The Problem of Human Suffering
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, “Master, who did sin, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, or his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him”. (John 9: 1-3)
One of the great problems and mysteries of life is the problem of human suffering, and of death. I suppose there is more pain and suffering today than ever before on the face of 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 more emotional and mental pain than ever before. While giving lectures at college, over the years I often hear the question asked, “If there is a God, and a loving and merciful God, how do you explain the problems of suffering, death and all of the human tragedies that happen to people?” Why do these things occur? I believe that any question that man can ask, has a reasonable answer—at least that is consistent with God’s existence as it is in opposition to God’s existence. And so, in the problem of human suffering, death, and tragedies—things that happen to all of us, therefore, there are answers. Now it is going to be impossible to examine all avenues that one can walk in life with all of it’s struggles, but there are points that can be made that are useful to help us understand the suffering in this life.
There are some things that happen that are obvious and are simple to understand, and they don’t need much explanation. So I just want to mention them briefly.
One conjecture is that there is no such thing as pain. There is a school of thought that says pain does not really exist, that it’s all in your mind. If you experience pain, then you are weak. Or in their words, you are psychologically not properly oriented, or you are not spiritual enough, and pain is an illusion. I doubt if too many of us take this point of view seriously. Medically we know that the brain makes responses to a cut of the finger, or a stub of the toe. There are very few of us that would doubt when pain arises, we know it is real.
Although there are many things that could be said, I do not think it is necessary to get involved in a long discussion about things that we experienced that are connected with pain and suffering, as a result of our own deliberate sin. If you jump off of a bridge, you shouldn’t be upset with God because you hit bottom. We have examples of this in the Bible: Saul, David, Cain, Adam and Eve—individuals who suffered because of their transgressions of what God said to do, and not to do.
Certainly we see this in our culture of today. The people who drink alcoholic beverages can expect to have problems with the brain functioning properly at an old age. They can also expect to have cirrhosis of the liver, and the list of problems goes on. Any poisonous intoxicant that enters the body, problems will accrue. People whom smoke can expect to have problems with their lungs, (emphysema, lung cancer), the list goes on and on. Yet society continues the path of destruction. The person who commits adultery can expect the consequences of, psychological damage and disappointment. The person, who drives reckless, uses drugs, is a liar, a thief, and is involved in things that precipitate problems for themselves and us as a society, they fall into the category of, jumping off the bridge. I believe if we abuse our bodies, we cannot be angry with our Creator for not stepping in and helping us avoid a tragedy. And when the suffering and consequences of our actions come along, we cannot blame God. It would be unreasonable to expect God to stop us from hitting bottom when we jump off the bridge. Therefore, if we persist in putting chemicals into our body, and live life in a reckless fashion, and doing things that are contradictory to what God has told us to do, we can expect to suffer.
In the beginning man was put on the earth, he was told to be fruitful, to replenish the earth and subdue it. His first responsibility upon the earth and (his only responsibility when he was first here) was to care for the garden. He was to care for the earth and manage it properly. The essence of this command still exists. Much of the suffering and tragedy man experiences is because he has failed in this task.
For example, man has persisted in polluting the precious water supply that has caused disease, death, suffering and other tragic events. Man’s unwise use of the land has precipitated floods, tornadoes, landslides, fires, and other catastrophic events. All of this has brought great tragedy to mankind. When we violate the natural environment that God has given us, we cannot expect God to protect us from the consequences that have been set in order.
Another aspect of suffering is seen when we fail to heed warnings of nature, and tragedy strikes. In California, there is an area near Los Angeles where the earth is under great stress, which is known as the fault line. Geologists have warned builders in this area to be very cautious when building tall structures. Yet when a new hospital was constructed over the fault line because of an earthquake that destroyed the existing building, and when this 16-story structure falls and thousands are killed, whom will they blame? I will guarantee there will be those will say, “If your God is so loving, why did He let this happen”? And yet the warning was there. If you build your house in the mouth of an active volcano, it seems to me you have no room to blame anyone when it erupts.
A surprising amount of problems and tragedies we have fall into these categories that we have briefly examined.
At the start of this setting, we read a passage from the ninth chapter of John that describes a situation that does not fall into this category. As Jesus was passing by, the Bible tells us in John 9:1-3, and he saw a man who was blind from birth, born without sight. Now his disciples ask him a typical question. They said, “Master, who did sin, 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 man’s sin, which in some cases is true. But note what Jesus said in the third verse, “Neither that this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God be made manifest in him.” Jesus said it was not because this man sinned, or the sin of his parents that he was born blind. It was not sin that did it! The man did not abuse his body; he did not abuse the environment; it was not that the man failed to heed the warning of his environment. But Jesus said, it was that the works of God should be manifest in him. Now let’s take a look at what this means.
We must take a look at a few points that are related to this type of problem, at least in a direct way. Let’s see if we can relate to some the things in life that we experience. Some of life’s problems and tragedies that come our way, we find very difficult to explain. There are those who suggest to us 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 way. Quite some time ago--the Readers Digest magazine, a story was told of a little boy in India that was born without nerve endings of the extremities of his body connected to his brain. In simple terms, the child could not experience pain. Now you know, we might think this would be marvelous to never have the pain of a stubbed toe, a headache, a backache, a toothache or other aches and pains that bother us. But here is a very tragic and unpleasant story. This little boy at the age of 11 months old was learning to walk around holding on to things. The mother who was kneading bread in the kitchen smelled burning flesh. As she turned in horror to see her child had put his hands on the hot furnace in the center of the room. The doctors were barely able to save his hands by skin grafting. The child did not know that the furnace was hot, nor did the natural reflex system that is built into us work in this child. Consequently he was not protected by a nerve system and could not experience normal pain. Any normal child would have sensed heat and danger and jerked away. A few months later the child came in and collapsed on the floor in the doorway of the hut. When the mother picked him up, she noticed a very bad cut on his foot and obviously lost a large amount of blood. Once again his life was spared with a blood transfusion. His body could not say to the brain, “You’ve been hurt! Get help! You need attention quickly!” We need physical pain to protect us from tragedy. The tragic end of the story came when the child was barely eight years old. He came in one day to lie down in the corner of the hut, as is the custom in the country. The mother went to awake her son later only to find him dead. An autopsy revealed he had died of a ruptured appendix. His body could not say to his brain, “Your sick—You need help—You’re in trouble!” Consequently, survival was not possible.
The writer in Psalm 139:14 say’s, “I will praise thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works: and that my soul knoweth right well.” Indeed this physical body that I live in, ugly as it may be on the outside, is a marvelous machine—and properly cared for might run as long as a hundred years without a valve job, an engine overall, a transmission replacement, or even an oil change. (Some of us may feel as though we need major repair). The fact is we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Physical pain is part of that fearfully and wonderfully made body; physical pain is that which protects us and enables us to survive in the environment, that we live.
I would also suggest to you that this same type of fearfully and wonderfully made is true in the emotional sense. What kind of person would not have any emotional state for guilt, or experience guilt, sympathy and compassion? Who could not relate to the needs of his fellow man? History points out a few in our time. They wear names like, Hitler, Mussolini, Eichman, Stalin—men who could watch innocent women and children by the ten’s of thousands walk to their death and not be moved. These men apparently were not able to feel sympathy or compassion or guilt in any way. They appeared to be amoral.
I am convinced that one of the greatest tragedies of today’s culture is the fact that somehow we have equated the ability to be sympathetic, compassionate, and caring for our fellow man is a sign of weakness, when in fact, it is a sign of strength.
Sometime ago, the newspaper broke the story of a young girl who went the store to buy Cokes for some friends. On her way there, she was brutally attacked by a nearby man in the parking lot of the shopping center. Before the evening was over, she was molested and stabbed 24 times, before her death. Why did no one meet her needs? How could this young girl be assaulted for thirty minutes in the streets of New York with 1100 people around, and no one helped her?
I would suggest to you that it takes a caring and compassionate person who is moved by the need of another person to reach out a helping hand. Anyone can refuse help! A man of strength is a man, who can stand above a cold city impersonal city with tears in his eyes and say, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you have killed the prophets, and have stoned those to help you, how often I would have gathered thy children together even as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you would not!” There is a man of strength; there was a man who was not afraid to get involved; there was a man who paid with his life to relate to the needs of other people; and He was Jesus Christ, the Son of God! Somehow we need to get over the idea that when someone is compassionate, caring and kind, they are weak, but the opposite is true.
I am convinced that one of our greatest problems in this area of pain, suffering and death, is brought on by ignorance. Now I suppose that this is true of death more than anything else. Ignorance has caused us to throw away one of the greatest blessings that we can have as a Christian. It is marvelous how God has designed the spirit and the body to separate at the time of death. The body lies dormant, but the spirit continues. The physical pain the person once had in their body, 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”, about being “absent from the body, and “home with God”. As a Christian, we should look at life more positively because of death. If we wear the name Christian, and live it, then we are going to be part of the new resurrection. Because of this, we can look at life with all of its joy, with all of its beauty, with all of the things we enjoy, as the absolute worst were ever have to endure. In this life, we cannot see the difference such as, left and right, black and white, or night and day. If there were no other reason for us to believe in God but this one, it would be a very compelling reason. Ignorance is one of the great curses of man.
I am sure all of you have heard lessons from one time or another on the value of pain and suffering in peoples lives. Here is an old story that illustrates this very well. There were five brothers out west who at one time had attended church services. They become indifferent because of the lack of their involvement. They did not attend church, they were not faithful, and were completely inactive. The story continues that the oldest brother John was out behind the barn and was bitten on the arm by a rattlesnake. Of course the other brothers were concerned. They called the elders and preacher and anybody else they could think of to pray for their dying brother John. They made all kinds of promises to God of the things they would do, if John would recover.
It wasn’t too long until John improved. As John recovered, he reflected upon his condition and rejection of God, and the lack of faith and involvement in the Church he once attended. So, John made a decision to turn away from his old life style, and turned to the Lord. He become involved in the work of the church, and became an active dedicated Christian. The story continues that one Sunday morning the preacher, in the process of his prayer said, “Lord send us four more rattlesnakes that we may reach John’s four brothers”.
Now I am sure that no preacher would want to bring that type of pain and suffering into a man’s life, but the fact is that sometimes it takes pain, sometime it takes suffering, sometime it takes a tragedy to make us realize we need God. Pain humbles us!! Someone once said, “Humility is a funny thing, just when you think you have it, you’ve lost it.”
Certainly that is true, as the apostle Paul said in (II Corinthians 12:7), “So that I would not become to proud of the wonderful things that were shown to me, a painful physical problem was given to me. This problem was a messenger from Satan, sent to beat me up and keep me from being too proud”. The apostle Paul apparently had a problem. The pain and suffering he went through, what ever 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 relies we are not self-sufficient. Sometime it takes pain and suffering to make us realize that no matter how much money we have, how vocal we are, or what our condition in life may be, there is no one who can help us but God. “Whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s”. (Romans 14:8)
The pain and suffering you have had in your life, could it be God has allowed you to experience this so you could share with someone else. You could help them with their difficulties. You have a talent!! What are you doing with that talent??
In closing, 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 arrived before any other medical help. She immediately attended to the needs of the hurting 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, “My instruments, my instruments! If only I had my instruments!” She administered to his needs, and got him out of his state if shock. As she turned to leave him, she asks, “Sir, could you tell me something. As you saw all the terrible injuries you kept walking around saying, “My instruments, my instruments, if only I had my instruments!” What was on your mind?” The man stood up straight and said, “Young lady, Let me introduce myself.”
He told her his name and that he was the head surgeon in a hospital near by. As he saw all the terrible injuries, all he could think of was his surgical tools, (his instruments). If he just had his instruments, he could help meet the peoples needs and bring relief to their pain and suffering.
My friend, I wonder how many times God 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 that can bring joy, peace, and relief into the lives of hurting people? Or are you part of the problem bringing hurt, pain and despair because of your lack of involvement, or have never confessed Christ as the Son of God, turned your life over to Him. You cannot be an instrument of God unless you are forged according to His plan.
God said you must believe in Him. Do you believe? Are you willing to admit this belief? Confess Him? Are you willing to turn away from the world’s way of life, and live for God, and repent? Are you willing to be buried in the waters of baptism to have your sins washed away so you can be an instrument for Him? Will you be an instrument for God? Will you be part of the Lord’s work? If you are willing to be part of God’s family, then you have the greatest promise that can be made to a person considering human suffering, pain and death.
At the end of this life when you stand before God to receive your reward, and you have been an instrument of faithfulness, this is what you can count on:
“And God shall wipe away all the tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things have passed away”. (Revelation 21:4)