MEMBERS of the clergy who claim to know the answer to the question posed at the left often teach that suffering is punishment from God. Days after Haiti’s earthquake, for example, a priest in the capital told his congregation that the disaster was a message from God. Others are less dogmatic. An American associate professor of religion says that many people seem to view it this way: “Why God ordains such disasters is a mystery that is not ours to question. It is only our job to have faith.”
Does God really “ordain” human suffering? The Bible emphatically answers no! Suffering was not part of Jehovah God’s purpose for mankind. However, the first human couple rebelled against God’s rule, choosing to set their own standards of good and bad. They turned away from God and suffered the consequences. Today we are experiencing the effects of their bad choice. But in no way did God originate human suffering. The Bible says: “When under trial, let no one say: ‘I am being tried by God.’ For with evil things God cannot be tried nor does he himself try anyone.” (James 1:13) Suffering can afflict anyone—even those who are favored by God. Consider the following examples:
The prophet Elisha had a terminal illness.—2 Kings 13:14.
The apostle Paul wrote that he continued “to hunger and also to thirst and to be scantily clothed and to be knocked about and to be homeless.”—1 Corinthians 4:11.
The Christian Epaphroditus was sick and “depressed.”—Philippians 2:25, 26.
Nowhere do we read that these three men were being punished by God for their sins. Yet, the Bible does more than simply reveal who is not responsible for suffering. It also identifies three basic factors that often cause suffering.
“Whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7) Certainly, a person who chooses to smoke, drive recklessly, or squander his income must bear some responsibility for any suffering his decisions may cause.
We may also suffer because of the selfish choices of someone else. Indeed, humans have perpetrated the most disturbing evils, from Nazi atrocities to the abuse of children. By misusing free will, some make decisions that bring suffering to others.
In the first century C.E., a large tower in Jerusalem fell, killing 18 people. Referring to the victims of this incident, Jesus said: “Do you think they were more guilty than anyone else who lived in Jerusalem? Certainly not!” (Luke 13:4, 5, The New American Bible) Jesus knew that the victims were not punished by God. He knew what God’s Word had earlier stated: “Time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Many tragedies occur because a victim is in the wrong place at the wrong time or because of human error. For example, reports show that there is much more suffering when people ignore warnings and where buildings are not constructed to withstand severe weather or earthquakes. In such cases, random events affect more people and thus cause more suffering.
“The Ruler of This World”
The Bible states: “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19) That “wicked one” is Satan the Devil, a powerful spirit creature who is described as “the ruler of the authority of the air.” Satan promotes “the spirit that now operates in the sons of disobedience.” (Ephesians 2:2) Some crimes, such as genocide and child abuse, have been so horrific that many find it hard to attribute them to mere human origin.
However, does this mean that God is indifferent to our suffering? Can he—will he—do anything to end it?