One of the great problems and one of the great mysteries of life is the problem of human suffering and death. I suppose there is more pain and suffering today than there ever has been on the face of the earth -- if for no other reason than the fact that there are more people than ever before. Not only is there more physical pain, but there is also more emotional and mental pain than there has ever been. Almost every time that I am involved in a lectureship on a college campus or a similar place I have people -- young people usually -- who come to me and say something like this, "Well all right, you've shown us that there is some evidence for God's existence. But if there is a God and if he is a loving and merciful God, how do you explain the problems of suffering and death and all the tragedies that happen to people?"
I believe any question that man can ask has a reasonable answer -- at least an answer that is as consistent with God's existence as it is in opposition to God's existence. So, in the problem of human suffering, death and tragedies -- things that happen to all of us -- there are answers. It is not going to be possible in this article to give an answer to every conceivable situation that might occur. But there are some things that can be helpful in better understanding the problem of human suffering. I think we can demonstrate that these things are not inconsistent with a loving and merciful God, as described in the Bible.
There are some things that are so obvious and simple that there is no need to go into great detail. So, I just want to mention them very briefly. First, there are those who say there is no such thing as pain. It does not really exist. It is only in your mind. If you experience pain, it is because you are weak, or psychologically disoriented or not spiritual enough. I doubt if too many of us take this point of view seriously. Medically we know that the brain makes responses to a pin prick in the finger. There are very few of us that when we get cut do not thoroughly and completely believe that pain is real.
I also do not think it is necessary for us to get involved in long and protracted discussions about pain and suffering we experience as a result of our own deliberate sin. If you choose to jump off a bridge you should not get too upset with God when you hit the bottom. We have examples of this in the Bible: Saul, David, Cain, Adam and Eve. They all suffered because of their transgressions of God’s instructions of what we should do or not do. Certainly, in today's world we see this. The people who drink alcoholic beverages can expect to have problems getting their brains to function properly in old age. They can expect to have problems with liver cirrhosis and other difficulties that are a result of having taken this poisonous intoxicant material into their bodies. People who smoke can expect to have problems with their lungs such as emphysema and lung cancer.. The person who commits adultery can expect the consequences of that -- the psychological damage, and disappointment. The person who drives too fast, uses drugs, or lies -- is involved in things that naturally precipitate problems for us. These all fall into the category of jumping off the bridge.
I believe that if we abuse ourselves, we cannot be angry with our Creator for not stepping in and helping us avoid the consequences. It would be unreasonable to expect God to stop us from hitting the bottom when we jump off a bridge. And so if we persist in taking chemicals into our body, in doing things that are contradictory to what God has told us to do, we can expect to suffer. I do not believe that it is inconsistent with the nature of God to allow us to suffer when we tamper with nature and abuse our bodies.
When God put the first humans on the earth he told them to be fruitful, to replenish the earth, to subdue it. Their first responsibility on earth was to "care for the garden," to take care of the earth, to make sure that the earth was properly nurtured and properly supervised. The essence of that command still exists. We still have the responsibility to take care of this beautiful creation that God has given us.
Much of the suffering and tragedy we experience is because we have not fulfilled this responsibility. Our polluting the water has caused disease and other problems which in some cases have been tragic. Our unwise use of the land has caused floods and tornadoes that have brought great tragedy and suffering. When we violate the natural environment God has given us, we cannot expect God to prevent the consequences of this violation. We know that emphysema and other diseases, at least in some cases, are caused by our violation of the air that God has given us. We have evidence that even leukemia may be related to man's indiscriminate use of nuclear energy.
Another aspect of the problem of suffering is seen when we fail to heed the warnings of nature and thus reap the consequences. I think there are many classic illustrations of this. In California, for example, there is an area near Los Angeles where the earth is under great stress, and where there are a tremendous number of cracks, or faults as they are called. Geologists have warned the builders in that area that this is a place where they need to be extremely careful not to build tall buildings and that they should not construct structures that are sensitive to earthquakes. Yet at the time I write this there is a building under construction to replace a hospital that was knocked down by an earthquake. This building is supposed to be sixteen stories tall and has no earthquake provisions of any real consequence. It is being partially financed by the Federal Government, and is straddling the very fault that knocked down the hospital that it is replacing. Now I'd like you to think for a minute, who will get the blame when an earthquake rolls through that area, knocking down the new hospital and perhaps killing scores of people? Well, I will guarantee you that there will be those people who will say, "A loving God wouldn't allow this to happen!" And yet the warning is there. If you build your house in the mouth of a volcano, it does not seem to me that you have too much to complain about when it erupts.
Many of the problems we face fall into the category of problems created by people -- but not all problems. I opened this discussion with a passage from the 9th chapter of John which describes a situation that does not fall into this category. Jesus was passing by and he saw a man who was blind from his birth. The disciples asked Jesus the typical question, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" It was their conviction that the problems that the man had were a result of sin. As we have pointed out, in some cases that is correct. Not in this case. Jesus said, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him." Jesus said it was not because this man sinned or not even because his parents sinned that he was born blind. It was not sin that did it. It was not that this man abused his body; it was not that this man abused his environment; it was not that this man failed to heed the warnings of his environment. Jesus said it was that the works of God should be revealed in him.
To understand what Jesus meant, there are some points we must clarify. Some people suggest that pain should not occur if there is a God. And yet, physical pain and other types of pain are absolutely necessary if we are to survive in a physical world.
There was a story in Reader's Digest about a little boy in India who was born unable to experience physical pain. We might think that would be marvelous to never have a stubbed toe, a headache, a backache, or all the other aches and pains that bother all of us. But this is a very tragic, unpleasant story. This little boy was about 10 or 11 months old, just beginning to walk around hanging onto things, when his mother was kneading bread over on the counter and smelled the odor of burning human flesh. She turned and saw her little boy with his hands on the hot furnace in the center of the room. That child could not know that the furnace was hot, and the natural reflex built into each of us was not operative in this child. Consequently he was not protected by experiencing normal pain. Any normal child would probably have never touched the thing, and if they had they would have jerked away immediately. They would have experienced pain. They would have screamed and would have gotten help immediately without a serious burn. But this child did not have that protection. The doctors were just barely able to save his hands by skin grafting.
A few months later the child came in one day and collapsed in the doorway of the hut. When the mother picked him up she noticed his foot was badly cut and he had lost a lot of blood. This time his life was saved by transfusions. The tragic end of the story came when the child was barely eight years old. He came in one day and laid down on the mat in the corner of the hut as is the custom in that country. The mother went over to check on him a few minutes later and found he was dead. An autopsy revealed he had died of a ruptured appendix. His body could not say to his brain, "You're sick. You need help. You're in trouble." Consequently, survival was not possible. We need physical pain.
The writer says in Psalm 139:14, "I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well." Indeed this physical body that I live in, ugly as it may be on the outside, is a marvelous machine. If properly cared for it might run as long as a hundred years without a valve job or a new transmission or even a change in oil. Physical pain is a part of being fearfully and wonderfully made. Physical pain is that which protects us and enables us to survive in the environment in which we live.
This same type of thing is true in the emotional sense. What kind of man would it be who could not experience guilt and sympathy and compassion and who could not relate to the needs of fellow human beings? We have had some famous people who could not. They wear names like Hitler, Mussolini and Eichman. They were able to watch innocent men, women and children by the tens of thousands walk to their death in the gas chamber and apparently not be moved. These men apparently were not able to feel sympathy or compassion or guilt in any way.
If you are a young man dating a young woman who cannot be moved by the saddest of human experiences you had better watch out. If she can watch the saddest movie and a tear does not come to her eye; if she can hear of the greatest plight of human beings and if she can observe the suffering and pain of others and not be moved, you had better think very seriously about what kind of a wife this girl is going to be. Is she going to be able to relate to your needs? Is she going to relate to your feelings? Is she going to have compassion for what you need in life? And when you fail, is she going to be sympathetic and understanding?
Perhaps even a greater need is the reverse direction. If you are a young lady dating a young man who has the distorted, perverted idea that masculine strength depends on not being sensitive and not being able to relate to the needs of others, you had better think very seriously about what kind of husband this man is going to be. If he can watch the saddest movie and not be moved and if he can watch the greatest tragedy of human life and not be disturbed, you can be sure he is going to be a husband who is totally unable to relate to you in the difficult business of being a woman and the more difficult business of being a mother. Do you really believe he is going to feel for your needs and be sympathetic to your problems? Is he really going to be helpful to you when you need help?
I am convinced that one of the greatest tragedies of our society today is the fact that somehow we have equated the ability to be sympathetic, the ability to be compassionate, the ability to relate to the needs of our fellow human beings as weakness when, in fact, it is a sign of strength.
A little girl who lived next door to us went to the shopping center to get some drinks for her friends. She was brutally attacked by a man in the parking lot of that shopping center. She was stabbed 24 times, and she died. Why did no one meet her needs? How could a young lady possibly be stabbed mercilessly for thirty minutes in a New York street with 1100 young men in the near vicinity and have nobody move to help her? Why is it that we have somehow equated the ability of a man to be sympathetic, compassionate, helpful and understanding, to weakness?
I would suggest to you that any third grade weakling can turn his back on the needs of those who are suffering and who need help. Anybody can refuse to help and refuse to relate to the needs of others. A man of strength is a man who can stand above a cold, impersonal city and with tears in his eyes say, "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together even as a hen gathereth her chicks under her wings, and ye would not!" There is a man of strength. There is a man who was not afraid to get involved. There is a man who paid with his life for his ability to relate to the needs of other people. There was the Son of God -- Jesus Christ! We need to get over this idea that somehow the man who can be sympathetic and compassionate, who can move into people's lives and try to help them, is a weak man. In fact, just the opposite is true.
I am also convinced that one of our great problems in this area of pain and suffering and especially death is brought on by ignorance. Ignorance has caused us to throw away one of the great blessings that we have in being Christians. My little girl taught me a great lesson when she was five years old. We had a puppy that had grown up with our children. One day the little puppy was attacked viciously and badly injured by three very large dogs. When I came home from work I found my children gathered around a blood-soaked blanket with the puppy inside it. I took the puppy to the veterinarian knowing full well that there was very little hope for her survival. In fact, there was none. As I went back home, I kept wondering what I was going to say to my children. How was I going to explain to them that this little puppy that they loved, was no longer alive?
I came into the living room and sat down, and with tears coming from my own eyes I said to my children, "I have some bad news for you, children. Susie is no longer alive. She's dead." Cathy, the five year old, looked up at me and said, "Well, Daddy, I'm so glad." And she smiled. I said, "Cathy, honey, you don't understand. You're never going to see Susie again. Susie is dead." Cathy looked at me and said, "Well, Daddy, I didn't want to see Susie go on suffering like that." You talk about feeling an inch high! I realized that my five year old had a better hold on some aspects of death than I did.
In fact, is it not a marvelous thing that when those we love are no longer able to exist realistically in a physical way that they do not have to go on suffering? God has provided a means by which the spirit can be separated from the body and the physical pain that we endure now fades into insignificance. It is interesting to me that the apostles rarely used the term death to describe the end of life. They talked about being "asleep in Jesus," being "absent from the body," being "at home with God." I have known people who when they lost a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a child, a brother or a sister, have somehow seemed to quit living themselves. They atrophy and are no longer able to be happy, useful, and productive. This is a great tragedy.
Christians ought to be able to look at life much more positively because of death. An atheist has to look at life with all of its problems, suffering and pain as the absolute best that he is ever going to experience. A Christian can look at life with all of its joy, with all of its beauty, with all of the wonderful things as the absolute worst that we are ever going to endure. The difference in these two views is like night and day. If there were no other reason for us to believe in God but this one, it would be a compelling reason.
There is a story of five brothers who at one time had attended a church, but had become indifferent and were completely inactive. The oldest brother, John, got bit on the arm by a rattlesnake. Of course the other brothers were greatly concerned. After seeking medical attention, they called the elders and the preacher and anybody else they could get to pray for John. They made all kinds of promises of the things they were going to do. It was not too long until John began to recover. As he recovered, he reflected upon his condition and his rejection of God and his lack of involvement and the fact that he had not been faithful to the Lord. So he turned away from the kind of life he had been living, and he came back to God. He got involved in the work program of the Church, and became a very active, dedicated Christian. Then one Sunday the preacher, in the process of a prayer, said, "Lord send us four more rattlesnakes that we may reach John's four brothers."
I am sure that no preacher would want to bring that kind of pain and suffering into a man's life, but the fact is that sometimes it takes pain, suffering, even a tragedy to make us realize that we need God.
Pain humbles us. Somebody has said, "Humility is a funny thing. Just when you think you have it, you've lost it." Certainly that is true. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul said, "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure." The apostle Paul apparently had a problem. The pain and suffering (the thorn in the flesh, whatever it was) helped Paul. It helped him overcome any sense of egotism that might have been part of his life. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us realize we are not self-sufficient. Sometimes it takes a disease to make us realize that no matter how much money we have, no matter how many friends we have, sometimes there is no one who can help us but God. "...Therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:8).
The last point that I wish to make is probably the most important point. It is a point that each of us needs to think about very, very seriously and understand very completely. It deals with the passage of Scripture from John 9:1-3 that we presented at the beginning of our discussion. Every now and then, I will discuss this subject with someone who will say, "Well, if God were real and if everything was as you say it is, then certainly Christians following God's system would not have to experience pain and suffering." I think if we consider that point of view for a few minutes we see that obviously this is not a realistic position for a number of reasons.
First, if becoming a Christian would automatically unravel all the various problems that confront a person in life, then we would have people flocking to religion to get away from their problems. There are already some people using religion as an escape mechanism. That is not what God intended. God wants us to serve him because we love him, not out of fear. It would be unreal and unrealistic for us to believe that being a Christian ought to exempt us from the problems that other people have to endure.
But I think even more fundamental and far more important is the fact that if Christians did not suffer, they would be totally and completely incapable of doing what they were put here to do. God intends for his followers to communicate with the world, to bring Jesus Christ into the lives of people. You cannot communicate with a man unless you are enduring or have endured some of the same things that he has endured. As a matter of fact, I believe that the bad experiences you and I endure are actually things that enable us to communicate with and meet the needs of our fellow human beings.
Some years ago my wife and I decided that as a part of service to the Lord we would adopt some children. We wanted to raise these children in a Christian home. We wanted to love them as any parent loves their children, and help them find the happiness and joy that we have found in Christ in our marriage together. We made the proper arrangements, and we were allowed to bring home a little boy as our own son. We were very, very happy. We named him Timothy, because I had great dreams for this young man. It was my sincere hope and prayer that this child might develop to be a great gospel preacher like the Timothy I read about in the Bible. I wanted him to do what I knew his daddy would never be able to do because of my background, lack of training, and ability.
We had this child for about six months when we began to recognize that he was not developing normally. We took him to a doctor. When the doctor examined the baby he said, "Mr. and Mrs. Clayton, I hate to tell you this, but your child is blind because of congenital cataracts. It also appears that there will probably be other difficulties. This child is apparently a rubella child. His mother must have had German measles (rubella) during the pregnancy and he may have a heart defect. He will probably be retarded. There are a variety of things that could be wrong. As a medical doctor, I must advise you to put this child away in an institution, get another baby, and forget about him." We had had this child for about six months. He was our child. You can imagine the kind of impact that this had on a man who had been a Christian a very short time. That night we went out for a drive. While my wife went in to get something at a shopping center, I sat in the car holding this little baby in my arms, looking into that little face I had grown to love, and saying to God over and over, "Why Lord, why? Why would you do this to me? After I've come out of atheism, after I've sacrificed everything I know to sacrifice, after I've done everything I know to do, why would you do this to me?"
The answer did not come right away. We went through an agonizing period of time. Many people tried to tell us that we ought to institutionalize the child. There are times when the best thing for the child, the best thing for the parents, and the best thing for all concerned is to institutionalize a child who has problems that cannot be met in a home situation. But we did not know what this child's situation was. I kept reading passages like John 9, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him." I read that "...all things work together for good to those who love God..." (Romans 8:28). There had to be a reason for this! There had to be some kind of understanding that I could get that would make me realize why this thing had happened! We determined that at least until we knew what the child's situation was, we had to stick this thing out.
People who did not share our convictions tried to influence us to wash our hands of the situation. We went through five surgeries on Tim's eyes. After three surgeries one eye was lost. The other eye has 20/200 vision in a tunnel, which is considered legally blind. We found that he was retarded but that the retardation was not as bad as it might have been. I suppose that even during these few years when we were going through all of this, I began to recognize some value in what had happened. Certainly, my wife and I were closer as a couple because we had endured this thing together. We had to support each other and help each other through the problem.
By having had this somewhat abnormal situation I am sure that we appreciate our so-called normal children a whole lot more. But the real significance of this passage in John 9 and the real significance of what had happened, did not occur to me until a friend in Pontiac, Michigan, wrote me. He said, "John, there is a young man and his wife here that have a baby with essentially the same difficulties that your Timmy has and I don't know what to say to them. They are distraught and talking about leaving the Lord. I wondered if you would write them a letter explaining what has happened to you, and if you would perhaps help them in some way."
I must confess that his letter made me angry. I did not want to do it. I stuck the letter in the desk and had no intention of writing anything to anybody about a situation like this. But I guess my conscience bothered me, and I did not want him writing me another letter. Finally one night I sat down with the intent of writing a sentence or two to these people to fulfill my responsibility. I wrote a sentence or two, and then I wrote another paragraph, and then another page, and another page. I do not really remember how many pages I wrote, but I wrote them an extremely long letter -- almost a small book. I could say to these people, "Now look, I know what you are going through because I've been over that road." Most of you have not had that experience. I hope you never do. It is a terrible thing to look at a child that you have planned great things for, that you love very much, and realize that nothing that you had dreamed about can really come true. It is a terrible thing, but it is something that I have been through and I could say to this young man and this young woman, "I know how you feel. You can have great joy and a great blessing in this thing."
Because of this experience, I began to realize that I had a talent. I had an ability. I had an opportunity to relate to people to whom no one else in my immediate area could relate. A couple of months later when I was in New York I met an elder in a church who had a Down’s syndrome child. I could relate to him. I could help him realize that there were others who shared his burden and his problem. Sometime later in my own congregation a family that we loved very much had a child born with the same problem. Once again we could help, advise, and relate to their needs. We could help them get programs that were useful to them and to their child. You see I have a talent and an ability that nobody else has in my immediate area. I can relate to and bring Christ into the lives of people who are experiencing this kind of difficulty.
But I cannot go to a man who has lost his father and say I know how you feel, because at this time I do not. I cannot go to a man who has lost his mother, his child, his brother or his sister and meet his needs because I have not had those experiences. (Since writing this both of John's parents have passed away.) I cannot go to a teen-ager who has divorced parents and say I know how you feel, because I do not. I do not have the slightest idea how they feel. But perhaps you do. If you have had these experiences, and you have weathered the storm, you can go to people and relate to their needs. You can help them through their difficulties. You have a talent. What are you doing with that talent?
One time a young lady, a Red Cross nurse, was in Pennsylvania when a terrible train wreck occurred. People were injured, bleeding, and dying everywhere. She came before other medical help arrived, and began to meet the needs of these people the best she could. One of the first people she saw was a man in a business suit walking around in a state of shock saying over and over again, "My instruments, my instruments! If only I had my instruments!" She ministered to his needs, and got him out of his state of shock. As she turned to leave him she said to him, "Sir, I just wondered if you could tell me something. As you saw all these terrible injuries you kept walking around saying, 'My instruments, my instruments, if only I had my instruments!' What was going through your mind?" The man said to her, "Young lady, I better introduce myself." He told her his name and said that he was a head surgeon in a hospital. All he could think of as he looked around and saw all these terrible injuries was that if only he had his surgical tools (his instruments), he could help meet these people's needs and bring relief to their pain and suffering.
My friend, I wonder how many times God in heaven looks down at the problems this earth has, looks at you and looks at me and says, "My instruments, my instruments, if only I had my instruments!!! "
Are you an instrument of God? Are you a tool of the Lord bringing joy, peace, and relief into the lives of people? Or are you a part of the problem bringing pain and despair because of your lack of involvement? You cannot be an instrument of God unless you are forged according to God's plan. The blacksmith cannot make an ax unless he uses a plan or a pattern. God said you must believe in him. Do you believe? Are you willing to admit this belief, which we call confession? Are you willing to live God's system and repent and turn away from the world's way of life? Are you willing to be forged in God's system by being buried in water in baptism for the remission of your sins to become an instrument of God? Then, as an instrument of God, use your talents and your abilities to bring joy, relief, peace, love, and understanding into a world so desperately in need of these things.
Perhaps you have been an instrument of God at one time, but you are just like the ax that the blacksmith made. When he finished making it, it was beautiful, shiny, and new. Then somebody left it in the garden and it was unused and exposed to the elements and the forces of this world. Just like that ax, you have become a rusty, corroded, useless instrument. You are no longer a beautiful, shiny, clean, useful instrument of God. Will you be an instrument of God? Will you be a part of the Lord's work?
If you will be an instrument of God and follow God's system, you have the greatest promise that can be made. The promise is for no more suffering and pain and death. "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away." (Revelation 21:4) Be an instrument of God! - John & Phyllis Clayton