replenish the worn away parts, after a while all land on the earth would be under water. Because the earth is liquid inside, land is constantly being lifted to replace the land that is worn down. Places like California are actually being elevated by these forces, and that allows life to flourish and prosper. Volcanoes do the same thing; but in addition, they add new elements and nutrients to the soil, making plant growth accelerate and sustaining the food chain.

Man's problem is that rather than understanding these processes as natural and beneficial, we tend to worship the forces and ignore the common sense lessons all around us. If you build your house in the mouth of a volcano you have no complaint when it erupts. People continue to ignore the warnings of nature and the lessons of the past. The results are frequently catastrophic. Draining wet-lands, building huge structures that alter climate, and placing massive structures over fault zones in the earth have resulted in tragedy for humans.

God placed humans on the earth with instructions to take care of the earth -- to dress it and keep it (see Genesis 2: 15). That means not to abuse the earth, but to use it wisely and carefully. In this way we can be at peace with our environment. Western civilization has too often allowed greed and selfishness to be the guiding force. Instead we need to have a love for what God has created and a desire to take care of it and live at peace with it.

Frequently human actions are the cause of things that are blamed on God. It is a major irritation to me to hear the news media refer to a flood as "an act of God." The problem is that almost all floods are due to the acts of man. It is man who has paved thousands of acres of dirt preventing rain water from soaking in. It is man who has drained wetlands, straightened rivers, and built shoddy containment structures that fail.

There are many other areas where human acts are the cause, or at least the catalyst, of things that bring huge pain and problems to mankind. Cancer is caused to a large extent by man-made carcinogens in the environment. These same agents are a major cause of birth defects. Alcohol, smoking, and drug use are major contributors to mental problems and physical problems in children.

Even man's behavior is a major cause of pain to mankind as a whole. In 41 years of teaching, I worked with many children who had severe behavioral problems, and a large percentage of them were kids who had sexual abuse, neglect, and verbal abuse at home. There can be no question but that sexual abuse is a major contributor to aberrant sexual behavior. "Why did God make me this way?" is a question I have heard many times in working with people who have behavioral problems. Almost universally it has become obvious that the problems are a product of human activity, not God’s creation.

Human actions also contribute to global human suffering issues. It is a sad fact that much of the world's population goes to bed hungry every night. The problem is not that a deficiency in the earth's design produces a shortage of food. If the money spent on military preparation by all countries of the earth for one week was put into the production of potable water for the earth's people, the food shortage would be over. Once again it is man with his greed, selfishness, desire for political power, and stupidity that is the cause of hunger -- not the failure of God's system.

Any attempt to understand God’s function in human affairs has to include a recognition of why we are here. We were not created for physical, national, political, or sexual reasons. The purpose of our existence is connected to the struggle between good and evil. Science fiction writers and novelists have built their fantasies and stories around the theme that there is an ongoing struggle between good and evil. In film programs like Star Wars, evil is portrayed in the most negative and menacing way possible -- seen especially in the construction of Darth Vader. Stephen King is a master of portraying this struggle in a way that captivates the reader. Almost all literature and theater have a good guy versus bad guy theme, a version of good versus evil.

Evil is not a created thing, but a consequence of the existence of good and love. In order for there to be good, there has to be the absence of good, which is evil. In order for there to be love, there has to be the absence of love. Evil, in and of itself has no force, but when creatures who are free moral agents choose evil, the results of evil come to fruition. The reason for God creating free moral agents who can choose between good and evil is so that love can exist. Love is not possible unless there is choice. If you doubt that, ask yourself what sexual love is without choice? The answer of course is that it is rape, and it has nothing to do with love. It is the malicious, deliberate, abusive exploitation of another human being.

We may not understand all of the reasons why God has created beings of free moral choice, but the capacity to love and to have love in the cosmos is certainly one of them. The Bible tells us that angels have sinned (2 Peter 2:4, Jude 6, etc.). The Bible also tells us that there is a war going on between the forces of evil and the forces of God (good) throughout all of existence. In Ephesians 6: 12, we read:
For our fight is not against any physical enemy but against principalities, powers, and against the rulers of the darkness of this world and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil. (Phillips translation)
Similar messages are given in Ephesians 3:9-11 and in the book of Job.

God's creation of man and man's purpose in existing is spelled out for us in Job 1 and 2. The remainder of the book gives us a chance to watch humans struggle with this issue. There are a number of points made in the book of Job that are interesting to consider:

1) It is not God who brings the problems into Job's life, but Satan. God does not interfere with what happens so that Job can express his human makeup by making a free moral choice, but God is not the one who persecutes Job. We can replace Job’s name with our own because we are serving the same role that Job did.

2) God does place limits on what Satan can do. There is a protective element to God's relationship with Job. God set limits on what could be done to Job. We are also told that there are limits to what Satan will be able to do to us. 1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us that God will always provide a way out for the temptations that Satan brings to us. God will not allow Satan to threaten us at a level we cannot endure.

3) Our purpose in existence will become more clear as we get closer to the end of our lives and see things worked out. In Job 42:5, Job looks back at all of the things that he has experienced and he says to the Lord, before all of these things had happened to him, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee." Job came to understand his purpose in existing, and he saw that his problems and losses were part of the cosmic struggle between good and evil. We serve that same purpose and function in very much the same way that Job did. The more you see of life, the more you see the battle carried out. The forces of evil can do monstrously horrible things, but ultimately through even the worst of situations, positive things emerge.

4) God's actions are always consistent with the purposes He has in the creation.
It is not logical to expect God to interfere with things that would violate the purposes of His creation. It is also illogical to expect God to prevent the promises that He has made from being carried out. God has told us "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7). God has also promised us "It is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment." Many times we feel that God should not allow the logical consequences of our individual or collective actions to take place.

It is true that innocent people get hurt as evil things run their course. Can we expect God to prevent a drunk from driving into a crowd? When a mother smokes, drinks, or has promiscuous sex, can we expect God to prevent the unborn child from suffering from that behavior? I am the adoptive father of a child born with multiple birth defects due to exactly this kind of scenario, and I have struggled with my son’s pain. (A book about this is available from Does God Exist?). It is difficult to see these things happen, but it is not inconsistent with the purposes and nature of God to allow them.

The charge that God has done a bad job in the creation is rooted in ignorance of why we exist. We will never have full understanding on this side of the grave, but even in our limited abilities, we can see that there are reasons for what happens in the world. When we look at all the good, all the love, all the beauty, and all the promise that we see in the world, we can still glorify God as a wonderful Creator who has created with purpose, beauty, wonder, and intelligence. The very fact that we have a purpose in existing lends support to our belief in God and our praise of Him in the creation of all we see. -John N. Clayton

Read the story of John & Phyllis Clayton's son - Timothy, My Son and My Teacher

Learn more about the book of Job in
Studies in Job

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