Definition: The experience undergone by a person when enduring pain or distress. The suffering may be physical, mental, or emotional. Many things can cause suffering; for example, the damage done as a result of war and of commercial greed, adverse hereditary factors, illness, accidents, “natural disasters,” unkind things said or done by others, demonic pressures, an awareness of impending calamity, or one’s own foolishness. Suffering that results from these various causes will be considered here. However, suffering may also be experienced because of a person’s sensitivity to the plight of other people or his grief at observing ungodly conduct.
Why does God permit suffering?
Who really is to blame for it?
Humans are to blame for much of the suffering. They fight wars, commit crimes, pollute the environment, often carry on business in a manner motivated by greed rather than concern for their fellowman, and sometimes indulge in habits that they know can be harmful to their health. When they do these things, they hurt others and themselves. Should it be expected that humans would be immune to the consequences of what they do? (Gal. 6:7; Prov. 1:30-33) Is it reasonable to blame God for these things that humans themselves do?
Satan and his demons also share responsibility. The Bible discloses that much suffering is because of the influence of wicked spirits. The suffering for which so many people blame God does not come from him at all.—Rev. 12:12; Acts 10:38; see also pages 363, 364, under the heading “Satan the Devil.”
How did suffering get started? Examination of the causes focuses attention on our first human parents, Adam and Eve. Jehovah God created them perfect and put them in paradise surroundings. If they had obeyed God, they would never have got sick or died. They could have enjoyed perfect human life forever. Suffering was not part of Jehovah’s purpose for mankind. But Jehovah clearly told Adam that continued enjoyment of what He had given them depended on obedience. Obviously, they had to breathe, eat, drink, and sleep in order to continue living. And they had to keep God’s moral requirements in order to enjoy life fully and to be favored with such life forever. But they chose to go their own way, to set their own standards of good and bad, and thus they turned away from God, the Life-Giver. (Gen. 2:16, 17; 3:1-6) Sin led to death. It was as sinners that Adam and Eve produced children, and they could not pass on to their children what they no longer had. All were born in sin, with inclinations toward wrongdoing, weaknesses that could lead to illness, a sinful inheritance that would eventually result in death. Because everyone on earth today was born in sin, all of us experience suffering in various ways.—Gen. 8:21; Rom. 5:12.
Ecclesiastes 9:11 says that “time and unforeseen occurrence” also have a bearing on what happens to us. We may get hurt, not because the Devil directly causes it or because any human does it, but because by chance we are in a place at the wrong moment.
Why does God not do something to bring relief to mankind? Why should we all suffer for something that Adam did?
In the Bible, God tells us how we can avoid much suffering. He has provided the very best counsel on living. When applied, this fills our lives with meaning, results in happy family life, brings us into close association with people who really love one another, and safeguards us against practices that can bring much needless physical suffering. If we ignore that help, is it fair to blame God for the trouble that we bring upon ourselves and others?—2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Ps. 119:97-105.
Jehovah has made provision to end all suffering. He created the first human pair perfect, and he lovingly made every provision so that life would be pleasant for them. When they deliberately turned their backs on God, was God obligated to intervene so as to shield their children from the effects of what the parents had done? (Deut. 32:4, 5; Job 14:4) As we well know, married couples may have the joys that go with producing children, but they also have responsibilities. The attitudes and actions of parents affect their children. Nevertheless, Jehovah, as an expression of marvelous undeserved kindness, sent his own dearly loved Son to earth to lay down his life as a ransom, to provide relief for those of Adam’s offspring who would appreciatively exercise faith in this provision. (John 3:16) As a result, the opportunity is open to people living today to have what Adam lost—perfect human life, free from suffering, in a paradise earth. What a generous provision that is!
See also pages 306-308, under “Ransom.”
But why would a God of love allow the suffering to continue so long?
Have we benefited because he has allowed it until now? “Jehovah is not slow respecting his promise, as some people consider slowness, but he is patient with you because he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9) If God had immediately executed Adam and Eve, following their sin, none of us would be in existence today. Surely that is not what we would want. Moreover, had God at some later time destroyed all who were sinners, we would not have been born. The fact that God has allowed this sinful world to exist until now has afforded us the opportunity to be alive and learn his ways, to make needed changes in our lives, and to avail ourselves of his loving provisions for eternal life. That Jehovah has granted us this opportunity is an evidence of great love on his part. The Bible shows that God has a set time to destroy this wicked system and will do so soon.—Hab. 2:3; Zeph. 1:14.
God can and will undo all the harm that may come upon his servants in this system of things. God is not the one who is causing the suffering. But by means of Jesus Christ, God will raise the dead, heal obedient ones of all their illnesses, root out every trace of sin, and even cause former grief to fade from our minds.—John 5:28, 29; Rev. 21:4; Isa. 65:17.
We personally are anxious to have relief. But when God takes action, it must be in behalf of all who love what is right, not just a few. God is not partial.—Acts 10:34.
Illustrations: Is it not true that a loving parent may allow a child to undergo a painful operation because of beneficial results that can come from it? Also, is it not true that “quick solutions” to painful ailments are often only superficial? More time is frequently needed in order to eliminate the cause.
Why did God not forgive Adam and so prevent the terrible suffering experienced by mankind?
Would that really have prevented suffering or would it, instead, have made God responsible for it? What happens when a father simply overlooks deliberate wrongdoing on the part of his children rather than take firm disciplinary measures? The children often get involved in first one form of wrongdoing and then another, and much of the responsibility lies with the father.
Similarly, if Jehovah had forgiven Adam’s deliberate sin, it would really have made God a party to the wrongdoing. That would not have improved conditions on earth at all. (Compare Ecclesiastes 8:11.) Furthermore, it would have resulted in disrespect for God on the part of his angelic sons, and it would mean that there was no real basis for hope of anything better. But such a situation could never have occurred, because righteousness is an unalterable foundation of Jehovah’s rulership.—Ps. 89:14.
Why does God allow children to be born with serious physical and mental defects?
God does not cause such defects. He created the first human pair perfect, with the ability to bring forth perfect children in their own likeness.—Gen. 1:27, 28.
We have inherited sin from Adam. That inheritance carries with it the potential for physical and mental defects. (Rom. 5:12; for further details see page 394.) This inheritance of sin is with us from the time of conception in the womb. It is for that reason that King David wrote: “In sin my mother conceived me.” (Ps. 51:5) If Adam had not sinned, there would be only desirable traits to transmit. (For comments on John 9:1, 2, see page 319.)
Parents can harm their unborn offspring—for example, by drug abuse or by smoking during pregnancy. Of course, it is not true that in every case the mother or the father is responsible for birth defects or poor health of their child.
Jehovah lovingly extends to children the benefits of Christ’s ransom sacrifice. Out of consideration for parents who faithfully serve God, he views their young children as holy. (1 Cor. 7:14) This motivates God-fearing parents to be careful about their own standing with God, out of loving concern for their offspring. To young ones who are old enough to exercise faith and demonstrate obedience to God’s commands, Jehovah extends the privilege of having an approved standing as his servants. (Ps. 119:9; 148:12, 13; Acts 16:1-3) It is noteworthy that Jesus, who was a perfect reflection of his Father, showed special interest in the welfare of young ones, even raising a child from the dead. Surely he will continue to do that as Messianic King.—Matt. 19:13-15; Luke 8:41, 42, 49-56.
Why does God permit “natural disasters,” which cause extensive damage to property and life?
God is not causing the earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and volcanic eruptions that are so often in today’s news. He is not using these to bring punishment on certain peoples. To a large extent, these are caused by natural forces that have been operating since the earth’s creation. The Bible foretold great earthquakes and food shortages for our day, but that does not mean that either God or Jesus is responsible for them, any more than a meteorologist is responsible for the weather that he forecasts. Because these are occurring along with all the other things foretold in the composite sign of the conclusion of this system of things, they are part of the evidence that the blessings of God’s Kingdom are near.—Luke 21:11, 31.
Humans often bear heavy responsibility for harm done. In what way? Even when given ample warning, many people refuse to get out of the danger area or fail to take needed precautions.—Prov. 22:3; compare Matthew 24:37-39.
God can control such natural forces. He empowered Jesus Christ to calm a storm on the Sea of Galilee, as an example of what He will do for mankind under His Messianic Kingdom. (Mark 4:37-41) By turning his back on God, Adam rejected such divine intervention on behalf of himself and his offspring. Those who are granted life during Christ’s Messianic Reign will experience such loving care, the kind of care that only a government empowered by God can give.—Isa. 11:9.
Are people who suffer adversity being punished by God because of wickedness?
Those who violate godly standards of living do experience bad effects. (Gal. 6:7) Sometimes they reap a bitter harvest quickly. In other instances, they may seem to prosper for a long time. In contrast, Jesus Christ, who never did wrong, was cruelly mistreated and put to death. So, in this system of things prosperity should not be viewed as proof of God’s blessing, nor should adversity be considered proof of his disapproval.
When Job lost his possessions and was afflicted with loathsome disease, that was not because of God’s disapproval. The Bible clearly says that Satan was responsible. (Job 2:3, 7, 8) But companions who came to visit Job argued that Job’s plight must prove that he had done something wicked. (Job 4:7-9; 15:6, 20-24) Jehovah reproved them, saying: “My anger has grown hot against you . . . for you men have not spoken concerning me what is truthful as has my servant Job.”—Job 42:7.
Wicked ones may, in fact, prosper for a while. Asaph wrote: “I became envious of the boasters, when I would see the very peace of wicked people. They are not even in the trouble of mortal man, and they are not plagued the same as other men. They scoff and speak about what is bad; about defrauding they speak in an elevated style. Look! These are the wicked, who are at ease indefinitely. They have increased their means of maintenance.”—Ps. 73:3, 5, 8, 12.
The day of accounting with God will come. At that time he will punish the wicked, destroying them forever. Proverbs 2:21, 22 says: “The upright are the ones that will reside in the earth, and the blameless are the ones that will be left over in it. As regards the wicked, they will be cut off from the very earth; and as for the treacherous, they will be torn away from it.” Then the upright ones, many of whom have suffered adversity, will enjoy perfect health and a generous share of earth’s abundant produce.
If Someone Says—
‘Why does God permit all this suffering?’
You might reply: ‘That is a matter that deeply concerns all of us. May I ask, What makes you bring it up today?’ Then perhaps add: (1) ‘(Use material from pages 393-396.)’ (2) ‘(Bring in other scriptures that hold out relief from the specific kind of situation that has brought suffering to the individual personally.)’
Or you could say (if their concern is because of the injustices of the world): ‘The Bible shows why these conditions exist today. (Eccl. 4:1; 8:9) Did you know that it also shows what God is going to do to bring us relief? (Ps. 72:12, 14; Dan. 2:44)’
Another possibility: ‘Evidently you are a person who believes in God. Do you believe that God is love? . . . Do you believe that he is wise and that he is almighty? . . . Then he must have some good reasons for permitting suffering. The Bible shows what those reasons are. (See page 393-396.)’