A lot of people ask why there is so much suffering, why so many evil and selfish acts committed, even in the name of good? Why do people hate, murder and exact unimaginable pain on others? It’s a hard question and sometimes a hard thing to understand. I think religion has something very important to offer in attempting to understand this question. Following are some of my own words and some words from church leaders who have gained wisdom through their experiences in life. I hope their words will be enlightening.
The first part of an answer involves the why of Christianity. The second is about how what we believe to be the purpose of life gives context to what happens within it.
The central tenet of Christianity is that the Son of God came to earth to live as a man, to establish again the truths of eternity amongst men and women, and to effect the Atonement. Through the Atonement, the only perfect Man to live on the earth suffered every pain and sickness of all the men, women and children to ever live; through it, He endured all the guilt and sins caused and committed by mortals; every heartache, regret, misunderstanding, and even horror; every sorrow ever caused and felt. It is impossible for us to fathom all that it encompasses and how, but it did, and does. That is what Christians believe – and because of it, we do not see, as do some, a God who is heartless and without compassion. We see a God who sent his perfect Son – also a god – who had never sinned, never commited a wrong and never would, to bear and atone for the sins of the world. Through this suffering, we believe that all may be saved – from death (unconditionally), from sin (conditionally), and from enduring alone and to its full extent the suffering caused by mortal life. We believe that the saving power, or grace, that Christ bears as a result, can fill our gaps and heal our broken hearts. Whatever we or any mortal person suffers falls under this grace. The conditions are that we have hope and faith in this, and therefore come to Christ – as the only One who can do this, the only one who can make things right.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah (who had beautiful words to describe his visions) prophesied of Christ:
Despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Yet he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: and we did esteem him [punished], smitten of God, and humiliated.
He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement [that gives us] peace fell upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53)
As Neal A. Maxwell said, “only the Lord can compare crosses!”
Christ said to his apostles, on the night of the Last Supper,
In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
“The world” here means the conditions and vicissitudes of mortal life, as well as those who could not understand the message they would bear and would persecute them for it. This, then, is the glorious message of Christianity; that though in the world/this life there is tribulation, God has overcome it all – for us. And He offers to us the peace that comes through that triumph. Because of Him, there is life, light and hope; because of Him, our sorrow will not last; we can overcome even death…and we can have an abiding peace, despite everything.
This may seem to those who haven’t experienced it a trite thing; a paltry answer to something very real and terrible. But to those who have, it’s not so. I have experienced the power of this healing grace in my life; both for things committed against me, and for that committed against others. It is a power that has taken away guilt (but not needed memory) and the desire for retribution, and that has moved under my pain and other, less-needed memories, and supported my experience of them so that I was not alone. In knowing and feeling this – even though it was looking into the past – I was not alone; and the hardest parts were no longer so painful. This has given me hope as I’ve continued to go forth and experience life – where otherwise I might fear to act. It is a healing and enabling power manifested in the bigger, more intense situations and as a regular, daily strength.
So, as for “part 1”, while there is so much seemingly unbearable pain in the world, so many needless atrocities, so much suffering in general; God has known this, and has provided a way that it might be made right. But why is there suffering and injustice in the first place? Here comes “part 2”:
This is where what you believe about the purposes of life – why we’re here – comes in. In Latter-day Saint theology (and in much of Christianity), we lived before we came to earth, in the presence of God, who is the Father of our spirits. To truly progress, we needed to come to earth, gain a mortal body, and live by faith. So we came – but we weren’t able to remember what went before, or there would have been no trial; no learning. We wouldn’t have progressed and might as well have stayed where we were – forever remaining at that level of wisdom and existence. But the human spirit is made to evolve. In this life, for learning and progression to be possible, we not only needed to live by faith, but to have the freedom and power (agency) to choose and not to be coerced. So, we have continually before us both good and evil, are provided an understanding of what good is (through conscience and true religion), and are left free to choose. Some choose evil. Of course it’s hoped that we’ll choose good, at least more often than evil, and that we’ll have the joy that those choices bring. But because God does love his children, he doesn’t coerce us into doing that. As a result, many of his children experience the suffering that comes from the evil that some choose – this, I believe, breaks his heart, more than we could fathom. There are even scriptures to this effect. But his love is not indulgent; it is real and deep and wise; and so he allows us the conditions that will lead to our greatest joy and progression. This is why suffering exists – not because there isn’t a God, or because there is one who lacks compassion or doesn’t care for what goes on; and not because God gives us suffering. But because his plan for us requires that we be truly free, and he cannot/will not force us to goodness. He allows suffering to take place, and in his grace and mercy and wise love, he will turn it into something good – make it work for our good – if we let him. That is the other part of Christianity, the more difficult but also fundamental part of it.
Spencer W Kimball taught this-
If we looked at mortality as the whole of existence, then pain, sorrow, failure and short life would be calamity. But if we look upon life as an eternal thing stretching far into the premortal past and on into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may be put in proper perspective.
Is there not wisdom in [God’s] giving us trials that we might rise above them, responsibilities that we might achieve, work to harden our muscles, sorrows to try our souls? Are we not exposed to temptations to test our strength, sicknesses that we might be immortalized and glorified?
If all the sick for whom we prayed were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the gospel, free agency, would be ended. No man would have to live by faith.
If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil – all would do good but not because of the righteousness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency, only satanic controls.
Should all prayers be immediately answered according to our selfish desires and our limited understanding then there would be little or no suffering, sorrow, disappointment, or even death, and if these were not, there would also be no joy, success, resurrection, nor eternal life and godhood.
Faith Precedes the Miracle, 1973, p. 97
And Neal A Maxwell –
- Righteous sorrow and suffering carve cavities in the soul that will later be filled with joy.
- With regard to human suffering… there is no way in which the misery caused by misused agency could be removed without removing agency.
In conclusion: in this world there is so much pain and misunderstanding; life is hard for us and unbelievably hard for many. Things happen that we can’t explain or justify. Hate, envy – all of the worst things about human nature – are shown constantly. But one completely innocent Being, filled with love that caused him to not deny our need, suffered all of these difficult and awful things together. Is this not greater than all the atrocities and suffering? Does this supreme act of mercy and love not overshadow all of these? It does not demean them, make them of no consequence; no, it overcomes them, turns “ashes into beauty”, and makes evil, in the end, a weak power that, despite all current appearances (and except for individuals who allow it to win over them personally), cannot triumph.
Personal Peace: The Reward of Righteousness – this is an excellent address about the difference between ‘world peace’ and personal peace, and where this peace comes from.