Before we look at man’s role in his own suffering, let’s examine God’s power. Some theologians take the approach of Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi who lost his son at an early age to a cruel and debilitating disease. God is infinitely good, Kushner concluded in his immensely popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981), but He is not all-powerful. We do know God cannot do anything that is inconsistent with his nature (lie) nor that is contradictory or absurd like create square circles. However, the powerlessness Kushner describes is not the God revealed in the Bible.
Though God could relieve all suffering, certain characteristics of man would suffer: loss of free will (if no opportunity to rebel—which brings suffering), weakened faith and hope, and little desire for heaven. Parents often exercise this restraint of power when they allow their children to suffer accidents, etc. so that they may learn on their own and develop character and perseverance. The world was created with the possibility of suffering and allows it to take place in the natural order: he does not decree it. As one author noted, “If I give my boy a pair of roller skates, I immediately make it possible for him to get a bad bump. That is a very different thing from taking him by the neck and banging his head upon the ground.” (Weatherhead)
Sinful People Inflict Suffering On Others
God has created a world capable of blessing and cursing, compassion and hatred, ease and suffering, benevolence and malevolence, good and evil. In His power God created a good world but when man sinned the world was corrupted and pain and suffering were introduced into the creation.
Suffering was a byproduct of sin and rebellion, not a product of God’s positive creative action. Much suffering is brought about because man has used the good things of earth to oppress and subjugate his fellow man or has amassed control over these good things to the destitution and poverty of his fellow man.
Those who have moved a lot are very familiar with U-Haul trucks and have been glad to rent them to move to areas of great opportunity.Fertilizer is a great substance which allows us to enhance our food production and feed many who would otherwise starve. However, Timothy McVeigh filled a U-Haul truck with fertilizer and some other chemicals and blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City killing many and injuring many others. We would not think the U-Haul company or fertilizer manufacturers diabolical nor think they are not good because someone misused their products to destroy others.
God commands us to live holy lives. Standards such as described in Galatians 5:19-21 explain how God wants us to live:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Think how this world would be if everyone did what God wanted them to do as expressed in Galatians 5
- Would we have murder in the world if people would not hate their fellow man or be bitter or malicious?
- Would we have the sexual diseases that have killed so many if people were pure until married then faithful until death?
- Would we have the pain and suffering of broken homes if people remained faithful and truly loved one another as Christ loved the church?
- Would we use locks and burglar alarms if no one was covetous and there were no thieves?
All of the chaos of our world is brought on by those who reject the law of God and will not submit themselves to Him. We have to live in such as world so we may directly or indirectly suffer at the hands of wicked people. It would be unfair for God to force people to do what is right; it would take away from our humanity. We must not implicate God for the product of men’s evil arising from their free will.
Man’s Role in Natural Disasters
Sometimest he decisions of people create suffering associated with natural disasters. Many natural disasters have become tragedies due to short-sighted or negligent decison making.
- Hurricane damage to property on barrier islands such as Santa Rosa Island (Gulf Shores and Orange Beach). Barrier islands exist to absorb damaging waves and surges.
- Many have lost their lives and more have lost their homes and businesses because they built on flood plains—large expanses of land that contain and absorb excess water from rain and runoff.
- Volcanoes erupt and houses built close to them will be destroyed.
- Forest fires are a natural way in which forests are cleared of underbrush and allow new growth to emerge yet when men build close to the forest they may suffer from this natural occurrence.
Sometimes the political wranglings of nations create tragedies. In the Asian Tsunami of 2005 a record earthquake was recorded so one should expect a large tsunami. The tsunami ravaged areas that were built right up to the coastline and destroyed shanty towns that were built on the coast because financially other options were closed to them. People had suggested and proposed building a tsunami warning system for the Asian nations but no one funded it or started it. The Asian nations, many of whom are hostile to one another, did not seriously pursue building warning system until this disaster.
People know that making certain decisions can increase their chance of being in a situation that can lead to suffering, pain, and even death. It is no secret that Japan exists on a major earthquake fault zone (as does California). However, the residents of these areas choose to live there because they consider the benefits outweigh the higher than normal risks of disaster. To their credit, these cities have tried to build structures to resist all but the most violent earthquakes and provide tsunami warning systems. But, as the events of 2011 have shown, sometimes events occur that overwhelm these preparations and people suffer.
We know that a high number of injuries and deaths result from car accidents. Yet most of us consider it an acceptable risk to drive anyway. I have a thirty minute commute to work–which increases my chances of an accident–because the benefits of living in my community outweigh those risks. If I am involved in an accident it would be foolish to blame God for my suffering since I made the decisions that increased the likelihood of the accident.
Suffering is just part of the human condition. In the final article we’ll examine where God is during times of suffering and where we should be.