Monday, January 03, 2005

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

I have been hearing from various places the question of why God, if he exists, allows such suffering as the current disaster with the earthquake/tsunami, and with the death toll up to at least 155,000 people, it is a very good question.

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said this:
"One cannot look at suffering, regardless of its causes or origins, without feeling pain and compassion. I can understand why someone who lacks an eternal perspective might see the horrifying news footage of starving children and man’s inhumanity to man and shake a fist at the heavens and cry, 'If there is a God, how could he allow such things to happen?'"

"The answer is not easy, but it isn’t that complicated, either. God has put his plan in motion. It proceeds through natural laws that are, in fact, God’s laws. Since they are his, he is bound by them, as are we. I recognize for purposes we mortals may not understand, the Lord can control the elements. For the most part, however, he does not cause but he allows nature to run its course. In this imperfect world, bad things sometimes happen. The earth’s rocky underpinnings occasionally shift and move, resulting in earthquakes. Certain weather patterns cause hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and drought."

(Answers to Life's Questions, Ensign, May 1995)

Not a bad answer, but I remember reading something long ago from Joseph Fielding Smith where he stated that God allows suffering so that our hearts will be turned to Him. I wanted to know more about the spiritual reasons for suffering. I found this talk, "Adversity" by Elder Dallin H. Oaks Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Adversity will be a constant or occasional companion for each of us throughout our lives. We cannot avoid it. The only question is how we will react to it. Will our adversities be stumbling blocks or stepping-stones?

Father Lehi taught his son Jacob that in order to bring to pass righteousness, the Lord’s plan allowed for wickedness. In order for God’s children to appreciate joy, they must also be subject to misery (see 2 Ne. 2:23). To accomplish the purposes of God, there must needs be "an opposition in all things" (2 Ne. 2:11). Our adversities are part of that opposition. Elder Howard W. Hunter explained the principle in a general conference address many years ago:

"We came to mortal life to encounter resistance. It was part of the plan for our eternal progress. Without temptation, sickness, pain, and sorrow, there could be no goodness, virtue, appreciation for well-being, or joy" ("God Will Have a Tried People," Ensign, May 1980, 25).

Some adversities are individual. Others are common to large numbers of our Heavenly Father’s children. During the past decade there have been many examples of large-scale adversities affecting tens or hundreds of thousands or millions. Only a few can be mentioned. In addition to wars in many nations, we have had earthquakes in Japan, California, China, Armenia, and Mexico; hurricanes or tornadoes in Florida and the central United States; volcanic eruptions in the Philippines; flooding in India and North America; and famine and pestilence in Africa and elsewhere.

These huge catastrophes are tragedies, but they may have another significance. The Lord uses adversities to send messages to his children. Isaiah prophesied that in the last days the Lord would visit all nations with great natural disasters (see Isa. 29:6; 2 Ne. 27:1–2). In modern revelation, the Lord speaks of calling upon the nations of the earth by the mouth of his servants and also "by the voice of thunderings, and by the voice of lightnings, and by the voice of tempests, and by the voice of earthquakes, and great hailstorms, and by the voice of famines and pestilences of every kind" (D&C 43:25). In another revelation, the Lord tells those he has called to teach the gospel:

"After your testimony cometh the testimony of earthquakes, …

"And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds.

"And all things shall be in commotion; and surely, men’s hearts shall fail them; for fear shall come upon all people" (D&C 88:89–91).

Surely these great adversities are not without some eternal purpose or effect. They can turn our hearts to God. Nephi was told that the natural enemies of his descendants would be "a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in remembrance of me" (2 Ne. 5:25). The idea of a scourge to cause people to remember God reaffirms a familiar teaching in the 12th chapter of Hebrews: "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth" (Heb. 12:6). Even as adversities inflict mortal hardships, they can also be the means of leading men and women to eternal blessings.

Such large-scale adversities as natural disasters and wars seem to be inherent in the mortal experience. We cannot entirely prevent them, but we can determine how we will react to them. For example, the adversities of war and military service, which have been the spiritual destruction of some, have been the spiritual awakening of others. The Book of Mormon describes the contrast:

"But behold, because of the exceedingly great length of the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites many had become hardened, because of the exceedingly great length of the war; and many were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility" (Alma 62:41).

I read of a similar contrast after the devastating hurricane that destroyed thousands of homes in Florida some years ago. A news account quoted two different persons who had suffered the same tragedy and received the same blessing: each of their homes had been totally destroyed, but each of their family members had been spared death or injury. One said that this tragedy had destroyed his faith; how, he asked, could God allow this to happen? The other said that the experience had strengthened his faith. God had been good to him, he said. Though the family’s home and possessions were lost, their lives were spared and they could rebuild the home. For one, the glass was half empty. For the other, the glass was half full. The gift of moral agency empowers each of us to choose how we will act when we suffer adversity.

Our adversities can be the means of obtaining blessings unobtainable without them. Young Jacob had "suffered afflictions and much sorrow" in his childhood, but Lehi assured his son that God "shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain" (2 Ne. 2:1–2). After the Saints suffered severe persecutions in Missouri, the Lord gave this beautiful promise:

"Fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks.

"… [A]ll things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good" (D&C 98:1, 3).

How can adversities be for our good? Speaking in area conferences more than 20 years ago, President Ezra Taft Benson explained:

"It is not on the pinnacle of success and ease where men and women grow most. It is often down in the valley of heartache and disappointment and reverses where men and women grow into strong characters" (in Conference Report, Stockholm Sweden Area Conference, 1974, 70).

"Every reversal can be turned to our benefit and blessing and can make us stronger, more courageous, more godlike" (in Conference Report, Philippine Islands Area Conference, 1975, 11).

Thousands of years ago, Egyptian taskmasters afflicted the Israelites with heavy burdens. However, the Bible records, "the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew" (Ex. 1:12).

The Book of Mormon contains many similar examples of how whole groups of people can be blessed through common adversities. When the wicked Nephite priests enslaved the faithful people who followed Alma, the Lord blessed them with extra strength as a witness of how he did visit his people in their afflictions.

"And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord" (Mosiah 24:15).

When Alma the Younger preached to the Zoramites, the rich and the proud would not listen, but many who were poor heard his message. Alma saw "that their afflictions had truly humbled them, and that they were in a preparation to hear the word" (Alma 32:6).

Later, during the long wars reported in the last chapters of the book of Alma, many of the Nephites and the Lamanites “were softened because of their afflictions, insomuch that they did humble themselves before God, even in the depth of humility” (Alma 62:41). As a result, Helaman and his brethren were able to preach to them, baptize them, and reestablish the Church in their land (see Alma 62:45–46).

With the blessings of God, what seem to be adversities can be turned to the benefit of his faithful children.

For example, on a large scale, we can look on television as an adversity because it brings ugly programming into our homes and undercuts our standards of behavior by making wickedness seem accepted and popular. But television is also a medium we are using to spread the glorious message of the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Many other such examples could be given.

We may look on the shortage of money and the struggle to find rewarding employment as serious adversities. I remember such experiences and feelings, and I am unpersuaded that relative poverty and hard work are greater adversities than relative affluence and free time. You are all familiar with the cycles reported in the Book of Mormon in which prosperity led to complacency and pride and spiritual downfall and in which deprivations led to humility and spiritual growth. I believe that the easy way materially usually is not the best way spiritually. For many, though not all, material wealth and abundant free time are spiritual impediments.

Elaine Cannon reminds us of an important way these blessings come and how we can make the most of them. "When we are pushed, stung, defeated, embarrassed, hurt, rejected, tormented, forgotten—when we are in agony of spirit crying out 'why me?' we are in a position to learn something" (Adversity, 47).

As the Lord explained to the prophet Moroni, "I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them" (Ether 12:27).

"Have you ever seen someone who has been helpless for so long that he has divested himself of every envy and jealousy and ugliness in his whole life, and who has perfected his life? I have. Have you seen mothers who have struggled with, perhaps, unfortunate children for years and years, and have become saints through it? … No pain suffered by man or woman upon the earth will be without its compensating effects if it be suffered in resignation and if it be met with patience" (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [1982], 167–68).

...the words the Lord spoke to the children of Israel through the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, I have refined thee, … I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction" (Isa. 48:10; see also 1 Ne. 20:10).

I know that the consequences of the "furnace of affliction" bring eternal blessings. Those blessings are made possible because of the Resurrection and Atonement of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I know and testify to the truth of Alma’s teaching: "Whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day" (Alma 36:3).

(Adversity, Ensign, July 1998)
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